Time Commanders episode 1 review

Time Commanders is back! But is the revival a magnificent victory or ignominious defeat?

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

This review contains spoilers.

Prior to episode one of the revived Time Commanders, it would have been fair to describe my knowledge of the Punic Wars as ‘not extensive’ and even fairer to describe it as gleaned entirely from this Eddie Izzard routine. Post-episode one, I don’t mind saying that I picked up a few things.

I learned that Carthaginian leader Hannibal, for instance, had the look of Michael Sheen playing the lead in a CG animation biopic about Beppe from EastEnders. Roman general Scipio (pronounced Skippy, oh – the disappointed utterance of someone discovering the famous bush kangaroo pleasuring herself against a Eucalyptus tree) however, was a dead ringer for Vladimir Putin.

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There’s more. Despite commanding a load of elephants and a force of forty thousand at the Battle of Zama—each one of whom was lucky enough to get an individual close-up this week during the long wait for the real action to begin—, Hannibal lost. I’m unsure as to whether that was due to him making the same mistake as one of the Time Commanders teams and sending said elephants unaccompanied into battle as his vanguard, perhaps in the optimistic hope that once in the fray they’d turn from wrinkly transit vans into unstoppable killing machines and leave his men to simply wander in and sweep up the Roman corpses.

I know why The Wrestlers, controllers of the Carthaginian army in this week’s re-enacted historical clash, made that move. In the pre-battle training skirmish (during which the other team stands about wondering when they’re allowed to eat their sandwiches), their opponents The Board Game Enthusiasts went to pieces when faced with a single elephant. Armed with eighty of the beasts, General Gary must have thought his lot would walk it.

James, the general for the Roman side and played here by a young Hugh Bonneville, remained sturdily hopeful throughout his team’s dismal practice round failure. “That elephant has MULLERED you!” shouted presenter Gregg Wallace. “That it has, but it’s only one elephant” answered James bravely, proving that posh people always sound as if they know what they’re doing even when what they’re doing is getting trampled by only one elephant.

General Gary had failed to take into account Time Commanders’ next crucial lesson: elephants aren’t magic. That was explained with admirable patience by military history expert Dr Lynette Nusbacher, who, alongside weapons historian Mike Loades, has been a fixture on the show since it began. (Even more admirably, since the previous series the excellent Dr Nusbacher has done her bit to help correct Time Commanders’ male-leaning gender imbalance by becoming a woman. Thus far, she’s the only one to feature in the entire hour, though the sex of the elephants remains undisclosed.)

“How would you recommend one deals with an elephant?” James asked the tactical experts. “You stick spears into them” answered Dr Lynette Nusbacher with sage confidence. Another lesson you won’t learn from Sir David Attenborough.

One thing the Carthaginians’ real-world loss can’t be pegged up to is the distracting influence of a MasterChef presenter delightedly spilling their battle plans to the enemy. Spotting General Gary’s concealed cavalry, Gregg Wallace barked “HA HA! You LOVE your AMBUSHES don’t you Gary!” in earshot of the Roman army. There’s that tactic blown. Hannibal may have had to contend with the might of Rome, but he didn’t have to contend with Gregg Wallace.

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Wallace seems an odd choice for this programme. You have to wonder if, on finding Dara O’Briain otherwise engaged, the producers simply took a punt on the next available hair-free presenter, thinking O’Briain’s smooth pate was the source of his comfortable wit and easy-going persona. Judging by Wallace’s fixed smile and awkward interactions in this episode though, it’s not a bald thing. 

It is fitting perhaps that Wallace, a man known for describing the act of knocking together a bit of dinner with such barking, pop-eyed seriousness that it sounds more dramatic than doing battle with Nelson at Trafalgar, is now commenting on actual battles. I say commenting. He was more of a taunter, the sort of dad at Sunday morning football the other parents gradually shuffle away from down the sidelines.

“Let’s BASH some Romans!” shouted Gregg, gleefully skipping between the teams and yelling about armies “routing all OVER the place”, at one point stopping to wiggle his arms and shout “CAVALRY” into a bemused player’s face. When the battle finally began, Wallace became so excited that he ran around emitting a low, warbling sound. “Woooooaaaahhhh wooooooorrrrr” he burbled, too blissfully happy to even repeat the word “routing”.

What little momentum was built up in battle was torn down by the calling of a ‘time-out’. These were carefully introduced at the precise moment the bout threatened to turn from a baffling panic into something approaching a spectator sport. Just when you might have started to believe you were watching a pre-VFX episode of Game Of Thrones, play was ended as the team and experts gathered for a stilted confab around the table.

Before things could get even that exciting, there were multiple cutaways to the Field Team to explain the many and various ways our ancestors liked to hit people with sticks. “The best slingers came from the Bal-e-aric Islands” explained Matt Berry’s character from House Of Fools.

Which was the moment it dawned on you that Time Commanders isn’t proper telly at all. It’s school in disguise. This is the sort of programme the history teacher would sit the class in front of for a special treat when the tension headache became too overwhelming. Speaking of which, I think I can feel one coming on now.

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Time Commanders continues next Monday the 19th of December at 9pm on BBC Four.