All filler, no killer.
The extended Top Gear road trips were often the highlights of the show, with memorable episodes set in Botswana, Bolivia and of course the infamous Patagonia trip showing how much punishment a car can take when faced with challenging conditions. Expectations were high for the first Grand Tour special, a two-part epic that, for the first time, looked like it would live up to the premise of the show with a 1000-mile journey in beach buggies to a “wild, rugged and extremely remote place” on the coast of Namibia.
On the plus side, the absence of The Grand Tour tent meant we didn’t get any cringe-worthy studio segments. Unfortunately, what we got was nearly two hours of unbridled boredom. It was especially disappointing after the previous episode was a triumphant return to form. So, what went wrong with this special? Firstly, the chosen cars simply weren’t very compelling. The episode centered on the trio using Volkswagen Beetle-based beach buggies to tackle the terrain. Cue some predictable custom cars built to reflect the presenter’s personalities: Clarkson’s was fitted with a heaving V8 engine, while May’s was almost completely stock.
The problem was that you never felt like any of the presenters had a heartfelt attachment to their cars, so when they inevitably kept breaking down it was difficult to care. It was a stark contrast to the connection Hammond developed with the lovable Opel Kadett (better known as ‘Oliver’) in Botswana, or the Porsche 928 Clarkson drove in Patagonia - the same car he raced to visit his dying dad in hospital. The cars are characters in their own right in these specials, yet these beach buggies didn’t have any soul somehow. The location also left a lot to be desired.
While we were treated to some awe-inspiring scenery which wouldn’t have looked out of place in an episode of Planet Earth, part one in particular suffered from some serious repetition. Setting the entire episode in a barren desert made it difficult to sustain interest, and even the trio admitted they achieved nothing having ended up back where they started. You can tell it was fun to film, but it wasn’t entertaining to watch. Part two didn’t fare much better, as it was overrun with contrived comedy. A hunt for animal poachers had potential and would have made for a better, more noble premise, but it was never fully explored and was all just a set up for Hammond to be “shot” with a tranquilizer dart.
Then we had the traditional presenter pranks, which seem to be more juvenile under Amazon’s reign judging from James May’s gear knob replacement. Watching a terrified Hammond wake up to find himself suspended by a helicopter was amusing, though, even if it was blatantly staged. The biggest problem, however, was the pacing – this special was overlong, to say the least. In short, there wasn't enough material to justify two episodes: the shorter first episode was 45 minutes of filler material, while part 2 was overstuffed with jarring comedy to pad out the runtime to an hour. These issues probably wouldn’t have been so noticeable with tighter editing - the special would have worked better if it was condensed into a standard hour-long episode.
That’s not to say the Namibia special didn’t have its moments, however: the cinematography was jaw-dropping, and watching the presenter’s plummet down steep dunes and get suspended over a river in a cable car-style contraption looked genuinely harrowing. But it lacked the sense of adventure, spontaneity and danger that classic Top Gear road trips had in spades - this was The Grand Tour’s equivalent of the Top Gear India special. What did you think of The Grand Tour Namibia Special?