What better way to wind down after a tough week at work than with a little mindless violence? And for the couple of years, the first dose on a Friday evening has been in the shape of Robot Wars, BBC2’s glorification of mechanised mayhem which pits radio-controlled robots against each other in a demolition derby of titanic proportions. There can be few finer sights than seeing a lovingly-constructed machine being reduced to shrapnel in under sixty seconds.
It’s originally an American concept, but only recently has it become the televised spectacle there, that it is here, where it’s regularly among the channel’s top-rated shows. The American version, Battlebots, is on The Comedy Channel, of all places, home of South Park, rather than a network channel, and this, together with the relative novelty of the show as yet, may help to explain why…well, to quote a housemate, “They’re a bit crap aren’t they, these Americans.” For it does have to be said: the British entrants have already been through several years of evolution, and it shows. Rather too many of the American ones look to be relying on “naive charm” as their major offensive weapon, and a robot capable of flipping the opposition, a common sight in Britain, would have a field day.
There are a number of other differences, both in the presentation and the content of the show. While Robot Wars has the cheerfully ignorant Craig Charles, Battlebots opts for something which looks more like a regular sports show, with two (mildly sarcastic) presenters in the studio, to deliver the almost inevitable stats without which no American sport is complete. Both shows have a lady in the pits, and this element is a definite win for the Brits. Even though Phillipa Forester has gone to have a baby, her replacement is still better than former Baywatch bimbo, Donna D’Errico. However, the American version does hit back with nifty little segments showing the builders “at home”, in their garages or dens, even if usually this does only confirm that they need to get out more.
For the Battlebots contests themselves, there is an announcer in the “ring”, like at a boxing match, though woe betide any robot with a tricky name, as he has a nasty tendency to slaughter them – Mjollnir, Thor’s hammer from Norse mythology was rendered as muh-JOLL-neer, which I don’t think is right… There are also no house robots with which to contend (not even the entirely useless ref-bot introduced in this series of Robot Wars, but there are rather more in the way of booby-traps, including a vicious double circular-saw with a camera mounted between the blades, which gives an interesting perspective.
The two episodes of the American edition I watched didn’t appear to have much in the way of a tournament, though there were vague references to one a little bit down the line. Interestingly, while Robot Wars has only one weight category, with a maximum limit, Battlebots has several, up to and including some super-heavyweight creations which are undeniably impressive. I also enjoyed the ten-man…er, ten-machine Robot Rumble, a free-for-all which certainly proved to be eventful, if perhaps not quite as skilfully controlled as a traditional head-to-head contest!
It’s not, in the end, fair to compare Battlebots and Robot Wars in their 2000 incarnations, since it’s obvious that four years of network exposure will lead to more interest and entries than a rookie show on a cable channel. There have been a couple of attempts before to pit British and American robots against each other, and the lack of American experience has been obvious. However, before we get too cocky, perhaps we should remember how we used to regularly win the Ryder Cup too… I’ve no doubt that the Americans’ day will come.