This article contains mild spoilers for the first five episodes of Around The World in 80 Days.

While Jules Vernes’ classic novel Around The World In 80 Days has long been celebrated for its depiction of adventure, many have criticized the novel for glorifying the British Empire’s racism and imperialism. Even if audiences have never read the book, Phileas Fogg, Passepartout, and Abigail Fix’s journey across the Middle East and Asia still holds this historical and social context. While the series hinges on Britain’s imperialism facilitating travel between distant places, there are some attempts to tone down the worst parts of Verne’s narrative. Many of the most racist sections of the book have been replaced in the process of adaptation. However, no series is perfect, and some ideas which may seem harmless to white audiences are potentially offensive to BIPOC who have to live with the legacies of racism and imperialism. This article explores in chronological order the ups and downs of how the series has approached the subject.

The decision to color-consciously cast Ibrahim Koma as Passepartout the butler is overall one of the greatest strengths of Around The World In 80 Days. Black French people are so frequently erased from period dramas from this era that Koma’s casting made this series a breath of fresh air. Seeing white characters mispronounce Passepartout’s name or treat him unequally compared to Fogg and Fix shows that the series is committed to realistic re-creation of how people would have treated the travelers in 1872. His experience of traveling the world is more relatable to audiences who didn’t see themselves reflected in earlier adaptations. However, even the best-intentioned white screenwriters may not realize that subconscious bias could be informing their decision-making, because they don't have the lived experience of racism.

A good example of well-intentioned screenwriting and cinematography choices ending up with unfortunate consequences during this season is Passepartout's reunion with his brother Gerard in Paris during Episode 1. This subplot served to reveal Passepartout’s desire to run away from his turbulent past which was not described in the original novel in great detail. However, Gerard’s slow-motion shooting was a rare example of insensitive cinematography on a MASTERPIECE series. Even though historically protesters were shot during the social upheaval around the Paris Commune the year before the story is set, this scene takes on a different and more disturbing modern-day context when it is a Black man being shot. Black viewers are constantly reminded in the news media about George Floyd’s murder and other racially motivated violence. It will be hard for some viewers of color to separate the history of 1872 from now, especially as Around The World In 80 Days is billed as an escapist drama, as opposed to a show like The Long Song where violence during slavery is the main plot point. Long-time PBS fans also pointed out how troubling and potentially traumatic to Black audiences viewing Gerard’s murder was. Doctor Who is another UK series that has received similar criticism from Black critics for repeatedly depicting Black characters experiencing bodily violence despite making great strides to reverse the harm of older episodes with racist plots. The portrayal of violence against Black characters isn’t a new problem in UK productions, but that doesn’t excuse it or make it easier for Black audiences to watch. This is why it’s so important to have Black creatives and other creatives of color behind the camera to offer workarounds to avoid repeating the same problems.

Passepartout’s experience on the Italian train in Episode 2 was less pleasant than Fix and Fogg’s. However, race and class-based discrimination in travel and accommodations was a real concern for people in 1872. Most people of color, regardless of nationality, were relegated to third class or steerage class on boats. One can argue that in fact, Passepartout ended up with the better part of the bargain as the garlic spread and poker games with the train crew were better than dealing with Angelo’s annoying father!

Episode 3, which starts in Port Said, Egypt, is another good example of mixed messaging on race and imperialism. Around The World In 80 Days struggles to unpack Verne’s version of orientalism, the notion that the British and other European powers were superior to the cultures of the Middle East and North Africa. Orientalism was first theorized by Edward Said and many experts have added to the conversation in the years since Said first published his findings. On the one hand, the episode bringing Jane Digby out of the historical shadows and highlighting her rejection of the racism and classism of British society was a positive thing. The real life journalists that Bernard Fortescue represents attacked her in the British press for having an interracial relationship. In fact, the real truth goes a lot further than the episode. In a recent biography, it is revealed that Digby and Sheik Medjuel el Mezrab were married under Islamic law. The portrayal of Digby’s life and the possibilities it helps Fix see for herself was very well done.

On the other hand, Fogg and his fellow travelers crossing into the Empty Quarter presents a racially problematic message. Why was that area “forbidden territory”? The episode implies that the band of attackers was motivated purely by evil. However, there is just as compelling an argument from viewers of color that the episode downplays the tribe’s motivation to protect their territory from unwanted British or other European interference. Indigenous groups often relied on harsh climates as an insurance plan for territorial sovereignty. Unfortunately, advantages in technology during this era eroded this protection. The plot line could have especially benefited from the input of Middle Easterners either in the writer’s room or as historical experts, as the balance between cleaning up Verne and adding modern perspectives leaned too far in the direction of perpetuating negative stereotypes in Episode 3.

Episode 4, featuring the trek across India, has made praiseworthy changes to the book. The episode continues the Beecham House tradition of presenting the cultures of India and avoiding many of the negative stereotypes around religious and cultural traditions. Aouda’s story in the novel promoted many unacceptable and historically inaccurate ideas around Hinduism which needed to be removed, and earlier adaptations exaggerated these problems by having white actors in brownface playing Indian people. Some may mourn the loss of Aouda following Fogg and Passepartout into America but the series morphing Abigail Fix into a permanent part of the journey helps fix the lack of a woman’s perspective.

Aouda’s line about the “British looking for new places to plant tea” undermines some Victorian-era mythology about the Empire’s lofty goals of conquering the wilderness. Economics, not a sense of adventure, was at the heart of many decisions about British involvement in India according to the British Asian historian and journalist Sathnam Sanghera. His book Empireland is an extremely helpful guide for those who want to know more about how British imperialism shaped the United Kingdom today.

However, the episode’s decision to position young Arjan’s plight as one of romantic desire in order to reveal Fogg’s long-lost love storyline unfortunately results in shifting the audience focus away from questioning how disruptive the British Army was to ordinary Indians. UK viewers of color also noted that the episode still catered to “benevolent imperialism” despite the adaptations efforts. Others also pointed out Fix’s sari was incorrectly draped in this episode and the following one, which some may dismiss as a minor mistake, but costumes from non-European cultures can easily cause offense if incorrect.

Episode 5’s conflict with Fogg accessing cash flow in Hong Kong is the most effective edit to the original novel as far as directly questioning racism and imperialism goes. In general, the history of Hong Kong and the other British colonies in Southeast and East Asia is a woefully unexplored topic in UK period dramas. The most recent example, The Singapore Grip, which was created by the same production company that made World on Fire, Poldark, and Endeavour with MASTERPIECE, can’t be seen by American period drama fans for weird international rights reasons. The White Dragon pendant storyline mirrors The Singapore Grip’s open mocking and confrontation of British imperialistic hubris. Lady Clemency’s pendant, stolen from Jiang Liei’s ancestral resting place, is nowhere in Verne’s novel. However, there is plenty of evidence from history that the agents of the British Empire and the British military engaged in grave robbing and the theft of jewelry, artwork, clothing, and other cultural artifacts from deposed indigenous leaders and the populace. In Empireland, Sanghera recounts the story of Western troops ransacking the Imperial Summer Palace in Peking for similar items to the White Dragon only 12 years before Around The World In 80 Days takes place. Hong Kong and China are far from the only cases. For example, Benin recently sent The British Museum formal notice that they want the bronze statues stolen from their country 123 years ago back.

Some may argue this call out of historical bad behavior depended on negative tropes around crime and Black men since Passepartout “steals” the White Dragon pendant (and also accepts the bribe from Kneedling to derail Fogg’s trip). However, his decisions are driven by PTSD, and in his previous career, survival in a hostile racial caste system. Sometimes tropes have to be used in order to call out ridiculous situations or to subvert expectations. In fact, the audience reaction proves most people thought it was a good thing that Passepartout assisted in the repatriation of the White Dragon.

The mixed track record for this adaptation of Around The World In 80 Days on racism and imperialism illustrates that while UK period dramas are attempting to undo the wrongs of the past, there are some systemic issues that future productions should consider in the planning and development stages. Perfectionism isn’t humanly possible, but at the same time, there is room for a nuanced discussion of these issues. Hiring historical experts of color, sensitivity readers, and focus groups for scripts, and ultimately producing series written by screenwriters of color, will go a long way towards fully balancing storytelling with an eye towards avoiding glorifying historical racism and perpetuating modern-day racist stereotypes.