Camelot: Season 1
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Camelot: Season 1

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There are stories that exhibit such classic themes and tropes that they stand the test of time. From one generation to the next these tales are passed down renewing their place in the collective cultural consciousness of the current reigning generation. Traditionally stories such as this are not passed along untouched. Each generation is encouraged to place their own indelible stamp on the proceedings providing alterations that redefine the story as their own. Prime examples of this phenomenon are frequently seen in the works of William Shakespeare or classical Greco-Roman mythology but there are also stories originating in British folklore. In particular the Arthurian legend, ‘Camelot’, have been a staple for English literature for well over a millennium cast through the every changing facets of the Anglo-Saxon culture and the linguistic evolution that culminated in Modern English. The legend of King Arthur Pendragon is inexorably woven into the fabric of our culture providing the foundation for most of the heroic epics that would follow. Modern devotees of the legend have had much of their viewpoint shaped by the delimitative twentieth century take provided by T.H. White’s memorable novelization, ‘The Once and Future King’, itself based on ‘Le Morte d'Arthur’. The noble ideals were eventually set to music in the hit Broadway play and subsequent film, ‘Camelot’. Now with the first decade of the twenty first century behind us it is now tome for the current generation to step up and retell the most classic legend in the English language. Following the examples of HBO and Showtime in original premium cable series Starz has been getting into the fray taking advantage of the exceptionally liberal restrictions on content to produce ‘Camelot’ on their own terms. This is not the musical most of us grew up with. It is a gritty, adult version of the legend full of sex, violence, political intrigue and romance. Gone are the chase portrayal of the movie replaced by raw human emotions laid bare (along with a good deal of flesh), making this one of the more ambitious versions of the Arthurian court ever seen. If the Sopranos were alive during Arthur’s bid for power they would have discovered their particular set of skills quite coveted.

As with most deeply ingrained legends there are some elements that may be subject to modification but are otherwise mandatory. Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower) is much younger and less experience in practical matters than most previous incarnations. As required he is mentored by the powerful sorcerer, Merlin (Joseph Fiennes), who is fiercely dedicated to the young man. King Uther Pendragon is covertly assassinated by his recently disowned daughter, Morgan (Eva Green) in hopes of securing the now vacant throne for herself. She is dark and self serving, a practitioner in the occult arts and hardly a choice for ruler that would be beneficial for the subjects. This does not go unnoticed by Merlin. His response is to bring Arthur, son of Uther, to claim his place as liege lord of the land. Raised in humble circumstances by his mother, Uther’s second wife, Igraine (Claire Forlani), the young man is unversed in the political machinations inherent in the royal court. In some ways Merlin finds this naiveté beneficial providing him a monarch untainted by the commonplace abuses of power. Arthur formulates an ideal, rule truly beneficial to the subjects where the cornerstones of society are honor, justice and peace. This is contrary to the conventional method of rule as exemplified by the draconian reign the Morgan would institute should she capture the throne. Another staple of the legend is Arthur supporting his quest to make Camelot a shining beacon of justice by gathering the bravest knights to carry this quest forward defending his ideals. Chief among them is Leontes (Philip Winchester), one of the first knights to pledge his fidelity to the new king. Consistent with the younger slant afforded to this version a romantic triangle is developed between the King, Leontes, and his beautiful young bride, Guinevere (Tamsin Egerton. Just prior to her marriage Guinevere and Arthur did share a night of passion trapping both between deep seated emotions and the compulsion to uphold the lofty ideals of Camelot. Morgan has her own advisor versed in both political and supernatural matters, Sister Sybil (Sinéad Cusack). She raised Morgan in the nunnery during her banishment from Uther’s presence. Sybil is in all ways the dark reflection of Merlin. Knowing a battle is inevitable Merlin urges the king to train hard with his knights. To hone their battle skills Gawain (Clive Standen), a battle hardened former knight and master warrior is brought in. Adding to the required factors is one of the most unique and imaginative variation of the sword Excalibur, that I have ever encountered. Merlin seeks the craftsmanship of the world’s foremost sword smith, Caliburn (Vincent Regan), to create the zenith of his profession for the king to wield. Once completed Caiburn and Merlin argue causing the sorcerer to lose control of his elemental powers resulting in the death of the craftsman. His daughter Excalibur (Lauren Coe) grabs the blade and flees from Merlin. He pursues eventually trapping her in a lake as he freezes it. The girl dies with her arm holding the gleaming sword thrust out of the ice. Merlin takes it back to his king inventing the story of the Lady of the Lake to conceal his culpability in the deaths of two innocent people. This is an example of the great potential of this series. Magic is present but not used in a flashy capacity. The most important aspect here is the character development and the exquisitely paced way the story unfolds.

The core strength inherent in this series lies in how it relies on the themes defining the classic heroic journey as scholastically presented in the text, ‘The Power of Myth’ by preeminent mythologist Joseph Campbell. In figurative than geographic but Arthur engages in the traditional methods of forging his values in the furnace of dire moral adversity and emotional turmoil. Merlin represents the standard trope of guide and mentor overseeing Arthur’s arduous trek. Campbell also defined the necessity of some totem, in this case Excalibur that bestows rightful power and authority on the owner. This combination of established traditional themes presented through a younger, fresh presentation gives this series incredible potential that this first season just begins to realize. A period piece is difficult to pull off properly but this is a textbook case of how to accomplish the feat. Having the series hosted on Starz afforded the producers the freedom to tell the story in a more mature fashion than previously attempted. This series will take its place in a long line of versions of the legend with a degree of alacrity not seen in a very long time. I just hope that Starz continues to build its reputation for imaginative original programming but permitting this series to continue to flourish and grow.unfortunately, the latest word from the studio is that this creative look at Camelot will prematurely fade into the mist of Avalon as brilliant but cancelled.

Posted 09/04/11

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