- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Will Harris
hough not quite a British institution on the level of “Doctor Who” or “Eastenders,” “Top Gear” has been floating around the BBC in one form or another since the 1970s. In recent years, however, the series was somewhat reinvented, changing to a far cheekier tone, and it’s a change that’s made it into a show about cars that isn’t strictly aimed toward those who think of themselves as “car people.”
“Top Gear” is now in its tenth season, but it’s finally made enough headway in the States – thanks, of course, to the ever-brilliant BBC America – to warrant a DVD release of an entire season. After you’ve watched the set, however, you may find yourself inspired to petition the network to start delving into the vaults and releasing the nine previous seasons of the show. It’s quite addictive, you see. It approaches the whole fast-cars-are-awesome concept without taking it too seriously, which is often the problem with American coverage of NASCAR and whatnot. Hosts Jeremy Clarkson (a staple on the show since its original inception), Richard Hammond, and James May go out on various tracks and test-drive new vehicles – occasionally aided by the mysterious test driver known only as The Stig – and that’s all fine and well, but it’s when they venture forth into the real world that things really begin to take off.
Sometimes it’s a challenge, other times it’s a race, but you don’t have to be a car enthusiast to find yourself enthralled by the concept of making a truck into a seafaring vehicle and attempting to cross the English Channel. It’s ridiculous, but they take it completely seriously, and with their very real reactions to the situations combined with some wonderfully dramatic music, you can’t take your eyes off the proceedings. This season, there’s also a challenge where the guys are sent to Botswana to buy a car for less than 1,500 pounds that was not an off-road vehicle and had only two-wheel drive, which they would drive across the country; it makes up an entire episode, but it’s must-see TV, to be sure. Even the guys’ attempt to prove that British Leyland made some good cars, which would seem to be impossible to appreciate if you know nothing about the company or its vehicles (and I didn’t), will translate surprisingly well to anyone who’s been tempted to, say, test the endurance of their Pinto or Gremlin. The most fun, however, may be the attempt to see which is the quickest way to get across London: boat, bike, public transit, or car. Even The Stig gets into the competition, and for a show about cars, the end result may surprise you.
Ultimately, however, the most enjoyable bit about the show is the segment entitled “Star in a Reasonably Priced Car,” where celebrities outside the world of car racing are invited to take a drive on the show’s racetrack. During the course of Season Ten, we’re privy to the driving abilities of Dame Helen Mirren, Jools Holland, David Tennant, James Blunt, Ronnie Wood, and Simon Cowell. It’s great fun, particularly when you see the rivalries which exist between various celebs. In particular, Tennant takes great pains to accuse Clarkson of having gone soft on his “Doctor Who” co-star, Billie Piper, because she batted her eyelids at him. (“To be fair, Jeremy, I’ve seen it, and she clearly drove a track that she made up.”) In the end, Clarkson admits his leniency came about more because of the see-through shirt Piper was wearing. Fair enough, then.
Here’s the deal: I’m not a car guy and I don’t get any thrill out of racing, but I was moving from episode to episode without a moment’s hesitation. “Top Gear” is top-notch television, entertaining even to those who have no interest in the subject at hand. That’s impressive stuff, right there.
Special Features: None in the traditional sense, although based on the way it’s trumpeted on the front cover, we’re apparently supposed to be very excited that they’ve taken great pains to include “The Botswana Special” within the set. And yet, since that’s really just another episode, albeit with a different structure from the norm, it’s not really a bonus as much as it is something that should’ve been included all along. Boo, hiss, etcetera.