Dad holograms are the rage right now which means it's time to talk about Merlin! There are a lot of takes on Wing Commander but one of the most most unexpected is that it would've been better with a holographic wizard talking you through the plot. And that wizard was… Merlin!
Merlin was said to be the 'interface' to Blair's Portable Personal Computer (PPC), a 16" tall holographic wizard who can appear to provide needed information. Kind of like Alexa or Siri… or the Great Gazoo.
And Merlin was IN THE MOVIE as filmed. Freddie Prinze Jr. shot scenes where he talks to a 1/6th scale action figure. The plan was that the second unit would shoot (or CG) a hologram to composite over the doll (like Jabba the Hutt in A New Hope).
Merlin is half Attack of the Clones C-3PO-style comic relief and half tool for providing extremely important exposition. He appears throughout the film but has four important scenes which all had to be reworked in different ways:
One: the first act opens on Merlin and Blair conversing on the Diligent where he explains the situation (replacement headed to the Tiger Claw on a merchantman).
Two: He scans a human-style communications signal from the Kilrathi fleet when Blair and Angel fly their first patrol. This is how Blair 'knows' the Kilrathi have located them early, prompting the crew to distrust him further.
Three: He locates the same signal again during the attack on the concom, which prompts Blair to disobey orders and board the ship after the marines, leading to the confrontation with Gerald and Wilson.
Four: He talks through the final chase with the Snakeir, updating Blair and the viewers on fuel/distance/time as needed.
In spite of this, there is no Merlin cut of the film. While the footage of the actors exists, Merlin himself was never completed. He had already been removed in the longer 'traitor' rough cut seen by test audiences, potentially adding to their confusion. The finished movie cuts the first three Merlin appearances and replaces the fourth by naming the Rapier computer system Merlin and adapting the already-filmed conversation with the doll to be simply Blair talking to his ship.
In the final film, Merlin's voice is credited to "?". The ? is Mark Hamill, perhaps the worst kept secret in Wing Commander movie history. But back when Merlin was a funny wizard the hope was that he'd be played by noted Wing Commander fan Robin Williams.
Want your very own Merlin? The doll they used on set is readily available today! He's a 'Hands Up!' Action Man police toy which would've been new in Europe at the time of filming in 1998.
And if you're interested in just how much removing Merlin impacted the film then AD has color coded a copy of the shooting script that shows you what was removed and moved around here:
One remnant of Merlin in the finished film you can still spot are the PPCs. Merlin is just an interface (desktop theme) for Blair's PPC but many of the pilots have them… big, silver wrist watches in various styles.
Here are the storyboards for Merlin's introduction which make him look kind of like a clown wizard.
And now, LORE! Since the novelization of the movie is based on the shooting script, Merlin appears there as intended with some additional background. He also shows up in the followup Pilgrim Stars and the unpublished final book Pilgrim Truth.
In the movie, the conversation between Blair and Maniac seems to imply that Blair programmed Merlin himself. But the novels establish that Blair's programming genius father created Merlin for him when he was five, just before dying. They also establish that Merlin's appearance is based on a physics professor named Jebiah Omans and that he's particularly special because he has "chips that were manufactured with protein from your father" which as far as I can parse… extremely yuck?
As described in the novels, Merlin is clean shaven with a waist-length gray pony tail. He wears a black tunic and breeches in the novelization, a tan tunic and breeches in Stars and a black silk robe with matching slippers and he smokes meerschaum tobacco pipe in Truth. (The book also says his processor is embedded in Blair's wrist, which seems like a lot to go through for a desktop theme of a wizard.)
Merlin is one of those things that's so weird that everyone wanted to reference him even though they knew he wouldn't be in the film. The Confederation Handbook, for instance, has an ad for PPCs AND mentions in Arnold Blair's obit that he was killed flying a Merlin-class fighter.
... and who knows, maybe there's a Merlin reference or two in later Chris Roberts projects... who could tell?
Well, that's it for Merlin, the holographic clown wizard man Windows theme made of dad proteins who might have made the Wing Commander movie make more sense. Until next time!