Monday, 22 June 2015

ABC's New Series of Battlebots: Reviewed Through English Eyes

I geeked myself out tonight, though I had to scour the web to do it in a way that was probably a little bit wrong. I got to glimpse the first episode of Battlebots, the returning ABC show that will probably never get shown here in the UK. From what I've seen, they have four fifths of a remarkable show and one fifth of something that deserves to be dumped somewhere mid-Atlantic.

The great four fifths are the robots, the robot builders, the crowd, and the arena. Look closely and these are people who love robots and the technology behind robots. I say with a note of pride that these people are geeks. They're the kids who didn't fit in at school because they were in love with servo motors and engineering schematics. These are the kids who organized their own tournaments and then went home to watch Mythbusters and other shows made specifically for them. They are, in other words, my kind of people. They're the people that the website Tested is built for and it was over at Tested that I first learned about the new series of Battlebots. I'd watched Norman Chan's interviews with all the builders and I was as excited to see the first episode as I was also frustrated to know that I might not see it.

Thankfully, in the dark corners of the web, ghosts of these shows persist long enough that non-Americans can see them if we look hard enough and, like I said, I loved four fifths of what I saw.

Yet that leaves one fifth of the show I've not mentioned. That one fifth is the presenters and they really do bring the whole thing down.

I don't understand why a show aimed at geeks and powered by geeks should be hosted by what, in the American vernacular, are 'jocks'. These are the most anodyne of American TV presenters, more bull than brains. They are drivel-spouting cliches of the worst kind. One (Kenny Florian) is an 'MMA Star', whatever the hell that means but I'm guess it means that he beats people up for a living. Not very 'geek' at all. Another is Chris Rose, apparently a professional sports presenter, which explains why he's so big, loud and grating. He only needed to say 'they've poured blood, sweat and gears into this' before I wanted to attack my own forehead with an electric drill.

This for me is the sad part of what could be a great show. The first episode had the robot Plan 9, built by Lisa Winter who I remember from robot battles of the past when she was a precocious young gear-head driving a bug shaped robot. Since then, Lisa has grown up. Her hair has turned pink and she's now covered by tattoos. So, okay, I'm not a fan of tattoos myself but I can sometimes make an exception when it's part of that West Coat hipster vibe. I don't like tattoos on anybody but I like people who are themselves and unique. Even if you could argue that the hipster look is itself now derivative, the people who have it tend to be interesting, articulate, and intelligent. Winter is no different. When she speaks, she does so without resorting to scripted banalities. She is a great representative of the culture from which battling robots has emerged. It's one of the parts of the America I love. It's the good bit of a sometimes terrifying and depressing nation.

Sadly, that erudite, witty, individual culture is here being enveloped by something that's utterly mainstream and as ugly as hell. The main host is Molly McGrath who is as far from Lisa Winter as you could get. McGrath is toned and tanned to TV perfection. She's got a great smile and legs that go well past her knees. She articulates her phrases unlike anything you hear in real life. She knows how to stand in the highest high heels and her dress is slightly transparent so you can really see how far those leg go. She's a geek's dream girl, stunning yet in a totally artificial way you've seen a thousand times before and which means that, really, she isn't stunning at all. Lisa Winter is stunning because Lisa Winter is individual and creative and representative of a younger generation doing their own thing in the outlands beyond the mainstream.

And that's what I take from the first episode of Battlebots. It's a geek festival being taken over and ruined by the professional athletes and the professional presenters, who were the very people the geeks of the world wanted to escape back when they went off to do their own thing in high school. Even more than the sound of metal upon metal, the most grating thing about Battlebots is that somebody somewhere thought we needed those meatheads to justify the competition. It's the corporate mainstream glitz and misguided 'professionalism' that actually brings Battlebots down from the lofty heights it might have reached had it a little self-awareness. Perhaps it's just because I'm English that I'm particularly sensitive to this kind of overly produced American TV but had Battlebots been on the BBC, with the same people and the same production values, it might not have had quite so many flashing lights and braying asses for hosts. It might have had a few more wits and, like Top Gear, it might have taken over the globe and List Winter would rightly be its star. I'll definitely try to catch the rest of the series but, geek though I am to the last fibre of my being, a lot of this is really not for me.


  1. Nathan deGargoyle23 June 2015 at 13:29

    Robot Wars was so much better when it was so tastefully hosted by Craig Charles and that lovely Phillipa Forrester. How typical of those brash colonials to take such a sophisticated British show and turn it into an uncouth spectacle.

    I suppose it's only a relief that the eyeties didn't get hold of it. I can imagine how Pippa would be stripped naked and subjected to all sorts of continental indignities!

    Thank Zeus the Greeks have other things to worry about these Drachmae!

  2. Well, I hate to disagree but the problem with Robot Wars was that it was also trying to be too American. I bloody hate that 'let's get ready to rumble' shit. It ruined boxing, turning it from the great spectacle that Mailer wrote about to some horrible Don King pantomime.

    And I say American but I really don't mean all of America. Just that kind of crappy Wheel-of-Fortune, WWF, NASCAR, loud as hell and really dumb TV/Sport. The thing with '' is that it's my favourite place on the web because it's really human, simple in format, and lacks the hysteria. I just like hearing Adam Savage talk for an hour with real enthusiasm for films, books but especially science. Why couldn't Battlebots have some of that?

    I hear the BBC are going to make a program about battling drones, so perhaps they'll go with a more Top Gear type vibe than fake Glariator style bells, whistles and shit.

    As for an Italian Robot Wars: that I would actually pay to see. ;)