10 hopes for the ‘Robot Wars’ reboot

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Ladies and gentlemen, it is a time to rejoice.

The latest shot in the nostalgia war has been fired, and this time it’s not Disney buying up a beloved childhood icon for more than the GDP of an entire country. Later this year, after twelve years away from our screens, Robot Wars is making a comeback.

The BBC recently announced that it is rebooting Robot Wars, with plans for six one-hour episodes later in 2016 that will be filmed in Glasgow with a brand new arena that is quite literally bulletproof. Let’s hope the programme ends up being just as strong.

One of the best things about this news is that Robot Wars is returning to BBC Two: its home for six years and where it was at its height.

Since Robot Wars was such an excellent programme and is so well loved even twelve years after its last episode, there are a lot of things we hope to see back. But since Robot Wars sadly fell apart after its move to Channel 5, there are also some mistakes to learn from. Some of them pretty big.

So, looking back at both the good and the bad of its seven years on television, this is what we hope to see and not see when Robot Wars returns…


An Innovative New Arena

After Robot Wars ironically ended with a whimper rather than a bang, the arena was scrapped for a measly £250. But the silver lining is that a new arena has been built. And the possibilities of what it is like are wide open since all we know is that it’s bulletproof. Which will be a huge relief to the audience if Hypno-Disc makes a comeback.

A new Pit Of Oblivion being included is a given but other than that, any of the old hazards could return or be left out. The recent revival of American show Battlebots (think Robot Wars on steroids) has some interesting aspects to its arena including two enormous hammers, and corkscrew blades built into the arena sidewalls. Though these often have too much of an impact on a fight’s result.

The most interesting change would be to alter the actual layout. For example, rather than just a flat square; the arena could be built with multiple levels connected by ramps, making decent ground clearance and power more of a factor. But the key thing is that, other than the Pit, there should be nothing that will affect the match too much. Because if an arena hazard can knock out a robot, then the fighting is pointless.


No Match Fixing

Unfortunately, Robot Wars has sometimes fallen victim to the TV fakery often seen in reality and talent shows. In fact, it sort of set the trend for that kind of thing with Season One using three stock robots deliberately playing to lose in order to have enough competitors. But as the series went on, things got a little more underhanded.

The low point of this was Season 7 when the show’s production company allegedly went to great lengths to tamper with Storm II’s progression through the competition (including raising Tornado out of the pit in one battle) and make the programme more exciting. Along with the alleged match fixing; a new rule was introduced, stating that all competitors had to have an active weapon like a saw or a flipper, disqualifying the supposedly dull robots that relied on ramming power or bludgeoning weapons.

Basically, cut this out entirely. Have faith in the format to entertain rather than fix the results to get the desired line-ups for later rounds or make it more exciting. It’s robots smashing the living daylights out of each other. Testosterone-fuelled entertainment doesn’t come much simpler than that. And because the competitors come from all walks of life, there’s always a strong variety of robots and skill levels to keep things entertaining. And there’s really no point in employing a panel of expert judges if you’re going to rig the result for the sake of ratings.


A Variety Of Content

The trend for modern robot battling both on and off the screen tends to be simple destruction. But despite this, the earlier seasons of Robot Wars featured various trial rounds including sumo bouts; a tug of war; and an obstacle course called “The Gauntlet”. In fact, in the original half hour shows, only the last two rounds involved fighting.

Starting with Season 3, rounds like pinball and the Gauntlet were scaled back and the focus was on the battling. And although that is basically the point of the programme, it gets dull after a while. Both ways of doing it are formulaic but one is a formula with more variety. It also demands more of the contestants as the robots have to be built to pass various challenges rather than just being capable of hacking each other to bits.

But even if the reboot is just non-stop fighting, there are still ways to keep it interesting and varied. Having no full competition, Robot Wars: Extreme handled this brilliantly with melees between robots from different countries, one-on-one all-star battles, and even an ant-weight battle. Proving that Razer and Behemoth are actually pretty cute when they fit in the palm of your hand.

The trial rounds may not be capable of holding the audience’s attention after years of robotic carnage but there’s still a lot of mileage in events outside of the standard competition. And it would definitely help stop the competition fighting from getting too repetitive.


A Good Use Of The Runtime

With its runtime now extended to a full hour, Robot Wars will be bigger than ever. But depending on how that hour is used, the new season could be less than we hope for if it doesn’t use its time well. The last season of Battlebots completely screwed this up, with a runtime of forty-two minutes per episode but only four battles with a maximum time limit of three minutes each

While the two seasons of spin-off Robot Wars: Extreme had a lot of different things going for them, they also had quite a bit of filler; like the painfully staged rivalries between teams and all the screentime that went into hyping them up. Like an entirely pointless VT of the Sir Chromalot team arriving at the studio with a gang of cheerleaders, or the Plunderbird and Mega Morg teams having a brief sing-off in the pits.

Tying into the desire for more varied content, just use the time sensibly. The time given over to the actual matches needs up come first but it won’t fill every minute of the episode so some filler is needed. But it can be good filler. Actual interesting stuff like the technology behind the robots, while still making time for the fighting. You have an hour for every episode. Use it wisely.


Craig Charles, Jonathan Pearce and Philippa Forrester

Although the main draw of Robot Wars is obviously the robots and the relentless destruction; Craig Charles, Jonathan Pearce, and Philippa Forrester were a big part of its success. They’re the golden trio that helps to make the programme entertaining.

Craig Charles has always been streaks ahead of Jeremy Clarkson as the presenter, being more of a showman and with a friendlier and more engaging persona, particularly when working with children. Meanwhile, Philippa Forrester has always been an excellent presence in the pits, and Jonathan Pearce brings a unique combination of boyish excitement and a massive personality to the commentary that matches the actual battles really well.

But sadly, the signs of Craig Charles returning don’t currently look great. The new season is some way into production with the arena being built but, as he tweeted, Charles knows just as much about it as the public although he would love to do it.

Though one thing we can be sure of is that Jeremy Clarkson won’t be coming back. In fact, the BBC will probably be using the pinball obstacles from the earlier seasons to stop him from getting into the studio.


The Old House Robots

The longest serving presence on Robot Wars, the House Robots have always been there to relentlessly dish out pain against the competitors. They were a force to be reckoned with and generally outclassed the competitors with no weight or weaponry restrictions. And because of that and their designs just screaming “cool”, the audience fell in love with them.

The later seasons of Robot Wars saw the introduction of three new House Robots: Mr Psycho, Growler, and Cassius Chrome. These new additions never matched the popularity as the original five and seemed like more of a ratings stunt than anything else. So because of that and for the sake of simplicity, it would probably be better to leave them in the past for now.

But apart from that, the original five House Robots are an iconic part of Robot Wars and having been such a well-loved aspect of it for so long, it’s only right that they should be there for its return. And of course the fans (who probably know how to build pretty dangerous robots by now) wouldn’t be happy if they didn’t. Where the original House Robots are now is unclear (although they crop up occasionally) but it probably wouldn’t be a huge task to rebuild them. Especially since the BBC seems to be putting a fair amount of effort and cash into this reboot.


None Of The Season 6 & 7 Gimmicks

While you can’t exactly use the term “grounded” to describe a programme where the primary appeal is thousands of pounds’ worth of machinery being ripped apart, the earlier seasons of Robot Wars had a simplicity to them. It was a firm structure and set of rules that made sense. Then the ratings started to slip.

Season 6 saw the addition of Mr Psycho and Growler, and the installation of the Drop Zone; an area of the arena where a random object like a piano or an oven would be dropped on an immobilised robot. But as cheesy as they were, these changes didn’t do much harm. What did do some harm was Season 7, which introduced yet another new House Robot, a £20,000 cash prize, and the active weapon rule. All in the name of the production company trying to make the programme more entertaining. And since Season 7 was the last we saw of Robot Wars, you can probably guess how that worked out.

Amongst other things, the misguided attempt to shake up the programme is what killed it. So for this reboot, take Robot Wars back to its roots where it didn’t rely on flashy gimmicks and wasn’t desperately trying to be as entertaining as possible. It makes for a much more credible programme and there’s more room for being creative and taking risks when the production company isn’t chasing down viewing figures.


Some Behind The Scenes Moments

One of most positive things about this Robot Wars reboot is that it’s at a time where actual skill in reality television doesn’t crop up a lot. It doesn’t take intelligence and hard work to watch television or get drunk on camera. But they’re vital in building a robot. So the BBC should use the skill being put on display to educate its audience.

The earlier seasons had brief cutaways of competitors working on their robots in the pits but that was phased out later on, and how the robots worked was explained very briefly in interviews with the contestants, or in Jonathan Pearce’s commentary. But since the BBC is obviously planning to make a lot of changes with this reboot, let’s look into the technological side of things a bit more. Even if it’s presented as a very brief one minute rundown of a certain principle of robotics or engineering, it could still have a lot of value.

It doesn’t have to take time away from the fighting and it has the real potential to inspire the audience to try and build their own robots. It might cause a robot uprising in the future but in the short term, it would be a good thing since it would be promoting skill and education. Even if building a hugely destructive robot out of an old wheelchair isn’t applicable to a lot of real life.


Some Of The Old Favourites

When you revive something popular, nine times out of ten you’ll need something from the past to attract fans of the original. And Robot Wars is no different. While the newest generation of roboteers will be crucial to this season and the possibility of Robot Wars continuing, it also needs to bring back some of the veterans in one way or another.

Because in an achievement that’s very rare for a competition programme, the greats of stayed with the viewers long after the series ended. Everyone has their favourites and would readily tune in to see them come out of retirement. They want to see Pussycat ripping lovingly constructed robots to shreds. They want to see Razer crushing its opponents. They want to see Tornado without that ridiculous frame that made it impossible to pit.

And although the new Robot Wars might pull through and become a regular presence on its own merits, the robots it made famous were always and still are a huge draw. Even a few exhibition matches that don’t have a bearing on the actual season result would be a smart move. Especially if it gets us the Razer vs Hypno-Disc matchup that still has yet to happen after nearly fifteen years. Luckily this seems to be in the works; with later seasons’ veterans Big Nipper, Dantomkia, and Storm II planning to make a comeback.


New Blood

One of the great things about Robot Wars is that, even in its later years, it was never a closed circle of boffins trying to outdo each other. As long as you were able to build a robot, you could have a shot at entering. And the BBC would refund your fan club registration fee if you did. And that’s something which really needs to carry over to the reboot.

As great as it would be for old fans, a season featuring nothing but the stars of previous years wouldn’t be a good way of starting out a revival. Because eventually it would be the same old story every week and fewer and fewer people would be tuning in. Like any competitive sport, nobody carries on forever and newcomers are always needed.

The programme needs new blood. The second season of Robot Wars: Extreme recognised that with an event that was actually called “New Blood”. And it worked; debuting Storm II, a robot that went on to dominate Season 7 despite its lack of destructive capability and the alleged attempts of the production team to halt its progress.

With a stream of new talent, we’ll have the chance to relive some of those iconic old moments that genuinely surprised us like Hypno-Disc ripping Robogeddon to shreds in its first match, and Cassius self-righting for the first time. And if the old hands want to make a comeback, have them earn their place along with everyone entering for the first time and let the best man win.


Are you looking forward to the return of Robot Wars? Let us know below…

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