The British Broadcasting Corporation have finally quenched the undying thirst of “90’s kids” everywhere by announcing that cult classic gameshow Robot Wars will be making its return to our screens after over a decade of absence. It was still around for those hardcore enough to tough it out on the independent show scene, but this is the first time it will be properly backed since 2004.
I was, and still am, a super-fan of Robot Wars. I had literally all the merchandise, the magazine subscription, and tapes. I even have old VHS recordings of the first 3 series. I am as pumped as anyone, if not more so, that my first true love is alive and kicking.
Up until yesterday, the idea of a classic late 90’s Friday night on BBC 2 was a castle in the sky. The Simpsons, The Fresh Price of Bel Air, Malcolm in the Middle and Robot Wars were all hugely popular with Gen Y and have all since gradually departed for pastures new. The Simpsons crossed over to Channel 4, while Fresh Prince and Malcolm both ended as key cast members aged beyond their characters. Robot Wars was a much more curious case, however.
Rather strikingly, it declined in popularity. Almost inordinately so.
At the peak of its powers (Series 2-4, 1998-2001), Robot Wars drew in surplus of 6 million viewers, but by the end of its BBC tenure it was achieving around 1/5th of this. Channel 5’s revival performed so badly that it was eventually given the chop altogether.
There was a few key factors behind this. Firstly, the Beeb and Five treated the show like that one teacher who didn’t have a permanent classroom. It was often shuffled around the schedule, giving way for sporting events, and it was never advertised as to when it was moved to. Five didn’t have many sports or excuses; once they realised how much of a titanic situation Robot Wars was in, they moved it from its Sunday night slot to Saturday at 8pm, deliberately putting it up against BBC 1’s Casualty and ITV’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire to give the higher uppers concrete proof that the plug should be pulled.
Secondly, they overproduced it to death and sucked out everything that made the show interesting to begin with. It all started in Series 3, when the gauntlet and trials were removed from the competition and relegated to a sideshow, leaving just relentless battling. Which was fine, until it got boring. It also became a show full of clones. The five great innovators (who I will discuss in detail later) were gone by Series 7, and it was impossible to win without a high-pressure flipper, monstrously powerful spinning disc, or… a box on fucking wheels and a lot of power. Innovation was dead, which is something the reboot will look to address.
Finally, the show had become an under-disciplined catastrophe. Case in point: the grand final of Series 7. Storm 2 (a clone of Tornado) was pitted against Typhoon 2 (a full body spinner that actually worked, i.e. a clone of The Revolutionist from BattleBots). In what became one of the most farcical moments in competitive sports history, Typhoon 2 smashed a panel on the arena side wall and the match was paused [STRIKE 1: NO SAFETY]. During the pause, Typhoon was allowed to repair some significant internal damage to retain show continuity, as the producers had said the ring-smashing wouldn’t be televised… it was. The match eventually went to the judges, who ruled in favour of Typhoon… only after some loose drive chains found in the arena weren’t shown to the judges, and the team lied about the health of their robot [STRIKE 2: EXECUTIVE MEDDLING]. The audience went ballistic and a chorus of boos rang out for the undeserving winner [STRIKE 3: THE FANS HATED IT]. Even the official Robot Wars Twitter recognises the sheer bullshittery that took place here.
So what can be done to avert another calamity? As someone who religiously watches all the uploads to YouTube on a regular basis, I think I know the solutions.
1) Less battling
This may seem like a weird first suggestion, and is also the least likely one to occur, but part of the reason why Robot Wars lost so much steam was how one-dimensional it became.
When it first occurred, flipping a robot out of the arena was a majesterial feat. By Series 7, 34 occurrences of ring out rendered the feat boring. Similarly, while the executive meddling against them was completely wrong, Storm 2 and Tornado were by far the most stale, uninteresting machines in competition, and such had boring, processional matches due to their invincibility.
The audience will get fatigued constantly watching just battles. In one day, they won’t just watch one heat, they”ll watch several, and not only were the gauntlet and trials from Series 1 and 2 hugely entertaining, they allow the crowd to rest, and also allow for the odd surprise or two.
It also forced competitors to compromise on things like weight and ground clearance that allows them to complete such tasks. In other words, it makes competitors think differently about their approach rather than cookie cutter something that works in combat, i.e. it forces each robot to be DIFFERENT.
2) More innovation and technology
Speaking of difference, I struggle to think of many truly original entries in later series. Most entries were pushbots, flippers or spinners, leaving little room for alternative. Only Tough As Nails, a Dutch entrant in Series 7, Anarchy in Series 6 and Crushtacean in Series 5 stand out as truly unique in design and controls. Everything else was just an improvement on something pre-existing.
There has been a decade since then, though. With much more technology at competitors disposal, unique and innovative machines should become more commonplace again.
I personally would love to see the technology used for self-driving vehicles adapted for competition in some way. Only then can it truly be called a robot. Other potential avenues for innovation include incorporating computer technology such as the Raspberry Pi and smartphones, and building a walker with legitimate pace and handling capabilities.
3) Less children, more adults with toys
Oh God, won’t someone think of the children! OK, I will. Leave them at home.
My least favourite robot has always been Bigger Brother. I don’t care how plucky it was against Hypno-disc.
Joe and Ellie Watts, as adorable their enthusiasm was, sum up everything Robot Wars became and lost. It all became a camaraderie, a circus. It became less about the engineering and innovation and more about entertaining kids.
I’m all for getting kids involved in STEM-related activities, but you could even see that Craig Charles became more of a hype guy than a presenter by the end, all in the name of entertaining insolent kids whose way of showing appreciation for feats of engineering is by banging their hands spasmodically against some perspex protective glass. Great.
The early season had competitors from a variety of backgrounds, but most were mature enough to focus on the engineering and not the fake hype. And most took defeats like adults too, except these guys.
4) Put engineers at the top of the pyramid
As mentioned previously, too many people who knew absolutely nothing about engineering were in charge of creating the rules for the show, and as such certain designs were stifled.
For example, Series 7 rules dictated that no “thwackbots” were to participate, due to them not having an active weapon. This meant that FORMER GRAND FINALIST Stinger couldn’t participate, despite being in possession of some seriously innovative design features and a weapon powered by its own inertia under braking. A weapon that nearly carried it to a victory over DOUBLE WORLD CHAMPS Chaos 2.
Similarly, Storm 2 was strong-armed into adding a beyond useless lifting arm to its (truthfully boring) design. A weapon it rarely used and was nearly disqualified for not using in a match against Firestorm (more executive meddling).
Let the people who know how to build robots make the rules. Then maybe we’ll finally see flamethrowers, tape and minor missiles used for the first time, providing that they’re safe.
Bonus point: I would add a complete and total ban on full body spinners to the regulations, because it makes fights boring and stupid; who wants to see one robot have to charge at a spinning and motionless lump of metal like a lemming off a cliff and destroy itself? What would you ban or legalise?
5) Keep the fun aspects in
By this, I certainly don’t mean the lame orchestra of drop zones, hype guy Charles and Cassius Chrome. I mean more trials to incite variety. I mean more goofy robots like Megahurts, Elvis and Killertron (except much, much better). And I mean more fun teams.
Two teams in particular come to mind: Team Nemesis and The International Wreck Crew.
Team Nemesis is everyone’s favourite team. Hailing from Dublin, they were renowned for coating themselves and their robots, Nemesis and Diotoir, in red and black polka dot fur. It was highly flammable. And brilliant.
Pyromania aside, they were also one of the teams with a reputation for helping out other struggling teams whenever they could, even when they had problems of their own (such as having to dismantle Diotoir at customs before Series 3 and rebuild it hours before their heat). That kind of sportsmanship is lacking in other sports.
The International Wreck Crew is the team everyone loves to hate. The connoisseurs of violence and damage, they were responsible for the awesome looking but largely shite Plunderbird series of robots, and they even had their own theme song. Send your kids out of the room and supply your pets with earplugs, because this one is gruesome.
It’s unlikely we’ll see these two teams in Series 8, but we’d all love it if we did.
6) Jonathan Pearce, Philippa Forrester and Craig Charles
Those three guys. You simply must bring them back for the system to work.
Could you imagine someone like Simon Brotherton or Ben Edwards commentating on the show? Could you see Claudia Winkleman or Rachel Riley pit reporting? (yes, we could definitely see Rachel Riley pit reporting). Could you envisage a return of the sarcastic, uninterested Jeremy Clarkson over Lister? Nope.
It just isn’t Robot Wars without them.
7) Improved safety
Many of you won’t know why the world-famous Cassius never appeared after Series 3. Despite a poor showing from an excellent machine, the reason why Rex Garrod (fun fact: he made Brum!) and his crew jumped ship right before the First World Championship was because of an alarming lack of safety in the pits.
At the time, it wasn’t compulsory for all robots to be fitted with an on/off switch or safety key (though most were, which caused a few dumb-ass moments). As such, they were prone to suddenly going… berserk. According to Oliver Steeples’ blog, Series 2’s Haardvark reversed uncontrollably off a ledge and hospitalised someone, and after protests to improve safety for Series 3 fell on deaf ears, More Panda Monium was dropped in the pits and its spike cannon fired, puncturing someone’s leg and causing a whole host of side events to be cancelled. That was the final turn of the screw, and one of the greatest roboteers to grace the field was gone.
Smashed arena side walls, serious injuries and flips so huge they destroy cameras are not fun. it’s just dangerous. If you’re going to allow super powerful flippers entry into Robot Wars, make the arena bigger. It’s also fair to say that certain rules can be relaxed within reason while others must be imposed for the safety of others.
8) BONUS: A return from the “Big 5” innovators
If safety is up to Rex Garrod’s standards, he’d be welcomed back with open arms. Four others should join him: George Francis (Chaos 2), Random Violence Technologies (Mortis), Team Razer (Razer) and The Rose Family (Hypno-Disc). Without these teams, a lot of the robots you see wouldn’t exist today.
Cassius is long considered the inventor of the first successful flipper and self righting mechanism. Chaos 2 is the grandfather of CO2 powered flippers and the ring out technique. Hypno-disc’s monstrocity of a weapon gave birth to many successful clones (Fluffy, Disc-o-Inferno and 13 Black to name a few). Razer is the only successful crusher in Robot Wars history. Mortis was one of two robots (Dominator 2 being the other) to design an axe system that actually caused severe damage.
Bring those guys back in and see what they can do. I’m certain there would be fireworks.