Camelot: The Complete First Season [Blu-Ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Anchor Bay Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Ethan Stevenson (27th October 2011).
The Show

2011 saw the debut of two new fantasy series, each dueling to be crowded king of the so-called sword and sorcery epics on premium cable. One, the obvious winner—a well-crafted and sharply written adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” (2011-Present) from HBO, with a brilliant cast led by Sean Bean and stupidly extravagant production values—was picked up for a second season almost immediately after the first episode aired and even took home a few awards at the primetime Emmy’s. The other—called “Camelot”, an at-times clumsy retelling of the Arthurian legend—wasn’t and didn’t. That’s not to say “Camelot’s” brief 10-episode run from Starz isn’t at the very least mildly entertaining. It is, if more in a guilty-pleasure sort of way. But, a few decent performances aside, there’s really nothing serious to praise. And I’m not the least bit surprised that Starz opted to cancel the series rather than order another batch of episodes for season two.

In the wake of King Uther's (Sebastian Koch) sudden death, chaos threatens to engulf Britain. When the sorcerer Merlin (Joseph Fiennes) has visions of a dark future, he installs the young and impetuous Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower), Uther's unknown son and heir, who has been raised from birth as a commoner by Sir Ector (Sean Pertwee) with his stepbrother Kay (Peter Mooney). Dark times indeed lie ahead for the new king, as Arthur's cold and ambitious half-sister Morgan (Eva Green) plans to fight him to the bitter end, summoning unnatural forces to claim the crown for her own. Fair and righteous Guinevere (Tasmin Egerton) is the only shining light in Arthur's harsh world. Faced with profound moral decisions, and the challenge of uniting a kingdom broken by war and steeped in deception, the young king will be tested beyond imagination. Forget everything you think you know, this is the story of Camelot that has never been told before… and I think I know why no one’s really bothered to tell it this way.

In the supplements the cast and crew all talk about “Camelot” being a refreshingly hip, young, excitingly sexy re-imagining of the story behind the legend. A sort of pseudo behind-the-scenes tale grounded in total reality before the more fantastical took hold and Thomas Malory churned out “Le Monte d’Arthur”. The producers seem to believe that the story they’re telling is closer to the original source—a grittier, less romanticized version. What no one seems to realize is how silly the story's core concepts still are in any combination. The realism that writer/creator Chris Chibnall wanted is only occasionally realized: Merlin is still a magical sorcerer and the story is still fantastical to the extreme. Elements of the legend—the Sword in the Stone cornerstone—are needlessly changed for the sake of… believability, I guess (climbing a waterfall to be crowned king is still ridiculous). But they don't necessarily relate to the source. And the modernity shoved into the pages of Chibnall’s scripts rear an ugly anachronistic head with every strange point of political correctness he unleashes at unneeded turns. Strong female characters are welcome, and the Arthurian legend has always had those strong archetypes in certain incarnations of Genevieve and and nearly every iteration of Morgan. But every woman in Chibnall’s world is as strong, if not stronger, than her male counterpart, making the characters like Morgan, who were once unique, boring through sameness. Also, it just blatantly goes against history—odd considering historical accuracy is another thing the writers and producers seem to take pride in—where women were treated as weaker beings simply because of their gender.

The casting of “Camelot” is almost purposefully lopsided, with Joseph Fiennes, Eva Green and Claire Forlani as Queen Igraine so obviously better than everyone else on screen it becomes laughable. Jamie Campbell Bower is regrettably—and most damningly—miscast as the young king. He is to Arthur Pendragon what Edward The Sparkly Cullen is to vampires. A boyish, perhaps too pretty, face that has none of the swaggering authority that the character eventually needs in later episodes, Bower has none of the acting prowess his other costars possess and proves woefully inadequate to support, much less lead a series. Fiennes is an interesting, more than capable, Merlin full of dark, as he puts it in the supplements, “thuggish brutality.” His character is a shady, warrior monk far more complex than expected. But he’s perhaps too interesting when placed along side boring, poorly acted, Arthur. If Chibnall really wanted to properly reinvent the wheel and the legend he could’ve easily done so with Fiennes’ Merlin. And he sort of does. One of the only new elements Chibnall brings to the entire mythology that’s worth mentioning is the “true” tale of the Lady in the Lake. His version of how Merlin came to find her and the origin of the sword she gives him make the sorcerer more sinister, more cunning and plainly more interesting. It also plays nicely with the concept of myths and legends being stories told repeatedly by different people until they take on a life of their own. But, as great as Fiennes’ character is, it’s not like we really need another stab at the legend through the alternate eyes of Merlin.

With such inconsistent acting and sophomoric, anachronistic writing (and don’t get me started on the haphazard accents or the modern language peppered amongst the pages of the scripts), “Camelot” really just comes off as kiddies playing dress up. And the impression is made worse by the cut-rate production values. Costumes and sets may be adequate, if rarely truly impressive, but the extensive CG is outright amateurish and crudely implemented. There’s no real weight to the world, nothing to completely pull you into the series’ atmosphere (unlike “Game of Thrones”, for which the complete opposite is true). Despite being a co-production between three notable companies, all with decent amounts of capital at their disposal—Starz Media, The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Ecosse Films—“Camelot” looks like a slightly more up-to-date but still crude crossbreed between a SyFy Original and the syndicated awfulness of the 90's (I'm thinking “Hercules: The Legendary Journey’s” (1995-1999) and “Xena: Warrior Princess” (1995-2001)). It’s sort of shocking how mediocre the whole affair really is. Producer/co-creator Michael Hirst, of “Elizabeth” (1998) and “The Tudors” (2007-2010) fame, and producer Graham King should know better. They’ve done better.

I find myself perplexed by Chibnall’s retread on the myth of Arthur, Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table (who aren’t even really in “Camelot”; Lancelot, the most awesome badass of them all, isn’t anyway). I’m confused largely because I can’t fathom why anyone thought the story needed to be told—let alone, again—in such an tediously tiring way. The first three episodes barely divert from the source material in any meaningful, or unusually interesting, way. The middle episodes are a mix of hilariously campy, slaphappy soap opera and just-because-we-can sexcapades that occasionally reward with something of note—like the Lady of the Lake reinvention. The final three episodes pick up and charge to the finish line with purpose, but to what end? The series won’t be back for another season. We still won’t ever get Lancelot, the Grail Quest, Morgan’s defeat, or an Arthur that doesn’t look and act seventeen. Arthur and the tale of Excalibur is a story literally a thousand years old, and has been the subject of countless films, television shows and mini-series (not to mention books and plays). It’s been done well traditionally. It’s been re-imagined successfully. It’s been a constant facet of pop culture and moviedom, with hundreds of adaptations on record since nearly the invention of the medium (John “Zardoz” Boorman’s “Excalibur” (1981) is perhaps the most memorable version on film, although maybe not; there are so many others to choose from.) To rationalize his addition to the canon of Arthur, Chibnall once said that every generation needs their own version of the legend—but, wait, they already had one even before “Camelot” went into production, with the mediocre “Merlin” (2008-Present). “Camelot” could’ve served a greater purpose had Chibnall created something better than the BBC's “Merlin”, but he didn’t. He made something almost exactly as shoulder shruggingly irrelevant.

Taken as it is, “Camelot” is simply a forgettable but occasionally entertaining look at a young Arthur and the earliest forms of his legend. Sure, the casting of Bower may have been misguided… but it’s a little more palatable knowing that he’ll never play old Arthur (perish the thought). And the better actors—mostly Fiennes—make up for the failings of the others. “Camelot: The Complete First Season” (and, really, the only season) includes 10 episodes on three discs. These are:

- “Homecoming”—When Uther, king of England dies, Merlin sets Uther's only male heir Arthur as the rightful king. However, challenging Arthur's claim is Uther's daughter, Morgan.

- “The Sword and the Crown”—Arthur finds the perfect mate in a young woman named Guinevere. Meanwhile, as Merlin tries to connect Arthur with Excalibur, Morgan and new ally King Lot (James Purefoy) plot to usurp the throne.

- “Guinevere”—Arthur and Guinevere struggle with their relationship as she readies for her marriage to Leontes.

- “Lady of the Lake”—Merlin continues to forge the legend of Excalibur as Arthur battles Leontes for Guinevere's attentions.

- “Justice”—Arthur creates Camelot's first tribunal of justice, by staging a battle of wills. Morgan is helped by Sybil to reach out to the people of the town on her quest to take back the throne.

- “Three Journey’s”—Camelot's knights must defend the castle from dangers found beyond the borders. Guinevere travels alone to meet her father, and Arthur follows secretly.

- “The Long Night”—Morgan invites Arthur and his regiment for an evening of entertainment… and illusions. She sets up a series of hoaxes, including a fake attack on the castle. Meanwhile Igraine lay manacled in a dungeon.

- “Igraine”—A disguised Morgan infiltrates Arthur’s ranks and tries to sow seeds of distrust among the men. Meanwhile Igraine tries to escape Castle Pendragon.

- “The Battle of Bardon Pass”—Bardon Pass is attacked and Arthur and his men rush to protect it. Merlin discovers Morgan has been in the castle all this time.

- “Reckoning”—The battle of Bardon Pass continues as Arthur tries to defend it alone. Meanwhile Morgan continues with her plan to take the throne while Arthur is away.

Video

Shot natively in HD, the series’ direct digital-to-digital transfers are encoded in AVC MPEG-4 1080p 24/fps and framed in 1.78:1 widescreen. Filmed on location, the luscious landscape of Ireland provides an attractive backdrop of vibrant greens and earthy period-ness. Skin tones are natural but contrast is low, resulting in a flat image with unimpressive, occasionally gray, blacks. Detail, although decidedly sufficient for high definition, is often underwhelming with a stylistic softness curbing textures in faces and the more elaborate costumes. Alternatively, the additional resolution doesn’t do the mostly-shoddy VFX any favors. Noise and artifacts hide in the corners of low lit in interiors, but defects are otherwise pretty minimal. When the action is set outdoors, in daylight, and the production team lays off the CG, things improve. In short: “Camelot” looks good—but not great—in on Blu-ray.

Audio

The English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is similarly satisfactory, but again little more than. Dialogue is crisp and well prioritized, and LFE occasionally erupts with a nice deep low end. But rears receive little attention outside of the score—a combination of haunting medieval choir and wonderful string orchestrations—from composers Mychael and Jeff Danna. The mixes are light on ambient effects, although perhaps not unsurprisingly; the show is a talky drama with very little action after all. The set also includes a Spanish Dolby Digital 1.0 mono dub, and optional English and Spanish subtitles.

Extras

At first glance, “Camelot” looks to have a pretty sizable collection of special features on Blu-ray, even promising an in-depth format exclusive. Unfortunately, upon closer inspection it becomes all too apparent that most of the featurettes are promotional, surface-level garbage and the Big Bad Exclusive is a disappointing trivia track that’s implemented with DVD-era tech.

DISC ONE:

“Camelot Chronicles: Pop-Up History” promises a lot and delivers… a lot of text. Those expecting some sort of interactive Maximum-Movie-Mode picture-in-picture experience allowing viewers to immerse themselves in the production of each episode should set their over-inflated expectations a little—no, a lot—lower. This plain pop-up trivia track, available on all 10 episodes, regurgitates information about the legend of Arthur and the history of the Middle Ages, sometimes at a snails pace. It completely neglects the production of the series. The interface is about a slick as a brick. These don’t really make up for the lack of commentaries. Oh well, at least it’s passably informative, which is more than I can say about almost everything else in the set.

Disc one also offers the follow pre-menu bonus trailers for:

- “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” on Blu-ray and DVD (1080i, 1 minute 32 seconds).
- “Boss” on Starz promo (1080p, 33 seconds).
- “Spartacus: Gods of The Arena” on DVD and Blu-ray (1080p, 1 minute 36 seconds).
- “Torchwood: Miracle Day” promo (1080i, 1 minute 51 seconds).

DISC TWO:

The “Camelot Chronicles: Pop-Up History” trivia track is also available for all disc two episodes.

DISC THREE:

Disc three includes the “Camelot Chronicles: Pop-Up History” trivia track and the bulk of the supplements.

“Starz Studio: Camelot” (1080p, 14 minutes 32 seconds) is an incredibly annoying making-of featurette, mostly because the narrator has the vocabulary of a used car salesman. All the interviews have the same “he’s so lovely to work with” and “our new series is the best series ever cause it’s a new series” vibe that’s totally off-putting. I don’t mean to say that viewers won’t learn something from this piece—I concede, it has information about the locations (they shot in the same place Mel Gibson shot “Braveheart” (1995)) and the cast and crew talk about the conception of the series in very basic terms—but it’s rather poorly put together and more closely resembles a commercial than a proper look behind-the-scenes.

6 “‘Camelot’ Character Profiles” (1080p) featurettes give the cast and crew a chance to talk about the history and creation of each character, the overall plot arc for each throughout the series, and the actors performance in each respective role. These featurettes have clear-cut titles and include:

- “Arthur” (2 minutes 47 seconds).
- “Guinevere” (2 minutes 27 seconds).
- “Igraine” (2 minutes 2 seconds).
- “Kay” (2 minutes 7 seconds).
- “Merlin” (1 minute 52 seconds).
- “Morgan” (2 minutes 42 seconds).

Leontes, Kay and Gawain—Arthur’s loyal knights—and the men of Camelot get a brief once over by the cast and crew in a featurette titled “The Knights” (1080p, 2 minutes 12 seconds). Superficial and repetitive (with more than a few overlapping talking heads taken from the character profiles) this piece is skippable slop.

The men got their piece; it’s only fair for the sake of political correctness that “The Women of ‘Camelot’” (1080p, 2 minutes 47 seconds) get a featurette too, right? This is more interesting than the men’s featurette, but only because the portrayal of women in the series is often so divergent from the source material that the changes are able to generate an interesting, if too brief, discussion.

“Candid ‘Camelot’” (1080p, 1 minutes 18 seconds) is—haha—a gag reel. Thank god it’s short.

3 micro-featurettes called “Scene Breakdowns” (1080p) give the production team time to talk about the technical aspects of filming a number key sequences from the series. In “The Lady in the Lake” (2 minutes 47 seconds) the crew discusses building the bridge Merlin uses to reach the sword makers daughter. In “Fire at The Castle Pendragon” (1 minute 22 seconds) Jamie Campbell Bower talks about the scene cut between behind-the-scenes footage and clips from the finished show. “The Sword in the Stone” (2 minutes 55 seconds) has creator Chris Chibnall, director Mikael Salomon and others talking about the reinvention of the classic scene and staging Arthur’s climb up the waterfall.

“On The Set: Mooney’s Movie” (1080p, 2 minutes 53 seconds) is a featurette filled with random footage Peter Mooney shot between breaks and in the off hours with the cast and crew. Some of the footage looks awful and has a weird strobe effect going on.

So, remember when I called “Candid ‘Camelot’” a gag reel? Yeah, well, it still is one, but apparently the guys at Starz thought that it and a longer piece called “‘Camelot’ Bloopers” blooper reel (1080p, 5 minutes 39 seconds) needed to be different things. Why? I don’t know… to torture me I guess.

A tab marked “Also on Blu-ray Disc” includes the following bonus trailers for:

- “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” on Blu-ray and DVD (1080i, 1 minute 32 seconds).
- “The King’s Speech” (1.85:1 widescreen 1080p, 2 minutes 28 seconds).
- “Sons of Anarchy” (non-anamorphic 1.78:1 480i, 1 minute 3 seconds).

Packaging

“Camelot: The Complete First Season” comes packaged from Starz/Anchor Bay in a 3-disc set. Each dual layered BD-50 sits on a panel of a tri-fold digipak, which slides into an outer cardboard slip-case. The casing is attractive and sturdy, and includes an episode guide printed on the reverse. “Camelot” is marked for Region A playback.

Overall

“Game of Thrones” this is not. “Camelot” is a clumsy retelling of the frequently adapted tale of King Arthur. Held back by sophomoric writing and a major error in casting, the series was doomed from the start to never be anything even remotely extraordinary. It isn’t terrible. In fact a few episodes are conceptually well done. And aside from Jamie Campbell Bower’s Arthur, the performances are at least adequate, with a few of the actors taking excellent turns. The Blu-ray set has good video and audio, but extras are more a case of quantity over quality. Worth a look.

The Show: C+ Video: B Audio: B Extras: C Overall: B-