Robot Wars: The Force Awakens

Posted: January 14, 2016 in Science and Technology, Television

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In October 2013 I wrote about the rise and fall of Robot Wars, one of the great television series of my childhood. Well, after over a decade off the air, it’s back – BBC Two have commissioned a new series of six hour-long episodes to be screened early this year, restoring it to its rightful place after moving first to BBC Choice and then on to Channel Five before its eventual demise in 2004.

This isn’t meant as a full formal article (as I’d be repeating what I wrote last time) but a few points:

– There will be a fairly tight turn-around for the roboteers, with entry applications only opening with yesterday’s announcement and filming planned for March. This gives them just two months to prepare. Robot fighting has continued since the end of the TV series, touring the country in the form of a live show, so it seems the BBC are trying to tap into that rather than trying to encourage many people to build from scratch

– The weight limit has been raised from 100 to 110 kg; this itself had been raised from just under 80 kg for the Fifth Wars. They are obviously anticipating some big, heavy robots

– Six episodes implies they are not expecting many entries at this stage. The Third Wars had 19 episodes, of which 16 were heats; these each had 8 robots, meaning a total of 128 qualifiers (plus reserves who failed to qualify). Even if each of the six episodes had more robots per heat (which is possible given that each episode was originally 40 minutes long), it’s still hard to see how they get anywhere near that

– Six episodes also seems to imply that this is a toe-in-the-water exercise at this stage in order to gauge the response. There’s no guarantee of success, so they don’t want to be lumbered with a botched revival which starts well but then fades when people have had their nostalgia kick and get bored again. If it does well, we can expect the sort of expansion we saw after the First Wars, but it will be hard to capture the public’s imagination in the same way again, given that it was such a surprising success last time

– The key question is how the BBC approach it. Why are they bringing Robot Wars back? Is it primarily because they think the format still has potential, or is this about nostalgia, aimed at the grown-up kids who were the main fanbase the first time? The latter would involve bringing back the old favourites – the iconic house robots, the classic competitors, and the personalities. The former would mean looking long-term, nuking everything and rebuilding the brand from scratch over a period of two or three years

– The implication of the statement and the timing seems to indicate a combination of the two, but more the former. The short time span would mean pre-existing robots will dominate, but that doesn’t mean they will be the same robots that competed on TV, since many of the originals have been retired. Technology has progressed, as the statement says, and the classic robots are mostly now around 15 years old; most would probably be hopelessly outclassed, assuming they even still exist in working form. However, the BBC are already using the imagery of the old house robots to market this, and they are supposedly still in existence somewhere, so it would be surprising if they didn’t try to involve them somehow

– I suspect they call back to the old series while also making it a fresh new programme, like a sort of Robot Wars: The Force Awakens. Starting again from scratch is theoretically the most logical approach, but I think that may disappoint a lot of the initial audience: the generation who grew up with it who are now watching it for nostalgia. There is temptation to pander to this audience, but it would cheapen it and squander an opportunity to build something that could work long-term. However, that would require patience from the BBC to develop a new fanbase and build ratings over time, and in today’s world where high ratings are expected from the start and decisions change on a whim, it’s not entirely certain they will get it

– For that reason, it has to have some continuity and feel relatively familiar. One of the reasons the last series fell flat was because the old robots, around which so much of the marketing has been based, were either retired or outclassed. The viewer has to have some kind of emotional investment in the action, rather than destruction for destruction’s sake. That’s how sport works – it’s inherently fun, but it becomes a lot more entertaining when you know the competitors involved, be it football, athletics, darts or robotic duelling. But how much continuity is technically feasible? Probably not much

– Also, the question of technology is important. They have to show some kind of advancement, especially as they have promised it, but how far do they go? Part of the appeal of the original series was that it gave the impression that anyone could build a robot good enough to get on. It was gloriously amateurish – the crap robots in the heats were part of the fun, like the crap auditionees on early series of Pop Idol and The X Factor. The new series must not lose sight of that. The last series of Robot Wars was less appealing in part because it became too professional. The robots were too good, reducing that impression that anyone could turn up and compete, and sucking a lot of the fun out of it in the process. However, with the short time span for preparation, that shouldn’t be a problem for this first series – things won’t quite be perfect

– My hope is that the BBC don’t overcomplicate it with gimmicks; don’t rely too heavily on the old series for robots and imagery (without ignoring it entirely); and, most importantly, give it time to develop. The basic format of robots fighting, destroying each other and doing crazy things is inherently entertaining. They don’t need to stray too far from this. That being said, it cannot be a clone of the American equivalent BattleBots, which is pure fighting without house robots or arena obstacles and doesn’t have the charm or quirks of Robot Wars. The format of Robot Wars Series 3-4 was basically perfect – just make it like that

– Finally, they absolutely, definitely, 100% have to get Jonathan Pearce to do the commentary. He was integral to the success of the show. I will accept no replacements – it has to be him

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