Why the BBC should commission more Time Commanders

BBC Four’s Time Commanders is joyful, nerdy, educational fun. We’d like a million new episodes commissioned please…

1) A dog carrying an unwieldy but clearly excellent stick.

2) A child being presented with an ice-cream that’s bigger than their face.

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3) Me whenever somebody falls into a paddling pool on You’ve Been Framed!

Until December 2016, those were the purest examples of joy I could name. Now? There’s a new addition to the list. Ladies and gentlemen I give you: the joy of BBC Four’s Time Commanders.

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Engage skirmish

Time Commanders aired its first sixteen-episode series on BBC Two in 2003. Devised by Adam Macdonald, each episode pitted a team of four contestants against a computer opponent. Using a game engine based on Rome: Total War, each side controlled an army from a famous historical military clash. The idea was to see if revised attack strategies could ‘rewrite’ the history of the victors and the vanquished.

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Eddie Mair presented series one, with Richard Hammond replacing him for the eight-episode second series in 2005. And then… nothing. BBC Two mothballed Time Commanders until, in July 2016, a post snuck onto the BBC website advertising for contestants for a revival of the original series.

When the new episodes arrived on BBC Four in December, Time Commanders had a new host and new tweaks. Instead of one team fighting against the computer, two teams, each in control of an historical warring army, would fight each other. The three-person teams would elect one general and two captains themselves rather than having the choice made for them, and during the main clash, could each call a ‘time-out’ in which to consult the advice of two experts, military tactician Dr Lynette Nusbacher and weapons specialist Mike Loades, both of whom were mainstays of the original series.  

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The new format was an instant improvement. It meant more action, more clashes, more impressive CGI and less standing around a massive table pointing at things. Two changes in particular though, sealed the success of the Time Commanders revival: the new presenter and the introduction of the Field Team.

Cavalry!!!

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When I talk about the joy of Time Commanders, I don’t just mean the fun of watching it, I also mean the joy with which it’s made. From the presenter to the experts to the weapons demonstrators, everybody who works on this show looks like they’re having a total blast.

Take new host Gregg Wallace. I have to own up to being puzzled by his presence at first. To start with, there didn’t seem to be much crossover between historical military strategy and presenting MasterChef. In episode one, there also seemed to be fear behind Wallace’s permanently wide eyes and awkwardness in his shouty, nervous energy. Now it’s clear what that fear and shoutiness really was: love.

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Wallace loves the bones of Time Commanders (that, or he’s an extremely skilled faker). In the to-camera intros, his waistcoat can barely contain his excitement. It spills over into his delivery until, not knowing which words to emphasise in any given sentence, he makes the only sensible choice and emphasises them all. “TONIGHT A TEAM OF KICK-BOXERS TAKE ON A TEAM OF KARATE EXPERTS!” he screams, whites of his eyes flashing. The only proper response faced with that much passion is to go with it and scream back. “SHOW US GREGG! SHOW US!”

Once the bouts get going, Wallace is enthusiasm personified. (If you were unwise enough to play a Time Commanders drinking game in which you drink every time Gregg Wallace acts like a six-year-old on Christmas morning, you’d be dead by the end of the episode.) He bounds between teams like Zebedee from The Magic Roundabout, pointing out a failing strategy here and high-fiving a win there. He’s never lacklustre, never quiet and visibly vibrates with the thrill of it all.

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He’s also pretty handy when it comes to strategising. His day job may be all about soufflés, but this is a man who also knows his way around a horse-mounted archery attack. Teams ignore Wallace’s “SHOULDN’T YOU BE USING YOUR HEAVY ARTILLERY, MATE?” suggestions at their peril. He can take a softer approach too, patiently explaining to one befuddled captain the difference between cavalry and infantry, and drawing neat little rectangles on his touch screen map. More commonly though, he’s to be found hooting his face off, screaming the word “ROUTING!” and waving his arms in the air at the chaos of it all.

After three episodes, I’m completely sold on Wallace. The only possible replacement I’d entertain at this stage would be Alan Partridge.

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You are victorious

Wallace’s enthusiasm can only be matched by the theatrical brilliance of the Field Team. This group of weaponry experts exists somewhere in a barn off the M4 (I like to imagine they live there permanently like the Merry Men, eking out an existence by mugging fell walkers for their Kendal Mint Cake using quarterstaffs).

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Each three-minute trip to the Field Team is a total joy. Their job is to explain what kind of weapons each army would have used, and how they would have used them. If you want a definition of fun, picture grown adults doing their best to decapitate a crash test dummy using a battle axe… on horseback. Or shooting arrows into the ‘chest’ of a lump of polystyrene… on horseback. Or slicing off the top of a coconut with a broadsword… on horseback. These guys can do anything on horseback, load cannons, return library books, make a passable Victoria Sponge (probably). You name it, they can do it. On horseback.

Thanks to them, I also know about the existence of the Roman gladius, plumbata and cheiroballistra which is going to take my Scrabble game to the next level.

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Elephants aren’t magic

Those are the wise and very true words of Dr Lynette Nusbacher, another boon to Time Commanders. Alongside weapons expert Mike Loades, Nusbacher makes up the pair of military experts tasked with commentating on the bouts and aiding the competitors with their insights. Dr Nusbacher’s main attributes are her keen knowledge of military history and way with words. “Attila the Hun got a big hump on” when his army was “got a real shoeing”, we learn in one episode. “They’re about to make a Hun sandwich” she observed of one bout. “Hun in a bun” added Mike Loades, weapons man.

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Loades knows his weaponry onions. He can give you five tips on the most efficient way to shoot an arrow from a galloping horse and explain the structure of a Roman legion before most TV experts have wiped the croissant crumbs from their tie. Then he could use it to strangle you with historic accuracy.

By Jupiter, we have them!

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The actual contestants are probably the least exciting thing about Time Commanders, which is what makes them so brilliant. Compared to the enthusiasm of Gregg Wallace, the experts and the Field Team, everything they do is the perfect anti-climactic punch line. “ARE YOU READY TO MAKE MINCEMEAT OF THE HUNS?” shouts Wallace. “Er, yes” say the contestants, gamely trying to adopt warrior grimaces while shuffling on their feet and adjusting their “Flavius Aetius” name badge.

The very unlikeliness of a trio of civil servants going up against a group of Toby Jug collectors (or kickboxers, I didn’t really pay attention) to re-enact some of history’s most decisive battles is the central most fun conceit of Time Commanders, and one not lost on our never-blinking presenter. Wallace doesn’t miss an opportunity to get in the contestants’ faces and say “HA! DON’T TAKE THIS THE WRONG WAY BUT YOU DON’T EXACTLY LOOK LIKE HANNIBAL DO YOU?!”. They’re always game though, this lot, and amid all the panic and lack of assertiveness, they sometimes even have moments of excellence.

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The whole package just equals joy, something that’s in scarce enough supply right now. So come on, BBC, do your magic and please manufacture us some more. You can contact the BBC via this form if you’re in agreement.

And if that’s not enough to convince you, I’ll leave you with this compilation of series three’s best bits: 

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