Saturday, 23 July 2016

A history of Robot Wars and why the reboot could fail (as much as I want it to succeed)

12 years ago, Channel 5 showed the last episode of Robot Wars, which was a cult favourite among a large number of millenials and nerds/geeks. Repeats have occurred sporadically on various free to air tv channels, but no new official series has been on TV since then. With a huge amount of merchandising, it was in the mainstream conscience right through the millenium, it inspired kids to think that the future will be fun and all about large chunks of metal hitting each other really hard (alongside Techno-Games, which tried to be more about the sporting benefits of robots, but it had a couple of robot wars competitors in there too). It even inspired a small number of individual episodes from later TV series such as Phoenix Nights, where they decide to host a Robot Wars themed evening at the Phoenix! Now, the BBC, who originally made the series before 2002, are bringing it back, promising to be bigger and better than before. What made it so successful then? Will it be susccessful now?

To start with, the feel of Robot Wars has always been one of a dystopian, Mad-Max style future, where only the fittest robots survive. It doesn't matter if it's appropriate for kids or adults, they just want blood (or in this case, Diotoir on fire?). Just look at the first series and some of the challenges they had: a gauntlet that wouldn't look out of place in Smash TV from Total Recall, including a somewhat obsolete Sentinel (an unofficial house robot?), a tug of war against the house robots and finally a fight to the death between the competitor's robots. These are not dissimilar to some scenes in various post-apocalyptic films. Ok, not all the events were dark in their concept, there was a football themed and a bowling alley challenge, which were more harmless compared to the tug of war, although one couldn't help but think of the underlying overtones of the atmosphere while the robots were trying to do their thing. The atmosphere was enhanced by the intro sequence and music - all metallic and dark colours, music that is given a retro refit from the Mars-Bringer of War out Holst's Planets suite, in itself made during World War One. Very fitting, in one sense! Speaking of House Robots, they had a life of their own, from the almighty Sir Killalot to the wacky Cassius Chrome, who arguably made the show distinct from the USA counterpart, where there are no real comparisons to the house robots.

The presenters themselves contributed a lot to the show, with their wit and insight into the battle. How they came up with all those phrases at the start of the show before settling on "master of mayhem" I will never figure it out! Each presenter bought their own opinion to the show, although of course Craig Charles as a happy-go-lucky and enthusiastic presenter, along with Phillipa Forrester are the most memorable for being the longest serving hosts (and Jonathan Pearce as commentator, although the judges are harder to remember). In terms of technical knowledge I actually prefer Jayne Middlemiss over the other 2 presenters, since she was a bit more competitive than Julia or Phillipa, but that's personal preference. Their clothing was sometimes a little outlandish (Craig Charles's overcoat was a classic over-the-top look) but what got me thinking most about the comparison to Mad Max was Phillipa Forrester's slightly revealing corset in the Fifth Wars. Whether that was an inspired choice by herself or by the costume department to add to the atmosphere we may never know, but I think it added a deliciously dark (if slightly sexy) undercurrent that you only find in Mad-Max, where the only thing you are doing is surviving, and if you're not being killed, you are killing. If you think Phillipa was tame in her outfits though, look no further than the mighty Robo-Babe, who made live appearances and the official magazine but never actually made it into the TV series (possibly for the best, given that you can see some non-PG bits in that armour)! I'm not sure Robot Wars would have been shown on the 6:45 Friday evening slot if she was on it. She even had a single with Sir Killalot, you be the judge of how good/bad it didn't make the top 50 when it was released back in the day. I have reservations about Jonathan Pearce, but he put the cherry on this very dystopian cake by having some memorable moments, such as Hypno-Disc's first filmed fight in the arena, his infectious cackling laughter as Hypno Disc made its name by eating the poor Robogeddon (but just listen to that spinning disc, how terrifying, how much it adds to the incredible atmosphere of the match!). However, there were a number of times when he would say something that didn't make sense, like a weapon that wasn't working when in fact it was, or if he failed to notice when a robot wasn't working. Nonetheless, all these factors together made for an excellent spectacle, even if the live performances and the televised stuff were not always in sync.

In terms of weaponry, I've always seen Robot Wars a bit like football- a tactical evolution between defence and attack, or in this case, destructive weaponry (spinning discs) versus flippers, with ram-bots pretty much all but outlawed now (you have needed at least one active weapon since the 6th series). As flippers got better (starting with Cassius, the Hades/Lucifer of all robots for beating Roadblock... carrying on with Chaos 2, Gravity, Thermidor etc.), other robots had to counter flippers with schrimechs or innovative designs. Alternatively, robots have had to counter the incredible destructive power of robots like Typhoon 2, 13 Black, Pussycat, Razer, etc. This battle looks set to continue into the new series, with some returning robots and new designs, but it looks like there may be more emphasis on complete destruction.

Was it/is it dangerous for the participants? The first series of Robot Wars was hosted by a bullish Jeremy Clarkson, who had a witty retort for every robot that came into the arena. However it turns out that the theme of the post-apocalypse memo was taken a  bit too literally by at least one house robot, whose weapon detached itself and nearly embedded itself in Jeremy Clarkson's head, despite him standing on the gantry!!  This theme of near death experiences seems to have carried on into the new series too. Start as you mean to go on... However the new arena has considerably more bullet proof glass, and given the power of these new robots that's probably for the best!
To my left, the old arena in gauntlet form.  To the right, the new one (credit to the robot wars website for the latter image).

So why do I worry for the new series? Until we see the new show in its entirety then it's hard to judge. However it might be trying too hard to be too many things. Let me explain. Does the new series want to be an exact copy of the original series? If so, they've done well to bring back a number of old competitors, keep the arena largely similar to the old one, with the spikes from the 1st series added to the flame pit, flipper and pit from the later series (with some much needed changes like a wall that stops opponents winning by flipping the robots out of most of the arena and a floor made of steel, not wood), keeping at least one of the original judges and having Jonathan Pearce as commentator. However, we live in a time where nothing can be forgotten, and any fault in the new series will be compared to the old series, particularly any controversies (can they top Tornado's anti-pit device?). If I'm going to be pendantic, I was surprised that they've decided to put Robot Wars on a sunday night 8pm slot, rather than the friday evening-prime-time-so-you-have-to-scoff-your-dinner-down-really-quickly-so-you-can-watch-robot-wars time of 6:30pm. To be original is actually one of the hardest things to do, so any new ideas that give the show a boost should be seen as a good thing if they work. But, with the new advancements in technology, a few considerations come to mind. For one, the technological differences from even just a decade ago are so great and the rules have changed so much (a new weight limit, limitations on weapons etc.) make it difficult at best to compare old with new. Even the returning competitiors have made significant alterations to their robots, and that's not even mentioning the house robots, who are all now a lot heavier, meaner and more dangerous! Further, we probably won't have any relatively weak robots like Granny's Revenge or Robogeddon, so will we see any one-sided carnage on that scale again? Will this make it less exiting for not having such memorable moments as the competition could be so tight that it will only appeal to those people who actually enjoy the tactical battle that was determined by the criteria of style, control, damage and aggression? Can the presenters bring their own unique style to the arena like the previous presenters did? 

That said, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Maybe the old ways have to be emulated because nothing is better than the original. However, Robot Wars was far from perfect, particularly some of those camera shots missing some of the action.

The new presenters, Dara O'Briain and Angela Scanlon, could be an excellent partnership, especially since Dara has a similar career path to Craig Charles before his run (comedy, with a bit of extra documentaries on the side), and judging by Angela's relative anonymity, she could well be an up and coming star. She has already made an appearance or two to talk about the new Robot Wars on talk shows. She seems to have the charisma needed to put people at ease before going into the arena, which is something that Phillipa and Julia arguably had (on screen anyway). It looks like it could work, but it's always hard to predict. With Jeremy Clarkson leaving after Series 1, history shows that nothing is set in stone in Robot Wars.

Ultimately the pros currently outweigh the cons- the build up has been largely focused on nostalgia but with such large technological developments, a lot of the newer competitors look like they could put on quite a show, so long as there aren't too many technical issues! The new arena should give us more action (and less flips out of the arena), and the presenters seem promising. Nostalgia could be the biggest weight around the neck of Robot Wars (see the revamped Top Gear, with falling ratings and presenters leaving).

Watch this space for a review on the new series after it has aired!

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