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The Arts
October 18-24, 2006

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'To the Ends of the Earth'

What, no shuffleboard: Edmund Talbot (Benedict Cumberbatch, left) and Captain Anderson (Jared Harris) discuss the future of the cruise line industry in 'To the Ends of the Earth.'

Thar She Blows—Chunks

By Michael S. Gant

To the Ends of the Earth
Masterpiece Theatre
Sundays, Oct. 22 and 29 and Nov. 5, at 9pm on PBS stations

IF THE SEA isn't rolling and tumbling enough to drive the passengers of a derelict man-of-war to their barf buckets—again and again in gastroenteric detail in the opening minutes of the new Masterpiece Theatre series To the Ends of the Earth—then it is dripping down the cabin (the word is generous; they are airless hutches) walls in torrents.

How about a visit topside to take the salt air? Don't get drenched by that rogue wave, and whatever you do don't beard the cranky captain on his quarterdeck, where passengers are strictly forbidden. This tale of a voyage from England to Australia in the early 19th century, just after the Napoleonic wars, doesn't exactly evoke the golden age of luxury liners. The creaky ship is either beset by storms or becalmed in an blank, breezeless ocean.

And however bad the first-class passengers have it, the poor devils squeezed into steerage are really suffering, especially when one poor woman starts screaming in labor pains.

The three-parter is based on William (Lord of the Flies) Golding's trilogy, which seems bound and determined to convince us that there is no place like solid land. It makes Master and Commander look like a ferry ride by comparison.

Our uncertain hero is Edmund Talbot (Benedict Cumberbatch—a name straight out of Dickens), a somewhat callow, or at least heedless, aristo headed for a posting in Australia. Talbot lurches figuratively and literally about the pitching and yawing ship, getting into trouble with the persnickety captain (Jared Harris, who looks like Richard Harris because he's got the genes—he's Harris' son), wooing a fellow passenger's overripe daughter, forging an uneasy alliance with the ship's 1st Lieutenant and, most grievously, trying and failing to help a ship's parson (Daniel Evans), who gets on everybody's bad side in a hurry.

Wandering about the edges of the tale is a dour Sam Neill as a contrarian thinker who attacks the pieties of his fellow passengers. With his frown turned down over his wide jowls, Neill looks distressingly like Mr. Toad at sea.

The details of shipboard life are done with admiral (and admiralty) accuracy, especially a fascinating tour of the ship's deepest recesses, where Talbot encounters a group of laughing sailors high on rum and opium. To my eye, the whole show looked to be filmed on a real seagoing vessel without help from CGI.

Too much verisimilitude can be a burden, though, and To the Ends of the Earth seems stuck in the horse latitudes. The mood lurches from comic to sinister, with a long, obscure investigation into a death by buggery in which it is unclear who is to blame. Weirdly enough, the victim lies dead in his cabin for four days, but no one—not even the experienced sailors—has a clue that he is actually, as Monty Python once put it, "ceased to be."

To the Ends of the Earth is certainly more watchable than Masterpiece Theatre's last offering, the insufferably jokey Casanova. However, be warned and take your Dramamine. All three episodes remain at sea. By they time they actually get to Australia, the show will be over.

Here's a comment on Gant's review from a reader who identifies herself as an "olde dame in the hinterlands":

"omigod - what a cynic you are.....yes, CASANOVA was a mess.....but TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH for this watcher was pretty damned good...told me a few things I DIDN'T good that you are so well informed......"

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