All Aboard! Sleigh Ride might be the strangest, most captivating and beautiful thing you’ll see this Christmas, and I’m including Downton Abbey, which returns for its final hurrah. The show follows two reindeer herders as they journey almost silently across the tundra, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle – and that is all. There is no dialogue or scene change. A wolf does not suddenly leap out of the clearing to savage the reindeer. The herders do not get lost in the snowy, icy abyss. If we’re honest, nothing happens. And yet I could not peel myself away, pausing whenever I got up just so I wouldn’t miss the, um, action.
Sleigh Ride comes off the success of previous slow TV programs like BBC’s All Aboard! The Canal Trip, about gliding along the Kennet and Avon Canal, and Norway’s twelve-hour homage to firewood, which had audiences seriously questioning the proximity of tree bark to fire. These shows fixate their gazes on the mundane for hours at a time and provide little to no commentary on their subject. Which begs the question: why? There are hundreds of more productive things to be doing, especially during the holidays, and that’s probably why Sleigh Ride is so appealing. It gives permission, if you needed it, to step away from the year-end madness, to not have to be always on the go, to basically calm down.
There’s something soothing and cathartic about, in my case, sitting in a cramped studio flat in the middle of Hong Kong and allowing the show’s silence and natural beauty to sweep away the cacophony around me. All you hear is the steady crunch of snow under reindeer hooves and the soft, syncopated tinkling of bells, though the two native Sami herders, bundled in reindeer fur skirts and bright red shawls, occasionally dip into muffled conversation, with each other, with people they meet at various outposts, with a lone ice fisher. The camera lets you ride, or walk, alongside them. It drifts left and right, revealing thin, naked silhouettes of trees and shrubs but also vast expanses of snow that glow under a brilliant lavender sky. Sometimes it hovers just above the ground and other times it draws back, hoping to capture the immensity of the landscape but knowing that it can never truly match what nature creates for itself.
The program has hints of early Lumière films, which turned the quotidian into something fascinating. (A modern day descendent might be the pandacam, equally hypnotic in my opinion.) At times, my mind was carried away in a rhythmic lull, and I found myself awestruck that scenes like this exist on this planet. People really do trek across ice and snow with their reindeer, they clutch torches because the sun barely peaks above the horizon, and every night they rest under the Northern Lights. This isn’t dull; it’s beautiful.
Prod: Luke Korzun Martin
Dir: Justine Evans
Time: 120 min
Country: United Kingdom
Network: BBC Four