Probably the best drama series ever produced about the First World War
Tracing the development of the Royal Flying Corps through the experiences of a handful of pilots, this is a surprisingly lavish production with an epic scope that takes in both family life at home and the experiences of the infantry on the ground for whom aircraft always spelled trouble.
The first series focuses on the early days of the war when dogfights took place between pilots armed only with rifles and handguns who would wave to each other after each unsuccessful attempt to kill each other, managing to find a fine balance between the genuine romance and limitations of early flight and its dangers. The aerial scenes aren't that plentiful but are well executed, and there's a good sense of the growing escalation of the war, with the series building up from the paltry basic training to standout frontline episodes like Over the Top, when things start to get nastier and early chivalry gives way to pragmatism.
Best of all, it takes its time to develop characters and situations naturally without ever seeming either rushed or padded out. Tim Woodward's country boy who only gets the chance to actually fly once his 'betters' are killed off at such a rate that the RFC is forced to abandon its gentlemen only attitude to pilots, Michael Cochrane's likable upper class pilot, Nicholas Jones charismatic but increasingly bitter flight commander and John Hallam's war wounded uncle back home might seem at first to be stock characters, but the strong writing makes them credible human beings who don't always act the way stereotypes of their respective classes in this kind of drama. Nor does it always opt for easy stereotypes in the passing parade of supporting characters - far from turning out to be a dead loss, one pompous oaf turns out to be an excellent observer and a superb marksman in the air but resolutely remains an obnoxious pompous oaf who never fits in despite his courage rather than suddenly learning the error of his ways and becoming one of the boys. Instead it manages to accurately portray the attitudes of the day without grafting too modern sensibilities or disillusionment onto its characters: they're convincingly of their time and class even as those times and class distinctions are being worn away by the war.
It's also surprisingly good at the emotional confusion caused by the breakdown in the old class system that happened during the was as the rapid turnover in human lives led to the lines between officer class and other ranks becoming blurred as people were regularly promoted 'beyond their station' for the first time: neither side really knows quite how to handle it, so handle it badly. Emotional partings are similarly awkward, with Tim Woodward's hero all-too-convincingly inarticulate when trying to explain to his fiancé why he broke up with her and failing miserably. The result is a drama that's as compelling on the ground as it is in the air, going beyond its small corner of the conflict to convey a real sense of why the First World War was such a world changing event both at the front and at home in a way few dramas have ever managed before.
Series two sees the war in the air escalating, along with the body count and sense of doom, and the scope of the series shifting. Sadly in the process John Hallam's character is written out after a single episode, the emphasis of the side plots shifting from the Home Front to the German aviators. The result is a very mixed bag of a series. The action scenes are considerably better than the first series, and not just the dogfights - an air raid and its aftermath in Dawn Attack is particularly convincing - and it convincingly raises the stages as the war moves into a stage where anyone can die - and one prominent character does, his plane still circling eerily long after he does - and where generals refer to infantry casualties as 'stuff on the ground.' The relationships shift too as friends fall out and nerves shred, but in the process it increasingly flirts with stock melodrama, presumably in an attempt to chase higher ratings.
Unfortunately it also veers into Boys Own cliché with a little too much of the kind of comic-book heroics the first season scrupulously avoided, what with characters landing behind enemy lines to take out machinegun nests and kidnap German generals. And it doesn't take long for this sporadic move into action series territory to take hold - it's only a couple of episodes in the run when Jones falls in love with a beautiful spy, is captured by Germans and sentenced to death and escapes with absurd ease to take his improbable revenge with even more absurd ease. Things do get back on track the next episode as one major character finally cracks under the strain but there's still a tendency towards melodrama in subsequent plot developments.
Intermittent episodes address the social impact of promoting people who didn't go to the right schools and weren't born with a sense of entitlement to authority (far from going for class war clichés, the episode acknowledges that there was more resentment from the 'lower orders' who preferred to be led by well-bred idiots when one of their own stepped out of his place) or
the opposition - not just from generals but pilots as well - to parachutes, then regarded as an 'invitation to cowardice' as well as the problems of developing new aircraft that won't kill inexperienced pilots after being stuck with planes where the only chance of taking down an enemy is a head-on collision, while the penultimate episode does finally deal with troubled relationship with French allies and civilian casualties. But these aren't enough to change the feeling that it's gone from being a consistently excellent series to a series with some excellent episodes.
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