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Prepare for takeoff

Masters of the Air is a visually impressive aerial WW2 adventure with the potential to go far

Band of Brothers fans aren’t like Trekkies or Whovians. You won’t find us on Twitter discussing alternate timelines and obscure alien races. We’re not even like fans of The Wire, pressing the boxsets into the hands of friends and reassuring them it’s fine to use the subtitles. But we’re out there, and our passion is as fierce as any sci-fi fandom.

For a few weeks in the winter of 2001, as American forces once again went into action in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, we could follow the true story of a previous unit of US paratroopers making their way from training to Normandy to Berchtesgaden. We were gripped, and we remain obsessed. To us, Carentan and Bastogne aren’t just places on a map, they’re episodes of one of the all-time great TV shows.

All of which explains why, when we hear that the creators are making a new WW2 series about another small team of men, some of us experience a nervous thrill. Our hopes are high, but we’re also braced for disappointment.

The pilots are young and handsome, the planes feel like they’re flying, and the missions feel authentically terrifying

Masters of the Air, launching this week on Apple TV+, is the story of the 100th Bomb Group, which earned its nickname of “The Bloody Hundredth” for the battering it took flying missions over occupied Europe from Norfolk. The story, in the early episodes, is told from the perspective of two of its senior pilots, the confusingly-named Buck and Bucky. They, and we, are thrown into the deep end, learning quickly how frightening  daylight bombing raids could be not simply for the people on the ground but for the people actually dropping the bombs.

It’s one of the mysteries of special effects that filmmakers have struggled to make flight look convincing without, as Top Gun: Maverick did, using real planes. Something about the quality of high definition TV serves to make computer-generated planes just look fake. So it’s with relief that, in the early episodes at least, Masters of the Air seems, mostly, to have pulled it off.

It’s helped by centring the action inside the B-17s as the nervous crews try to reach their targets without being torn apart by anti-aircraft fire or the waves of enemy fighters that appear and disappear in a flash. Despite the bold claim of their name, the Fortresses feel very vulnerable, as indeed they were.

If the aerial scenes work well, what remains to be seen is whether the human stories on the ground can deliver the emotional punch. It helped Band of Brothers that many of its subjects were still alive. Each episode began with a pensioner talking about his memories. Twenty years later, that is presumably no longer an option.

Neither, in an age of streaming, will this show be able to command the same audience that its older sibling did in the five-channel age. Does anyone under 40 even care about WW2?

Still, the pilots are young and handsome, the planes feel like they’re flying, and the missions feel authentically terrifying. This one may yet take off.

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