I think it is ridiculous how annoyed some people are getting about the deviation from the original Arthurian myths. I just think I should start this review by saying to those people; nobody is forcing you to watch it! If you don't like it, don't watch it - or take it for what it is, a TV show BASED loosely around the Arthurian myth which is actually very entertaining.
The first thing that caught my eye was Colin Morgan aka Merlin's amazing smile. That boy can SMILE! But the opening scene, the execution and subsequent magical drama was quite good too. Uther set the tone as an imperious, ruthless king and it was interesting to see how they introduced the relationship between Gaius and Merlin, with the reading of Hunith's letter. In reference to Merlin's magical expenditure - breaking Gaius's fall - the special effects were not at all disappointing and while the show does occasionally fall short of the phenomenal efforts we have come to expect after franchises such as Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings (which they clever used to market the show here in Australia), we must remember that a TV show requires an ongoing budget and I imagine a fair bit of it must go towards the castle in France where they film Camelot scenes.
The introduction of Morgana was dark and querulous - right from the beginning she is at odds with Uther, and her fierce personality suggests a darker alter ego. Katie McGrath captivates from the word go and is truly the best person I could have imagined for the job - she is both ethereally beautiful and a strong character.
The comic elements - Merlin in the stocks - were executed well, and it was fitting that Gwen was introduced here, putting her on a societal par with Merlin as a lowly servant, notwithstanding her somewhat elevated position as the particular maidservant to the king's ward, Lady Morgana. Angel Coulby plays her with charm, idealism and a likeable awkwardness, and I think it's interesting they chose to have her percieving Arthur as a bully (which, of course, he is).
My favourite scenes were the confrontations between Merlin and Arthur, for three reasons - one: Colin Morgan's smile, two: Bradley James... I think that's all that really needs to be said :), and three: they were simply the best. These scenes showed an as yet unseen side of Merlin's sweet nature, where it is revealed that he is willing and able to stand up for himself and for others and does not back down from a challenge. Arthur, who goes on in later episodes to become my favourite character, is certainly cocky, arrogant and obnoxious, but he is brilliant to watch and you can tell he will be entertaining. Bradley James manages to portray this less positive side of Arthur's personality without making him seem thuggish or simple. The concept of Merlin being the only one who dares stand up to Arthur is carried out through the series, though I do wish we would see more of this type of open confrontation. Once Merlin becomes his servant, he really loses the defensiveness he once had about Arthur's pratty behaviour, but I suppose that comes with the respect they develop for one another.
Overall, the other scene worth mentioning is the one where Merlin becomes quite distraught and claims that if he can't use magic, he'd rather die. Here we realize just how important this part of him is and how conflicted a character he has been. The search for a purpose for his gifts lead him to the Great Dragon, exquisitely voiced by narrator John Hurt.
This was an excellent first episode and an intriguing introduction of the central characters and ideas.