Robot Wars: revisiting the original show

Ahead of the return of Robot Wars to BBC Two, we revisit the classic original run of the show...

3. 2. 1. Activate!

In early February 1998 a new TV game show surfaced on BBC Two, one that was about as different as anything we’d ever seen. It didn’t feature general knowledge questions or sprints around a super market, it was equal parts testosterone and techno-geek chic. It was, of course, Robot Wars and it would quickly become one of the most popular programmes on TV.

Before appearing on UK TV, Robot Wars was first dreamt up over the pond. The story goes that a Lucasfilm-employed toy designer by the name of Marc Thorpe came up with the idea in 1992 while failing to build a remote control vacuum cleaner. The results ended up being less about cleanliness, and more about carnage. This unexpected turn out made Thorpe realise that radio controlled robot fighting could be a big thing. The seed of Robot Wars was planted.

In 1994 Thorpe created the first incarnation of Robot Wars. Not a TV show, this was a live competition that featured a small number of robots doing battle in front of a 1,000 strong audience. It was successful, drawing in additional funding from a New York record label, Sm:)e Communications, and was followed by three even more impressive and successful wars until 1997.

During 1997, events took a turn for the worse for Marc Thorpe. The record company that helped him get Robot Wars off the ground, now called Profile Records, reportedly went behind his back, consulting with Mentorn Broadcasting to create a UK TV show based on Thorpe’s ideas. The deal went through, and led to the creation of the Robot Wars we all know.

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While this TV deal was being pursued by Profile Records and Mentorn Broadcasting, Thorpe was working on his fifth Robot Wars, scheduled for 1998. There was a major buzz around this, which was soon quashed when Profile Records issued a court order preventing Thorpe from holding any more Robot Wars competitions. Thorpe was effectively robbed of his own creation.

A former competitor of Thorpe’s Robot Wars, Gary Cline got involved in the legal mess after Profile Records attempted to shut down a Robot Wars online discussion forum. He announced his intention to stage his own tournament fearing the cancellation of Robot Wars ’98. This would be called Robotica and would take place on June 26 1998 in San Francisco.

In a move to seemingly scupper Robotica, Mentorn also announced Robot Wars for San Francisco on the very same weekend. However, the anticipation for Robotica was too high and Mentorn cancelled its tournament, but not without having the final say. With a capacity crowd and participation roster on the books, Cline’s event was cancelled due to a court order filed against him by Profile Records. Both fans and competitors are understandably angry at this result, but Profile’s plans were unaffected, and the legal battles continued until March 1999 when the results of the legal case were revealed. Profile Records won the rights to Robot Wars, but Thorpe would remain involved in some capacity.

The Robot Wars legal debacle out of the way, attention eventually turn to more competitors, notably another US-based name, Battlebots. Profile Records also attempted to take this down in court, but failed. The following years saw various other legal shenanigans involving Robot Wars, Thorpe, and other events, and you can find out more about the specifics of these here. As you can see, the behind the scenes of Robot Wars was just as vicious as the action in the arena.

Low gear

The first series of Robot Wars was a typically low-key test bed for the BBC consisting of only six episodes. It was overseen by Jeremy Clarkson, who brought with him his familiar acerbic wit and characteristic disdain. He was accompanied by Philippa Forrester who served as the co-host in the pits, and on commentary was Jonathan Pearce, who would become the voice of Robot Wars, and was present for all series of the show, including the 2016 revival.

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Clarkson wasn’t a great fit with the show, chiefly because of his lack of enthusiasm for robot action. His demeanour and tongue-in-cheek comments put across the sense that this was all childish guff, watched by nerds and geeks he couldn’t bring himself to care about. It felt as though he’d much rather be sat behind the wheel of a big boy’s toy talking to blokes he considered were on his level. In the pits, Forrester was a much better fit, and soon became a fan-favourite. She gelled with the competitors, and seemed to enjoy the whole experience.

Arguably even more important were the show’s house robots, which benefitted from professional construction and no need to stick to competition weight rules. They were impressive, and clearly designed to wow kids and adults alike. Matilda, Sgt Bash, Shunt and Dead Metal were the series’ team, and lurked in the arena’s patrol zones for unlucky contestants, dubbed ‘Roboteers’.

The format of the program was clearly a plan in flux. The heats consisted of the Gauntlet obstacle course, a trial, and one-on-one knockouts. On paper, the Gauntlet was interesting, with various routes for robots to take guarded by house robots, but the actual result was an often tepid event that had its moments, but never quite worked as well as it could have. The trials were more interesting and entertaining, consisting of different challenges each week, including sumo bouts, robot football, mazes, and British bulldog.

The real meat of the show, and the biggest draw were the actual fights, which were saved until the end of each episode. These saw the remaining robots duke it out to determine the eventual winner, who would go through to the final battle at the end of the sixth episode. This was a simple six-robot melee.

Despite the slow start and a somewhat flawed structure, Robot Wars‘ first series was a success, and was unlike anything the UK had seen before. Even at this early stage, the contestant robots were pretty impressive, with some clear highlights. The likes of the champion of series one, Roadblock and the insanely expensive, Oxford University-built Mortis (which was a clear favourite) painted a promising picture of what was to come, and the house robots always provided some satisfying action, even if the contestants failed to do so.

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Awooga!

For the second series of Robot Wars, which started airing on the 6th of November 1998, the BBC made some changes, including an increase in the size of the show to fifteen episodes, which meant more competitors. The second series also saw the departure of Clarkson, and the arrival of the most famous host of the show, the indomitable Craig Charles.

Charles brought undeniable energy and enthusiasm to the series, a whole league ahead of Clarkson’s somewhat fed-up performance. Charles was a perfect fit for the show, and like Philippa Forrester, who also returned for series two, he got on with the competitors and was a great front man. He even managed to work in a few Red Dwarf references. Charles and Forrester would become the most popular and well-known presenting team, and rightly so.

Craig Charles wasn’t the only new addition to the show’s roster, and alongside the existing creations, the most famous house robot of them all was also wheeled out. Sir Killalot was a mammoth robot that towered over all others. Created for sheer spectacle, he certainly achieved this, and it was always exciting to see what he’d do to competing robots.

The actual format of the show didn’t change much, although the Gauntlet was redesigned with different obstacles, including a giant mechanical arm. This time there was a semi-final where remaining competitors battled for a place in the final.

The major change in terms of the competition here came with the robots themselves. Series 2 was when we saw a lot of the most famous robots and teams appear, including Panic Attack, Cassius, Chaos, Behemoth, and the return of Mortis. The build quality of the robots was getting better, and we saw the first effective flippers. Previously, weapons were mostly rams and the odd hammer. Series 2 changed that. Perhaps the most notable moment of the entire series, and a classic highlight was Cassius’ first use of its flipper as a ‘self-righting mechanism’, or ‘SRIMECH’, as it became known. Flipped upside down by Killalot during a trial, Rex Garrod’s Cassius used its ram to perform a flip back onto its wheel. It was amazing to see.

Panic Attack emerged the winner here, making money for charity as it won each and every round, although Cassius was a worthy runner-up.

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Chaos reigns

Series 3 was by far the biggest yet, spanning 19 episodes with even more teams competing. Finally, the producers acted on the wishes of fans, and the preamble of the gauntlet was ditched in favour of a structure that consisted of more actual fights in the form of knockout bouts. There was still a bit of filler in the form of mini tournaments for pinball, football, middleweight and walker robots, but these were often entertaining in their own right, and broke up the standard fights.

For me, this season was when Robot Wars really hit its stride, not only in terms of actual content, but also for participant quality. While series 2 saw a definite improvement in robots and introduced some familiar names, season 3 really packed them in, and we saw some amazing displays, not least the arrival of one of the greatest robots of all time, Chaos 2.

Flippers were the name of the game here after Cassius’ success in the preceding series, and Chaos 2 undoubtedly had the best around, demonstrated perfectly by being the first ever robot to throw another out of the arena, which it did against Firestorm.

Flippers may have been where it was at, but we also saw some other big names and weapons appear, none more notable than two of the most feared robots in the entirety of Robot Wars – Razer and Hypno-Disc. The former of the two is often heralded as the best robot in all of Robot Wars, with its devastating break-shaped crusher, and Hypno-Disc was by far the most devastating, offering destruction on a large, entertaining spectacle. It’s known to many as the best robot to never win the title.

Other notable entries included Cassius 2, Firestorm, Pussycat, The Big Cheese, and Killerhurtz. Mortis also returned, but again didn’t perform well.

A great series, the third war was long and entertaining with far more highlights than previous wars thanks to the greatly improved robots. Chaos 2 ended up taking the prize, unsurprisingly as it was clearly one of the most well-built, but both Hypno-Disc and Firestorm were close behind.

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Meow!

The fourth wars continued in much the same vein as the previous series. Philippa Forrester was absent, however, as she was pregnant. She was replaced for the series by Julia Reed. Everything else remained the same, save for a change to the opening heats, which were retooled into three-way fights. The series also featured the returning pinball warrior and sumo trials. A new house robot was introduced, although not as an antagonist. The Refbot was just that, a mechanised referee that could count out disabled ‘bots and stop house robots who interfered when they shouldn’t. In truth, it didn’t do much, but it was a nice touch.

As for the robots, it was more of the same, with the expected updates to technology and some more inventiveness. Some competitors did little work, though, simply returning with the same machine. Chaos 2, for example, was identical to its previous incarnation save for a few tweaks, while others received more notable adjustments. Hypno-Disc now had a self-righter for example, and Pussycat had replaced its previous season’s circular saw blade with a custom-designed one. The team was disqualified in the last war as their blade shattered dangerously in the arena during a bout. This kind of tempered blade was not allowed in the competition. The fourth war also saw the arrival of the team that would become quite controversial later on: team Tornado, which we’ll come to in a moment.

Once again, this war was quite the spectacle at times, and it saw Pussycat quickly become one of the crowd favourites. It was also the debut of the interesting ‘cluster bot’ Gemini, a robot that entered the arena as a single robot, but split into two during the fight. It was clear that innovation was growing in the pits, and there was more to the competition that the most powerful flipper.

That said, Chaos 2 and its powerful flipper successfully defended its title, becoming the first and only robot to win the title two years running. It beat Pussycat in the final.

Following the fourth wars the first of two Robot Wars Extreme series aired. This didn’t follow the same format of the standard series, but instead focused on a range of special on-off titles and challenges. Each episode had a main event, usually for a challenge belt or title, and also had other battles such as vengeance grudge matches, all-star battles, and special events like special forces fights where various armed and emergency forces built their own robots.

The format was more in your face, with competitors often filming WWE-style interviews and taunts to their opponents. It was more than a little cringe-worthy most of the time, but Extreme did deliver much more action that fans wanted, and gave teams a chance to win other titles when they had failed to make it in the main tournament. Extreme also featured robots from around the world.

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Controversy corner

The fifth and sixth wars continued with the same style, and there wasn’t really much in the way of evolution. Losers in the initial heats were given the chance to fight for a place in the final in a three-way melee, and in the sixth wars, the first melee fights were changed to four-way bouts. Also new to the sixth war was the arrival of another couple of house robots, Mr. Psycho and his faithful mutt, Growler. They looked impressive, but didn’t actually do all that much, and didn’t make the same impact as the mighty Killalot.

The competition was, as always, even better, with more robots and more innovation. These two wars saw the once indomitable flipper lose its lustre, and the new wave of bots embraced the spinning disc weapon made famous in the competition by Hypno-Disc. Robots like S3, 13 Black impressed, although the eventual winner of the sixth wars would feature no elaborate weapons, but came with a lot of controversy.

The final saw the reigning champion, the deadly Razer, who won the fifth wars up against Tornado. It was the piercing beak versus what was little more than a hunk of metal on wheels (although it now had a scoop on the front). Tornado was very fast and hit hard, but Razer had the chance to easily damage it, or at least it would have if not for team Tornado’s last minute addition of an ‘anti-crusher web’. This was simply a large metal skirt around the robot designed to prevent Razer from getting close.

Cleared by the judges as the Tornado team had always declared their changeable weapon system, many felt the web itself was not part of the weapon, and was instead merely a cheap tactic. It prevented Razer from putting up any offence. That is, until the end of the bout when Razer managed to pierce Tornado and pick it up, before dumping it in the pit. Sadly for Razer, the web surrounding Tornado stopped them from fitting in the pit, and the bout went to perhaps the most controversial judges’ decision of the programme thus far. Tornado won, and although the Razer team were gracious in defeat, the controversy was there, and Tornado gained more than a few haters.

According to reports of some spectators at the live show, the match was blanketed with deafening boos from the audience, which were allegedly dubbed over with cheers by the TV show. Fans at the event were not happy at all. The disgruntlement carried on in forums and discussion everywhere, with some defending Tornado for using viable tactics, and others saying it was against the whole spirit of the show. Either way, it made for an interesting final, and showcased a new evolution of robots that could be altered for the match and opponent ahead.

Five alive

The seventh, and final wars of the initial run was not found on the BBC, but instead moved to Channel Five, likely due to ever-decreasing viewing figures, which dropped to around 1.2million for the sixth wars.

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The move to Five brought many new changes, including the announcement of a £20,000 grand prize. The major changes, however, came with the competition rules, many of which were clear reactions to the controversy of the sixth wars. With input from previous roboteers George Francis (Chaos 2) and Kim Davies (Panic Attack) who now served as technical consultants, several new stipulations were added.

Robots above featherweight now had to sport an active (moving) weapon. This was a move to prevent ‘boring rambots’ like Tornado from becoming too prevalent. Interchangeable equipment also came with caveats. Teams could no longer change the robot’s body panels and couldn’t add more armour. This was a blatant response to Tornado’s infamous win in the last series. Entrants were also prevented from using any barbed or snagging mesh, as this could greatly diminish the effectiveness of spinners. Even the PSI rating of pneumatics and hydraulics were limited. Some thought this simply neutered robots, but it was all done with a deliberate goal.

Clearly, the organisers wanted audience-pleasing bouts and spectacle, and changed the rules to ensure this would happen. Robot variety and innovation were paramount, and all breeds had to have a fair crack of the whip, something fans, and obviously event organisers thought didn’t happen in the sixth wars final. These new rules, specifically the active weapon rule prevented some big names from entering, notably the veteran Stinger team.

There were a couple of other changes to the show too. Philippa Forrester didn’t return, and was replaced by Jayne Middlemiss, and yet another new house robot appeared in the form of Cassius Clay. The format of the actual competition was the same, minus any semi-finals. The heats went straight to the final.

Some good robots appeared this season, but few were as clearly capable as the incredible RAF-built spinning top, Typhoon 2, and the very Tornado-like Storm II. The Tornado team obviously returned to defend their title. All three, along with X-terminator made it to the final.

Storm 2 versus Tornado, despite the new rules, was a full-on ramming match, albeit an entertaining one, which Storm II won, but the real fun started with Typhoon’s first match of the final.

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In the match, Typhoon was so devastating, it even destroyed part of the ‘bomb-proof’ arena wall, causing the bout to be stopped. The judges even stated that they thought Typhoon 2 was probably the single most dangerous robot ever seen in Robot Wars. If not for the surrounding cage protecting the audience, there could well have been spectator injuries. Needless to say, Typhoon 2 won.

The final was between Typhoon 2 and Storm II, and once again was a controversial affair. The actual match was very cat and mouse, with Storm II being by far the most aggressive, nearly flipping Typhoon 2 a few times. The match was halted after Typhoon once again smashed a side wall of the arena, and after the reset it was more can and mouse. Near the end of the bout, a large panel fell off Storm II, with no real clear indication of the cause.

This lead to another tough judges’ decision, and one that the audience really didn’t like. Both robots  won two categories, but as Typhoon was deemed to have won the damage criteria due to Storm II’s missing panel, it took the win. In truth Storm II was by far the better robot of the match, and should have won. That didn’t happen, though, an Typhoon 2 was the last Robot Wars champion.

Cease!

And that was that. After seven main wars and two series of Extreme, the story of Robot Wars came to a close in 2004. Its speedy success and rise to the top of the ratings couldn’t last forever, and despite grabbing the rights and only airing one season, Five didn’t produce any more. For all intents and purposes, the UK TV incarnation of Robot Wars was dead, and it stayed that way for 12 years, until now.

Back in the hands of the BBC, Robot Wars is back on BBC 2 for a limited six-part run, much to the joy of fans who miss the robotic combat. Series stalwarts Craig Charles and Philippa Forrester are not returning, however, even though Charles said he was more than happy to reprise his role. The new hosts of the show are Dara Ó Briain and Angela Scanlon.

Fans are looking forward to the kind of robots twelve years of technological advancement will bring, as well as the return of previous names, not to mention the mighty house robots.

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Robot Wars returns to BBC Two at 8pm on Sunday the 24th of July.