Whatever Robot Wars got up to during its twelve year absence from TV, it evidently wasn’t a period of deep, meditative reflection and personal change. The revived series is back on BBC Two with barely a hair different.
Well, the hair’s different. Returning original series teams who never stopped battling robots in the interim have lost some of theirs, while the ‘dos of Dara O’Briain and Angela Scanlon replace those of the previous presenters.
The pair conduct this latest symphony of TV nostalgia with welcome pep and an even more welcome sense of the show’s inherent folly. O’Briain hypes the crowd over the increased ferocity of the ‘biggest, baddest’ house bots and lists engineering statistics as if he were introducing The Beatles at Shea Stadium, but he’s also not blind to the mad frivolity of the thing.
The presenters congratulate those who flip their fearsome opponents like pancakes and offer wry commiseration to those for whom the realisation is just beginning to dawn that they’ve junked a year’s salary on a minute and a half of humiliation by remote control.
Not that all the opponents are fearsome. The stars of episode one weren’t slick operators Team Carbide or Team Behemoth, but muppet-fur waistcoat-wearing quartet Team Nuts. Ramshackle invention, sunny dispositions and luck were their real weapons, not that flail chain. Underdogs like them are the stuff of Robot Wars, so fingers crossed there are plenty more waiting in the wings.
O’Briain and co-presenter Scanlon are largely there as geek-translators for the uninitiated. He explains that double-layer polycarbonate is bullet-proof glass while she introduces the bots and the families and friendships behind them. Both are grand at their jobs, but a more balanced ratio of technical expertise to emotional support and sausage roll-making (thanks Tim’s mum!) from the show’s women wouldn’t go amiss. This is a new opportunity after all. Why remake a show in 2016 if you’re not going to try to push out of the old patterns?
The old patterns remain decidedly undisturbed here. The mini games have been discarded but the same teams are still battling the same robots. The arena may be earthquake-proof now, but it still has the look of a nightclub scene in a 90s cyber-thriller. We’re told robotics has come on in leaps and bounds in a segment with Professor Noel Sharkey, but to the casual viewer most of the head-to-heads still look like a Big Trak trying to hump a reluctant lawnmower.
And yet, it adds up to a kind of magic. The bots, the teams, the bouts, Jonathan Pearce’s electrifying commentary… it’s damn entertaining. And good-hearted to boot.
It’s the human element that makes it so. Thanks to the presenters and participants, there’s none of the nasty aftertaste of other TV ‘talent’ shows that invite us to share in people’s triumphs and failures. It’s serious fun shot through with an endearing sense of its own silliness, the kind of enjoyable, everyone-around-the-telly family viewing that research says we’ve grown out of these days.
Whatever diversity issues it could do with ironing out in future, this showcase for ingenuity and good sportsmanship is a force for good in the world.
Welcome back Robot Wars, it turns out we really missed you.