Top Gear's troubles in episode four are out of character
It failed on a more basic level than we've seen all season.
After last week's success, I expected a little hangover for Top Gear. But following a big step forward, episode four falls too many steps back with its three main segments. The first feature should have been exciting, but isn't. The second one could have been innovative and interesting, but it's artificial. And the third? Well, we'll talk about its problems. Spoilers to follow.
This week's episode opens with several good things – Chris Harris, the Aston Martin Vulcan, and the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi. But they can't stop this feature from falling flat, and that's the fault of the cinematography. It's the first segment this season that's been visually disappointing. The film team kind of phoned it in for Harris's second outing. I suggest watching Richard Hammond's Porsche 918 Spyder/Yas Marina video from late in season 21 before watching tonight's episode and try telling me what the team did with Harris and the Vulcan isn't disappointing.
There's also the issue of TG's Vulcan evaluation. Sure, racing it against a V12 Vantage S driven by Aston factory driver Darren Turner is a illustrative of the broad performance gap between the two cars, but why not compare apples to apples? Pit the Vulcan against a Vantage GT3, because it's clear from the start that Turner and the road car would lose. But Top Gear's bigger problem is the way it's using Chris Harris. This is the second week in a row Harris rampages around a grand prix track. Put him out on the road, put him with Rory Reid – they're good on Extra Gear – or the other hosts, and let chemistry develop.
Feature number two is the bigger disappointment. It looked like a promising combination of two of the old show's staples – cheap-car challenges and epic races – into one event. Eddie Jordan rides in first class on the Venice Simplon Orient-Express train from London to Venice, while Chris Evans, Matt LeBlanc, and Sabine Schmitz spend the price of Eddie's ticket on luxury vehicles. Chris and Sabine's choices are predictable – the Brit buys a typically British car and the German a typically German car. And then Matt LeBlanc bought a Honda Gold Wing. It's a weird decision on LeBlanc's part. Everyone is wearing jackets – it's clearly late winter or early spring – and the hosts are traversing the Alps. Why the hell would you pick a motorcycle? It feels staged to create a comic element for one of the show's weird, gimmicky challenges that takes place in the early section of the film.
This entire feature lacks stakes. There's no mechanical drama with the cars or the bike. In fact, we don't hear much about the vehicles at all. But that's looking too far ahead, because the excitement of this race is sapped shortly after it begins – Evans, LeBlanc, and Schmitz are deep into France before Jordan even boards his train. This dramatic head start takes the wind out of this race's sails early on.
Look, fans don't care who wins these races, because they're nothing but spectacle. But key to that spectacle is letting the race develop organically. That means all sides start evenly. Instead, Top Gear gave one side a massive head start to create an artificially close finish. Clarkson, Hammond, and May faked things for a lot of their films, but they remained adamant until the end that the epic races actually took place without meddling for drama's sake – it's a shame the new TG couldn't follow a similar example.
But Rory Reid's Tesla Model X feature is episode four's biggest problem. The relationship between Tesla and Top Gear has been acrimonious ever since Jeremy Clarkson's punishing, allegedly libelous Roadster review, from 2008 . In that piece, the former host said the Roadster covered just 55 miles on a charge. Tesla took issue, and the matter went to court.
With Reid's review of the Model X, it's like the show went too far trying to mend fences with Tesla. Ignoring the overwhelmingly positive and by-the-numbers nature of this film, it's downright misleading. Near the end of the feature, Reid says he covered a couple hundred miles around New York City and upstate, ran a drag race, and made it back to Manhattan with 20 miles of range. But in Extra Gear, the team uses a Tesla Supercharger to get the Model X's battery up to 80 percent. I don't know if the editors snipped a scene they shouldn't have, but skip Extra Gear and it's easy to believe that the Model X did everything without recharging. It didn't. But Top Gear didn't need to do it this way. Reid specifically touches on the Supercharger network in his main film – why not mention or show that you had to charge it up after the drag race? It just doesn't make sense.
And neither does the drag race between the Model X and a Dodge Challenger Hellcat. The only people that will find this test interesting are those without internet access, because the Tesla-versus-Hellcat thing has been done to death. It's cliche at this point, and we expect better from TG. Problems aside, TG's night shooting in New York City for the Model X review is as beautiful as the Vulcan film's scenery is boring.
Extra Gear continues to be successful, at least. This week, that's partially because of Eddie Jordan. He drives Rory Reid around the Monaco Grand Prix circuit in an old Jaguar E-Type and it's Jordan at his most affable and entertaining. And unlike his first Top Gear outing, he actually sounds intelligent. Stick around for that, and the behind-the-scenes footage of Rory Reid's Model X film, which is just as interesting as last week's BTS segment with the Focus RS.
While Top Gear began finding its feet last week, episode four feels like a stumble. The same problems from the first three episodes – Chris Evans's shouting and the terrible, overlong celebrity interviews, for example – are compounded by deeper, fundamental issues behind this week's segments. Episodes one through three had their problems, but it's more of episode four – where the show fails in its basic responsibilities – that can kill Top Gear.
Rory Reid's response is below - Ed.
"Hey. It's pretty simple, really. Extra Gear depicts behind the scenes footage that is not necessarily linked to the timeline or events shown in any particular Top Gear film. It shows what we think are the most interesting elements from an entire production, which may span several days. That way, we have a larger pool of footage to choose from when bringing you the behind the scenes package.
"Often, in film and television, you have to shoot time-sensitive footage (such as a journey or race) on a single day as if it was "live". Then you have the option to repeat the journey on subsequent days to get a wider variety of shots, known as pickups or inserts. That way you don't need five hundred camera operators positioned along a 200 mile route.
"The filming activities on the subsequent days may be quite different to the first. As you saw in the Focus RS behind the scenes video, I might have to repeatedly drive up and down a single stretch of road dozens of times to get the shots we need for one location, then repeat that for other locations.
"Or we might have to drive to a studio to do statics, miles off the original route.
"Obviously, those are different journeys with different energy requirements, hence you might have to refuel or recharge a car differently to the "real" journey. But it's all part of the production process, which we aim to capture on Extra Gear.
"I hope that gives you some insight into what you saw. All the best." - Rory Reid
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