The episode begins with a shot of a young man walking towards the camera over a sand dune, carrying a pack and obviously arriving somewhere after a journey. The narrative over voice, by John Hurt (who also voices the Great Dragon) begins with the words "No young man, no matter how great, can know his destiny. He cannot glimpse his part in the great story that is about to unfold."
"Like everyone, he must live and learn. And so it will be for the young warlock arriving at the gates of Camelot."
The boy comes through a forest and walks up a hill...
"A boy that will in time father the legend..."
The boy sees something in the distance, smiles, and heads towards it, just as the camera pans in that direction and reveals an impressive castle, complete with a stunning sky backdrop and waving flags.
"His name? Merlin."
Merlin is now inside the gates of Camelot and wandering through the bustling streets, clearly impressed and excited. Horns are sounded, and he heads towards the sound, across the drawbridge and into the courtyard where he struggles to see past a crowd of peasants who are all gathered together in anticipation. Clearly expecting something thrilling, he moves closer to watch as drums pound and two guards escort a young man up into a platform at the centre of the crowd.
Suddenly King Uther's voice resounds, and everyone turns to look at him where he stands on the castle balcony, overlooking them. His expression is one which will we will come to be very familiar with – stern and unsympathetic.
"Let this be a lesson to all. This man, Thomas James Collins" - the two guards frogmarch the poor peasant up onto the platform as Uther glares him down "is judged guilty of conspiring to use enchantments and magic."
Merlin is now looking quite worried, particularly after the mention of magic.
"And pursuant to the laws of Camelot, I – Uther Pendragon – have decreed that such practices are banned… on penalty of death.
Merlin's expression is very apprehensive.
"I pride myself as a fair and just king… but for the crime of sorcery there is but one sentence I can pass."
Up in a window in the castle, a beautiful lady with long dark hair looks down on the scene, her expression unhappy.
As dramatic music swells, the man is forced to kneel and bend his head over the platform as a hooded executioner draws closer, raising his axe. People begin to stir, while Merlin and the lady in the window are both clearly unnerved. Uther raises his hand and lets it fall – the axe swings, there is a slicing sound, and the crowd 'oohs' – the man is dead. Despite their previous excitement, the crowd looks shocked. Oblivious, Uther continues to speak.
"When I came to this land, this kingdom was mired in chaos. But with the people's help, magic was driven from the realm. So I declare a festival, to celebrate twenty years since the Great Dragon was captured, and Camelot freed from the evil of sorcery. Let the celebrations begin."
Smirking, and obviously very pleased with himself, Uther begins to walk away –until an old hag in the crowed below starts to wail in distress. He turns back, as Merlin and the rest of the crowd watch her move into his line of sight.
"There is only one evil in this land and it is not magic," she cries, distraught. "It is you! With your hatred… and your ignorance… you took my son!"
She points in the direction of the platform. Ah, it is clear now… Uther just orchestrated the execution of this woman's son. He looks down at her, stony.
"And I promise you, before these celebrations are over you will share my tears. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth… a son for a son!"
As her voice steadily moves away from distraught to just plain angry, we see that this last threat about a son clearly hits a nerve with Uther, and he yells 'seize her!' Before anybody has a chance, she shrieks a spell and disappears in a whirlwind. Uther stalks off, the crowd dissipates and Merlin is left looking a lot less positive than he did upon arrival.
He walks away from the courtyard and indoors, where he asks a guard for directions to Gaius, the court physician. He makes his way towards an open door, knocks and slowly enters. The room looks like Ye Olde Laboratory, and Merlin looks around, finally spying an old man up on the second floor, looking at books on a ladder. He calls out, and the man turns, smiling – and starts to fall straight towards the ground many meters below.
Merlin's eyes glow yellow and the man is slowed midair. Slightly panicked, Merlin looks around and moves a bed underneath him with just the power of his mind. Releasing his hold, the man plummets, and lands on the bed with a startled and bewildered expression.
"What did you just do?" the old man cries, springing up, and Merlin hems and haws for a while as the man – Gaius – crossly questions him. Magic is clearly a touchy subject for everyone – "If anyone had seen that…"; "What? No – that, that was nothing to do with me!" – although Gaius seems more curious to know where he learned magic – he doesn't believe Merlin when he says he was born that way. Suddenly Gaius remembers himself and barks "who are you?"
"Oh – erm, I – have this letter…"
Merlin hands over a folded note, but when Gaius doesn't read it he says helpfully, "I'm Merlin."
Ah, realization. "Hunith's son!" cries Gaius.
"Yes," replied Merlin, pleased – until Gaius says confusedly that he wasn't supposed to be here till Wednesday. Nonplussed, Merlin reminds him that it is, indeed, Wednesday - and their introduction is complete, as Gaius points him to his room, after assuring him that his secret – that he can do magic – is safe with him.
We see Merlin his room, lit by candles – it is now night time – look out the window with a smile. He is still clearly excited about his arrival in Camelot.
Then it is revealed what was in the letter Merlin's mother wrote to Gaius – interspersed with shots of a peasant woman writing and Gaius reading the note, his expression intense, we hear that Merlin is very unusual – and Hunith wants Gaius to look after him.
At last we see a close up of the beautiful lady who was watching the execution – still gazing out of her window, she is greeted by Uther as 'Morgana', as he inquires why she was not at the feast and it becomes clearly that she disagrees with his decision to persecute anyone who uses magic, good or bad. Morgana asks him how long he is going to keep punishing people for what happened 'then' – 20 years ago, when magic was first banned (this event is alluded to throughout the series, until a later episode where the reason for Uther's vendetta against magic is revealed) – and Uther answers, "Until they realize there is no room for magic in my kingdom!"
He then orders her to be present for the arrival of the kingdom's finest singer, citing that as her guardian, she owes him this respect. Morgana calls after him as he leaves – "You know the more brutal you are, the more enemies you will create!"
In a tent in the forest, an attractive lady sits brushing her hair, accompanied by guards who wait outside. Startled, she hears strange noises – and is temporarily reassured as a guard tells her all is well, and she is revealed to be Lady Helen, the singer on her way to Camelot. But then the old hag from the Camelot courtyard appears and murders her, stealing her voice and taking on her appearance, though when she looks in the mirror, her reflection is still that of the hag.
The next scene opens on Merlin's closed eye, as mysterious voice calls his name. He wakes, confused, and reappears back in Gaius's room, where Gaius serves him breakfast, scolds him for not washing the night before – and knocks over a bucket of water, deliberately, just to watch Merlin freeze it in midair. It then splashes to the ground, as Gaius peppers Merlin with questions about this new discovery – Merlin can do magic without saying spells. After that conversation, Merlin sent to deliver some potions to people in the castle. After he visits an old man who sculls his potion down despite Merlin's persistent warnings, he ventures into the courtyard.
Here Merlin sees a poor servant being tormented by a handsome young man about his age, who shows off to his friends by making him act as a moving target, throwing knives at the boy as he runs around with a large wooden circle. Finally the boy trips, and Merlin stops the rolling target with his foot – then calls out "Hey, come on – that's enough."
This wipes the cocky grin off the young man's face. 'What?!" he answers disbelievingly. People start to turn and look at the exchange – including a pretty girl who is shaking garments out a window up in the castle.
"You've had your fun, my friend,' Merlin says.
The man saunters casually towards him, asking "Do I know you?'
"So I don't know you."
"Yet you called me… friend."
Merlin's amicable expression is replaced by a stony one.
"My mistake," he says.
"Yes, I think so," says the other man, patronizingly.
"I'd never have a friend who'd be such an ass."
This stirs the surrounding men, and as Merlin walks away, the other man catches up to him.
"I'd never be so stupid. Tell me, Merlin – do you know how to walk on your knees?"
"Would you like me to help you?"
Merlin scoffs. "I wouldn't if I were you."
The man clearly finds this hilarious. "Why? What are you going to do to me?"
"You have no idea."
"Be my guest! Come on!" The other man taunts him, throwing out his arms and presenting Merlin with a clear shot; clearly not afraid. "Come on. Come on!"
Finally Merlin throws a punch – which is intercepted as the other man catches his arms and twists it behind his back, trapping Merlin in a grip.
"I'll have you thrown in jail for that," he says smugly.
"Who do you think you are, the king?" asks Merlin.
"No. I'm his son – Arthur." (aha, so now we know who the old hag in the courtyard has her sights set on…)
Cut to Merlin being thrown in jail.
Again night falls, and Lady Helen walks across the hall to meet King Uther – Morgana reluctantly at his side. They are both very flirty and cordial.
The next morning, Merlin is asleep in the dungeons when he hears the same strange noises and the voice calling his name as before. He presses his ear to the floor, trying to hear better – until Gaius enters, extremely disappointed with Merlin. He says he got Merlin out, which temporarily puts a smile on Merlin's face – until we see that 'out' means 'in the stocks, with rotten fruit getting thrown at him." Gaius watches, laughing, and the same girl who had watched his fight with Arthur from the window approaches him.
"I'm Guinevere, but most people call me Gwen? I'm the Lady Morgana's maid,' she introduces herself. She shake hands – awkwardly, considering Merlin's is encased in wood.
"I'm Merlin – though most people just call me idiot."
Gwen hurries to disagree with him, saying he was brave for standing up to Arthur – though she's glad he walked away, because he wasn't going to beat him. Merlin looks offended, and says he could. Gwen says he doesn't look like one of those 'big, strong, muscly sorts of fellows' – the hurriedly goes on to say she's sure he's stronger than he looks, only Arthur's one of these "real rough, tough, save the world kind of men… and well, you don't look like that."
Merlin jokes that he's in disguise. Gwen calls him a real hero for standing up to Arthur, who she thinks is a bully – and Merlin is pleased, but has to send her away as his 'fans' line up to throw more rotten fruit.
Later in Gaius's room, Gaius tells Merlin how unique he is – and Merlin asks Gaius if he ever studied magic. Gaius evades this and goes on to explain that Uther banned magic twenty years ago because people used it to the wrong ends back then. He tells Merlin of a dragon that Uther locked up, deep in a cave in the castle, as an example. He then sends Merlin to give Lady Helen a preparation for her voice.
Merlin goes to deliver it and leaves it on her table – but can't help but snoop, looking at a few things that look suspicious, like a straw doll and a strange book. Lady Helen enters, and he quickly shows her his delivery and leaves, though she still looks suspicious.
Walking through the streets, Merlin passes Arthur and his men, and Arthur can't help but turn around to taunt Merlin some more. He continues to bait him until he turns back too.
"Look, I've told you you're an ass – I just didn't realize you were a royal one."
He then teases Arthur about having his daddy's men around to protect him – eventually, their verbal sparring leads to Arthur challenging him, warning that he's been trained to kill since birth.
"Wow – and how long have you been training to be an ass?"
Arthur can't believe how rude Merlin is.
"You can't address me like that!"
"Oh, sorry – how long have you been training to be an ass – my lord?" he retorts, finishing with a mocking bow.
Finally Arthur swings his weapon, having thrown one at Merlin's feet. Merlin might be brave, but he's no warrior – he basically dodges and stumbles around until he gives in and decides to use magic, as a disapproving Gaius watches from a window. After tangling Arthur's weapon in a sickle, forcing him to walk into a crate and tripping him over, it seems he's finally winning – but gets a little ahead of himself, asking "Do you want to give in? Do you?" then catching Gaius's eye and getting thrown down in that moment of distraction.
"There's something about you, Merlin," says Arthur as he walks away, genuinely curious. "I can't quite put my finger on it…"
"How can you be so foolish?" yells Gaius as they both storm back into his room. Merlin is visibly upset, and says he needed to be taught a lesson. Gaius reminds him that of all people, he needs to keep a low profile – and finally Merlin snaps, fed up, and says that if he can't use magic, he'd rather die. He stalks into his room – but later, they reconcile, as Gaius helps him treat the wounds Arthur gave him and Merlin tells him he needs to find a purpose for his magic.
In the dining hall, Uther and Lady Helen, aka the woman from the courtyard (who is credited as Mary Collins) are eating together. Lady Helen subtly switches the conversation around to Arthur, saying it is a shame she hasn't met him yet, to which Uther answers simply – "That's Arthur." She remarks how hard it must have been for him to grow up without a mother; how difficult that bond between mother and son is to replace (oh, the irony)… and asks Uther if he would ever remarry, disguising the intent of the question with a suggestive glance. He says he may find love again, but it is too late to replace Arthur's mother. She smiles at this, commenting ominously… "Yes… it's certainly too late for Arthur." The whole conversation leaves the audience with no doubt as to her intentions… but it also offers a small hint of what hardships may have influenced Arthur's unsavoury personality.
Once again, Merlin is awoken by a strange voice, but this time he goes to explore. This leads him towards his old hang out, the prison, where he lures two guards away from an entrance by making them chase a mysteriously moving pebble. Venturing down a long, dimly lit stairway, he comes to a cave, calls out – and is stunned when an enormous dragon swoops down, alighting on a rock in front of him.
The dragon reveals that he has a great destiny – that there is a reason for his gifts. Merlin is very happy to hear this – but not so happy to hear that this destiny, this reason, is to protect Arthur on his way to becoming king. He offers to give anyone who wants to kill Arthur a helping hand – but the dragon says none of us can choose, nor escape, our destiny. His exact feelings can be summed up in one quote – "There must be another Arthur, because this one's an idiot!" The dragon says perhaps it is his destiny to change that.
In the next scene, Gaius wakes Merlin in his disgustingly messy room and tells him to deliver something to Morgana, who has been suffering nightmares. Upon arriving at her room, Merlin is stunned by her beauty, but is stuck in an awkward situation when she acknowledges his presence as 'Gwen' – she thinks he is her maid! Panicked, he imitates a girl's high pitched voice, hides behind clothes and dodges her glance until Gwen arrives and takes pity on him, taking his place without giving him up to Morgana. He leaves, relieved – though he was pleased by a comment Morgana made about not touching Arthur with a barge pole. She laments his not inviting her to accompany him to the feast, though – and decides to wear a dress which will 'give them a night they'll never forget."
In Lady Helen's room, a friendly, chatty young maid sings her praises until she catches sight of her horrible reflection, frightened, she starts to run, but Lady Helen murders her before she escapes.
Cut to the feast: Merlin and Gaius enter, and Merlin scowls at Arthur's back where he stands with a group of noblemen, laughing. Arthur turns and is captivated by Morgana as she enters, wearing a beautiful red dress. "God have mercy," is his reaction – and Merlin is stunned too. Gwen sidles up to Merlin as Arthur approaches Morgana, commenting "she looks great, doesn't she?" Merlin's "yeah" is a little too emphatic – but he is distracted by Gwen's comment about her being born to be queen. Gwen hopes she will be, one day – Merlin doesn't. He clearly can't stand the thought of her being married to Arthur. Gwen partially agrees, conceding that she wouldn't want to be her – "Who'd want to marry Arthur?"
Merlin teases – "Come on Gwen, I thought you liked those real rough tough save the world kind of men." She protests, saying she prefers much more ordinary men like him – hastily backtracking and clarifying that she means mean LIKE him, not him specifically.
In her room, Lady Helen fondles the stone around her neck which encases the voice of the real Lady Helen, leaving the dead servant on the floor to go to the feast at the same time as Uther is being heralded into the hall. Uther gives her a fine introduction as she sashays onto the stage, and everyone sits back to enjoy the performance. She starts to sing, and certainly has a beautiful voice – but slowly but surely, as she walks theatrically towards the table where Uther, Arthur and Morgana are seated, everybody falls asleep – except for Merlin, who catches on and covers his ears as cobwebs mysteriously appear over the congregation and darkness falls.
With an evil look in her eye, Lady Helen approaches the table, now staring at Arthur's unconscious form and singing more and more aggressively, raising a knife. Merlin figures out what she is trying to do and magically drops the chandelier onto her head, stopping her voice. Slowly, everyone wakes up – and Uther is stunned to see the hag woman, whose appearance is now restored, pinned under the chandelier. Dying, she throws the knife at Arthur's chest, who freezes – but Merlin performs the same slow-motion magic as he did with Gaius and pulls Arthur to safety, and the woman dies.
Arthur and Merlin both stand – Arthur looks stunned to see that Merlin saved his life. Uther walks over, extremely grateful to Merlin for saving his son's life. Merlin looks both pleased at the high praise and a little bit smug at saving Arthur after their unpleasant history – but neither Arthur nor Merlin are pleased when Uther casually hands him the position of Arthur's manservant as a reward. They look at each other and turn away in disgust.
In his room, Merlin sits by candle light as Gaius enters, commending him as a hero. He says that he saw how Merlin saved Arthur's life – perhaps that's the purpose for his magic. Merlin remembers what the dragon said about his destiny, but still doesn't seem particularly happy about it. Gaius gives him a book of magic that he received and studied when he was Merlin's age – it will probably be more useful to him. Interrupting the moment is Arthur's voice, calling for his manservant. "Your destiny is calling," Gaius says. "You'd better find out what he wants." Merlin leaves reluctantly.