“Are you a beast? Are you a least? Are you ready to feast?” Those are the words to Chris Classic’s track, Beast, which accompanied the trailer for Ultimate Beastmaster, Netflix’s new sporting competition. And they perfectly set the tone for the whole series, which is half-adrenaline, half-loud music and a whole lot of nonsense.
The show sees 108 athletes from six different countries compete in the world’s “most physically and psychologically demanding obstacle course”. The obstacle course? That’s The Beast. The person to conquer The Beast? Why, yes, that’s the Beastmaster. They’re the best at mastering the Beast. The creme de la Beastmastering creme. The ones who were born to Beastmaster. Who don’t stop until they’ve Beastmastered enough. At the end of the season, the Beastmasters from each of the previous episodes all get together to try and out-Beastmaster each other, Beastmastering the night away until we’re left with only one Beastmaster. But this is Netflix, so our victor isn’t just any ordinary Beastmaster, they’re the Ultimate Beastmaster. Forget the penultimate Beastmaster. Or even the Beastmaster before that. When it comes to Beastmastering, nobody masters the Beast quite like the ultimate Beastmaster.
Of course, all this talk of Beasts, masters and Beastmasters is far more exciting than the actual reality of what Beastmastering is like – because, basically, Ultimate Beastmaster is Ninja Warrior wth bigger obstacles. Takeshi’s Castle with a straight face. Or, to really go back to the origins of the format, Gladiators without referee John Anderson.
The show does its best to live up to its absurdly macho title, spending goodness-knows-how-much on the Beast itself. And, as far it goes, the obstacle course is a genuinely impressive sight – not least because it’s introduced by Sylvester Stallone, who co-created the whole thing.
The production team goes all in to live up to his gruff prologue, doubling down on the smoke, pyrotechnics and lasers. It’s like Wolf from Gladiator (who is sadly absent) had a love child with the giant robot spiders from Wild Wild West. Inside the Beast (are you ready to feast?), a hulking, metallic, never-ending series of stunts. They all have names like “Digestive Tract” and “Vertebrae”, while the water surrounding every platform and pole is called “the blood of the Beast” – if contestants fall in, they automatically fail. But, alas, it’s only water, rather than actual blood, and all the hyperbole only sets the show up for a mild sense of disappointment. There’s no punching through the beast’s heart, bursting through its rib cage, or exploding out of its mechanised rear like a lethal spinning shard of shiny, magnetic poo. In the middle of the Beast’s belly lie “Energy Coils”, which have less to do with the extended animal metaphor and more closely recall the kind of springy mushrooms you find in a level of Mario Kart.
There’s some satisfaction to be found in seeing the wave of humans thrown against the pillars, tossed off the platforms and impaled upon the spikes (ok, that doesn’t happen), just as there’s some fun in rooting for the most outlandish of the entrants – charismatic highlights include Felipe from Brazil, the first man in his home country to make a living from climbing (and an Olympic torch carrier for the 2016 Games), agile South Korean ice climber HeeYong Park, and a young college student, Simon Brunner, whose speed sees him race ahead of the pack. But this is generic stuff that pushes the right buttons without really doing anything you can’t already find on ITV on a Saturday evening.
Nonetheless, it marks the start of a big shift in Netflix’s output, as the streaming giant begins to invest more in unscripted content – at the start of 2017, Former President of Universal TV Bela Bajaria was hired as Netflix’s new head of reality TV. Indeed, THR reports that a second season of Ultimate Beastmaster has already been filmed.
What is innovative, though, is Netflix’s global reach: Ultimate Beastmaster uses that international presence to create something that really does have potential to change the sporting tournament rulebook. What it lacks in Gladiators-style novelty, it almost makes up for with Street Fighter-like scale, recruiting not just contestants from around the world, but also presenters.
Each participating country has their own pair of hosts to front localised versions of the programme to their home crowd. We may not get much Sly (Stallone is only choppered in once more to intro the finale), but we do get Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Terry Crews and Fox Sports host Charissa Thompson. They’re not, sadly, the best pundits – Terry likening the ordeal to post-traumatic stress disorder is a little bit much – but it’s amusing to hear them try and explain the daft rules, including booster switches called “point thrusters”, with a straight face.
It’s a shame, then, that there’s no option to cycle between the different versions of the show while streaming – for British viewers, the focus is very much on the backstory for the American contestants and the US presenters, but the South Korean hosts (comedian Seo Kyung Suk and actress Park Kyeong Rim) look way more fun, chanting and dancing along with their contenders’ successes. Add in the option to watch the whole thing through another country’s perspective and Ultimate Beastmaster could become a unique spectacle. For now, its Beastmastering will have fans of sporting extremes entertained, but others will likely shrug. Beastmaster, sure. Ultimate? Not quite.
Ultimate Beastmaster: Season 1 and 2 are now available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.