The creators of Merlin, the outstanding British adventure series that has managed to create a completely fresh origin story of the bond of friendship between two of the best-known characters in fantasy literature, are calling off the series after the completion of the currently airing fifth season.
Shine Group and FremantleMedia Enterprises have confirmed that season 5, airing now in the U.K. and set to air here in the States on Syfy in the new year, will be the show's last outing.
And as someone who's been watching season 5 over the last few weeks, it strikes me that seldom has there been a show that's ended at exactly the wrong time, just when the true story was opening up and there was so much left to tell. I'll miss the now-to-be-untold tales of Arthur and Merlin's deepening mutual trust and complex fealty from this series, being laid to rest with respect and closure by its own makers, a good deal more than many another hypothetical season of shows monstrously axed by thoughtless network execs long before their time.
The Tough Decision
I can admire the decision to stop a program at a natural climax to the original conception, bringing it home in five years rather than spinning it out into irrelevance over ten. Arranging that closure now takes great intestinal fortitude.
And the dangled prospect of possible spin-offs has a pallid allure. But even if five seasons of Merlin is a natural tale, and even if there were a new subordinate series someday, my id is irked. It's this show I like. It's this yarn of a great kingdom's destiny that I want more of.
Unlike most series that climax with a "fifth and final season," Merlin is going out a hit as well as a fan favorite. The fifth season of Merlin has peaked at 7.1 million viewers airing on Saturday nights. BBC One will air a two-part finale this Christmas.
A Natural Ending
In this case the creators, Johnny Capps and Julian Murphy, saw season 5 as culminating the story they wanted to tell: the journey of Merlin and Arthur's relationship toward mutual trust.
"We always felt the story of the legend was best told across five series," said the two creators in a statement, "leading to a spectacular finale that draws on the best known elements of this much-loved story and brings to a conclusion the battle for Camelot."
There have been signs in the air for some time that the creators have had this intent. The most visible warning bells for fans was news that two of Merlin's raft of buff supporting knights, Eoin Macken (Gwaine) and Tom Hopper (Percival), had both signed up for roles in new US TV pilots.
A Change for Cast and Crew
Meanwhile, like me, the BBC leadership has mixed feelings. "I admire the creators' decision to end Merlin on a high," BBC One controller Danny Cohen said, "but also know that we will miss it in the BBC One schedule."
The end of five seasons of Merlin will also be a turning point for Capps and Murphy, not coincidentally. With the completion of this project they're leaving Shine Group to set up their own house, and on the strength of Merlin, Demons, Hex, and other widely noticed series the producers have bright prospects.
And what of the future of the characters from Merlin's fertile world? There is some talk about that spin-offs from Merlin are feasible. David Ellender, the CEO of distribution partner FremantleMedia Enterprises, seems particularly keen. Though to me the most viable storylines would involve Gwaine or Percival on errantry, and those actors have already moved on.
A New Side of Arthur and Merlin
But without the interaction Colin Morgan and Bradley James charting the difficult waters of the mutual interdependence of wizard and king, a spin-off would be rather thin soup.
Season 5 so far has seen Morgan and James dig deep in their own understanding of their characters, sketching out the richer and more nuanced aspects of two young men both emerging from the shadows of their mentors. Arthur and Merlin are only now, this season, showing us the frameworks of their adult selves and the intricacies of how they are coming to relate to each other.
And yes, that makes it the climax and culmination. But these new revelations also entice us further, as our friendship with Arthur and Merlin becomes fast, and the prospect of farewell forever becomes, as with a longtime friend made close through new intimacy, a painful prospect.
It's easy to see how Arthur closing in on who Merlin really is (as a man, regardless of whether as a wizard) is a major converging point. It's an ideal place to establish an ending for this story. But the story of the turbulence and complexities that result from that wrenching discovery wants to be told too, and I'd be very invested in seeing it charted by Capps, Murphy, Morgan, and James.
Perhaps that's the best compliment for the creative team that gave us five excellent years of Merlin. When the fans are distressed that you've completed your tale, you know you've done something right.