Merlin. The name evokes a wizened old man with a long, white Gandalfian beard, leaning on a gnarly old staff.

You can say goodbye to that tired old cliche, says Chris Chibnall, cocreator of Starz's smart, character-driven drama Camelot, which premieres Friday at 10 p.m.

A gritty blood-, mud-, and sex-soaked take on the Arthurian legends, the series stars a hyperactive Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) as the wizard of yore.

"The first thing I said was no beard, no cloak, no staff," says Chibnall, who developed the show with Tudors creator Michael Hirst.

"This isn't Harry Potter land." Indeed.

Fiennes' iteration of the wizard is lean and mean. He's Merlin as punk rocker.

Topped with an aerodynamically shaved pate, Fiennes chews up the scenery whenever he bounds on screen.

The FlashForward star says he had a blast with Merlin, who also has a puckish side.

"I play him as a sort of cross between Donald Rumsfeld and Obi-Wan Kenobi," he says, laughing.

"He and Arthur are like Luke and Obi-Wan. Like Charlie and Willy Wonka."

Fiennes' complex characterization is one of a number of devices Chibnall uses to distance Camelot from past screen incarnations of Arthur, which include the Richard Harris-Vanessa Redgrave musical, Disney's 1963 animated classic, and John Boorman's lush, fantastical 1981 masterpiece, Excalibur.

"As a Brit you are steeped in the Arthurian legends and it's just one of those things that define us," Chibnall says from his home in London. "This is a chance to . . . tell it for a new generation."

Set in the sixth century amid the political chaos into which Britain was plunged after the fall of the Roman Empire, Camelot is squarely situated in the Middle Ages - with all its darkness, death, and disease.

Executed with an impressive cinematic sweep and a brilliant cast, which includes Eva Green, James Purefoy, and Claire Forlani, Camelot takes a lesson from Syfy's BBC-produced family show, Merlin, by focusing on the infancy of the Camelot legend.

It opens with the murder of King Uther by his wayward daughter, Morgan (Green in an exquisitely sinful, lusty note). Banished from the realm as a child, she usurps the throne with the help of Uther's enemy, King Lot (played with delicious bloodlust by Rome's Purefoy).

Merlin derails her plot by plucking Uther's long-lost son, Arthur (a very pretty Jamie Campbell Bower), from his adopted home and installing him on the throne.

Fiennes says his Merlin isn't a wizened philosopher, but a "warrior-monk" who has no scruples about manipulating Arthur.

"He's sort of of a Machiavellian operator," Fiennes, 40, says from his home in Spain.

"I tried to make him a political thug who uses his acerbic wit and his guile" to achieve his political ends.

"I wouldn't be surprised if Merlin didn't have 17 other young kings waiting in the wings . . . in case Arthur doesn't work out."

Chibnall hopes the character resonates with today's viewers, living, as we do, "in the age of spin doctors, advisers, and special counsels."

Camelot's naturalism extends to its handling of magic, which is presented as an outgrowth of pagan religious rites. Morgan and Merlin's magic, Chibnall says, "is born from the elements. It's created from the forces of earth and water, wind and fire."

Magic here also is a dangerous proposition, Fiennes adds. It's a dark art that can take over and imprison the magician.

"It's rather like a horrific Class-A drug that you get hooked on," says Fiennes. "It has a . . . spiritual cost."

Merlin hides his magic, while his nemesis, Morgan, uses hers. In an early scene, Fiennes is kidnapped by Morgan and chained to her bed. Unmoved by her threats, he tries to reason with her, begging her to save herself from magic's dark hold.

The sorcerers' encounter is oddly erotic, but Fiennes insists that his Merlin "is more asexual than anything."

The same can't be said of Arthur - or his adulterous lover Guinevere, played by Tamsin Egerton. Sex scenes abound. Some critics suggest there's too much of it about.

"Guinevere is a torn woman," says Egerton, who was 11 when she played Morgan in the Arthurian film The Mists of Avalon. "She's betrothed to her childhood sweetheart and wants to be a good wife. . . . But unfortunately - or fortunately - she falls head over heels in love and in lust with Arthur."

Egerton, 22, says she never felt the sex scenes in Camelot were gratuitous. "Sexuality is a big part of the Arthurian legends," she says. Guinevere "pays for her mistake."

Chibnall is riled at the idea that Camelot sensationalizes sex at the cost of story.

"This is a story predicated on sex. Let's be honest about that," he says. For one thing, he explains, Arthur was conceived when Uther raped Queen Igraine (Forlani) while disguised as her husband.

Chibnall says the show tries to show how sex always has been used as a tool of power.

Power, and its dangers, is the overriding theme of the Starz show, says Chibnall, who adds he was deeply inspired by the political elements in Thomas Malory's 15th-century masterpiece, Le Morte d'Arthur.

Malory, Fiennes notes, wrote his cycle of stories while he was a political prisoner. The book "is his critique of the foundations of power," the actor says, "of how power can be used in the name of good."

Merlin, Fiennes says, is in a precarious position: He's a ruthless power broker, yet he works to realize "a new vision of chivalry and justice."

Adds Fiennes, "At the core of everything stands the threat of corruption."

This more than anything is the enduring legacy of the Arthurian myths - the hope that a just society can be realized. "Every leader promises hope," Chibnall says.

"It's such an abstract promise and such a wonderful, powerful promise. But how to you deliver it? That is the question."

Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or