Acorn Media // 2011 // 176 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // September 15th, 2012
In veterinarian school, James Herriot's professors knew that he was destined for greatness because he had so many midichlorians.
Sorry, wrong prequel.
If you went to veterinarian school in the late 1980s, chances are you were inspired in some degree by the books of James Herriot -- the pen name of James Alfred Wight, who was a vet in rural England. The books, fictionalized versions of his own life, were immensely popular both in England and abroad, spawning both a movie and a long-running BBC series -- both named All Creatures Great and Small. The books appeal rests not just in their delightful account of rural life and rural characters, but also in Herriot's ability to convey the rewarding nature of his job while at the same time making it very clear what a dreadful, even disgusting job it could be at times.
A look at Herriot's school days seems like a natural idea, but while they assembled a good cast and recreated 1930s Glasgow, the writing for the series falls flat in just about every way imaginable. Young James Herriot aired on BBC1. While the first episode pulled in decent ratings, the next two episodes didn't fare nearly as well, so the network pulled the plug. This initial season was only three hourlong episodes, and that's part of the problem right there; there isn't enough time to develop anything properly, and so we get a lot of shortcuts, starting with a veritable rogues' gallery of stock characters:
* Our fresh-faced, apple-cheeked hero? Check. James Herriot (Iain de Caestecker) has just arrived at the prestigious Glasgow Veterinary School. His professors feel he has potential but they are worried because in him they sense much fear -- damnit, did it again.
* Strong-willed young woman determined to break free of the chains of patriarchy? Check. That would be Whirly Tyler (Amy Manson).
* Rich slacker with a heart of gold? Meet Rob McAloon (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), who is never hesitant to use his parent's money to pressure the school administration.
* Noble mentor? Check. Professor Ritchie (Tony Curran, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but we won't hold that against him), always offering encouragement.
* Sullen Potions Master? Check -- No, make that "Sullen Forensic Specialist" -- who dresses in black. He is sullen, though. Conservative to the point of constipation. Always at loggerheads with the aforementioned budding young feminist.
Anyway, you get the idea. While the actors throw themselves into the roles, the writing piles cliché on cliché, primarily because they are trying to do too much in three episodes.
* Episode 1: YJH arrives at vet school. Not only does he get off on a spectacularly wrong foot with his professors, he also finds himself homeless. Whirly butts heads with Professor Gunnell (the aforementioned sullen one).
* Episode 2: A disease threatens a farmer's entire herd. Whirly butts heads with Professor Gunnell.
* Episode 3: YJH must face the wealthy parents of his would-be girlfriend and classmate Jenny (Joanna Vanderham); they turn out to be Hitler-supporting fascists. Whirly butts heads with Professor Gunnell. Oh, and everyone sweats their first-year exam.
You might have noticed a recurring theme. The other recurring theme is that Herriot invariably bungles a given situation, but always prevails. That worked for eight seasons on House, M.D., but it had much better writing. Here, they writers set up an wonderful opportunity by having a professor comment that as an undergraduate, Herriot didn't take any science classes. Now that bit of information sets up two obvious question: How did someone who never took a science class end up wanting to be a vet? Why would a veterinary school accept someone with no science background? The answers to those questions would give much-needed depth to the main character as well as the setting, but the writers whiffed. There's a sense that they rely a bit too much on the good will engendered by the books and the previous Herriot series.
Technically, the disc is lovely. The video is exceptional, letting you fully appreciate the period detail. Audio is simple stereo, but is clear and effective, though what with the various rural accents, don't be surprised if you have to resort to the subtitles. Extras are slight, with a making-of featurette, a photo gallery, and biography of James Herriot.
I'm of two minds on this one. The cast is strong enough that a better-written show would have been delightful, particularly if they could have avoided some of the more tedious plotlines, such as just about everything in the third episode. However, by the third episode, it all falls to pieces. By that point, there's hardly been any real development of James and Jenny's budding romance, so we're hardly invested in it. It's telling that the character with the most depth is Whirly's aunt Elspeth (Natasha Little), in whose home Whirly, Rob, and Young James live.
On the plus side, they didn't cast Hayden Christiansen as Young James. That would have been too much.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 176 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Photo Gallery
* Official Site