Boasting over 1,100 miles of rough terrain, harsh temperatures and little in the way of rest stops, the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has certainly earned the title above. Each year, several dozen competitors transport their finely-tuned sled dog teams, equipment and career hopes to the popular Alaskan event, with the remote northern village of Nome as their final destination. The journey will take 9-10 days for the very best mushers, while some will arrive closer to the two-week mark...if they finish at all, of course. Each year, roughly a dozen or more will quit before the finish line: whether it's due to health reasons or dog trouble, this is anything but a walk in the park. Of course, there are plenty of reasons to win: aside from a hefty purse, the winners gets his or her name in the history books. A handful of mushers have dominated the contest during the last four decades, while some have struggled to simply finish at all. Win or lose, it's a grueling trip that some wouldn't trade for anything.
Toughest Race on Earth takes a look at the 2008 installment of Iditarod, filmed just over a year ago. Though 93 competitors entered the race that year, only seven are prominently featured on this six-episode series: returning champion Lance Mackey, a second-generation Iditarod winner; four-time champions Jeff King and Martin Buser; breast cancer survivor DeeDee Jonrowe, a strong finisher waiting for her chance to win; diabetic Bruce Linton, who would struggle with illness during much of the race; Eskimo Darin Nelson, who races on a handmade sled; and schoolteacher Rick Holt, a charismatic local favorite. All are candid and honest during the "on-set" interviews and segments filmed in the months after. Snippets of background information are provided along the way, but the 2008 race itself is placed firmly in the foreground.
Without giving away the results (especially since this release is aimed at new viewers, who likely aren't familiar with the 2008 scorecard), Toughest Race on Earth starts as a relatively balanced affair...with a few moments sweetened for dramatic purposes, of course. This year's race would prove to be a neck-and-neck contest for 2007 champ Lance Mackey and the cocky veteran Jeff King, whose rivalry heats up to a fever pitch during the second half. It's unlikely that Toughest Race on Earth tells us the whole story, but it's easy to see why it focuses on their rivalry: Mackey and King represent the stiff competition that sports fans love, though the other five aren't left out in the cold. Veteran Martin Buser is an easy standout, as the likable former champion races efficiently while taking time to mentor his rookie son, Rohn (named after one of the checkpoints). Despite the lack of more participants, Toughest Race on Earth remains relatively focused along the way. Dogs are dropped due to injury or sickness, former champions struggle to capture another victory and several new competitors finish surprisingly well, creating an atmosphere of unpredictability and excitement.
With that said, one can't help but wish for a more down-to-earth presentation in certain respects. The Iditarod of 2008 is obviously much different from decades past, with corporate sponsorships, wide-angle helicopter shots and throngs of enthusiastic spectators begging for autographs. It's not just a simple race anymore, especially this year: it's a media frenzy, with cameras thrust upon competitors whether they like it or not. If that weren't enough, the dogs must've certainly been distracted by the tracking shots and production lighting. Still, it's almost a necessary evil to bring us closer to the action: Toughest Race on Earth is a fascinating look behind the scenes, fueled by competition and covered by a beautifully oppressive landscape. More coverage of the event history and preparation would've heightened the production, but our 258-minute adventure remains focused almost every step of the way.
Presented on DVD by Image Entertainment (and paired with a bonus documentary, covered below), The Discovery Channel's Toughest Race on Earth has certainly taken its time to arrive; the 2009 race has already come and gone, so this is old news for die-hard enthusiasts. Novice viewers, however, will find much to enjoy: the Iditarod race is a completely different beast than most other competitive sports, yet the spirit of competition burns brightly during our long, cold journey. The DVD itself isn't without a few technical issues, but this is still a well-rounded release that's easy to get lost in. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16x9 displays, Toughest Race on Earth looks quite uneven from start to finish...but only a few problems are due to the actual transfer. First, the good news: the image is typically clean and clear during most daytime sequences, boasting vivid colors and solid image detail; the same goes for interviews filmed after the event. Problems arise during nighttime sequences and shots taken from a closer "sled" perspective, which seem to be of much lesser quality. These are extremely washed out and almost completely filled with grain and color flecking---which is due to the source material, of course, but was still chosen to be part of the show. Luckily, this only comprises a small amount of footage overall.
Digital problems are also a problem, however, and these could most likely have been avoided with a bit more effort. Firstly, compression artifacts pop up on occasion, most likely because of the four-plus hours of content on Disc 1. The bonus feature on Disc 2 is barely 90 minutes long, so why not move two episodes over to lighten the load? Edge enhancement was also spotted on several occasions, especially on extremely wide shots of the Alaskan landscape. Perhaps the most frustrating problem, however, is the digital combing that occurs frequently, which tends to blur much of the fast-moving action. Overall, these problems don't make Toughest Race on Earth unwatchable (especially considering the climate), but those expecting excellence may walk away disappointed.
Luckily, the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix isn't as problematic. The dramatic voice-over narration and accompanying music cues sound clean and clear, while the sounds of the racing sleds (and enthusiastic dogs) are certainly strong enough. Portions of the "on-set" dialogue are muffled due to harsh conditions, but these are often presented with burned-in English subtitles. Overall, this is a satisfactory mix that gets the job done, though a full-fledged 5.1 Surround mix would've been interesting to hear. Unfortunately, proper subtitles and Closed Captions are not offered during the main feature or the bonus material.
Expedition: Alaska has been presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, is 16x9 enhanced and looks much more consistent than the main feature. It's been properly flagged and is free from most digital issues, including the combing that plagued Toughest Race on Earth. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mix is also quite satisfactory---though it's not surprising, given the number of newly-recorded interviews and voice-over narration. Unfortunately, no optional subtitles or Closed Captions have been provided here.
It's strictly for novice viewers, but Toughest Race on Earth: Iditarod offers plenty of memorable mushing moments, beautiful Alaskan landscapes and stiff competition. Win or lose, our active participants seem to be good sports about the entire production: despite the celebrity status some have attained, all seem to have a genuine and sincere passion for their sport (and dogs!). A bit more focus on history and behind-the-scenes preparation would've made this a more well-rounded experience, but it's tough to complain when a lengthy, grueling race has been whittled down to just under five hours of action. Image Entertainment's two-disc DVD package misfires in the visual department, but the low price and bonus documentary make this a strong blind buy candidate. Firmly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.