There's no denying it - Michael Palin changed the face (and attitude) of TV travel programming forever. It's one of those unusual ideas that just should not have worked - a retired sketch comedian, part of a now mythic broadcast classic, stepping into shoes no one knew he owed (or enjoyed). But not only did he succeed, he practically reinventing the reality genre. Now, some seven series later, Palin has traversed the globe, gone from one end of the planet to the other, explored the Sahara and the Himalayans, and followed in the footsteps of Hemingway and traversed a post-millennial New European. One of his most unusual journeys consisted to circumnavigating the Pacific Rim, going Full Circle around the Earth, if you will. Now finally available in a Region 1 release from the BBC, this brilliant showcase suggests no one does the seemingly impossible better than this personable ex-Python.
Packaged onto three discs, the ten 50 minute installments that make up this series are jam-packed with all kinds of visual and locational pleasures. Specifically, we are treated to the following countries and adventures:
Episode One: Alaska/Russia:
Palin begins in the Inuit town of Little Diomede Island, Alaska before heading across the Baring Straits and into Russia. There, he visits an active volcano, and an old Soviet gulag.
Episode Two: Japan/Korea
While in the Asian island nation, Palin meets up with his Number One Japanese fan. She shows him the sights, while a trip to South Korea ends at the daunting DMZ.
Episode Three: China
Having visited the country many times before, Palin picks out unusual points of reference, including a trek to the Three Gorges Dam, and a visit with the isolated Miao peoples.
Episode Four: Vietnam/Philippines
While in Hanoi, he takes in a cricket match. In Saigon, he checks out the Forbidden Purple Kingdom. In the Philippines, it's all psychic surgery and cockfights.
Episode Five: Malaysia/Indonesia
First on the schedule is a journey to a Malaysian orangutan sanctuary, followed by a powwow with the Iban - until recently practicing headhunters. Later, he climbs Mt. Bromo and gets stranded in Java.
Episode Six: Australia/New Zealand
Downunder ends up being a series of animal sanctuaries, Outback adventures, and a soap opera cameo. In the land of the Kiwis, it's a combination of Maoris and outdoor activities.
Episode Seven: Chile/Bolivia
Beginning at Cape Horn, Palin makes his way up South America. Along the way he visits an island once associated with witches, a memorial for victims of the 1973 coup, and a copper mine.
Episode Eight: Bolivia/Peru
Many famed locations are part of this stop: Lake Titicaca; Machu Picchu, and Palin's favorite place in all the world, the Pongo de Mainique canyon.
Episode Nine: Peru/Columbia
Among the many festivals he finds, Palin ends up watching an inter-village football match. After traversing part of the Amazon, he winds up in Bogotá, the most violent capital in the Western Hemisphere.
Episode Ten: Mexico/Western USA/Canada/Alaska
In Mexico, it's a lucha libre showcase. In America, it's a trip through a smog filled LA and San Francisco's Castro District. In Canada, it's a logging carnival. And in Alaska, it's...
By this time in his travels, 52 year old Michael Palin had seen much of the globe. He had traversed the world in a literary record of 79 days (beating Phileas Fogg by a mere 24 hours) and plotted the planet pole to pole. But even after all these seemingly endless journeys, he had seen little of Asia and the Americas. It wasn't on purpose, but a matter of previous itinerary plotting. In order to fulfill his needs as an explorer, some sovereign limitations kept him clear of certain locales. What better way then to correct this problem than by traversing the entire Pacific Rim, from Russia around and down across Antarctica and back up to Alaska, all in a year's time. Thus began the epic adventure Full Circle, a 50K mile trek that would remind everyone who watched why Palin stands as a singular travel host. Inordinately curious, resoundingly humble, and capable of drawing the viewer into his own amazed frame of reference, he remains the original constituent of the Lonely Planet Club, one of the medium's few infallible guides.
Much of Full Circle will feel familiar, especially for anyone who followed Palin's previous excursions. Clearly, popularity plays a part in all his efforts, but there is also a real insight into the concept of travel and tourism. When he enters a region, Palin purposely tries to get the feel of the place, to remove the commercial aspect and go directly for the cultural. Whether it's a visit to a former prison camp or a local wrestling match, our host always strives to uncover the secret significances involved. He wants to be part of the proceedings, learning the local folksongs or participating in a state-sponsored stage production. Certainly, some of these events seem like stunts, purposefully arranged to show off Palin's primary function as an actor and comedian. But Full Circle, just like almost all his other worldwide outings, drops the stranger in a strange land conceit for something far more charming - an global gourmet drinking in the various geographical banquets the planet has to offer.
And what amazing dishes they are this time around. Unlike a similar minded traveler like Tony Bourdain, Palin doesn't sample - he splurges. Installments Seven through Nine take him through some of the most amazing vistas ever captured on film. The southern most aspects of South America represent the Earth at its most primal, and pretty, and Full Circle showcases all of it. So are the portions filmed in New Zealand, though Peter Jackson's visit to Tolkein territory also proved this out. Elsewhere, Vietnam is welcomed into the world after decades as a closed off thorn in the US's side, while in Indonesia, he takes in a traditional shadow puppet show. Perhaps the best aspect of Full Circle is how therapeutic and relaxing it is. Most vacations are stressed out exercises in maximizing leisure while minimizing outside interference. The usual result is typically more anxiety than before the journey began. With Palin, even the problems seem passive, handled with a kind of evenhanded resolve by some one quite used to thinking on his feet. While the notion of watching the same man basically repeat the approach that earned him accolades before might sound dull, Full Circle is far from boring. It reminds you why, sometimes, reality TV is superior to its fictional counterpart.
The 1.33:1 full screen image is excellent, if a little too made-for-television, if you understand such a 'medium shot' suggestion. Unlike later adventures which would take on a more anamorphic look (thanks to being filmed and presented in a 16x9 format), Full Circle constantly reminds you of its broadcast beginnings. Some of the camerawork is a bit wonky, and we do suffer through a few too many man on the street sequences. Still, this is an amazing travelogue from a visual standpoint, and the DVD does a good job of preserving said approach.
Sadly, the sound is no great shakes. It's just Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo delivered in the most mundane way possible. Everything is even and mired in the midrange, while Palin's conversations and voiceover narration are always crystal clear - and in the end, that's what's most important.
Perhaps the best part of what is otherwise a stellar series is the wonderful added content provided for this set. All found on the final disc, we are treated to an insightful half hour interview with Palin in which he discusses the many problems faced by the production - none more crucial than the discovery of his wife's need for emergency surgery while on his way to Australia. Taking a few days off during his journey to be by her side, it's just one of many issues to come up during the trip. Even better are nearly 60 minutes of deleted scenes, each covering a specific country or set-up. One of the best bits comes at the end, when Palin sits down with fellow funnyman Eric Idle as the two share some specific Python memories over a few martinis. It brings the entire enterprise back to its BBC roots.
Nothing beats crossing the continents from the comfort of your laziest lounge chair, and when you toss in the proverbial wit of Michael Palin, something like Full Circle can do little except succeed. While not as inherently compelling as Around the World in 80 Days, or global goal oriented as Pole to Pole, it's still an essentially flawless examination of the many competing cultures sharing the power and abundance of the Pacific. It deserves every facet of such a Highly Recommended rating, and just misses out on a DVD Talk Collector's Series score by the smallest of margins. Oddly enough, Full Circle would be followed up by one of Palin's few missteps, an otherwise unique look at the world of writer Ernest Hemingway which offered more shtick than scenery. But here is where the real adventurer lies - in his element, and completely (un)comfortable - exactly how we like it.