It remains one of the first true spellbinding reality shows, a series that took the unusual approach of combining a contest with travel to force one man all the way around the planet. It was the BBC that devised the idea, taking the premise from a classic work of fiction. After three other individuals were approached to helm the project (they all passed), the UK network asked a famous face from one of their classic sketch comedy series to step up and take the reigns. Doing so reluctantly, Michael Palin soon found himself hurtling across the globe as only the finest of pre-airplane travel could provide. His challenge - traverse the distance from London and back in less than three months (eleven weeks, three days to be exact). The seven hour mini-series cataloging the experience would become a major hit, and an eventual worldwide phenomenon. Finally finding a home on Region 1 DVD, Around the World in 80 Days remains a pinnacle of TV production. Not only does it entertain - it inspires!
Made up of seven 50 minute installments, Around the World in 80 Days follows presenter Michael Palin as he leaves The Reform Club in Pall Mall, London, and heads out on a journey to circumnavigate the world, just as Phileas Fogg did in the classic Jules Verne novel of the same name. Each section sees Palin meet with another set of countries, another array of challenges and a wide variety of local characters. There are problems and pleasures along the way, the trip always in doubt as the modern world battles back against a traveler looking to see the Earth the old fashioned way.
Episode 1 - The Challenge:
Taking the original Orient Express, Palin finds lots of luxury, and a few first week headaches, as a strike forces his train to stop well before its point of arrival in Venice. When he finally hits the fabled Italian city, he spends a morning on a garbage boat, policing the canal's pollution.
Episode 2 - Arabian Frights
After making it to Cairo, and then Alexandria, Palin discovers his lengthy delays have cost him his passage from Saudi Arabia to Dubai. With all hope looking lost, permission from the Saudi government to drive across the country is miraculously granted.
Episode 3 - Ancient Mariners
Arriving in Dubai, Palin procures passage to India on a small shuttlecraft known as a dhow. For eight days and seven nights, our host sails the Persian Gulf and across the Indian Ocean, his tiny vessel making its seven knots per hour voyage with determination and true ship board hospitality.
Episode 4 - A Close Shave
Exhausted, Palin prepares for the next leg of his journey and another cross-country train trip by taking in some of the sights in Bombay. He then travels to Madras, where he's allowed to join the crew of a Yugoslavian freighter in order to arrive, on time, in Singapore.
Episode 5 - Oriental Express
Barely making his connection, Palin is off to Hong Kong. There, he meets up with an old friend who agrees to act as his guide through the Far East. The duo feast on a rare delicacy - snake meat - and then head deeper into China, and eventually, Shanghai.
Episode 6 - Far East and Farther East
With the end in sight, Palin travels from China to Japan, and then takes a bullet train to Tokyo. There, he indulges in sushi, karaoke, and a night in a capsule hotel. Then it's off on another massive freighter, this time crossing the Pacific - and the International Date Line - before arriving in the USA.
Episode 7 - Dateline to Deadline
By train, balloon, dogsled and motor coach, Palin soon fines himself in New York City. Having missed his original boat, he barely makes it to another ship before it sails. Eight days later, he lands in Britain. But the question becomes, did he make it in time. Did he really travel Around the World in 80 Days?
Can it really be twenty years since Michael Palin, that famous member of the seminal British comedy troupe Monty Python's Flying Circus, bested Jules Verne and his fictional character Phileas Fogg to try and travel around the world in 80 days? Is it possible that almost two decades have passed since the amateur explorer with a sly sense of exploration actually attempted what many felt was logistically impossible? In a time of technological transition, where portable phones were still a luxury and the Internet was just a peer to peer protocol reserved for scientists and universities, this energetic Englishman, filled with the spirit of adventure and the spark of the unknown, took to circumnavigating the globe without the benefit of airplanes or other modern modes of transport that did not exist when Verne wrote his book. Relying on boats, the benevolence of complete strangers, and a bravery unknown to most modern day voyagers, Palin made the gigantic expanse of the Earth with its many differing cultures and communities seem simultaneously vast and very, very small. He discovered what most of us now take for granted - that outside the language barrier, the differing belief systems, the wildly divergent political ideologies and the occasional traps of tradition, people are basically the same. They live their lives within the specific situations presented to them, and have a natural curiosity and hunger for humanity that outdistances the varying social stances.
Like his other travelogue spectaculars, Around the World in 80 Days is a total and incontrovertible triumph. It's a masterpiece of presentation, a skilled compilation of experience, knowledge and incidents. It is capable of being appreciated on dozens of differing levels - as a gorgeous overview of the planet's many vistas, as a record of a particular time and locale for the people and places involved, a lesson in tolerance and "good" tourism, and a potpourri of intriguing customs and ethnicity. Palin approaches each element here with an earnestness and a desire that dwarves your standard TV presenter. He goes into this concept with eyes and mind wide open, capable of spending eight days in the Indian Ocean on a small, old school fishing vessel (known as a 'dhow') or enjoying the luxuries of the original Orient Express or America's Amtrak system. He illustrates perfectly how the world has been forever changed by air travel, similar to how old highways like Route 66 fell away once the interstate came along. Countries that once prospered as ports are now merely commercial shipping stations for large, impersonal enterprises. Yet for many, especially in the area around India and China, water remains the thoroughfare of choice. The images of the ocean, constantly moving and ebbing, light glinting off the caps in gleaming golden shimmers, are some of 80 Days most memorable - and meaningful - moments.
So are the times when Palin plays stranger in a strange land. India remains hard for him, the colonial specter of the British Raj following him from place to place. He has a particularly difficult time dealing with beggars. He claims a kind of practical application for his discomfort (you can't help them all) but one suspects a little guilt guiding his UK consciousness. Similarly, this is a world pre-Hong Kong's return to China, where 9/11 and the War on Terror have yet to transform the international community. For a white man wandering the Middle East, for a Londoner traveling the upper portions of the Pacific Rim, 80 Days paints a far too cheery portrait. Indeed, one of the more disheartening things about this sensational series is how optimistic and hopeful it seems. Palin doesn't pretend to be an ambassador for the West, but he does make a clear-cut case for recognition as the first step to understanding. By meeting his dhow boat captain on his own terms, by breaking bread with the crew and sharing their experience, Palin proves that acknowledgement and appreciation can do more to forward the cause of peace than policy and détente. Though some will look at the antiquated stance of a planet only 19 years removed from our own, gaze upon the landscape of exotic locations and friendly faces and think that everything is just a pre-planned BBC ruse, the fact remains that Around the World in 80 Days is a television landmark. It doesn't deserve taunting. Instead, it should be treasured by anyone with a well-worn wanderlust, but the practical inability to realize such a sentiment. It is truly a work of vicarious voyage art.
Filmed on the fly, using natural light and the most convenient cameras available, Around the World in 80 Days remains a true visual feast. Sure, the 1.33:1 full screen image has some sequences of considered grain, and there is a flatness to most of the visuals that illustrates the low budget nature of the production (the BBC would only allow Palin four personnel - two directors and two tech people - on his journey), but this does not take away from the show's stellar style. Brilliantly edited to combine the best both visually and statistically, this may not match Himalaya or Sahara for optical grandeur. But it's still the best home movie travelogue ever made.
Sonically, the series remains stuck in its Dolby Digital Mono origins. There has been no attempt to remaster the soundtrack, and the lack of modern reconfiguration is really missed. In particular, the sensational score by Paddy Kingsland is not well served by the single speaker dynamic. Combining joyful jaunts with moments of ambient excellence, it's an aural achievement that deserves much better treatment. Well, at least the conversations and narration are consistently clear.
Sadly, the only bonus feature offered here is a 19 minute interview with Palin that seems to be taken from the Region 2 release of the title. In this friendly Q&A, a much older explorer discusses his original misgivings about the project, the times when he thought the journey was truly over, and how his adventures on the dhow changed both himself and the series itself. It makes for a nice little wrap-up. But with a show as significant as Around the World in 80 Days, a much more content driven presentation would have been preferred. The DVD package of Himalaya had bonus material, introductions and outtakes. This is basically bare bones, with the supplementary sit down a nice little surprise.
It's impossible to put into words how magnificent and moving a series like Around the World in 80 Days truly is. What could have been a casual jaunt around the globe, running commentary provided by a man as disconnected with the process as we are at home, ended up turning into a landmark look at how people and the planet clash and co-exist. Not from an ideological or interpersonal perspective, but from a purely natural and local ideal. The world is a vast, volatile place, portrayed by the media as constantly on the verge of collapse/confrontation. Palin proved that, at least back in 1988, East and West, Left and Right, we weren't so different after all. While deserving to be considered among the site's Collector's Edition titles, this DVD box set just misses that mark thanks to a lack of additional bonus features. Still, it's a sensational series that more than deserves a rating of Highly Recommended. And the best part of 80 Days legacy? It allowed Palin to pursue other adventures, resulting in the equally enthralling Pole to Pole, Full Circle and Sahara/Himalaya projects. Without this instrumental experiment in travel TV, our planetary perspective and appreciation would indeed be diminished.
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