The stated concept behind this series had me rolling my eyes. I've long out-grown any desire to see teen-angst meets King Arthur. The set dressing didn't exactly help my opinion and I regret the decision to make magic appear more as something mechanical than something mystical. All that said, somewhere along the way, this first episode won me over.
I think, for a start, that the set dressing, jarring as it appeared at first, reminds me rather powerfully of the illustrations in the Ladybird Fairytale books I grew up with. The sparklingly clean, brightly lit, castle; its denizens elegantly dressed in a loose mix of medieval fantasy and taffeta confections and the determined effort to reject anything that smacked of realism was actually rather nostalgic. I was reminded of a speaker at the Arthurian Society, whose name I have long forgotten, who posited that the essential theme of nearly all the Arthurian retellings is the attempt to build a utopia and its ultimate failure and that each retelling is fundamentally about a contemporary conception of utopia. In that light this bizarrely rose-tinted vision, marred only by Uther's hard line on magic, makes a certain thematic sense. Merlin, Morgana and Guinevere speak like modern liberal idealists who will educate and shape a modern fairytale utopia via their interactions with Arthur and already we see the the hints of the tangled love-lives of the four that may ultimately bring that utopia crashing down. Of course the jury is yet out on whether that is the thematic course this series intends to steer.
Katie McGrath didn't entirely convince me as Morgana but then she had really very little air time in this first episode. Angel Coulby, Bradley James and Colin Morgan were all fine and succeeded in making the teenage shenanigans amusing without being irritating, even if none of them quite had the breadth to make you totally invest in their character in this first episode. Anthony Head and Richard Wilson carried their parts with conviction as did Eve Myles who was, I thought, better here than in Torchwood or The Unquiet Dead.
Whether the series will manage to create a cohesive world out of its santised fantasy setting and build some real depth into its characters and themes remains to be seen but I came away from the first episode considerably better disposed towards it than I expected to be.