When I first started watching the rebooted Robot Wars this year, I was looking forward to seeing some real mechanical mayhem. Sparks would fly, crowds would jeer and metal would rend as well-crafted robot fighters fought in the arena, flipping and sawing and battering their way to victory. I couldn’t wait.
So imagine my surprise 6 weeks later to find myself happiest to see the most boring, anticlimactic battles – those rounds where a robot simply doesn’t work properly, or accidentally falls in a pit, or is just defeated with contemptuous ease by a superior foe – week after week, to the point where I’d loudly evangelise about their crapness to anyone I met.
No, I’m some kind of robo-sadist who really gets off on seeing disappointed crowds and broken fan belts on Sunday evening prime time. I like these failed bouts because they make the actually good battles seem that much more enthralling – both benefiting by comparison, and because you feel like you’re watching something real.
In a televised robot fighting competition, it must be tempting to “rearrange” fights that don’t go well, especially those where a competitor breaks down in the first three seconds – but Robot Wars doesn’t do that. They could call cut, give the team an extra couple of hours to fix the drive system and reshoot for a more “epic” TV moment no problem, but instead they show five-second bouts where none of the robots actually moved and Sir Killalot actually started to look bored. It’s brilliant.
It works for the same reason that Olympic martial arts are more exciting than staged WWE wrestling – in the latter, victories, defeats and moves are almost all predetermined, with maximum drama optimized at all times, but eventually that starts to ring false. In real sport, the excitement comes because failure or boredom is such a real option, and success and gob-smacking moments are fewer and far between. But when they do come, they feel all the more powerful because they’ve been earned, and it’s the same principle Robot Wars has been applying to great effect.
So when truly action-packed battles took place this series – like when some terrific flips from Apollo took out the house robots, or when Pulsar and Gabriel engaged in a hilariously destructive slapstick tête-à-tête– I felt like they were all the more special because I’d seen just how unlikely and rare they really were. All the weeks of slow starts, awkwardness and underwhelming attacks may not have always seemed like good TV in the short term, but in the long term they contributed to elevating the more thrilling moments to great TV.
Razer and Nuts face off against Kill-E-Crank-E
At time of writing it’s slightly unclear whether Robot Wars will return for another series (it seems likely based on the solid viewing figures), but I hope that if they do end up bringing it back for another run they don’t start tinkering with this aspect of the format too much. While it hasn’t been a perfect series, the show’s allowance for failure has been a personal highlight that’s been missing from the manufactured drama of a lot of modern television in recent years, and Robot Wars would lose a lot of its power without it.
I’m not saying the BBC shouldn’t try to improve the formula at all – they could tighten up the behind-the-scenes stuff and cut down on interview time a little for the next series if they wanted, sure – but if they start trying to control the drama in the arena, they might as well deactivate.
The Robot Wars grand final is on BBC2 tonight (Sunday 28th August) at 8.00pm
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