Michael Palin: Full Circle

Michael Palin: Full Circle

Journey time: July 1995-June 1996

Countries visited: United States, Russia, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, China, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Canada

Full Circle is by far the most ambitious series Michael Palin ever did for the BBC. Both its length– ten episodes– and its scale make it difficult to summarize, but I’m inclined to say that it’s what Pole to Pole would have been without history on its side.

Motivated perhaps by an effort to showcase the emerging economies of the “Pacific Rim” (perhaps the only phrase more evocative of the 1990s than “In West Philadelphia…”), Palin and his reunited Passepartout– now comprising a crew of six– encircle the Pacific Ocean for an entire year, beginning and ending at Little Diomede Island in Alaska, within sight of the former Soviet Union.

While not without stunning beauty and some great stretches, Full Circle feels incredibly arbitrary. Where Around the World in 80 Days and Pole to Pole never shied away from the gritty details of traveling from one place to the next– indeed, they were the very purpose of making these series– Full Circle frequently omits long stretches altogether. One episode ends with Palin stranded in Indonesia, unable to find a ship willing to take him to Australia; in the next installment, he’s simply in Australia anyway.

From a practical point of view, this is entirely justifiable– at that point in the journey, Palin was alerted that his wife Helen had to undergo treatment for a malignant brain tumor (she recovered)– but the crew’s previous dedication to highlighting surface transport seems to have mutated into a complete disinterest in air travel. Instead, we are transitioned via narration and 3D map, imbuing the unwelcome atmosphere of a cheap educational video.

This philosophy is similarly extended to Palin’s route. One moment, he’s following the Reunification Express in Vietnam, then he’s off the mainland of Asia entirely and wandering around the Philippines. Travel through some countries is portrayed in unsparing detail, while others suffice with jump-cutting from one major city to the next. Polynesia and Central America are skipped entirely. Admittedly, this is an issue with the overall format; if you enjoyed the previous two shows, you’ll find plenty to like here; but you’ll find yourself having to pick and choose.

Five Stars: The full potential of Full Circle comes in bursts, so here are a few choice segments:

  1. Far Eastern Russia: from a helicopter tour of the forbidden Kamchatka to an honorary role in the Russian naval choir, this is a fun, if retrospectively bittersweet, look at a country once more coming into its own, and a side of it that’s rarely seen.
  2. Japan: I didn’t think I or anyone else needed more travel footage of Japan, but it’s pretty spectacular here. Among much else, Palin sits in with Kodo drummers whilst staying in an old-fashioned Ryokan on the island of Sado, bets on horses and eats loach with his biggest fan, and gets humorously rebuffed by a Zen master.
  3. China: in contrast to the previous visit in 80 Days, the People’s Republic of China is about as unflattering as a travelogue could be– yet all the more fascinating for it. Beginning with a heartstopping pan from Shanghai’s old financial district to the construction site of Pudong, and ending with a very rustic encounter with the Miao people in the previously forbidden province of Guizhou, this portrait of China in 1995 is as much an explorer’s journal as a cautionary tale about rising power.
  4. Vietnam: I didn’t have any interest in going to Vietnam before watching this, so there’s that.
  5. South America in general: Just give me a buried barbecue in Chiloe and a boat down the headwaters of the Amazon. The pace of the show slows down considerably for this, and for good reason.

One Star: What is it about America around this time that’s so lifeless and uninteresting? While not as bad as the previous visit in 80 Days, the entire North American segment is a supreme letdown from everything leading up to it.

A question to the readers: should I continue with Hemingway Adventure? And should I stick with Michael Palin before moving on to Big Earth, or go fully chronological?