Judge Joel Pearce once went around the world in 80 days. That plane was really, really late.
The original Michael Palin adventure. A global journey against the clock.
Long before globetrotting reality television became popular, the BBC sent ex-Pythoner Michael Palin on an epic—almost literary—adventure. He was to follow the footsteps of Phineas Fogg from Around the World in 80 Days, using no air travel whatsoever. It was an audacious idea at the time, and the result offers up thoughtful commentary on travel, as well as some great entertainment.
Normally, the phrase "travel documentary" doesn't bring chills of excitement to the average television viewer. But, with the idea to select a host as amiable as Michael Palin (even if he was the fourth person they asked) and a concept that would maintain a steady level of suspense and challenge, the BBC had a winner on their hands. The premise is fascinating and challenging enough that it might actually be impossible. But there's a lot more to the series than that. Travel is dead, you see, at least true travel. We can get anywhere in the world within a day now, but Palin points out that air travel doesn't really let us see anything of the journey. We simply see airports.
By taking up the challenge, Palin gets to experience travel for real. He not only circumnavigates the globe, but he also gets to experience much of that space. We get to experience it too, through him, and the results are exceptional. Palin is the perfect host, maintaining a perfect balance between humor, humility, and thoughtfulness. There is rarely a dull moment as we take this journey, but Palin also successfully fights the urge to grandstand or become the main focus of the documentary. He makes interesting insights into the places he visits, which gives us a snapshot of numerous countries. He insists on diving into real culture as much as possible, refusing to spend his time heading to usual tourist destinations. In Venice, he travels with a garbage boat for a day. He works as a deckhand on one of the ships. He gets a shave from an Indian street barber. While we don't need to see another run through the Seven Wonders of the World, Palin's instincts always take him to the people, which is far more interesting for us.
It's also interesting to return to Around the World in 80 Days 20 years after it was made. Many things have changed since then, and a number of Palin's comments prove to be more relevant now than they were when he said them. He talks about what would happen when the people of China decided to trade in their bicycles for cars, which is quickly starting to happen. He takes a look at Hong Kong ten years before it went back to China. Now, we look at Hong Kong ten years after that return. The trek through the Middle East is fascinating, especially considering how situations have changed there through the intervening years. This makes it not only an experience of geography, but also one of history. If the same documentary was created now, each of the stops would be completely different.
The documentary style is almost transparent. Occasionally, we are reminded that the camera crew has to be present, but it's easy to get lost in the experience of travel most of the time. The scenery itself is stunning and shockingly varied. From the train ride through the Rocky Mountains to the crowded Indian cities, it's only the ocean views that ever get repetitive. Still, these often can be different. The sea is a living entity, one that changes travel in a way that the air rarely does. Although Palin experiences a lot of trouble and frustration over the journey, the documentary is ultimately successful in the best way. I want to circumnavigate the globe myself now. I'd rather not try in 80 days, but it would be a pleasure to travel by train and sea, soaking up the culture and the scenery. I'd love to be forced to get used to the slower pace of sea travel, away from the world for weeks at a time.
Technically, BBC has assembled a strong package for this 20-year-old series. The video transfer is acceptable, though it does look like old British tape. The sound is remarkably clear, and it's easy to understand all of the dialogue, even when it comes to heavy accents. The sole extra is an interview with Palin, who reflects on his first travel adventure. He's done others since then, and I can see how this journey would put the travel bug in him. He's a remarkably personable man, and he has a knack for drawing out interesting conversations with everyone he comes across. He loves the culture, the language, and the people, and all of it shows.
Around the World in 80 Days, in the end, becomes an attempt to reclaim travel for travelers. By eliminating air travel, Palin is forced to experience what we have lost sight of over the past 50 years: the frustrations of sea travel, the slow journey by train, life living at the mercy of the weather and the sea. He makes it seem so pleasant, though, even when it's not. It also gives us some insight into geography and history as well, brilliantly capturing the essence of a number of countries as they existed 20 years ago. Whether you are a fan of reality television, travel, or learning about the world, Around the World in 80 Days is a fine disc to add to your collection.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Interview with Michael Palin
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