Note: This Robot Wars review contains minor spoilers for the first episode of the season.
“We wanted to add something more fun to the sport,” says Rory, head of team Nuts, whose robot is little more than a garden swing haphazardly wrapped around an old wheelbarrow, and who insists on wearing a hairy, bright orange vest. and top hat. “The idea is to confuse everyone.”
If only Rory and his team were there in 2001, when the BBC broadcast Robot Wars to die on the short-lived BBC Choice channel. Perhaps the series wouldn’t have needed the multi-million pound reboot with its “90 ton” arena and “seven-foot” walls. Maybe Craig Charles hadn’t joined Coronation Street, leaving us instead with the perfectly capable, but much less enthusiastic Dara Ó Briain and Angela Scanlon. Or maybe we would all have gotten bored with the idea after all.
After all, how many ways can you watch a motorized wedge of sheet metal get ripped in half before the whole thing gets, well… boring?
Quite a few, it turns out.
Robot Wars may have hardly changed since the last sad broadcast on Channel 5 in 2004, his robots are caught in a time warp where the last 12 years of punishing technological innovation seem to have been completely missed. Hell, even the show’s original logo, the ’90s graphics and all, are returning. But damn it, when the robots are assembled and the audience goes wild at the sound of “Activate!”, and large shards of metal and glowing sparks flutter across the area, it’s hard to look away. It won’t be long before we’re all competing for mechanical blood.
We’re looking for our favorites from the first eight, narrowed down to two in this first installment. There are the courageous Welsh farmers behind ‘The General’, with its oversized wheels and spinning blades; the amateur rocket scientist and F1 simulator designer behind Terrorhurtz and his ton-powered axe; and the group of engineers behind Carbide’s slick 2500 RPM spinning blade. In short snippets, we’re told how the robots are made in the contestants’ many mancaves, sheds, and garages (where all the great stuff is made), and we’re shown the characters who created them.
“I’ve been designing robots for 15 years and this one scares me,” says Team Carbide’s David without the slightest hint of irony. When Carbide rips the wheel directly from an opponent, everybody takes him seriously.
It is the participants who carry robot wars, just like they did in the smarter competition Scrapheap Challenge on Channel 4. Dara Ó Briain and Angela Scanlon are capable hosts – watch out for the moment when Scanlon scoffs at an ex-champ Razer’s homemade sausage roll and then strides it off to another team – Jonathan Pearce is a brilliant commentator, and the The return of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Professor Noel Sharkey to review and explain how everyone is talking about a material called “hardox” is also fine.
But it’s the passion of the contestants, of the extremely smart people who build robots in their spare time, just for the fun of it, that make the show and the battles all the more compelling. And there are some blood-curdling fights in this first episode – just be prepared for one or two of the inevitably dismal pitfalls.
And yet there is a part of me that wishes Robot Wars had gone on, that the multi-million pound budget had not just been used to make a better produced piece of ’90s nostalgia, but had been spent making an even more chaotic show. Flippers and pits are done. What about electric traps? Or hydraulic presses? Or red hot nickel balls? I hear those are all pretty hot right now.
“We wanted to show up and survive the first round,” says a particularly pessimistic competitor during Robot Wars. I imagine that’s exactly what the BBC was aiming for too. Still, we’ll be sure to tune in for the next installment.
Robot Wars airs on BBC2 on Sunday at 8pm. This season is only six episodes long.