Finally, some new costume drama. My clever TV box, remembering an old setting, has recorded most of The Musketeers series three from one of the more obscure Swedish channels. This will give me a chance to catch up, though I suspect I'll invest in a box set sooner or later. Though often supremely silly, The Musketeers remains an entertaining caper. If you are going to play fast and loose with history, then better to do it this way than with leaden dialogue spiced up (or not) with random sex and violence (yes, I'm looking at you, Versailles).
One reason it's hard to ever get really upset with The Musketeers is the importance it attaches to its villains. This is not to say that they are in any way complex or subtle. Goodness knows you'd be hard pressed to find more black-and-white characterisation in any other half-way ambitious drama. However, for every series there are one or two villains right at the heart of the plot, being given plenty of airtime and displaying considerable panache. It's as if the creaters of the series started each new installment of episodes by asking themselves: "Right, who will be the villain this time, and what charismatic actor are we going to entice into playing him?" (The memorable baddies are not all male, I have to confess: the gutsy Milady, who doesn't feature this time around, leaves quite a gap.) First time round, we had Richelieu, played by none other than Peter Capaldi. When Capaldi had to leave to play The Doctor - and even I will have to concede that that was a better gig - Richelieu was, very foolishly in my view, killed off years before his time. Why didn't they just hire another actor to play the Cardinal? Capaldi's brilliant but not irreplaceable when there are so many top-notch actors around, and we would have understood. However, at least the need for a head villain was immediately met by bringing in Marc Warren's attractive if lamentably bonkers Rochefort. He was dispatched at the end of series two, but villain-lovers need not fret: this time around, we have two head villains, played by Rupert Everett no less (though this casting poses its own problems, as addressed below) and Matthew McNulty (the ghastly Moray's far more appealing business partner in The Paradise).
I must say, though, that the absurdity level of the two first episodes of series three is alarmingly high, and that they raise a great number of questions - few of which, I suspect, will be answered during this final run of the series:
Why cast a good-looking actor like Rupert Everett only to cover him in prosthetics? I know handsome actors sometimes longingly talk about playing someone ugly. Well, that's tough, but just as there are plenty of parts that can only be played credibly by lookers, so there are others where it makes every sense to cast an actor less favoured by nature than, say, Rupert Everett. Everett's character in The Musketeers, Feron, is ravaged and even slightly disfigured by illness (either that or old war wounds: it has yet to be made clear). As a consequence, Everett's pleasing features are covered with a not very convincing mask of prosthetics which severely hampers his acting, as does the sometimes lamentably low quality of the villain-banter lines he's given. If they'd cast someone who looked a bit more worn and weatherbeaten to start with, the make-up department wouldn't have had to over-strain itself and there would have been more room for acting. I'm not going to complain about seeing Everett in anything, though, and the other villain, McNulty's Lucien Grimaud, is an absolute dish - enough to convince any villain-fancier that there may be merit to a dark and handsome brooder after all (as long as there's no scything).
Where's the Dauphin's brother? The most preposterous plot development in The Musketeers - with the exception of killing off Richelieu before his time - is the one involving Aramis, Queen Anne and the future Louis XIV. Yes, it's true: in this series, the Sun King's dad is none other than Aramis the love-lorn musketeer. Mind, Aramis and the Queen really love each other, and they only did it the once, so that's all right then, even if it means that the royal bloodline is messed up completely. As it's hinted that Louis XIII is infertile - I mean, he and Anne are married for ages without a baby, Aramis beds Anne once, and wham! - I was dying to find out how The Musketeers would explain the birth of royal baby number two, the infamous Philippe. Would Louis be allowed to be the father this time around? But that would mean - yikes - that the Orléans branch were the legitimate heirs to the Crown all along! Or is the father Aramis again, on a singularly bad day? Or someone else entirely? In which case, how would Aramis react to his one true love fooling around with yet another man?
It seems these questions proved too hard for the series makers to resolve: little Louis is now four or five years old, and still he appears to be an only child. So have they really written out an actual member of the royal family so as to bolster the claim that a fictional musketeer fathered Louis XIV? Or perhaps they've just played around with the chronology, and we will find out how the Queen's second kid came about later - maybe like this...
Will Feron father the next royal prince? He's the King's resentful (illegitimate) brother. He's called Philippe. He has a sinister, handsome male sidekick. It sort of fits - the poisonous apple wouldn't fall far from the tree. But how would Feron get the Queen pregnant? They don't seem very pally, and a rape resulting in a pregnancy would surely be too dark for a family-friendly series such as this one. Besides which, the Queen could defend herself against the fit Rochefort, so a wreck like Feron wouldn't pose any problem for her. Maybe Philippe is Feron's child, but not the Queen's? And the royal family take him on for some reason? Admittedly, totally disregarding historical facts opens up fascinating possibilities.
What's the deal with the Red Guard? Even in the original films (no, I haven't read the books), the Musketeers' rivalry with the Red Guard annoyed me. Why waste time on silly one-upmanship when you're serving the same country and the same government? In the series, the Musketeer-Red Guard feud is still going strong, much like the Guard itself whose continued existence puzzles me. I've always assumed that they were the Cardinal's men - hence the colour. But even without the Cardinal his soldiers are still around, serving as minions for whichever villain the Musketeers are facing at the moment. What's the Red Guard's official role, exactly? And how was Constance playing a prank on them in the first episode meant to make anything better?
All for one, one for all, all for...what? The original Musketeers were proud of being the King's men. In this series, though, they don't display any great affection towards the King - severely caricatured throughout - or even kingship itself. They are too busy pleasing modern audiences with their soulful concern for the plight of the poor, even when the said poor make no bones about wanting the King out of the way. D'Artagnan listens sympathetically to the leader of a group of war refugees (yeah, I know - I told you they weren't subtle) uttering twaddle like "Is it rebellion to fight against injustice?". YES. That's exactly what it is, at least in the eyes of any rebel - who ever heard of fighting against justice? Former Musketeer boss Treville destroys the refugees' seditious pamphlets because if they were found "they would all be hanged". Very probably, Treville, and as a minister of the Crown, you should really be OK with this - why are you protecting people ready to overthrow the government of which you are a member? The Musketeers are patriots, which is all very well, but what do they stand for apart from that? You can either be a budding revolutionary or a good Musketeer - you can't be both.