Sunday 18 February 2024

Masters of the Air

Apple TV+ is increasingly likened to HBO and not without merit. The Cupertino-based tech titan's streaming service is home to prestige television from For All Mankind to Silo.

Masters of the Air is the latest series from executive producer Steven Spielberg (Jaws). It follows a group of World War II pilots. Unlike Spielberg's sci-fi classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind, these pilots aren't abducted by benevolent aliens and returned home decades later to a fanfare from legendary Hollywood composer John Williams (Star Wars).

Nick Smith, our US-based stellar scribe, is on a break from monster hunting and takes to the skies.

Guest post by Nick Smith

After reminding us that war is hell in Band of Brothers (2001) and The Pacific (2010), Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have bankrolled a new nine-part World War II miniseries called Masters of the Air. This time the story is set in Norfolkshire, where bombers set off on daring raids to destroy Nazi targets.

With a reported average budget of $27 million per episode, you’d better believe this show looks grand and glossy, with fraught air combat sequences, painstaking attention to detail, and squadrons of proficient actors, including Austin Butler (who acted his blue suede shoes off in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis) and James Murray (Primeval). The greatest challenge, for the storytellers and the viewers, is to keep score of all the characters, with dozens sacrificing their lives in the line of duty.

Part One is a slow burn with an ensemble of seemingly insipid non-entities. The ending is strangely low-key, a common issue in our era of binge TV (thanks to Netflix). Stick around for the second episode, though, and the show hits high gear. The characters become more engaging and their bravery is brought to light (they fly during the day instead of bombing at night, to make sure they only hit military sites). The insanity of war is highlighted, along with the skill required to operate gremlin-gummed analogue equipment, and the heart-breaking youth of the crewmen – one is called Babyface, to hammer the point home.

By Part Four, we’re in ‘Allo ‘Allo territory with airmen hiding in occupied territory, aided by the Resistance. This allows writer John Orloff to bring wilful female characters into the show, while back in England more lives are lost and the ethical weight of war hangs heavy on the survivors.

Based on a book by historian Donald L. Miller, Masters of the Air caught the flak of development hell in 2013. Six years later, Apple took the series from the reluctant grasp of HBO, which released the first two minis. In 2021 filming finally began, only to be stalled by a different kind of threat – the COVID kind. All this turbulence shows in some loose narrative rivets, but the effects are better than most recent CGI-heavy air battles (shame on you, Red Tails) and the central characters rise from a herd of pretty boys to engage the audience.

Standouts include Lt. Harry Crosby, played by Irish actor Anthony Boyle; Lt. Curtis Biddick, portrayed by Barry Keoghan who is also from Ireland; and Lt. Roy Frank Claytor, played by Spielberg’s son Sawyer. The opening credits tease the appearance of Ncuti Gatwa (Doctor Who), who will undoubtedly bring a breath of fresh air to the show with his brash personality.

The dogfights are tense and the cockpit action is thrilling, reminiscent of the Star Wars space battles they inspired. The in-flight entertainment is filmed using virtual production, with LED screens standing in for the unfriendly skies.

Masters of the Air has a long way to go to match the grit and power of Band of Brothers. The new series looks too pristine, an issue with modern drama series. In the early episodes, the lack of strong female roles is a side effect of focusing on the B-17 boys. For another perspective on World War II heroism, I recommend Big Finish’s audio series ATA Girl. The 100th Group bombers were not the only aces in the war.

Are you watching Masters of the Air on Apple TV+? Let me know in the comments below.

Nick Smith's new audiobook, Undead on Arrival, is available from Amazon (affiliate link).

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