There's an inevitable sinking feeling that accompanies the arrival of yet another TV or movie project about the Titanic.
It's a story that has been told, and re-told, and re-re-told for a full century, and it's hardly unreasonable for TV viewers to think that scriptwriters, documentarians and directors have examined the tale of the world's worst maritime disaster from every possible angle.
Well, as surprising and unlikely as it sounds, there actually is reason to be hopeful about seeing something new in the ambitious mini-series Titanic: Blood and Steel, which premieres tonight at 9 on CBC. A massive international co-production involving financial and creative input from more than half a dozen countries (including Ireland, Italy, Germany, England, Spain, the U.S. and Canada), this eight-part drama focuses not on the iceberg and the sinking and the aftermath, but on the process of designing and building the White Star Lines' massive "eighth wonder of the world."
And as such, Titanic: Blood and Steel stands on its own as sort of an unofficial and largely fictionalized prequel to pretty much everything else that has been done on the subject of the big ship.
The central figure in the story is Dr. Mark Muir (a fictional character played by Canadian actor Kevin Zegers), a brilliant young metallurgist whose expertise has been instrumental in the construction of British battleships and who, after being introduced by a well-connected friend, is able to convince industrialist and ship-project investor J.P. Morgan (Chris Noth) that his knowledge could play a crucial part in the construction of Titanic.
When Muir arrives at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, he finds an industry and a city in turmoil. Tensions between Protestants and Catholics are simmering, and the arrival of trade-union organizers threatens to turn the already-poisoned relations between workers and management toxic.
Under the watchful eye of the shipyard's chairman, Lord Pirrie (Derek Jacobi), Muir sets about the business of testing the properties of the steel being used to construct Titanic's hull. Of course, he finds problems with the metal's strength; of course, the shipyard's traditionally minded engineers are not receptive to Muir's concerns or suggestions.
When he seeks out copies of Titanic's blueprints, Muir meets a young, attractive copyist named Sofia (Alessandra Mastronardi), whose intelligence and ambition exceed the opportunities available to a working-class woman in the early 20th century. Her encounter with Muir will be life changing on a number of levels.
Meanwhile, as the story unfolds and Muir sets out to explore Belfast's darker corners, it becomes clear that the scientist has a few secrets which, if revealed, could jeopardize his career even faster than his run-ins from old-world thinkers might.
By the time the first instalment ends, Titanic: Blood and Steel has all the makings of a very watchable costume drama. There are some credibility problems that come with building a fact-based story around a completely fictional character, but the series' scriptwriters have -- at least early on -- done a pretty good job of layering storylines and creating relationships that will keep audience interest afloat for several more weeks, at least.
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Titanic: Blood and Steel
Starring Kevin Zegers, Derek Jacobi, Chris Noth, Neve Campbell, Sofia Silvestri, Billy Carter and Massimo Ghini
Tonight at 9
3 1/2 stars out of 5