It’s nearly 2011, which means it has been almost 20 years since Michael Palin began filming his outstanding travel documentary series Pole to Pole. Filmed in 1991 and released in 1992, Pole to Pole follows Palin on his quest to travel from the North Pole to the South pole in under 6 months.
Palin’s rules are simple: stay as close to 30 degrees longitude as possible (to maximize the amount of land and different countries he travels through), abstain from air travel except when absolutely necessary, and learn a few basic phrases to get him through each country he travels through. So, how well has this 8-episode travel documentary aged? And what can this snapshot of life in Europe and Africa 20 years ago teach us about travel, political unrest, and the dangers inherent in international travel? I sat down recently to watch the entire series, and here are some of my thoughts.
The quality of the show itself was quite good for the early 90s, but watching the series on an HDTV is decidedly underwhelming for today’s viewers. There were many times I was watching an episode and wishing fervently that I could bask in the gorgeous vistas onscreen in glorious 1080p. That being said, the show is well-shot, expertly framed, and doesn’t suffer overly from the low picture quality. Despite the decidedly VHS-quality of the picture, Palin’s dry wit shines through with perfect clarity.
Palin travels through the USSR at a very interesting period: just days after he leaves the borders of Ukraine and enters Turkey, the entire Soviet system begins to collapse. The scene where Palin attempts to purchase a bottle of vodka really gives one the sense of what old Russia was like. Later in his journey, he travels through South Africa, where apartheid was abolished just a handful of months before. The series captures the atmosphere of two distant countries that are both under a great deal of internal stress and turmoil, and it’s astonishing to think that more things did not go wrong when Palin was within the borders of those countries.
The Role of Technology
To today’s viewer, the most astonishing part of Palin’s journey isn’t the sheer distance that he traveled, but rather the fact that he traveled all of it without the aid of email, a GPS, or any of the other luxuries travelers today could not do without. His traveling thermometer makes many onscreen appearances, and seems charmingly out-of-date. It’s completely astonishing that he makes most of his hotel and travel arrangements on the day that he arrives at a new city or country. It’s inspiring to think that for thousands of years, this was the way we were forced to travel, and it makes me want to try a “tech-free travel plan” sometime soon.
All in all, the program has aged fairly well. True, the picture quality leaves something to be desired in terms of color saturation and resolution, but with the 20 year anniversary just around the corner, perhaps a Bluray version of the series is in the works. Palin’s dry wit, intense curiosity, and fearless nature make this a must-watch documentary, even decades after it originally aired.
The world has changed a lot in 20 years, but the characteristics of a great travel story have not. Pole to Pole is still a great series that should not be missed if you love travel, history, or the comedic stylings of Monty Python. Palin’s glee, frustrations, and boundless enthusiasm make watching this 5 1/2 month journey a must-see piece of TV history.