How do you look at colonial history through a 2018 lens in such a way that it is respectful but also contextual to wounds that have been covered up for years?
For starters you hire an independent voice to dive in, eyes wide open. Sure, celebrity travelogues are everywhere, each one stamped with the personality of their tour guide. Few have the gravitas of one Sam Neill. You also hire gifted filmmakers who can juggle the drama, the politics and the armchair travel pictures.
The Pacific: In the Wake of Captain Cook with Sam Neill does all this for the History channel. As soon as you hear the mellifluous tones of your host you know you are in for a treat.
Neill is humble in his introduction, acknowledging he is no historian but rather “Just an actor.” Across this six part series he wants to see for himself what achievements and impact Cook had via his Pacific treks and how islander lives were changed “for better or worse.”
The British Empire, once distinguished on world maps by the pink-coloured countries, brought “law, order and above all cricket” to a long line of countries, he wryly observes. But Cook’s adventure in 1769 would also bring misadventure to some…
Neill boards a ship freighter -no business class here- for his first destination, Tahiti.
The documentary by directors Sally Aitken and Kriv Stenders avoids genre re-enactments. In modern day Tahiti, Neill plays tourist (including in tropical shirt) during a local festival, with various scenes of cultural dancing and canoe racing. But he also speaks with historians to grasp the cultural divide between what Europeans would have encountered and what such mean to Tahitians.
A visit to local a marae temple underlines the importance of sacred sites. Neill details Cook’s encounters, from bartering, the exotic local women, to theft of ship’s stock, a desertion of crew and the role of botanist Joseph Banks.
Cook’s mission to observe Venus to determine longitude was at the centre of the voyage. The role of Tahitian navigator Tupaia, who travelled with the Endeavour ship, is also a crucial part of this South Pacific story.
But it’s the personal perspective that helps Essential Media’s doco stand tall. Neill tells us his own family and descendants have Maori / Polynesian ancestry. Filling in the chapters of this vast story has a deeper purpose.
It goes without saying that the scenery is inviting, whether aqua blue seas or aerial shots of green mountains rising from the deep.
And while few conclusions are drawn in judgement of Cook, you know Neill is quietly gathering all the necessary information to give some context at series end.
The Pacific: In the Wake of Captain Cook with Sam Neill airs 7:30pm Monday on History.