There’s that inevitable moment during a bumpy, if at times entertaining, first episode of the BBC’s lavish new adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne (BBC One, 5:50 p.m.) when Phileas Fogg (David Tennant, more mustache) hovers above the clouds in a balloon.
It’s less a dramatic flourish than the fulfillment of an unspoken contract between the viewer and writer Ashley Pharoah (Life On Mars). Without Fogg in a steampunky airship, would a series have the right to be called Around the World in 80 Days? It would be as if Sherlock Holmes boycotted his violin or Christmas Day EastEnders minus the misery.
We await the modern and abrupt restart in which he crosses the continent by Ryanair, his sanity erodes every time the victory march “landing on time” bursts from the little loudspeakers above his. head.
Yet, so predictable and welcome, the sequence also turns out to be unfaithful to Verne’s 1872 novel, in which Fogg travels around the world by train, boat, and at one point on the back of an elephant – but where he avoids the temptation to travel by plane.
The image of Fogg as a buccaneer balloonist actually dates back to David Niven’s 1956 film, in which the intrepid gadabout discovers the best way to cross the globe in 2.6 months and thus win his bet with the gentlemen of the Reform Club is to break free from gravity. We await the modern, gritty reboot in which he crosses the continent by Ryanair, his sanity eroding every time the victory march ‘landed on time’ bursts from the little speakers above.
But while the new BBC World Tour delves into the clichés we have in our heads about the novel, in other ways it tries to leave Verne in the 19th century. As in the book, Fogg is accompanied on his journey by the French sidekick Passepartout (Ibrahim Koma). But the third intrepid hiker is fiery Daily Telegraph reporter Abigail Fix (Leonie Benesch), who is determined to shatter the glass ceiling as she and her companion soar over the Pyrenees (in the novel Fogg is stalked by a Detective Fix) .
This is where the first two episodes, broadcast back to back on Saint-Etienne’s Day, tick off a very big cliché, with the curious trio in the air and floating towards the horizon. But the journey up to this point has been a little twisty and even a score by Hollywood’s favorite composer Hans Zimmer can’t put it back together.
The pace seriously begins to slow as Fogg and the gang get bogged down on a bewildering detour through revolutionary Paris. As guns explode and protesters chant, they are swept away by Paris Commune riots and a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister
Neither the riots nor the shooting were in the novel. It also doesn’t help that the series was shot in South Africa, so the Parisian scenes look as authentically French as the gas station crescent. And while the script appears to try to make a contemporary take on the political upheaval, it’s unclear exactly how the unrest is supposed to target viewers. Is it a reminder that people who shy each other in public predate the anti-mask loons?
Despite the presence of this iconic balloon, around the world in 80 days is flying as it is supposed to.
Whatever the objective, all the hassle on the Seine has the effect of sucking up some of the pleasure of what should be a frolic at full speed. There are parallels to the BBC’s 2019 War of the Worlds adaptation, which tinkered too extravagantly with HG Wells (adding a second timeline after the Martian apocalypse, for example), so that the history has turned to dust in his hands.
That hasn’t happened with Around the World in 80 Days yet, and Tennant is cleverly channeling some of the eccentricities he picked up while playing Doctor Who in Fogg. But, despite the presence of this iconic balloon, the Around the World in 80 Days also does not fly off as it is supposed to. Six weeks from the end, he could still reach dizzying heights. For now, it remains disappointing on earth.