When I reviewed Season Eleven of Top Gear, I alluded to the fact that the summer run felt rushed an almost a bit of an afterthought to a rapidly popular series and that perhaps the bigger and better material was being saved for a larger order of episodes for Season Twelve. Goodness knows that with the show returned to broadcast at the end of 2008, they certainly brought it.
For those unfamiliar with the show, presenters Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May review a variety of sports and luxury cars for their driving abilities. They also take the time to cover more affordable products for those of us not on champagne budgets. But rather than do an hour-long show on car reviews, they also include a mix of entertainment. These mainly comprise two things: the first being a "Star in a Reasonably Priced Car" doing a lap around the Top Gear test track. Generally said stars are from British entertainment, though occasionally (like in Season Twelve) an American actor pops on, such as Mark Wahlberg, who was promoting his appearance in Max Payne at the time the show aired
The other, more popular component is watching the presenters take on a series of producer-suggested challenges. Sometimes the challenges are more local, like when the hosts have to drive over 700 miles on one tank of gas to make a ceremony in a British coastal town. Or, in the case of the season finale, the hosts, in Vietnam, have to drive from Saigon to a nearby Hanoi town 1,000 miles away on motorcycles and scooters. The chemistry between the three is hilarious, and some of the more set-up moments of the show provide for laughs too. In between, the hosts get a chance to visit breathtaking locales, and sometimes drive exotic and/or powerful cars as part of the trip. And that's their job; how cool is that?
And they get to drive cars that many of us would dream to have; the hosts travel to the salt flats of Utah to see the top speed they can get on a Corvette, Dodge Challenger and Cadillac, with all three going over 150 miles per hour during testing. Other cars like the Bugatti Veyron and Pagani Zonda which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars also got a chance to test their cred on the Top Gear track during the season as well.
There is a small bone to pick with this video release, and that's the fact that BBC American and Canada fans are still stuck viewing an abridged version of the show, rather than the British "full monty," as it were. So there are a few more segments, with a few more laughs that get missed. Now understandably the show has some slight trims to it for American broadcast, but that's hardly justification to withhold the best possible product from your fans, does it? That said, it's cut version gets you a chance to enjoy the presenters' humor and interactions, along with envying the chance to drive a supercar. That's a sacred ground that Top Gear is holding, and doing exceptionally well for itself at the moment.
As is the case with previous seasons, Top Gear arrives in 1.78:1 anamorphic video. The studio sequences look good, with no noise issues or edge enhancement that I noticed, with the hosts being reproduced as accurately (and British-ly) as possible. The larger films in America and Vietnam look outstanding. I watched these on a standard-definition channel that broadcast them in widescreen, so I got the picturebox effect seeing them on the "telly," so it was great to see these images as they should be.
Like other seasons, the only option is a Dolby stereo two-channel soundtrack, which while satisfactory does leave a viewer (or fan) wanting a bit more. There's one, maybe two sequences where the subwoofer engages, and the rear surround action is bland and disappointing. Dialogue is clear throughout the show at least, and you can feel a little of the power and rumble in the supercars in the show, but a six-channel surround mix would go a long way towards whetting some appetites.
The show's eight-episode twelfth season is available on three discs, with a fourth holding an extended cut of the episode in Botswana that aired in Season Ten. That episode also has a commentary with producers Andy Wilman and Roland French, director James Bryce and cameraman Ian May, to name a few. They share some behind-the-scenes information on the presenters and recall the time spent on the shoot, and some compare it to Season Twelve's Vietnam special. Some of the participants count the number of dogs in the production and they talk about the power of the Top Gear name in the jungle. Four additional scenes (7:12) and a stills gallery round out the Botswana special.
Disc Three mainly focuses on the Vietnam special and also includes a commentary with Wilman, May, cameraman Phil Churchward and several others. This is a little less cordial than the other track, but the participants enjoy doing impressions of Clarkson and the others during lulls in the action and recall the production difficulties in filming. It loses steam after the first half hour but is a nice addition to the episode. Like the Botswana special, four deleted scenes (10:43, including a communist Stig!) and a stills gallery are included, along with an extended awards ceremony from Episode 7 (15:12), where the men discuss their moments of the year from the show.
Disc Two has the only other extras on the set, namely an extended sequence with the show's "Cool Wall" (12:06) and a playfully contentious interview Clarkson has with London Mayor Boris Johnson (15:27). Picture an older Gary Busey with a British accent and you've easily got Johnson as Clarkson tries to ensure him in several different "Gotcha!" moments.
Season 12 of Top Gear brings more of the funny and remains one the better (or at least more entertaining) shows on television. While the studio insists on still releasing the North American version of the show for North American audiences, at least they've added some supplements to make this a not completely bad experience. Recommended if you haven't seen the show before (or don't have a region-free player), but here's hoping future seasons get the same treatment across all borders.