Something of the spirit of Xena: Warrior Princess seems to inhabit the mini-series Merlin (Sunday and Monday, April 26 and 27; 9 to 11 p.m.; NBC). Not that Isabella Rossellini’s Nimue, the lifelong heartthrob of the last wizard of pagan Britain, doesn’t spend so much time worrying about her complexion that Lucy Lawless would want to strike her like a gong. Nor is there anything the least kick-butt-Amazon about these other fair white lovelies looking for a hot knight in a cold castle – Helena Bonham Carter as Morgan Le Fey, Lena Heady as Guinevere, and Rachel Colover as Lady Igraine – since what they are mostly called upon to do is get pregnant and give birth to sons who will usurp the throne. Except, of course, for Miranda Richardson as Queen Mab, about whom we have to ask: How did she get to Camelot in the first place? And: What’s with the blue lipstick? Is this a Druid look? On the other hand, when Richardson doubles as Mab’s wet sister, the Lady of the Lake, she’s so blonde she seems to be dying piecemeal of emotional anemia.
But there’s an affability about Merlin, a Xena-like breeziness that’s not so much campy (nostalgia laced with contempt) as insouciant (at their Round Table, they could be playing strip poker). The gee-whiz special effects – computer-graphicked dragons and chameleons, snorkel-camera oddball shots, waterworks on magic call, levitation and elasticity, pop-up folklore video – are intended more to season than to show-stop, more to delight than to awe. Sam Neill’s Merlin, who tells us the story, is part cracker barrel, part Tinker Bell, part dirty old man out of Yeats. Rutger Hauer’s burlesque Vortigern prides himself on acting first and thinking later. Martin Short, as the Spock-eared pixie Frik, springs on the unwary like a jackal-in-a-box. Has there ever been another occasion on which Sir John Gielgud appeared for a mere ten minutes, only so long as it takes to get himself decapitated? Billie Whitelaw doesn’t last much longer, as Merlin’s wet nurse in the young-magician years. And James Earl Jones, the Mountain King, doesn’t show up at all; we just hear his Bell Atlantic chortle as Merlin sticks Excalibur into his stony side.
In the same blithe spirit, the teleplay borrows and embroiders whatever it wants to from Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, Layamon, Robert de Boron, Chrétien de Troyes, Sir Thomas Malory, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Given that these sources have all been stealing from and improving on one another since the twelfth century, I don’t see why not. Except that none of them mentions Mab. The Queen of the Faeries does show up in Shakespeare, Jonson, Drayton, and Shelley, but never in connection with Arthurian romance. This makes Miranda Richardson’s very presence more mysterious than all of Merlin’s magic. And even when she has the anachronistic effrontery to tell us that “the end justifies the means,” she further confounds our expectations by speaking in hoarse baby-talk whispers, as if her throat had been cut like Brando’s in The Godfather. Although none of this explains why, when she’s playing the Lady of the Lake, she seems to be deep in the antidepressants.
For that matter, my understanding of the literature is that Merlin was the devil’s child, not Mab’s. I should also say that while Isabella Rossellini can do no wrong, Helena Bonham Carter gets on my nerves. Bad enough that Morgan Le Fey had to put up with six dreadful cantos by Sir Walter Scott – now this Merchant Ivory poster girl for period clothes and period prose. Besides which, as with guns in the first act of Chekhov, if you mention Avalon, shouldn’t we see it before we go home? And don’t get me started on how the Holy Grail was suddenly tacked on to the legend of Arthur just in historical time to secure England for Christendom before the surly Saxons got there: another faery tale. But I take a pagan point of view, handy for “sweeps.”