It’s been 15 years since Merlin debuted on BBC One, but the show’s fanbase has never been larger. We took a look at why the show remains popular in 2023.
In a land of myth and a time of magic, the destiny of Saturday night entertainment rested on the shoulders of a new drama. Its name: Merlin.
That land, of course was BBC One. The time, 2008. Following the final full series of David Tennant’s stint at Doctor Who (he would later return for five special episodes to conclude his story, not to mention the upcoming revival with Russell T. Davies back at the helm) the BBC had a Saturday night slot to fill.
At the time, the channel was going through a bit of a golden age of family entertainment. In 2006, triggered by the smash-hit success of Doctor Who’s comeback, BBC One controller Peter Fincham and Head of Drama Jane Tranter commissioned Dominic Minghella and Foz Allan’s Robin Hood – an endearingly earnest, modern take on the folk legend – to retain the Who-crowd between seasons.
Despite debuting to decent viewing figures and nods of critical approval, by the end of its second season the Jonas Armstrong-led series was in trouble. Cast departures, the 2008 financial crisis and an unusually large gap between seasons two and three meant that the third series, already commissioned by the time Merlin started filming, was destined to be the drama’s last.
Convenient, then, that the BBC had another family reimagining of British folklore ready to take its place. Borrowing modern Who’s 13 episode, 45-minute structure along with its teatime slot, Merlin was another deliberate effort to make more “three generation TV,” according to Fincham. “Three generation TV – that’s TV you can watch with your grandparents and children. There’s not enough of that about,” he told The Guardian in 2006.
Debuting to a solid, if not spectacular, 6.6 million viewers and attracting similar audiences for most of its run, Merlin ended its fifth season in 2012 as a reliable family hit for the BBC. But ever since the final episode aired, and as online communities have only grown more vocal in their appreciation, the current Merlin fandom seems almost unprecedented in its size and, curiously, its demographic.
Buoyed on by childhood nostalgia (those kids watching with their grandparents are now firmly into their twenties) and the series’ seven-year stint on Netflix in the UK (the show is currently resting on Disney Plus), Merlin today almost seems more popular than ever. Instagram, TikTok and the ever fan-friendly Tumblr still ring to the sound of Camelot’s castle bell all these years later.
So what is it about this solid BBC One hit that’s inspired such sustained loyalty? Where its Saturday night stablemates, Robin Hood and Atlantis (which sprung from the same creative team), have largely faded from the cultural consciousness Merlin’s online standing feels closer to juggernaut Doctor Who than anything else from the era.
For Ollie Jones, half of the Jackman & Bones sketch duo who’ve generated more than 2 million views on TikTok from their frequent Merlin parodies, it’s the show’s cheerfully reproducible ‘monster of the week’ formula that their audience remembers fondly. With 22,000 followers and growing, the comedy page has unexpectedly become one of the internet’s largest collections of Colin Morgan fans.
“I hadn’t rewatched an episode before we filmed our first video,” Jones told us. “We just stuck with what I remembered of the show at the time. Even then, the most common response we get to any of our videos is ‘accurate’ – it had such a distinct style that it just sticks with you.”
In 2023, the show’s largely standalone, episodic structure feels notoriously absent from the streaming era, which tends to focus on longer, more labyrinthine plots to keep viewers hooked week after week. It’s a theme which proved far more popular back in the early 2000s – BBC Wales’ Julie Gardner listed Russell T. Davies as one of the show’s first supporters, and producers Julian Murphy and Johnny Caps cited Smallville as a sort of proof of concept for their idea.
For a generation starved of LGBTQ+ role models, too, the close male friendship between Merlin and Arthur has proved ample fodder for the ship-happy side of online fandom. In a similar vein to the online christening of Sherlock a few years later, that central relationship has inspired fan art and fan fiction almost beyond counting.
Jill Trevellick’s casting, too, adds an extra dimension to Colin Morgan and Bradley James’ on-screen relationship which forms the heart of the show. Apart from anything else, it’s the cast and playful wit of the scripts that mean Merlin remains compelling family viewing more than a decade after its final episode aired.
“Colin and Bradley had fantastic on-screen chemistry,” co-creator Johnny Capps told the Radio Times. They just lit the screen up with their fun and their humour and their brotherly love for each other, so that made us able to write really intense emotional stories between the two of them.”
With such a passionate base still active online, then, is there any chance of a Merlin revival? Capps, for one, doesn’t seem to think so.
“Merlin ran for five years, Atlantis ran for two years… that’s seven years and audiences change… people’s viewing habits changed,” he says.
As for that hallowed 7pm teatime slot, though, he seems more open to the idea.
“But would we make more shows for that slot? Absolutely. We talk about it a lot.”
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