TV review: Merlin | The Well

THE idea of the guilty pleasure is a strange one – surely if you like something, especially on TV which is a medium running the gamut from high art to casino games, you should be able to say so without false embarrassment and giggling that you know it's bad, really, but it's so much fun!

But I bet there are loads of people out there secretly addicted to Merlin, the BBC's Saturday-night family fantasy which doesn't have the fanboy kudos of Doctor Who, with its long history, and so feel they have to at least pretend to be abashed about it.

But they shouldn't feel bad, because though it is hugely unoriginal and suffers from the curse of the reset button – at the end of every episode, the characters all have to return to default settings, often for no strong reason – Merlin really is top fun.

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The storylines play gleefully fast and loose with the legend (which has gone through many permutations anyway) and historical fact (this episode featured a character presumably based on Anglo-Saxon leader Hengist, generally thought to have lived several centuries before the usual setting of King Arthur). But the production itself is actually rather painstaking, given the budget, with an obvious commitment to giving its young target audience well-structured tales of moral dilemmas.

The regular cast and quality guest stars give it their all, particularly the four leads who manage to sell whatever they're called upon to sell – whether it's having an argument with a dragon or being tormented by magical visions.

As the show features Merlin, Arthur, Morgana and Guinevere as teenagers, some of the usual aspects of the legend have been jiggled around; the latter is currently still a servant girl, but Prince Arthur has started to fancy her. Yet, when she is kidnapped by the barbarian Hengist (James Cosmo enjoying himself in furs) who has mistaken her for her royal mistress, Gwen also gets to make eyes at the dashing Lancelot, whose every line of dialogue is straight from the Big Book Of Romantic Declarations: "I would die for you a hundred times! You have given me a reason to live! You have changed my life forever!"

Despite his best efforts, Lancelot survived several attempts to martyr himself for Gwen but, when rescued by Arthur and Merlin, shuffled off elsewhere for no clearly defined reason (other than he's just a guest star and the show doesn't want to start any icky adultery storylines just yet). Cheesy stuff, but Angel Coulby's soulful face and Bradley James's portrayal of Arthur's mixture of awkwardly felt affection and boyish arrogance make you care.

The episode also pinched the Rodents of Unusual Size from the film The Princess Bride, in the shape of snuffling giant rats with chipmunk teeth. Their killer attacks were never directly shown, presumably because they would have had to gnaw their victims to death, but they were wonky in an endearing way.

Sadly, The Well – a new interactive teen show, part drama, part online game, by the author usually called "the controversial Melvin Burgess" – was just dully derivative. This tale of four meddling kids investigating a spooky old house tried to dodge the inevitable Scooby Doo comparison by having them explicitly refer to it but, with 15-minute episodes, there wasn't time to make it any deeper than a cartoon. New Doctor Who companion Karen Gillan stars, but with only a few lines, she's still an unknown quantity.