I've just finished watching the first in ITV's big-budget period drama 'Titanic', and 'this programme's a shipwreck' and 'the cast took off after 40 minutes - who can blame them?' jokes aside, the programme was a bit rubbish, despite the strong credits of Julian Fellowes (the series' writer).
The series, predictably, given its title, revolves around the passengers on the doomed Titanic ship, as the boat sets sail leaving behind Southampton for the bright futures of New York city. However, given the importance afforded to History in the British school curriculum, we all know how this story is going to end. There exist countless dramatisations, in all different forms, of the story (the most famous being Cameron's 'Titanic' film of '97) and so each new reissue must bring something new to the table - this didn't. The episode featured a surprisingly weighted 50/50ish split between pre- and post- crash scenes, and Twitter exploded in a furore of 'they've crashed ALREADY? The iceberg has ALREADY APPEARED?'
However, given the 'Next time on the Titanic' trailer (and a cheeky stalk of the Guardian review pages), it seems that each episode will focus on a new set of characters, their experience of the crash, and the stories of everybody will come to a head in episode four. This is all well and good, but I don't think this style works on an episodic level anyway. To rush through twenty back stories in as many minutes, to make way for dubious CGI-heavy 'money shots for the adverts' seems contradictory to the essence of good storytelling. If this was going to be a story about 'the crashing of the Titanic', as opposed to the entire saga, then why bother setting up your characters in such a linear way anyway? The entire pacing of the episode seemed out of place, and it seems this went into production because it is 'THE TITANIC' and an anniversary of the sinking, not because of a necessarily strong script.
This is not to say the episode was unwatchable - it wasn't. But what made it passable for me is the strong grounding our culture has in the stories of the Titanic. The drama and tension of the situation came from a pre-existing idea of the terror that would be the Titanic's sinking - I didn't feel this came to me from the programme itself. Production values were high - for a British TV show, they were rather good - but that means nothing if viewers don't care who lives or who dies. Any fear we, the viewer, had for the ourselves was intrinsic fear of the Titanic itself, none coming from this Titanic, and as the characters had been brushed over so deftly in the initial twenty minutes of the script, there was little angst over their fates.
Julian Fellowes is the current ITV cash-cow (a post previously held by Ant and Dec, Parkinson and Nikki Chapman) and if 'Titanic' has taught them one thing, I hope it's that you should never give your star free reign to do whatever the hell they like. There should be meritocracy in commission - and whilst many channels (and many networks - I'm looking at you, Fox) are guilty of such practises, a big name writer does not guarantee a successful show - just look at this episode's hashtag (#Drownton, in case you were wondering) to see what people thought.
I wouldn't say that much of the cast showed many advanced acting skills this episode - the dialogue was very straightforward, and the names of the characters were spoken so quickly I couldn't even get actor names from IMDB if I tried. Given the brevity of the scenes, it felt a little too much like an ensemble cast that vie for attention in which noone had the space to shine. Given the spotlight put upon Jenna-Louise Coleman (recently announced as the Doctor's next companion), there was little evidence upon which to judge her acting abilities, but hopefully these will increase in future episodes as I presume she attends to many different staff we are yet to meet.
Some other problems I had - at least two characters 'couldn't swim'. I don't know much about the pre-WW1 era but surely, if anything, there was more urgence put upon swimming ability at that time? Also, there was little to no mention of who was actually in charge of the boat. There was that mysterious man that 'stayed down below' but everything went too fast to catch his title - and even if this was the captain, there was still little talk of precautions and activity of those in charge - we saw a set of passengers, dying at the hand of absolutely no outside activity except 'that big CGI iceberg' and just accepting their fates without a fight.
What this episode showed me is just how great 'Titanic', the Rose/Jack love story of class and corruption actually is. The disunity of the characters in this episode was just that - disunited, and whilst art can exist to make parallels and connections between differing sides, and suggest a coherence and pattern to life, this just didn't achieve it. The series works as a homage to the Cameron film, a kind of 'what the others were doing' BBC3 companion movie, in that I'm pretending we're on the Winslet boat, and somewhere else, some interesting drama is unfolding - a shame, as the Titanic story is full of great potential. I'm off - I need to book my ticket for Titanic: 3D.