Stanley's expedition spanned nearly a thousand miles, claimed the lives of many porters, and demanded the better part of a year. Expedition Africa sets out to capture the spirit of that journey as best it can with four explorers, each with very different backgrounds and experiences: a British survivalist named Benedict, wildlife expert Mireya, seasoned navigator Pasquale, and Kevin, a wartime correspondent who, like Stanley himself, is a journalist with no experience mounting this sort of trek. Like Stanley before them, they trudge through Central Africa without any modern conveniences. They rely on a compass and a map rather than any sort of bleeding-edge GPS hardware, and they turn to a support system of local navigators, Maasai warriors, and porters just as Stanley himself had. It's a demanding journey -- one that pits them against crocodiles, hippos, malaria, heatstroke, and hyenas -- but the most insurmountable challenge may be suffering each other.
Expedition Africa is quick to overstate how historic this journey is. Though still primal and powerful, Africa isn't the undocumented land it was in Stanley's day, and this expedition trims off some two-thirds of the expedition to avoid just how populated and developed the continent has become, not to mention the need to fit into a 30 day shooting schedule. Though it's unquestionably an arduous trek, they're tearing through well-charted paths and have the safety net of a reality TV titan like Mark Burnett behind them. Danger may lurk around every corner, but knowing that there's a medic just out of frame or that a helicopter can swoop in to shuttle the sick and wounded out of harm's way diminishes the intensity. Expedition Africa hints several times that the four of them may not be able to make it to Ujiji, but even that never really seems to be in question.
Some of the stabs at heightening the intensity wind up feeling unconvincing and clumsy. Even in its earliest episodes, Expedition Africa milks a member of the group finding himself lost and overplays a porter collapsing from dehydration, but neither of those really get the blood pumping. It just doesn't seem like an immediate danger, just cranking it up to eleven to pander to the audience. The series also has a bad habit of warning about the looming threat of hyenas, hippos, and crocodiles, but those creatures are hardly ever in the same frame as the expedition itself. It too frequently will have someone warning about a particular animal, and then it intercuts an insert shot of a beast that may be from an entirely different series for all I know with some booming music to punctuate the scare. I have no doubt that the group was in constant danger, and I certainly don't want the History Channel to shove someone within a paw swipe of a lion just for the sake of ratings, but the way Expedition Africa presents the threats often seems artificial.
Expedition Africa waffles between an African adventure, an educational documentary series, and contrived reality TV drama. It takes stabs at all three but seems too distracted to pull any of them off particularly well. I did find myself liking Expedition Africa once I'd settled into its rhythm, but that didn't happen until halfway through the eight episode series. Aside from the gorgeous cinematography, I enjoyed seeing their interactions with the locals more than anything else. The unflappable Maasai in particular shoulder much of the series, and I love how personable and animated they are when they're alone with the camera. The Maasai's endless respect for cattle, a blood-drinking ritual, and celebratory dancing set it apart from just another travelogue. Expedition Africa takes care to remember that it is retracing the steps of Sir Henry Morton Stanley, pointing out certain key milestones throughout his journey and even throwing a party in a house in which both Stanley and Livingstone had once stayed. All four of these explorers have their appeal, from Kevin's dogged determination to Benedict's tendency for understatement ("Hmmm, I seem to be feeling somewhat under the weather" after coming down with a bout of malaria), even though the series' emphasis on their personalities strikes me as somewhat misplaced. Expedition Africa is weighed down by the artificial, overly constructed feel of a reality series, and even if something more honest and sincere may not be as dramatic, I can't shake the sense that it would've been much more compelling than this. Rent It.
I can't say I'm altogether thrilled with the way Expedition Africa looks on Blu-ray. The compression work in particular is pretty shoddy; it looks like the bitstarved programming I'm used to catching on cable rather than high-bitrate AVC encodes on dual-layer Blu-ray discs. Detail and definition are wildly uneven throughout; tighter shots look fantastic, but the more panoramic views of Africa tend to be softer, less detailed, and rather underwhelming. Video noise creeps in quite often, and the 1080i video is marred by some moderately frequent aliasing as well. Its bright, vibrant colors are certainly impressive but have an unfortunate tendency to bleed. Though Expedition Africa certainly has its more striking moments, this just looks like I'm watching something on my DVR rather than a shiny, newly-minted release on Blu-ray.
Expedition Africa features a set of fairly straightforward DTS-HD Master Audio stereo tracks. There's not much to say about them, really. Though some environments are more challenging than others -- particularly throughout the series' third episode -- the conversations are typically rendered cleanly and clearly throughout. The pounding percussion in the score resonates well enough too. I'm curious how a six-channel mix might've affected a series like Expedition Africa...if the rears could've fleshed out an additional sense of immersion that may have drawn me in more. What's offered here is adequate but doesn't really trump what I'd expect to hear on television.
Optional English subtitles have also been included.
"Dangers of the Wild" (20 min.; SD) rattles off a slew of the challenges that await explorers in Africa, from sandstorms to the need for drinkable water to some of the most venomous snakes the world over. "Wild Beasts, Disease, and the Elements" (3 min.; SD) does much the same only with a much leaner runtime. They both too frequently seem to be parroting what's expressly spelled out in the series itself, though. They do expand on several topics and group some of these similarly themed challenges together, but hearing so much of the same information delivered almost verbatim after watching Expedition Africa was kind of tedious, really. I prefer the approach of "Survival Strategies" (10 min.; SD), which looks at some of these same hurdles and offers clever, readily memorable solutions to deal with them.
The final two featurettes are disappointingly cursory. "The Maasai" (2 min.; SD) devotes just a couple of brief minutes to the nomadic warriors that are an integral part of the appeal of the series, and much of this is already stated in its earlier episodes. "Stanley and Livingstone" (4 min.; SD) quickly summarizes the worldwide fame of the Scottish missionary and explorer who'd vanished in the heart of Africa as well as the quest of a Welsh journalist to find him once again. It's an adequate summary, but I really would've liked to have seen both of these topics explored in much more detail.
The Final Word
Though I'd say that I liked Expedition Africa when it's all said and done, the series is frustratingly uneven, and its emphasis on clashing personalities over...well, the African expedition in the title seems wholly misplaced. This is a reality show at its core, and I really wanted to see more of an exploration of such a fantastic, exotic continent rather than yet another interchangeable scene of experts jockeying for control. My reaction to Expedition Africa is too mixed to recommend picking it up on Blu-ray outright, and since I really can't picture myself watching the series again, it's probably better left as a rental. Rent It.