Pathetic attempts at controversial banter. Celebrity Braincrash. The American and his one joke. Halfway through the first season and the problems with Amazon’s motoring show are clear. The idea of returning to the old Top Gear special format for a two-part special is therefore a smart move from the series, taking the presenting trio away from the studio and out into the place they do their best work: the wild.
Their destination for this epic adventure? Namibia, which Jeremy Clarkson describes as a “beautiful bastard of a country”. His accuracy soon becomes clear, as the three rock up in beach buggies, ordered by Mr. Wilman to prove that the vehicles aren’t a load of rubbish. And so they drive across the desert, from one arbitrary location to another.
Their trek benefit from all the money that Amazon can throw at it: the sand dunes and bursts of water are jaw-dropping stuff, with a wide-screen scale that often begs belief. It’s a tough landscape that proves harsh and unwelcoming: the longer the men spend in it, the more the country seems to fight back, gradually damaging and dismantling their self-made buggies. It’s an age-old narrative – man vs. the cruelty of nature – but this time, it’s one with cars. Shots of them piling down steep cliffs are exhilarating, while a moment featuring a gargantuan washed-up ship is like something out of Mad Max or Star Wars. This makes the opening episode extravaganza look like a child’s toy set.
So far, so incredible. The problem is that this goes on for two parts – and there isn’t quite enough epic television to fill that expanse. It’s an understandable decision by Amazon, which bases half of its Top Gear reboot’s appeal on being bigger and better than the Beeb’s original, but it’s one that isn’t always backed up by the show’s writers and producers: we spend half of this first half driving in one direction, then another, as the trio get lost in a darkening alien environment. Three middle-aged men losing their way at night? It’s as thrilling as it sounds, any sense of jeopardy slightly undermined by the memory that that there’s a production crew on hand with them. Part two, meanwhile, take a large diversion into the topic of rhino conversation, except the segment isn’t really about rhinos (an important subject that really could be the basis of an interesting episode) and is more about shooting Richard Hammond with a tranquiliser and tying him to a helicopter. (Although, after his stupid comments about ice cream and gays in Episode 6, nobody’s going to complain about that.)
Along the way, Wilman’s supposed challenge and goals become redundant and uninteresting, something that could have been tackled by simply chopping these two halves together into a shorter whole. The longer runtime only give us more time to reflect upon the relatively dull nature of their vehicles, which are stripped down from Volkswagen Beetles (yes, Clarkson takes the opportunity to wheel out every German joke you’d expect). There’s some satisfaction to be had in seeing three petrol-heads chat about customising and building their contraptions, but even with Clarkson’s purple and green paint job, plus a V8 engine stuck up its rear, the end products aren’t all that exciting.
The result is an ambitious, gorgeous reminder that Clarkson, Hammond and May are better when they blend motor journalism with travelogues – and that, even away from their troubling studio banter and tired scripted gags, they still need someone to stop things becoming too self-indulgent. As the new year begins, and we all make resolutions to become less bloated after the Christmas holidays, here’s hoping the second half of The Grand Tour has learned from the missteps of the first, now matter how unlikely that may seem.
The Grand Tour is available exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription – or as part of £79 annual Amazon Prime membership. New episodes arrive at 00.01GMT every Friday for 12 weeks, starting 18th November 2016. For more on how to watch The Ground Tour, click here.