in my recent review of excalibur i noted that one of its few shortcomings was that it tried to cram in too much of the arthurian legend. i theorized that the ideal vehicle might have been a lord of the rings-styled three movie package or perhaps a miniseries. the 1998 tv miniseries merlin wasn't quite the ticket but there are far worse ways to spend three hours of your life.
as is the case with mary stewart's five-volume take on the arthurian tales, this is (obviously) merlin's story. it gets underway before he is even born/created when a bad egg known as queen mab decides to whip herself up a wizard type to help bring "the people" back to "the old ways." as nearly as i can tell mab does not figure in any of the arthurian legends and doesn't turn up in any literary works until shakespeare. a queen mab also makes a notable appearance in a somewhat renowned poem by percy shelley.
miranda richardson's take on mab is somewhat along the lines of an aging goth/wiccan with a hissy/screechy voice that begins to grate after about 30 seconds. she's bad to the bone and she has a sidekick to help do her bidding. that would be frik, who's portrayed by martin short and who was initially something of a major drawback for me.
as much as i like martin short (clifford and primetime glick, in particular), early on he provides just a bit too much comic relief for this type of story. the writers also chose to saddle him with some truly tooth-grinding anachronisms such as pirate outfits and whatnot. the good news is that before it's all over frik's character changes rather dramatically and becomes one of the standout characters of the entire piece. but enough about that.
though mab has created merlin (sam neill), who is born in the traditional human fashion, she finds before long that he is not content merely to do her bidding. it's this tension between the two that powers the story. along the way we have a fairly traditional arthurian storyline presented but with a lot of magical whoop-dee-doo and special effects added to spice things up.
early on we see vortigern (rutger hauer) and uther going at it, with merlin and mab each backing a horse in the race. uther comes out on top, of course, and proceeds to blow his lead by seducing the wife of one his allies. which dalliance produces the once and future king known as arthur. who is not a particularly engaging character in this telling of the tale and his father uther even less so. ditto for lancelot and guinevere. to tell the truth i've always found the tale of their infidelity to be tedious at best, and this time around was no exception.
i guess it's no surprise that these characters are all somewhat unexceptional, given that the story is more closely focused on merlin and mab, and to a lesser extent on frik and nimue (isabella rossellini), merlin's love interest. and though he gets a relatively small amount of screen time jason done, as mordred, comes close to stealing the show, though his intriguing performance would have benefited if he'd dialed it back a notch or two.
interesting arthurian trivia bits here include a score by trevor jones, who got one of his first big breaks doing the same for excalibur. also on hand, nicholas clay, who played lancelot in the earlier film and whose role of lord leo here is a relatively minor one.
i guess you could sum this one up by saying that if you were to imagine a miniseries version of the arthurian legend as produced by hallmark entertainment (who did indeed produce this one) with a pretty decent budget, great locations and cinematography and some big name talent (also helena bonham carter, james earl jones, and john gielgud) then this is what it would look like.