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Exploring exotic Indonesia, a 10-year trek relived. Vivid images make TV series a genuine armchair adventure

Ring of Fire: Spice Island Saga PBS, Monday, 8-9 p.m. (check local listings). First of four-film cycle by Lorne and Lawrence Blair, premi`ering second season of ``Adventure.'' It's those telltale glimpses - those quick and vivid images - that make this film so strong.

Like the crude, dark sails of a 100-tonner which swell in the breeze along with your expectations. Or the islanders' hybrid costumes, a startling mix of color and ruffles reflecting the people's brief encounters with Westerners back to the 16th century.

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These exotic minutiae are seen all the time in the four films recording Lorne and Lawrence Blair's 10-year voyage throughout the byways of the Indonesian Archipelago, the world's largest - and arguably least-known - group of islands, where they encounter everything from pirates to pythons.

In footsteps of Alfred Wallace

``We found an old book that would change everything,'' narrator Lorne explains: ``The Malay Archipelago,'' by Alfred Russell Wallace, a 19th-century naturalist, explorer, and pre-Darwinian evolutionist. The Blairs [interviewed at right] decided ``to take ourselves and our camera in Wallace's footsteps'' in hopes of seeing the dancing birds of paradise described by him. It's this challenging and unpredictable quest that forms the opening program, ``Spice Island Saga.''

Among other things, it serves to remind you that outer space is not the only place left for explorers. The islands and peoples seen by the Blairs suggest the earth is still full of adventuring the old-fashioned way - on board shaky boats that poke into areas little seen by outsiders.

There's so much inherent excitement, in fact, that the program probably doesn't need the periodic boosts provided by the script.

``They're still pirates, or traders, or both,'' says narrator Lorne, for instance, as scary music swells in the background. He's talking about the so-called ``Bugis'' who sail throughout the islands, and it is one of this film's many ominous references announcing this is danger; this is the stuff of legend.

Richard Gere, who introduces the program, has the better idea in making his comments so low key they're all but somnolent. It's always hard to tell in a show like this how much of the material is inherently dramatic and how much is made that way through production. You feel Mr. Gere is saying there's no need for hype on his part - the show speaks for itself.

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And so it does. You quickly learn you can count on the unexpected - on being engrossed and sometimes amazed. It's an ancient lure - the wanderer's lust - remarkably re-created here as the technological culture seems to evaporate the farther east the brothers sail.

That's what pulls you along as the first program traces the Blairs' efforts to persuade some skipper to take them to the Aru Islands. On the way they're greeted with beguiling smiles by islanders whose last visit from a white man was in the 1930s. They witness a wedding where the bride wears ugly spectacles ``to appear fashionably glum.'' They're helped by a friendly area boss whom we learn was later hacked to pieces by one of his staff.

Dragons, headhunters, and bird of paradise

In the end the Blairs do see the birds of paradise - looking like fairies from ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' as they do their dramatic mating dance. Wallace called them ``among the most wonderful of all living things,'' and we can believe it.

In the remaining three films, the Blairs meet Komodo dragons and headhunters, and they canoe into uncharted rain forests. This first film was by way of a prelude to all that - but getting there was half the fun.

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