A long-time contributor to the documentary genre, ex-Python Michael Palin has traveled the world in previous efforts including Around the World in 80 Days (1989), Pole to Pole (1992), Full Circle (1997) and the recent Himalaya (2004). Palin's long and legendary background in comedy makes him an unlikely but suitable host for such adventures; more often than not, his good-natured attitude and clever observations help him pull double duty as foreign ambassador and official tour guide. Shot a few years prior to Himalaya, his 2002 mini-series Sahara largely maintains the tone, style, and entertainment value of his other global journeys.
Though previous adventures have lasted the better part of a year, Sahara covers a great deal of ground (over 10,000 miles!) in just over three months. Beginning and ending in Gibraltar, Palin and the film crew travel through Morocco, Senegal, Mali, Algeria, Tunisia and more, by way of car, train, foot…and more. The places we see are certainly interesting enough, but the people we encounter are but another highlight: featuring plenty of encounters with various musicians, traders and other folk, we're in very good company almost every step of the way.
Though the trip is peppered with a few near-disasters---including a seriously delayed train ride and Palin's battle with illness partway through---our host takes a great deal in stride, exploring the cultures and (thankfully) not interfering with them. The fact that most of the cities remain generally untouched from Western influence makes this adventure all the more interesting.
As with any trip, some locations are more interesting than others. I'll admit that this four-episode series (which runs approximately 60 minutes per episode) starts off a bit on the slow side, but even the most reluctant viewer should have no problem enjoying the sights and sounds as Palin and company delve further into their journey. Among other highlights, we get a brief tour of the general area where Monty Python's The Life of Brian was filmed (Tunisia) and a look at much older cities like Timbuktu. Political conflicts are briefly touched upon, but these aren't the focus of Sahara; more than anything else, it's simply an objective look at a part of the world that few of us have seen before. In more ways than one, this is a documentary in its most pure form---and the fact that it's just one more feather in Palin's cap says a lot. Here's hoping he continues making such well-rounded travelogues.
Though it may not be as immediately breathtaking as Himalaya or as epic as Pole to Pole, Sahara is a worthwhile series in its own right. BBC Video presents the four-part series on a two-disc set, pairing the main features with a handful of extras that work well together. One of the only other complaints I had with the series was the way it bounced around a bit for sake of time---and though the additional footage included here can only be viewed separately, we get a more complete picture than ever before, thanks to DVD. All in all, it's a solid release that documentary fans should really enjoy.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio, Sahara looks quite good from start to finish. The natural color palette is generally bold and bright, while contrast and black levels are better than I'd expect for such an on-location shoot. Unfortunately, the main programs display a bit of ghosting every few frames [click here for an example] due to improper flagging, though this looks to be a mild annoyance at the very most. Frustratingly, the bulk of the included bonus features (some of which are also presented in anamorphic widescreen) don't seem to exhibit this problem.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix is basic but serviceable, offering clear dialogue and music throughout. Unfortunately, no optional subtitles or Closed Captions are offered anywhere on this collection.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the menu designs for Sahara aren't very exciting but they're easy to navigate. Each 60-minute program has been divided into roughly six chapters, while no obvious layer change was detected during playback. The packaging is fairly straightforward, as this two-disc collection is housed in a black slim double keepcase with both single-sided DVDs facing each other.
Spread across both discs, all of the film-related extras for Sahara are appropriate and worth watching. First up on Disc 1 is a Video Diary with Michael Palin (11 chapters, 24:47 total, 1.33:1 fullscreen); basically, it's a series of "Behind the Behind-the-Scenes" segments that mirror the tone and style of the series itself. Also included is a handful of other BBC Video Trailers, including Pyramid, Blue Planet, Walking With Beasts, Walking With Cavemen and The Life of Mammals.
Disc 2 includes a series of Deleted Scenes (16 clips, 30:29 total, 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen) which fans of the series should really enjoy. Covering a decent amount of ground in just over half an hour, this collection of trimmed footage even includes a few flubbed lines for good measure. Closing things out is a shorter Interview with Michael Palin (15:51) conducted after the series wrapped; though it's much less scenic than the show itself, Palin seems to be in good spirits and talks candidly. One small nitpick, though: the packaging promises over 100 minutes of extras---so unless I'm missing out on some obscure British-American numeric conversion, someone over at BBC Video needs to check their math.
It may not be as strong as Palin's own Himalaya, but Sahara is still a scenic series worth looking into. The host's trademark wit and charisma keep things moving at a good pace, while the diverse landscapes and cultures are worth the price of admission alone. Anyone interested in seeing a glimpse of what else goes on in the world outside of offices and shopping malls (and let's face it, that should include everyone) should find something to enjoy here. The DVD from BBC Video is very good but not quite excellent, boasting a decent technical presentation and a few interesting extras. Even so, the main feature is the real selling point---and for this reason, Sahara comes Highly Recommended.
Related Links: "Palin's Travels" (Official Website) | Himalaya DVD Review by Bill Gibron
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based firmly in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. He also enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.