History Channel // 2009 // 376 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Eric Profancik (Retired) // October 15th, 2009
This is not a competition or a game. It's a real-life adventure.
While watching a show one day I saw a commercial for Expedition Africa. How that happened is quite odd since I DVR everything and skip all commercials. Nonetheless it happened and I watched the show, primarily because I know nature programs look very good in HDTV. Was the show any good, amounting to more than just simple eye candy?
"Dr. Livingstone, I presume."
Was this line ever uttered? We'll never know for certain, but it is purported that Henry Morton Stanley said this as he came to the end of his journey. He had finally found the famously lost Dr. Daniel Livingstone, deep in the heart of Africa. In 1871, Stanley set out to find Livingstone and 970 miles and nine months later he succeeded. Today, four intrepid explorers will set out to retrace Stanley's route across Africa. They want to see if they can follow Stanley's trail but do it in only thirty days. Can survivalist Benedict Allen, wildlife expert Mireya Mayor, navigator Pasquale Scaturro, and journalist Kevin Sites survive all the danger Africa has to offer?
This eight-episode miniseries, which aired earlier in 2009 on the History Channel, follows those four explorers as they trek across Africa from Zanzibar to Ujiji. They face all manner of peril from the land and animals, but they also experience potential peril from each other. It wouldn't be a series from Mark Burnett, the man behind Survivor, to not wring out some human drama from the participants. And, honestly, I love the drama. A perfect combination of beautiful and treacherous locales, exotic and dangerous animals, and squabbling A-type personalities, Expedition Africa is excellent entertainment.
The trek itself is why most will tune in. What's it like to hike across Africa today using old-fashioned techniques? With no GPS and no modern transportation, how good are today's explorers? Can they still use a map and a compass? Can they lug around all their supplies without a jeep? All this and more awaits the faithful viewer, seeing the four try to find water in the desert, keeping dry in the mountains, boating in croc infested waters, and staying clear of the unexpectedly dangerous hippo herd. But those are the big dangers. They also need to be wary of all the dozens of species of venomous snakes not to mention the malaria-carrying mosquito. All in all, this expedition does entail a lot of personal danger.
But that often pales in comparison to the danger faced at the interpersonal level. Each of our intrepid explorers is the definitive A-type, controlling personality. Some are a bit mellower than others, but each is accustomed to doing it his or her own way. The literal leader of the pack in aggressive behavior is Pasquale. He'll tell you ad naseum how many expeditions he has led, and how he is thus the unmitigated team leader. His expertise and knowledge is unparalleled, and nobody can know more than he. Or so he thinks. His delusions of grandeur cause instant conflict among the four trekkers, and over the course of the 970 miles, he will butt heads with everyone. And watching this conflict brew, fester, and explode make the journey all the more fascinating.
Again, as a Mark Burnett production, there's one thing to keep in mind: editing. Expedition Africa is cut together so that everything is such a grandiose problem. It's his style, making the show more dramatic through the editing knife, often infusing just a wee bit too much melodrama in the events. In all reality, the trek probably wasn't as dangerous and interpersonally dynamic as we are shown.
Knowing how great nature programs look on DVD and HD television, my expectations were above average for the transfers on this disc. Sadly, they weren't met. Video is 1080p, 1.85:1, and it comes with rich, accurate colors, solid blacks, and a whole lot of detail. I noticed just the slightest bit of aliasing in a few episodes, but that's the only significant error that came to my eye. What I felt was lacking for the majority of the presentation was that stunning level of depth and dimensionality. I was expecting scene after scene, picture after picture, of such realism and depth that it would take my breath away. I wanted to think Africa was on the other side of the TV glass. I did get that on occasion, but the vast majority of the time it was not quite there. It seemed to me that perhaps some of the cameras were better than others, causing some scenes to truly shine and be extraordinary while others are just excellent. While I was perturbed by the video, I was truly disappointed with the audio, a Dolby-HD Master Audio 2.0 track. Yes, it's DTS. Yes it's Master Audio. But why is it just 2.0? A show just filmed in the past year in HD and put on Blu-ray is going to give me a 2.0 mix? I feel cheated, and I couldn't get past that as I watched the series. I'm pretty certain when I watched it on the History Channel that I had 5.1 surround (granted not Dolby-HD Master Audio), so why is it absent on the disc? That extra level of immersion is something I crave, and would have elevated the series that extra bit. The lack of the extra channels is a big negative in my book. As for what you do get with the mere 2.0 mix, the presentation is always clean and understandable. I didn't hear any level of distortion.
To make room for extras, five episodes are on the first disc while the remaining three and the bonus features comprise the second. Starting things off is "Expedition Africa: The Making of History" (20:35), a piece that at first feels a bit PR fluffy but gets better and deeper as it goes on. It's a quality overview of the show coupled with good behind-the-scenes material. Next is "Stanley and Livingstone" (4:20), a brief narrative on the historical context of our modern day explorers. Following this is "The Maasai" (2:27), a very brief discussion about the fierce people who act as guides and protectors of our group. "Wild Beasts, Disease, and the Elements" (2:41) give a fast overview of the dangers the group encountered. Next, "Survival Strategies" (10:18) gives the "for dummies" explanation on how to survive the challenges of Africa. You'll love the maggots! Last is "Dangers of the Wild" (19:47) that quickly covers all manner of natural dangers anyone would face on an African safari.
Though I was a bit harsh on the video and decidedly harsh on the audio, both do come across well on Blu-ray. It's just past history makes me expect more from a nature-type program, and this one just doesn't meet my heightened expectations.
Expedition Africa is an interesting show I caught by chance on the History Channel. I realize there are other "Expedition" programs available, but I'm not so sure I'm inclined to want to watch any more of them. This one is enjoyable, both for the trek and the personal perils. Watching it on the History Channel just a few weeks back, Expedition Africa tempted me to see what it would offer on Blu. And as you read, I liked the transfers but wanted a bit more. Add to that some decent bonus materials but also a lot of filler and I'm less inclined to offer a strong recommendation. For fans, this release has no problems for you to avoid it. For those who haven't seen the series, I think you'd be just as well off keeping an eye on your TV schedule and just watching it that way.
Expedition Africa is hereby found guilty of hippo tipping.
Review content copyright © 2009 Eric Profancik; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 376 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site