The boys of Top Gear have had many adventures over the course of their show, from routine car shenanigans, to international trips for special episodes. What's always been a personal favourite of mine, and perfectly fitting for the Christmas season, is their journey to Bethlehem, as three not so wise men...
Top Gear presenters Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May are going on a journey to the Holy Lands, to present gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to a newborn child. Across the way they deal with seemingly hostile environments, irate border crossings, witness some unexpected beauty, suffer a few scrapes and bruises as they try and race through the desert in their beat-up old sports cars...
I've always been a bit of a casual Top Gear fan. It was already several seasons in when I got into it, and I never got around to religiously watching, but I'd check it out whenever it was on TV, and certainly enjoyed it. In the case of the Middle Eastern special, I saw it in school, during one of the last days when there are no real classes, and you're just doing fun activities, or being shown movies on a big class projector. I still regard it highly, for showing me that the Middle East wasn't all warfare and horror, but had its good sides, and was on the road to recovery.
The adventure begins in Iraq, much to the alarm of the leads, who feel they need to exit the country asap. They intend on going through the nearest border into Iran, then up into Turkey, and left towards the Levant. A shut border for the BBC ends up making Iran a no-go, meaning they have to backtrack, then go another route up into Turkey.
Due to all this kerfuffle, their trip ends up taking them away from the Holy Lands for the first several hundred miles. But this is for the best, really, as it allows for more of a journey, and more vistas that would've gone unseen if they'd had a more direct route.
It's here where the special takes a great turn. The hosts wake up the next morning, and after a bit of goofing around at their impromptu 'hotel', they come to the realisation that Iraq really isn't as bad anymore as the news makes it out to be. Of course there are still dangerous areas, and problems here and there, but by and large it's a country like anywhere else, the situation is improving, and it's home to some spectacular sights! The trio do the same trip back again, but this time enjoying themselves, and really taking the beauty in.
...And then promptly end up in one of the more dangerous parts of Turkey, leading to a hilarious telegram from their producers. This is a shorter and somewhat uncomfortable leg of the journey, before they enter Syria, where a large portion of the special takes place.
There are many more engaging moments, with mechanical failures, impromptu fixes, and amusing cosmetic changes, such as a Bedouin tent on Richard Hammond's car. They all share great interactions and funny lines, as well as devilish pranks. This all leads to a very satisfying conclusion when they meet the baby in question.
As Top Gear got on in years, the question of how real it is does crop up. I'm a little confused on it myself, but from what I can gather, the general outline of some segments are scripted (moreso in later years), with the dialogue itself being mostly ad-libbed. In the case of this special some moments might be done intentionally for a laugh, but most of it feels real enough, and organic. Some parts are certainly real, from some of the illnesses faced along the trip, as well as one of the more dangerous moments in the show's history, when James May receives a severe concussion. It's tough to watch, and shocking in how quick and simple it all is. Not a big showy pratfall, but just a slight tumble, yet if there's a rock in the way you can see how nasty it could be. The whole camera crew can be seen helping, and thankfully he recovered, spending a few days out of the race.
The visuals in this special are something to behold. We get to see the everyday streets of Iraq, the stunningly beautiful natural landscapes, the sun-soaked deserts of Syria, and glittery nights of Damascus. There are also grand ancient sites, Palmyra and Jerash. No two areas look the same, and there's plenty of variety. Even the desert, which does all tend to look like a desert, still has some cool natural formations.
The direction in the special is exquisite, capturing the beauty of the landscape extremely well, and also the everyday citizens. It's nice seeing lots of little things, such as the reactions of the onlookers and bystanders, or elements such foreign street signs.
Something I'm very curious about is how a lot of it was even done! The making of shows like this can sometimes be just as interesting as the programs themselves. When you see these sweeping shots from up in the air in somewhere like Iraq, you imagine "How? I suppose a helicopter or something? But this is Iraq! It'd be a huge target, and they'd need a ton of fuel to hang behind with the cars. And besides, you'd hear a constant humming.". A mystery for the ages...
The Top Gear Middle East special is not only a popular episode among fans, but also considered one of the favourites by the presenters. Clarkson has expressed interest in doing a follow-up, though the current Middle Eastern situation the last few years has made that difficult. It's a shame seeing the state of these countries undergo more hardships, but hopefully they'll be ok again soon, and at least this special does still provide hope, showing that anything can improve, even after war. If it happened once it can do so again. This not only acts as a great guide, and a funny watch, but something great to watch during the Christmas season...
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