TVNZ's Gallipoli drama When We Go to War gets off to an uneven melodramatic start in its debut double episode.

After the earnestness of most every other Gallipoli and World War I screen production of recent months, it was time for some light relief.

Or that's how it seemed with When We Go To War's debut double episode tonight

Here, any viewer battle fatigue was to be revived with the smelling salts of melodrama, laced with an astringent whiff of sociology.

And any thought that WWGTW was just going to be yet another retelling of the Anzac legend - like Gallipoli, the epic, well-meaning but largely unwatched Australian production - soon evaporated with its opening episode, which featured two sex scenes in the first 10 minutes.


Neither were very sexy. Though they did show the costume department had gone to some trouble to get those post-Edwardian undergarments just right.

Well that's what $5.9 million of On Air Platinum Fund money buys you, complete with obviously digitally rendered wideshots of old Auckland complete with smoking chimneys and later, Anzac Cove, complete with smoking artillery.

Oh, it also gets an ensemble cast who delivered decidedly mixed performances in an uneven double episode - a strangely jarring scene-setter set mostly on the homefront followed by a decent second half taking place mostly at Gallipoli.

The programme had come about with TVNZ wanting a drama to mark the occasion and "tell our story".

Up stepped drama writers-creators Gavin Strawhan, Briar Grace-Smith, Rachel Lang with director Peter Burger -- fresh from his fine non-fiction WWI telemovie Field Punishment No.1 - and producer Robin Scholes. Add various historical consultants and you've got quite a panel with a very big brief.

The result certainly feels designed by committee.

The episodes are based on letters - cue voice-overs - from one character to another with the device leaving space for flashbacks to life before the war, which is all connected to the shopkeeping Smith family of Auckland.

In the case of part one, that was feisty proto-feminist nurse Bea Smith (Esther Stephens) who we meet dealing with a flood of Kiwi Gallipoli casualties at a military hospital in Alexandria (where she was heard shouting about "gurneys", a relatively modern American word, to the stretcher bearers).

Among the mayhem, she finds that in the same hospital is Aussie Dr William Chambers (Tom O'Sullivan) who, we learn in those flashbacks was her lecturer in gross anatomy back when she was at Otago Medical School trying to become a doctor.

Because she had been shagging the handsome but charmless Doc Chambers and caused a scandal she had been busted back to nurse then off to war.

Much of the first episode involved Bea telling William where to go repeated times then, finding him in Alexandria, instantly looking like she was reconsidering her options.

Which is one of the jarring things about When We Go To War. Two episodes in and already any character integrity seems to have been left badly wounded.

Take Bea's younger troublesome brother Harry (Milo Cawthorne).

One minute, the black sheep of the family is down the local opium den with his leftie mates refusing to fight for the Empire in between boffing the married barmaid.

Next he's enlisted and charging up a ridge at Gallipoli.

Or how about one of the show's two main Maori characters, Manaaki Kokiri (Alexander Tarrant)?

One minute he's turned up in the big smoke looking for his sister, saying his tribal land has been stolen -- plenty of tribes said no to WWI enlistment because of that -- and thumping the Bible's "thou shalt not kill" clauses. But after some mad melodrama with his actress sister (Shavaughn Ruakere) and her French film director (Eh? Whole other story. Not quite sure what it's doing in this one), he's sharpshooting at Johnny Turk.

That Manaaki is serving alongside Harry does raise some questions. Maori did join up and weren't all in the Native Contingent which landed a few months into the campaign.

There was a famous Maori sniper Hami Grace who died at Chunuk Bair. But he was too-good-to-be-true hero material. It seems he's become part of a composite character here.

Actually WWGTW has its own hero-in-the-making. Oldest brother Charles Smith (Ido Drent) is a native land court lawyer so speaks fluent te reo and takes a benevolent interest in Manaaki.

He's also a dashing officer in the territorials so soon off to the Dardenelles. That's with the blessing of his excruciatingly prim fiancee Violet (Sophia Huybens), the daughter of Sir Henry Penrose.

The garden party for their engagement involved a spot of class warfare between drunkard pinko Harry and Violet's brother, who exclaimed: "The bounder hit me!" in one of the debut episode's better outbursts of amateur dramatics.

Scenes like that showed that WWGTW is at pains to remind us that yes, we were once more British than the British. But that yes, not everyone supported our foray into WWI and there were sex and drugs and bad behaviour in those days too.

Problem is, the series feels so heavy-handed in its characterisations and contrived in its plotting, that it's going to be hard to care when the next character starts reading out another letter.

It might be a drama designed to tell a Gallipoli-centric version of "our story". But to do that, WWGTW feels like it's telling stories about no-one in particular.

Meeting them all last night, you couldn't help but think, it's going to have its work cut out sustaining viewer interest and it's already feeling like an opportunity wasted.