Opinion – Season 23 ‘New’ Top Gear and Extra Gear

So, after months of speculation and hype, the latest version of Top Gear finally arrived. The reaction across social media and wider has been almost universally poor. ESM’s editor explores why it missed the mark.

2016 Dodge Viper ACR
Spoiler alert: Imagine this, but with Chris Evans shouting in your face, and you’re basically there.
I’ll admit that I’d grown tired of the previous incarnation of Top Gear. The format had become stale, Clarkson had disappeared even further up his own backside, and the whole thing appeared to have been lingering around just a little too long. I always remember Clarkson writing that they’d stop making TG when it became obvious the time had come – fate seemingly ensured that happened.

Which begs the question as to why, with the possibility of completely blank slate and an almost limitless budget, did the BBC and Chris Evans decide to do nothing but remake old ‘new’ TG but with different people?

What staggers me is that this approach appeals to almost nobody. Loyal fans of Clarkson, Hammond and May have departed to await Amazon’s The Grand Tour so clearly this new TG wasn’t going to attract them back. Chris Evans doing a Clarkson impression is not the same as the real thing. You can dress yourself in a bear costume, make bear noises, and even shit in the woods, but it doesn’t make you a bear. In the same way shouting, and leaving slightly too long a… pause doesn’t make you a Clarkson.Top Gear StigYet, by slavishly copying the format and style of the previous iteration of TG, it means the latest version does nothing to attract new viewers. One of the key issues was the fact the actual setup and structure of the programme had become boring, yet the producers did zero effort to move away from it. Even the overwrought editing of videos remains, making it hard to actually see or hear the car you’re meant to be focussing on. So that’s impressive work in managing to appeal to no one and ostracize everyone – not even Clarkson et. al managed that.

Perhaps that is what enrages and disappoints me the most. The BBC had a huge opportunity to take TG in a different direction, just as Clarkson and Andy Wilman had done 14 years ago, but completely choked. What we’re left with is a product that manages to be inferior to its predecessor. This is like a car being given a mid-lifecycle facelift, where the accountants decide they need to save some money so cutback on equipment and features. Yes it might look newer, but underneath you’re left with less than you would have previously got for your money. There’s now no chemistry between Matt LeBlanc and Evans, no controversial comments, and zero innovation.

Think taking a Dodge Viper and Chevrolet Corvette to the Fallon Naval Air Station is a new idea? No. Jesse Crosse did that back in 2005, but had the sense to include a Ford Mustang as well. But he didn’t feel the need to SHOUT ALL THE BLOODY TIME or strap pointless lasers and missiles to the cars. He also managed to actually form opinions, rather than just regurgitate from a press release.

There was also a complete lack of clarity around how the show is meant to work with a myriad of presenters. Evans and LeBlanc are clearly the leads, although the latter looked so wooden in the studio that he might need varnishing. Matt seemed far more comfortable off doing his own thing reviewing the Ariel Nomad, even if the paparazzi element was completely pointless.

Yet it’s hard to move past the cynical belief he’s only really there to be a celebrity with global appeal, and the associated marketing benefits. Sabine Schmitz had only a tiny amount of airtime in the main show, but managed to be absolutely brilliant with just a few choice words. She’s the hidden star of new new TG.Chris Harris and Sabine SchmitzHer stardom became more apparent in the BBC3-only spin-off Extra Gear with Rory Reid and Chris Harris. This creation was, quite frankly, brilliant. This was everything the refreshed Top Gear should have been. The chemistry between Reid and Harris worked well, there was energy and enthusiasm, and Chris Evans only shouted for a handful of seconds. Chris Harris drifting the Nomad around the TG track was as good as one of his YouTube videos, just with less impressive video production.

As any real petrolhead knows, Harris has a deep knowledge and appreciation of everything automotive, whilst also being opinionated and articulate. So why on earth has he been hidden away on the online-only supplement? Rory Reid has a confident onscreen manner, that makes him far more relaxing and engaging to watch than having Evans BELLOW IN YOUR FACE CONSTANTLY. Finally, learning that Sabine has a Canadian-style log cabin and keeps wild boar just makes her even more likeable and intriguing.

Most importantly of all, Extra Gear seemed to have remembered that it was a car programme. It managed to cram in a lot of insight and car-geekery into a relatively short space of time, appealing to those who actually give a damn about cars. Again, this was the opportunity that existed with the main show but was completely missed.

The solution is relatively simple. Ditch Evans and install Reid, Harris and Schmitz as the main TG presenters. Take the same editorial direction as shown in Extra Gear and make an astute, informed, but still engaging car show. Forget trying to be The One Show with four wheels, and do something that appeals to a new audience. Yet that’s far too sensible a proposition for a lumbering dinosaur like the BBC.

So much promise, so much potential, scuppered by an unwillingness or inability to step outside the comfort zone. Surely something that public broadcasting should be about? Sadly not, it seems.

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