Robot Wars. Everyone’s favourite TV show about giant mechanical monsters beating each other to a pulp in Glasgow. The best thing about it? The monsters actually exist. In fact, they’re built by normal people across the country in their garages and sheds. First broadcast 19 years ago, the show was that rare thing: a programme that celebrated brainy hobbyists and robotic warfare at the same time.
In 2016, the idea of rebooting such a 90s phenomenon might well have seemed daft, a feat of nostalgic indulgence with little rhyme or reason, albeit a lot of crunching metal. But the Beeb’s upgraded version of the show that was once hosted by Jeremy Clarkson and Philippa Forrester, and later Craig Charles, was a great, hulking success.
The secret to rebooting something is being able to understand why it worked and recapture that, while still making it fresh and relevant to a new audience. Different, but the same. Familiar, but unrecognisable. Robots, but also robots.
Here’s where Robot Wars got its reboot right:
More human interest
Robot Wars was about robots, yes, but the secret to its appeal outside of a core audience of gearheads was its ability to showcase that noble British tradition of spending loads of time and money on something that’ll probably fall apart within minutes. The new Robot Wars doubles down on that human interest, making sure that the series spends as much as time outside the arena as it does inside: contestants are introduced beforehand with filmed segments of them at home, then interviewed after by co-presenter Angela Scanlon, who has just the right amount of sincere interest in their own relationships and motivations, as well as the inspiration behind their machines. It’s closer to The Great British Bake Off than Top Gear, and all the better for it.
The show’s battles are all about robots smashing the heck out of each other until one of them stops working. But there’s technical know-how behind every blow, and Robot Wars doesn’t shy away from that expertise. Judges Dr Lucy Rogers, Professor Sethu Vijayakumar and Professor Noel Sharkey are on hand to rank bouts on aggression, damage and control, but they also take time out between rounds to chat to presenter Dara O Briain about the engineering that goes into each machine, and even the scientific application of robotics in the modern world. It’s educational as well as entertaining, clever but accessible – a balance that Dara can strike in his sleep (see his work on Stargazing Live with Brian Cox).
The hiring of O Briain and Scanlon is one of the biggest masterstrokes of the Robot Wars reboot; they talk destruction and demolition with excitement, but they’re also never afraid to step back and remind everyone that it’s only a show about remote control gizmos bumping into each other. They’re light, cheerful and never afraid to mock the contestants – all while being sincere. Clarkson and Craig Charles were good in their own way, but they could never pull that off.
More Jonathan Pearce
If you’re going to make a show about remote control gizmos bumping into each other for 60 minutes, make sure you get Jonathan Pearce to shout over the top of it. Because nobody shouts about robotic destruction the way that Jonathan Pearce does. We’d love to see him playing with a Hornby train set at Christmas.
Humour, science and human interest is all well and good, but all of that is what gives Robot Wars depth – and depth is nothing without some high quality surface. And Robot Wars knows exactly what that surface is: more robots. Old robots, new robots, House Robots. More robots than you can shake a stick at.
Doing away with the once-central challenges and focusing solely on a knock-out tournament, the stripped-down format means that all eyes are on the robots when it matters. And so we have spinning machines, such as Carbide, that are genuinely intimidating. We get House Robots that are twice as heavy and double the speed, and we get them all duking it out in an arena with seven-metre-high walls that more than justify their bullet-proof coating. Fires and spikes actually do damage. Shards of metal fly through the air. Even when celebrities turned up for a Christmas special last year, their ideas for robots were taken seriously enough to be created by experienced contestants; when a celebrity special of a TV show doesn’t skimp on the brutality, you know you’re watching a success.
The result is a reboot that refines what made the original so special, while still finding new ways to improve it for both new and old viewers. The news that Season 2 will see the tyre wheel allow House Robots out of their patrol zones to attack robots for 10 seconds, meanwhile, suggests that the show still hasn’t finished tweaking things to make them better. That’s the other secret to a good reboot: knowing that there’s always more fine-tuning to be done.
Robot Wars returns to BBC Two at 8pm on Sunday 22nd October, with new episodes broadcast every Sunday. Episodes will be available for 30 days after broadcast on BBC iPlayer.
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