Phileas Fogg (David Tennant), Passepartout (Ibrahim Koma), and Abigail Fix (Leonie Benesch) in Around the World in 80 Days (Credit: BBC / Slim 80 Days / Federation Entertainment / Peu Communications / ZDF / Be-Films (RTBF))
Around the World in 80 Days is an uncomplicated but confident adaptation of the original Jules Verne novel, one that answers the question “is it worth doing this again?” with a resounding “yes, if you do it this well.”
It starts with a wager in a private club, as this story always does: Phileas Fogg (David Tennant) bets another member of the Reform Club that it’s possible to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days, and then sets out to prove it. He’s joined by Passepartout (Ibrahim Koma), a waiter looking for a quick way out of London but doesn’t expect the journey to last much longer than that, as well as Abigail ‘Fix’ Fortescue (Leonie Benesch), a journalist determined to carve out a name for herself and thinks that chronicling Fogg’s travels is the best way to do that.
Their voyage takes them from France to India to America, and it’s easy to appreciate Around the World in 80 Days’ episodic format. With a new location and guest cast each week, and a sense that the characters are developing and changing with each new situation they find themselves in, it’s a welcome reprieve from the “eight-hour movie” format that’s increasingly dominating television. (It’s not difficult to imagine, say, a Netflix adaptation of the Jules Verne novel that ends rather than begins with Fogg setting out on his voyage.) Around the World in 80 Days is a television series that knows it’s a television series, one that both understands and is able to take advantage of the strengths of its medium – it sounds like a simple thing to remark on but it’s not, and it adds to that sense of this show as being a particularly confidently made piece.
Of course, the globetrotting journey is buoyed by an impressive production too: directors Steve Barron, Brian Kelly, and the late Charles Beeson make the most of the international filming (the series was shot in Romania and South Africa, amongst other places) to keep the series looking and feeling stylish. There’s a sense as well that they spent a lot of money on this series, and that you’re always seeing it being spent on screen. While the first episode moves quickly, subsequent ones slow down again; once the series has got its leads out of London, it’s much more willing to dwell on each new location for a time.
Really, perhaps the biggest structural flaw is that the series cuts back to the Reform Club in London just a few times too often – it’s an understandable choice, an easy way to contextualise the journey, but it can’t help but puncture the momentum slightly. Equally, though, Around the World in 80 Days makes the sensible choice to cast the always watchable Jason Watkins to anchor those sense, who takes what’s essentially quite a thankless role and keeps it basically engaging.
Comparisons to Doctor Who are to be expected, of course – they’re obvious, but equally, they’re also fair. It’s not just a result of casting David Tennant, but a mark of how influential Verne’s original novel was: Tennant is playing exactly the sort of Edwardian adventurer archetype that Doctor Who was originally inspired by, in effect representing something of a full-circle moment for the actor. (The influence runs in both directions, admittedly – there’s aspects of Around the World in 80 Days that feel borrowed from the first Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who, not least the celebrity historical written by Stephen Greenhorn – but that’s no bad thing.)
But Tennant’s performance here is really only superficially similar to his Doctor, playing Fogg as much more insecure, more self-conscious and prone to second-guessing himself, certainly not a born adventurer. Fogg is easily frightened and quick to turn inwards; gradually the series alludes to a reason for this, suggesting not so much a tragic backstory but a profound loss that stopped him in his tracks, wasting the last twenty years leading a life of moribund privilege. He’s not so much a Time Lord as he is a man trapped by time, and Around the World in 80 Days sees him try and move beyond that in more ways than one.
Equally if not more impressive though are Ibrahim Koma and Leonie Benesch. Koma does some fantastic work as Passepartout, giving that charming rogue archetype depth and interiority (the third episode in particular is good for Koma), while Benesch as new character Abigail Fix (likely in part inspired by Nellie Bly, a real-life 19th century journalist who took Jules Verne’s novel as a challenge and completed the journey in 72 days) is a really consistently charming screen presence. The dynamic between them really works, and Around the World in 80 Days takes its character drama seriously – the question isn’t so much will they complete their journey (likely even if you haven’t read it, you know the answer), but how the journey will change them, and the series does invest in the idea that if they return to London, it’ll be as different people.
Ultimately, it’s a piece of television that really works. It’s perhaps not the paean to openness it’s been advertised as – there’s a danger of giving the series, which isn’t exactly critical of imperialism so much as it makes the occasional swipe at the British Empire, a little too much credit in that regard – but it is a consistently entertaining piece of drama, anchored by strong lead performances, and well-worth watching as a result.
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