James May’s Big Ideas DVD Review

The Top Gear presenter goes in search of some of science-fiction's lost dreams…

James May’s Big Ideas

James May’s usual position is as the target for both Jeremy Clarkson’s light-hearted ribbing and for Richard Hammond’s respectful frustrations. The three of them together really do make Top Gear what it is today and without any one of them, it’s a show more ordinary.

But apart, all three presenters are able to hold their own, and ‘Captain Slow’ is by no means the stooge when headlining his own various series. May is certainly the more amiable, the more approachable. He tackles his subject matter with a child’s wonder as well as putting his own unique view on it.

As the companion show to both James May’s 20th Century and James May’s Top Toys, …Big Ideas follows the same pattern and format (a selection of May’s interests and fascinations delivered in bite-size but amazingly informative chunks).

With …Big Ideas, a three-episode series, May considers ideas that would normally be considered fiction (science-fiction, to be precise) and searches out those inventors who have made such dreams reality.

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We open with ‘Come Fly With Me’ and the dream of relieving traffic jam misery (oh, if only). Travelling through Russia to Florida to Sussex, May visits a village consisting of houses with garages for light aircraft, takes to the skies in an aerocar, straps on a jetpack and meets a professor who has invented a working flying saucer. May’s delight in discovering these inventions (many of which seem to have been born sometime in the ‘60s by men with more money, more time and less personal life than the rest of us) is infectious, culminating in a trip in a Harrier Jump-jet.

Now we all know what a Harrier does but the science behind it is something quite staggering – especially when it’s revealed that its ancestor was a metal bed frame. Indeed, one of the greatest quotes from the series goes thus: “With the flying bedstead, Britain makes another valuable contribution to the advance of jet aviation.” Marvellous.

But it’s not all flying hither and thither in episode one. May takes a ride in a driver-less car and considers the possibility of teleportation – with the conclusion that it would take a mere 15,000 million years to ‘download’ a person from one telepod to another. Perhaps he uses the same broadband supplier as I do.

In episode two, ‘Man-Machine’, bionics and robotics are the name of the game and the tiniest Japanese lab assistant dons an exo-skeleton to carry May like he was parchment. One can’t resist chirping in with a Ripley-esque ‘Where you want it?” as she lifts the enthralled presenter with ease. There’s a walking and running robot called Asimo (see what they did there?) who inhabits Florida’s Disneyworld, with a more intelligent cousin in a lab not too far away – and it’s these human-shaped robots that somehow make you forget that they’re just circuit boards and plastic. Even with these very basic of machines that May discovers, the fact that they echo the human shape makes them seem more…alive (think of the superior Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘Measure of A Man’, wherein Picard defends Data’s existence).

May also looks at machines that are enhanced by the human mind, in particular a MERC (Mind Enhancing Roving Chair), but discovers that thinking about turning left or right is not as easy as it should be.

For episode three, ‘Power to the People’, it’s the energy of the future that comes under the microscope. We all continually hear about the state of the planet and how little time we have left to save it, so, while …Big Ideas embraces the fun side of technology, it’s obligatory that we receive a green message, too. And that’s never a bad thing, of course.

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Solar and wind power are the main thrusts of renewable energy here so there’s nothing particularly new in this closing chapter to the series. That said, the 20,000 mile-high ‘space-lift’ got me and if you’ve ever read 3001: The Final Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke, it’s nothing like that (!) – but science has to start somewhere (and Clarke was renowned for adding ‘real science’ into his Odyssey novels, so perhaps a space-lift isn’t as daft as it sounds).

Finally, the production of petrol out of thin air by a group of scientists in New Mexico was surprising in its simplicity – and not far removed from changing lead into gold, methinks.

It’s quite a fascinating journey that we go on with May. If I’m honest, I’ve never been one to fully understand how technology works. I know why, but how…well, that’s a whole other matter. So to sit down and watch people who can turn wild ideas into a working (of sorts) model astounds me (okay, I am easily pleased). From our host’s open approach, it’s also something that clearly appeals to his inquisitive nature. ‘Kid in a candy store’ springs to mind.

May has a lot to say about things he likes, and it’s clearly a dream-job that he has by being allowed to indulge in his boy-hood fantasies. The viewer is carried along by his charm and gentle explanations of subjects that could potentially give one a headache. There’s also an element of gentle ridicule that he brings to his presentation, but that gives his delivery a more rounded and human approach.

But what I would really love to see is a cross-over series with his Big Wine Adventure

The preview disc we were presented with had no extras (or menus, for that matter).

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James May’s Big Ideas is released on June 22nd


5 out of 5