What seems like a not-necessary idea actually turns into a pretty good one with “Around the World in Eighty Days,” adapting Jules Verne’s novel into an eight-episode Masterpiece series, one already renewed for another voyage. David Tennant plays the unlikely adventurer Phileas Fogg, in a slick retelling that significantly updates and expands the story.
Naturally there’s a ticking clock (and a terrific score approximating that by Hans Zimmer and Christian Lundberg) as Fogg undertakes his global trek in the 1870s, in an impulsive response to a challenge from Bellamy (Peter Sullivan), an oily member of Fogg’s snooty club secretly in desperate need of winning their high-stakes wager.
Where this “Eighty Days” stands out, however, is in Fogg’s companions. His not-really-a-valet French aide Passepartout (Ibrahim Koma), who, in need of a job, lies to secure the gig; and an ambitious young journalist, Abigail Fortescue (Leonie Benesch), who are both generally more resourceful than the starched English gentleman they’re accompanying.
The greater latitude and time enhances the travel aspects (after movie versions, featuring David Niven and Jackie Chan, in 1956 and 2004, respectively), while introducing more detailed backgrounds and relationships among the central trio fleshes out the characters.
The individual episodes have an anthological quality, from encounters in Paris, Italy and India to the American West following the Civil War, teasing out the daring escapes while confronting issues like race and colonialism.
Developed by Ashley Pharoah (“Life on Mars”), this international co-production manages to bring a revised spin to Fogg’s role as a bored rich guy, embellish Passepartout into much more than a humble servant and still make the former a sympathetic figure. That’s thanks in large part to Tennant, a versatile actor whose busy TV schedule has cast him as everything from a demon (“Good Omens”) to Doctor Who.
“You’ve undertaken this great journey and you don’t even know why,” Fogg is told by one of the people he encounters, an observation that eventually leads to some uncomfortable soul-searching about his life and motives.
Granted, eight hours of “Eighty Days” is a bit too much, but ultimately the series not only answers the “why” of doing a TV version but cleverly plants seeds for another season, as improbable as that sounds given the premise.
All in all, not a bad day’s (or 80 days) work.
“Around the World in Eighty Days” premieres January 2 at 8 p.m. ET on PBS.