Top Gear series review: car-crash telly or on the road to recovery?

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Preceded by endless hype and rumour, and attacked within minutes of coming back on air, life was never going to be easy for the new incarnation of Top Gear.

But as the brake dust settles we’re going to try to take a level-headed look back at the first series under the new team and assess whether it’s on a highway to hell or the road to recovery.

It certainly didn’t start well, with viewers claiming producers had ruined the last good show on the BBC and critics savaging the combination of feckless new presenters and old-hat ideas. So perhaps the best news for the production team is that the show got better as the weeks progressed.

There’s no denying that the first episode wasn’t great but it wasn’t the complete travesty many claimed. Chris Evans’ shouty, over-keen delivery was annoying and the Reliant Rialto challenge was dull but it wasn’t any worse than some of the poorer efforts from the previous team *cough, motorhomes, cough*, and the muscle car shoot-out was entertaining.

And subsequent weeks saw a definite improvement. The challenges got better (mostly) and there was a succession of stunning cars for viewers to enjoy, all shot with the same flair, imagination and skill for which the show has become famous.

The footage of the Aston Martin Vulcan tearing up the floodlit Abu Dhabi GP circuit was stunning and the sight of Ford Mustangs old and new drifting through the majestic beauty of the Highlands is the sort of film that Top Gear has always excelled at.

The presenters

Like them or loathe them the presenters had a clear passion for the cars and the driving. The new blood of Rory Reid and Chris Harris in particular were a welcome addition to the team, making it all the more baffling that they were only introduced halfway through the run.

Reid’s enthusiasm and lack of cynicism about how great his job is shines through and Harris’ combination of deep knowledge and driving skill make him ideally suited for fronting the car-focused segments.

Sabine Schmitz struggled with delivering dodgy scripts in a foreign language during her studio segments but out on the road she proved why she’s a superstar. And Matt LeBlanc defied expectations to be a charming and engaging presence.

Sadly there’s no hope for Eddie Jordan. Even used as sparingly as he was he proved a bumbling nuisance with no on-screen talent. He was the same on the Beeb’s F1 coverage but at least brought his pitlane contacts to that party. On Top Gear he was simply embarrassing.

Chris Evans, too, didn’t cover himself in glory. There have been rumours that his presenting role will be reduced in future and this is probably welcome news. His overbearing style doesn’t work well for a supposed team show - someone needs to remind him he’s not presenting TFI Friday any more. And while he might love his cars there’s something in his presentation that doesn’t always translate well on screen.

The challenges

Like the presenters, the challenges were a bit hit and miss. Hauling musicians to the highest pub in Africa worked - in large part thanks to the quality of the guests. And watching Ken Block tear up the streets in the Hoonicorn is always entertaining. But celebrity chefs cooking in cars fell flat and there was nothing to challenge the best of the old team’s cross-continent blasts. Overall they were well short of best of the of the Clarkson-era ones.

More of a worry was the over-reliance on Evans’ celebrity chums to make up the guest list. You might get your money’s worth out of Seasick Steve and Tom Kerridge but the day Danny Baker puts in an appearance we’ll know they’re really in trouble.

Extra Gear

Special mention has to go to Extra Gear. Hidden away on the online-only BBC Three it came across a bit like a training camp for Reid and Harris, starting them out on the digital platform before letting them loose on the big-boy channel. Frankly, it was a waste. They’re both clearly competent enough and their studio segments almost presented a case for them to oust Evans and Matt LeBlanc as main hosts.

Plus there have been some gems buried away on the BBC Three show that really should be part of the main episode.

The more in-depth looks at some of the star vehicles belong on the main show and Harris and Reid’s interview with legendary Jaguar test driver Norman Dewis was too good to be relegated to the after-show. While still only five minutes long this piece was a fascinating insight into Dewis’ action-packed life. I’d far rather have had that as part of the main show than 10 minutes of Paul Hollywood and Jennifer Saunders droning on about their new book/film in the awful Star in a Rallycross Car segment.

In fact, the SIARC segment is a fine example of what’s still wrong with Top Gear. Star in a Reasonably Priced Car was always the dullest part of Top Gear and introducing a new car and painfully contrived “competition” between guests hasn’t improved it.

Scrapping it altogether and trying something new would have been far better but fear of straying too far from a successful formula has seen producers cling on to tired old ideas in place of innovation.

Perhaps with a series under their belts and a wealth of criticism ringing in their ears there’ll be more of a push to come up with something fresh.

We can only hope. There are plenty of positives for the show, particularly in the new additions but without some fettling over the summer Top Gear could still find itself relegated to the scrapheap.

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