Where David Tennant goes, avid fans will follow. It’s a fact that’s been true since the Scot’s casting in Doctor Who in 2005, continuing through his appearances in projects like Good Omens and DuckTales, and it’s hard not to think that that thought weighed heavily on the minds of Caleb Ranson and Ashley Pharoah, the creators behind PBS Masterpiece’s Around the World in 80 Days. The television adaptation of one of the greatest adventure novels ever written — and already renewed for a second season — is another chance for the star to strut his stuff as an awkward but endearing Englishman, though not without its fair share of missteps.
Around the World in 80 Days picks up as most adaptations of the classic Jules Verne novel do: with Phileas Fogg (Tennant), a refined English gentleman with a rather distracting mustache, lounging at London’s Reform Club with his equally refined (and equally stuffy) compatriots. When the idea of traveling around the world in a mere eighty days comes up, it sparks a debate that morphs quickly into a wager, with Fogg betting £20,000 that he can achieve the feat and setting off with new valet Passepartout (Ibrahim Koma), who is, in reality, a waiter escaping life as a rebel in France.
The series adds a new face in the form of Abigail ‘Fix’ Fortescue (Leonie Benesch), a journalist who just so happens to be the daughter of one of Fogg’s Reform Club associates, and chooses to follow him and Passepartout around the world. She borrows her pen-name — her mother’s maiden name — from a character nixed from the original novel’s story, Inspector Fix, and instead serves as a lens through which the world can see Fogg’s adventures. She is, for the most part, an attempt to even out the overtly male cast of Verne’s novel, but is a welcome and pleasant addition, along with stand-out guest stars Lindsay Duncan and Victoria Smurfit.
80 Days is — as most projects that feature Tennant are — relatively harmless. The fourth attempt at bringing Verne’s classic story to the screen, and the second attempt for television, is the same kind of story typical of Masterpiece projects, of stuffy Englishmen and women who must learn to be emotionally vulnerable in order to live a successful life. The trio’s adventures — through France, Italy, India, and even Hong Kong — are lush and beautiful as any Downton Abbey set (though occasionally troubled by subpar CGI) and hinge primarily on the idea of faith: in oneself, in others, and primarily, in Fogg, who has none for himself due to a troubling and mysterious past.
It’s difficult for Benesch and Koma to live up to the standard set by Tennant, who strays very close to playing another multiverse variant of The Doctor, but their performances are earnest, if not always likable. (Though sequences where Abigail is excited to see her articles in print hit particularly close to home for this writer.) The series’ itinerary remains mostly faithful to the book and assigning each episode a new location serves the television format well, keeping audiences on their toes and not getting bogged down too much in the personality of a particular time or place.
Unfortunately, no matter what exotic location its travelers wander to, Around the World in 80 Days cannot escape the colonialism its source material is rooted in. While its stars are self-aware of the kind of product they’re creating — Tennant called the series a “story about an England that should elicit very little sympathy” to the Radio Times — and the story itself attempts to self-correct, replacing questionable or outright xenophobic sequences from the novel, the final product still stings of another time. A sequence of “rescuing” an Indian widow from her village from the novel turns into saving a young man from death after deserting the British army, and at one point, Fogg stands up to an undesirable American southerner, but the white savior aspect still remains. Audiences are reminded that, despite an earnest, “We Are the World”-esque attempt to show that human beings are inherently good, 80 Days is still a story that is mostly out of date — and not just because we’ve invented airplanes.
There’s also the troubling issue of Fogg’s mysterious past, a thing created to lend credence to his “stuffy Englishman” persona, but really only creates a hollow tragedy to garner sympathy in the face of said aforementioned colonialism. The same issue arises with the budding relationship between Passepartout and Abigail, as well as the series of side plots dealing with Fogg’s Reform Club mates Bellamy (Peter Sullivan) and Fortescue (Jason Watkins): they feel like a kind of emotional manipulation, rather than an earnest commentary or important piece of character development. While we at Collider are all for a good emotional monologue, we also agree that they have to be earned, with groundwork that 80 Days does not have time to lay in its frantic journey around the world.
In turn, this means that Masterpiece’s adaptation of the Verne classic adds almost nothing significant to the story of Phileas Fogg and his companions. It remains firmly within the limits set by the novel in 1872, turning a journey around the world from an adventure into unknown lands to a stroll along a well-trodden footpath. It is an expansion that does not exceed the constraints of the original tale and perhaps even flounders under the weight of attempting to tell every aspect of Verne’s story and then some.
Around the World in 80 Days premieres on PBS on January 2.