In the UK: Five, Mondays, 9pm
Last week, I looked at Making Waves, a now-cancelled ITV drama series designed, in part, to educate the great British public about the Royal Navy and its vital role in the world. It's now grown on me so much that I've gone to the ridiculous lengths of VideoBoxing it, stapling all the individual parts together with QuickTime Pro, fixing the aspect ratios, then exporting it to my iPod so I can watch it on the go.
But by bizarre freaky coincidence, there's a new series on Five – which is why I overlooked it – that is almost the exact same show but done as a documentary.
Let's compare and contrast, so we can decide which one we'd rather watch.
As you may recall, Making Waves followed the crew of the fictional frigate HMS Suffolk while they prepared it for sea trials, prior to being deployed in the Caribbean. Warship, by contrast, follows the crew of the real-life aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious as they prepare it for sea trials, prior to being deployed in the Mediterranean.
Pretty similar, hey?
So similar in fact that we can use Warship to check up on the authenticity of Making Waves. And weirdly enough, Making Waves turns out to be quite realistic. Take away the illegal immigrants, smuggling, etc, make allowances for the greater size of 'Lusty' compared with the Suffolk and the fact it's an aircraft carrier, not a frigate, and you've got more or less the same show – without the likes of Alex Ferns and Joanna Page, of course.
Which is odd.
Of course, once you've taken out all those exciting unrealistic plots designed to liven a drama, you have to put something back in. With Warship, you get Dexter Fletcher's commentary and the people who do the hoovering. No kidding, if you ever wanted to know just who cleans the toilets, does the ironing, sorts the rubbish et al on board a flagship Royal Navy aircraft carrier, Warship is the show for you.
Obviously, Five has been learning from shows such as Heathrow that what people really want from a documentary is the little things in life, rather than the really, really dead exciting stuff.
What you also get from Warship is a slightly scattergun approach to storytelling and an appreciation for how times may have changed but the Navy still remembers the past – and just how underfunded the Navy is.
The first episode jumps about all over the place as the Illustrious is loaded up in Portsmouth. From Captain to XO to junior officers to ratings, 30 seconds to a minute is all you need before we're off to someone else. It's all a bit much to take in.
After a few false starts caused by the fridges breaking down, we're off to the trials, armed only with brave sailors, PowerPoint presentations and management speak. For the benefit of the viewers, when things get complicated, up pop the Most Exciting Schematics Ever! We know they're exciting because they blip and light up and do all sorts of things so we know where the hangars are.
Here again, if you've been watching Making Waves on YouTube like I suggested, you'll be getting an eerie sense of déjà vu during the sea trials. From damage control rehearsals to gun tests, it's all the same. There's even mechanical failures of a disturbing kind that afflict the 27-year-old aircraft carrier and the whole thing goes pear-shaped.
However, once the trials are over in part two, the Illustrious gets to head off to Malta and thence towards Suez (tonight's episode). If you hadn't already appreciated how similar the activities and protocols of the modern Navy are to their early 19th century counterparts (the Captain's privileges are similarly interesting, right down to being able to have his own Land Rover on board), Malta drives home just how much the Navy remembers the past, The bombings of Malta by the Luftwaffe are commemorated, the people of Malta thanked for their help during the Second World War and wreaths laid for the crew of the former Illustrious.
You also get an idea of how much the Navy values its sailors. If you're busy worrying about Prince William using his RAF helicopter as his own private taxi service, you'll be shocked at the use of Navy helicopters to ferry one lucky rating off to an inter-force football match in England – and then back again.
On the whole though, while it's great to have a series like this, it's a little too ADHD to make much of an impact or truly be educational. You get the feeling that in the hands of the BBC, something far superior, more focused and more engrossing would have come out the other end. At the moment, Making Waves is by far the more preferable choice, but from tonight, you'll be looking at what Making Waves series two could have been. In a sense, I can't wait; in another, I'd rather have had series two.
Here's a YouTube clip from the first episode that explains everything.
- June 5, 2008: Today's Joanna Page: To The Ends of the Earth
Period naval drama in To The Ends of the Earth