Robot Wars: A Rapid Rise and Fleeting Fall

Posted: October 23, 2013 in Science and Technology, Television

3, 2, 1…ACTIVATE

It’s hard to believe now, given all the pessimism we here every month about its teaching in schools and the like, but just over a decade ago, Britain went science and technology-mad. Specifically, it went robot-mad. 20 February 1998 saw the BBC Two debut of Robot Wars, centred around conflict between increasingly sophisticated machines built by amateur engineers. The immediate success of the show led to the development in 2000 of Techno Games, essentially a robot Olympics. For a brief period every year, the BBC had two showcases for the best of British engineering, showing just what can be done on a small budget. However, within a few short years, the boom ended almost as quickly as it had begun, and both programmes disappeared from our screens. In an age when every last drop is milked from every successful franchise, it seems unfathomable that a series with so much appeal could essentially disappear. So why did it happen?

Robot Wars was originally developed in the USA in the early-to-mid 1990s by LucasToys employee Marc Thorpe. It wasn’t initially a televised event, instead being a live spectator event. British production company Mentorn saw the potential in the idea and came up with a format for television, and eventually in 1998, Head of BBC Two Mark Thompson (the future Director-General of the Beeb and now CEO of the New York Times) commissioned an initial six episodes to be broadcast on Friday evenings.

The first series was presented by Top Gear star Jeremy Clarkson, who was making his mark away from the motoring show for the first time and had already forged a reputation as an edgy, outspoken figure. Philippa Forrester, a host of the BBC’s flagship science programme Tomorrow’s World, was the pit reporter, interviewing contestants before and after the action. The studios where the action was filmed were dark and metallic, giving them a menacing feel and making any sparks, flames, lights and steam stand out whenever they appeared, while the production values of the show were very high. Against all this was the excitable commentary of the then-largely anonymous football commentator Jonathan Pearce, which would become perhaps the iconic feature of the British series, to the point where Pearce has never quite been able to live it down.

The initial format was made up of three rounds. The opening round was the Gauntlet, which saw the robots try and get through an obstacle course. Here they would have to negotiate the House Robots for the first time. These were the robots designed and operated by the production team, and were (certainly initially) far larger, more powerful and destructive than the competing robots. One of the six robots in each heat would be eliminated at this stage. Another would be eliminated in the Trial, which varied from week to week – it included a sumo contest, football and pinball, amongst other things.

The final rounds, though, were the most popular – the Arena section, where robots would face off in a duel. The four surviving robots would be divided into semi-finals, with the winners of both competing for a place in the first Grand Final. The Arena saw the House Robots based in the Corner Patrol Zones or CPZs – if a robot entered them, they were considered fair game. The most notable of the other features was the Pit of Oblivion (usually simply known as the Pit). Others included the Arena Flipper (introduced in Series Three), spikes, flame-throwers and circular saws. The objective of the duel was to either immobilise the other robot, drive it into the pit or throw it out of the Arena. If none of these were achieved in the allotted time, the winner would be determined by a panel of judges, marking the competitors on style, damage, control and aggression – crucially, the damage sustained by each robot was considered the most important aspect.

The first Grand Final saw the winners of the six heats in a frantic Royal Rumble-style scrap, which ended with two robots still standing – it was a relatively unimpressive end to the series, tagged on to the final episode. The first champion, on a judges’ verdict, was Roadblock, a relatively simple machine that used its wedge shape to tip other robots over.

Even though many of the robots competing were a bit, er, crap by later standards, the first series was a surprise hit and an expanded 15-episode second series was commissioned, beginning in November 1998 and finishing in March 1999. Clarkson left before the series began, having never really clicked with the show, and was replaced by Craig Charles, the Scouse star of sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf. Surprisingly, Charles added far more gravitas and confidence than Clarkson, as well as enthusiasm, which helped set the tone for a more settled show. He would become synonymous with Robot Wars, hosting it up until its conclusion. The series also saw the introduction of the most famous House Robot, Sir Killalot. A giant blue beast meant to look vaguely like a knight, it was known as the “King of the House Robots” and was often capable of picking up immobilised competitors and, in later series, even throwing them out of the Arena.

The Grand Final was won by bright yellow Welsh robot Panic Attack, another relatively simple machine, which shoved hot favourite Cassius, the first robot able to right itself after being turned over (which became known as a self-righting mechanism or srimech), into the Pit in a dramatic finale. Panic Attack would go on to become one of the mainstays of the show.

Series Three, with 19 episodes, began in December 1999 and ended in April 2000. By now the show was becoming more confident in itself and they made the first major changes, ditching the Gauntlet and the Trial stages from the main competition to focus on the fights, extending the length of each episode to 45 minutes, and improving some of the House Robots to make them even more powerful. It also saw the emergence of some of the shows most iconic competitors – after three series, it now had regular contenders and some history to play with.

Two of these were the stand-out performers of the series, and the final two left standing in the Grand Final – Chaos 2, a small, fast black machine with its extremely powerful CO2 canister-based flipper which was the first capable of flipping a robot out of the Arena, and Hypno-Disc, with its incredibly destructive spinning disc which tore many of the more fragile robots apart in the early rounds. However, Hypno-Disc’s one weakness was being flipped, and that’s exactly what Chaos 2 did in the final, ending it by with a single flip, as well as flipping and seriously damaging two of the House Robots.

The establishment of recognisable robots during this time helped turn Robot Wars into a successful brand, with toys and video games featuring these top robots developed, mainly for children. The franchise was also exported abroad, to the Netherlands, Germany and the USA. March 2000 also saw the launch of Techno Games, just after National Science Week.

The rise in standard of competition continued through Series Four, which ran from September 2000 to February 2001 and saw the addition of the House Robot Refbot. It also saw the broadcasting of episodes on the BBC’s digital-only channel BBC Choice for the first time, albeit only as repeats. Chaos 2 once again triumphed, but this time victory would be a lot more hard-fought, as it defeated unflippable pyramid-shaped robot Pussycat by a judges’ decision in the Grand Final. Tragically, David Gribble, the talented young driver of Pussycat, would later die in a motorcycle accident in October 2001 after the filming of Series Five.

During this period, a number of specials were made, including the International League Championship, the Celebrity Special and the Tag Team Terror, providing more evidence that the show was now big business. October 2001 saw a slight shift, with the launch of Robot Wars Extreme, an official series of specials that were mostly broadcast around the festive period, with broadcasting Series Five not beginning until May 2002, with only 15 episodes this time. Chaos 2’s run ended, with Grand Final victory going to the popular Razer, with its powerful claw seeing off Bigger Brother, who had somehow come through an awesome contest with Hypno-Disc shortly before.

Is this where things had started to go downhill, though? Did the Extreme series disrupt the show’s momentum? It’s certainly when I started to lose interest – yes, I was getting older, but I was still only 11 when this was happening. On the one hand, you could speculate that I was bored with it, but I remember feeling at the time that there were a few gimmicks creeping in. Certainly by Series Six this was noticeable, particularly with the ridiculous new house robot Mr Psycho, seemingly built to outdo Sir Killalot, and the addition to the Arena of the Disc of Doom, a spinning panel in the floor, and the Drop Zone, where an immobilised robot could be placed to have something heavy dropped onto it.

An interesting point to note is that there was a long delay between the recording of Series Five and its broadcasting. It was filmed in August-September 2001, but it wasn’t broadcast until May 2002. Also it was broadcast first on BBC Choice, where it would be shown every weekday, with BBC Two not getting the series until after it had been shown in its entirety on the channel that would later become BBC Three. Another factor in its loss of momentum?

Broadcasting of Series Six on BBC Two began a week after the end of Series Five in November 2002, but it had already begun on Choice in September. Likewise, it would finish on Choice in January 2003, but not until April on Two. This confusion cannot have helped, and the end result was Robot Wars abruptly leaving the BBC for Channel Five, disrupting the broadcast of the second series of Robot Wars Extreme on BBC Two. Series Seven, the only one on Five, would be the last, with Robot Wars disappearing from our screens in March 2004, a mere six years after its emergence. A tour has kept the brand alive in some sense, including many of the old robots from the TV series, but let’s face it – it’s not quite the same.

So what of its rise and fall?

It’s easy to see the attraction of the show – lots of carnage and mayhem, as well as a great advert for technology and engineering. We often think of building electronic things as functional, but this demonstrated you could have fun as well – and it could be you, because the robots were built by amateurs, average people off the street like you and me (though usually white and middle class). If you think about it, the format is similar to the TV talent shows that would emerge in the early 2000s – the early rounds being like an audition phase, with the good robots shining through and competing in a knockout to win the main prize, while the bad ones get destroyed and their owners humiliated, albeit with a smile on the face. We got to know the regulars, whose personalities (or lack of) became memorable, ranging from the menacing Plunderbird team to young Joe and Ellie Watts of the Big/Bigger Brother team, and design and driving aces George Francis of Team Chaos and Rex Garrod of Team Cassius (who also built Brum of children’s TV fame).

As well as this, in the early series in particular, there was a colourful variety of robots – even if many weren’t very good at fighting, credit must go to the design flair. Notable examples were articulated robot Milly Ann Bug, the “clusterbot” Gemini which split into two, and style-over-substance robots like Elvis and Max Damage (which failed to move at all in its brief appearance in Series Three).

However, what initially started out as a bit of fun quickly became very competitive, and the standard increased dramatically, perhaps costing the championship of its charm. The robots that helped Robot Wars build its popularity in the early series were superseded by a new breed of robots that were often faster and more powerful. Series Six winner Tornado was not especially popular with the production crew, as its main strength was the ability to shove other robots around the Arena, as opposed to the more exciting or destructive robots that it beat. The move to Five saw new rules stating that all the robots entering must have a functioning weapon to prevent “boring” robots from winning, as well as restricting some of the most powerful weapons, meaning no place for Razer.

Another robot not especially popular with those in charge of the television aspect was Storm 2. Similar in design to Tornado but even more powerful, it won the New Blood competition prior to Series Seven, after which the production team asked the team behind it to attach a “proper” weapon to it. Nonetheless, it surged through to the Grand Final in Series Seven, where it would face Typhoon 2, with its own hyper-destructive disc. This was essentially the logical conclusion of two of the three main schools of competitive robot design – the rambots and the disc robots.

The final battle in Robot Wars history was perhaps the highest standard fight in its existence, with a delay caused at one point by Typhoon 2 breaking the side of the Arena due to the power of its disc, demonstrating that these were the two fastest, most powerful and most durable combat robots ever built. In the end, neither robot was immobilised, and the judges controversially awarded the fight to Typhoon 2, mainly due to the damage to Storm 2. This was despite what was perceived to be far more aggressive driving by the Storm team during the battle.

But in some ways, this perhaps explains Robot Wars‘ ultimate failure – it was defeated by its own success. As more and more people joined in, the standard got higher, to the point where the competing robots were damaging the Arena as they fought – echoes of motorsport, where innovations in car design and the exploitation of every loophole going led to cars that were just too fast and too dangerous to race.

People took it very seriously, to the point where notions of Robot Wars ethics were clearly being debated behind the scenes – clearly they were insecure about the future of the series if they were worried about “boring” robots winning. This is a far cry from the early series where most of those involved weren’t taking it particularly seriously, including the top competitors.

However, by then, most of these people and their renowned robots that had made the show a hit had gone. People were left with little emotional attachment to the likes of Storm 2 and Typhoon 2 – not because they weren’t interesting robots, but because they were a new generation which people weren’t familiar with. The producers had made use of the early series robots so often – as the basis of TV specials, video games and in toy form – that they created a problem for themselves when the old robots were overtaken, retired or forced out, as inevitably would happen given that those building the robots were amateurs. While they couldn’t stop new robots entering and winning, their marketing strategy was such that Robot Wars ran out of steam when this began to happen. The show may have been on the slide before this happened, particularly with the inconsistencies of the BBC’s broadcasting of it and the move to unpopular Channel Five, but this just compounded it.

Robot Wars had enormous potential. It was ideally set up for a business model that could (and did) make millions. It could have lasted a lot longer than it did. Did those behind and involved with the show eventually lose touch with what had made it a success? Did we have too much Robot Wars in a short space of time which led to the public tiring of it? Or was the whole thing always doomed to a short lifespan due to its inherent restrictive format? As a further point, Techno Games also failed to last beyond 2003 – was our love affair with science gameshows only fleeting?

Either way, for those of us of a certain generation, we’re still left with memories, and plenty of YouTube footage to relive those classic battles. It’s just a shame Hypno-Disc never did win that title it deserved…

All images used in the spirit of fair use – for further information, check out the Robot Wars Wikia, an outstanding archive of Robot Wars information

  1. ajayrious says:

    I agree with quite a lot of what you say. I loved Robot Wars so much and still do when watching reruns of the earlier series but I lost track of the series midway through series 6 and when it moved to Five it was a different time slot and I never remembered to watch (this was in the days before Sky Plus). In looking back on those two series on youtube and such they just seemed to have a different atmosphere to what had gone before (Not helped by the replacing of the lovely Phillipa Forrester for series 7). I still haven’t watched much of series 7, but from looking online it does seem that most of the more recognisable robots were not there anymore and that would certainly have contributed to me switching off. It certainly didn’t help that I didn’t have digital tv at that time either so couldn’t watch on BBC Choice.

    The high point of the series was undoubtedly the Bigger Brother / Hypnodisc fight and that was around the same time of Extreme series 1 which I loved since the “good” robots were in it together every single week.

    It would be great if they could bring it back to TV in some form but maybe as you say, its fifteen minutes of fame has passed now.

  2. […] ajayrious on Robot Wars: A Rapid Rise and F… […]

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