A Study in Carnage: Why Robot Wars is more than just a TV Show

by Aaron James  | Mar 19, 2018 | 

A Study in Carnage: Why Robot Wars is more than just a TV Show

The recent news about the (temporary, hopefully) demise of Robot Wars is something that’s raised a lot of expressions of disappointment online. To the untempered eye, it’s just a group of people unhappy that a TV show is no longer on the air. But Robot Wars is more than just a show, and I’ll explain why.

It’s a community

When Robot Wars died a death in the 2000’s after that fateful encore on Channel 5, out of the ashes a community was born. Robot Combat lived on in the form of live events which are still going strong to this day. There are numerous events covering a series of classes from Antweights (150g) to your standard TV heavyweights. The most notable of these are Extreme Robots, and Robots Live (Run by the boys behind Series 8 champions Apollo) but there are lots of others.

There was also the emergence of a digital community around the time the TV series returned in 2016 on Facebook. Unofficial Robot Wars brings together fans and roboteers to discuss everything robotic combat, and is a terrific place to get advice. I’m working on a plan to build a featherweight robot and that came from discussions on that group. The second involves quite a bit of photoshopping, “memes” and general fun and mischief with robots at its heart- Robot Wars Shuntposting which is mostly fans with a small smattering of roboteers. It’s pretty much a fun robotic social group with daftness at it’s heart and is the perfect tonic to a long lonely robot-less Sunday night.

Add on top of that a series of podcasts and online videos and you can see where I’m going with this. Quick shoutout to three of my favourites- DarkLordSaxon, produced and presented by the frankly terrific Stephen McCulla (who I rate extremely highly, very talented bloke), Good Robottal which is made by Harry Rickard & Charlie Hubbard (two super fans, Charlie being American adds a different perspective) and finally, Inside the Botwhich features Gabe Stroud of Sabretooth. He wants your respect and admiration.

That’s just a small slice of the behemoth that is the robot community, grown out of a love of a TV show that started in a London studio, with Jeremy Clarkson and robots that were in some cases, armoured remote control cars.

The Reality of Childhood Dreams

In 1998 when Road Block won the first series of Robot Wars, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t alone in wanting to build a robot and battle it. Okay, I had the slight advantage of the fact they were from Bodmin, my home town and that in a few years I’d be at that school- and I dreamed of bringing back the crown to the college (it never happened!).

Indeed, if you watch a lot of the episodes in the rebooted series, you’ll hear the same thing. It was a childhood dream. So when the show was returning to our screens, for the children of 1998-2004, now mostly in their twenties upwards, a big part of their dreams was alive again. The chance to be on Robot Wars. It’s quite something.

The thing with Robot Wars is unlike many of the TV shows on the box, it’s something that’s achievable. You don’t have to be a rich engineer to enter (but it helps), or be one of the privileged few, it’s accessible- and even if you don’t make it on the TV show, provided it is compliant with the rules you can go along to the live events and wage war there and as I alluded to earlier, those you have seen on TV fighting aren’t distant celebrities. They’re human beings. One of which has a beard and likes good hits. And quite often, they’ll help you if you’ve come out of the arena shaped like a banana.

Growing from the STEM

In the last few years there’s been a lot of emphasis by people who make laws and sit on green bench chairs on the STEM subjects- Science. Technology, Engineering and Mathematics- the idea being that by promoting the importance of these subjects in the curriculum, it will help the younger generations to be the Britain of tomorrow in an increasingly technological and digital world. Indeed, I believe it’s the International Year of Engineering. And this makes the decision to axe Robot Wars under the pithy, mealy mouthed excuse of “to make room for new shows” even more galling.

When Robot Wars was rebooted, this purpose was stated as the primary definition of its return. To be part of a BBC contribution towards this aim. It wasn’t really given the chance to- for reasons I’ve stated in this post. But the key thing is, it was ahead of its time in this respect, has always encouraged people to take up engineering, and always will.

Robotic combat is the catalyst that awakens peoples interest in engineering- its an accessible format that stymies the initial interest and it was around that the format was devised upon its return. That’s why you had more in depth features about the teams and the engineering behind the robots. From the first robot to engineering something major- robotic combat is the start of that journey.

Robot Wars itself features multiple examples of this. It’s quite galling that the Series Ten champion, Eruption is the exact embodiment of this. Michael Oates, the team captain is younger than me. Along with his father he built Eruption- a pretty decent flipper robot when it wasn’t being sliced to bits by Carbide- because as a child, he loved Robot Wars and before the reboot, was a fixture on the live scene. He achieved the childhood dream of winning it- and will go onto great things. Without Robot Wars, without the live events, that would have never happened for him. A teenager building a robot that based on results, I would argue is one of the three best robots alongside Carbide and Apollo. Did pretty well in Series Eight, was a runner up in Series Nine and then won in Series Ten. Proof of the story that it can be done.

There are loads of other examples. Stephen McCulla who I mentioned earlier was given the opportunity to be part of Team S.Tek (Push to Exit), and I’m sure learnt a lot of things he wouldn’t have been able to without Robot Wars. Like the classic series, it featured school teams- in Series Ten, you had the return of the Brentwood School team captained by Georgina Henwood with Expulsion,  and then there was the debut of Track-tion by Collingwood School, mentored by Aftershock’s Will Thomas. Okay, the robots weren’t world beaters- they weren’t meant to be- but the important thing was it was giving the very people that are wanted to learn engineering the chance to, and both teams reached the ten way melee in the final. I look forward to what they do next- and that is the biggest prize. The stepping stone to an engineering future. I could spend all day listing various examples but this next one is for me the best story to give to the young boys and girls of the future dreaming it could be then.

Josh Valman of Team Rapid is quite a rich bloke these days- he’s younger than me. He’s not upper class in the sense he inherited a fortune, but I don’t think he’s got to worry about this month’s gas bill. As a child, like me and many others, he was a fan of Robot Wars and fascinated by engineering. As a teenager he started doing design and engineering consultancy work for others- and sent his not too large savings to China, to start manufacturing products. That investment has now morphed into a multi-million pound company, RPD International. All from a childhood love of Robot Wars. The thing is- it CAN be done.

BBC- Blindingly Bad Cockup

By axing Robot Wars again as it was just getting going, the BBC are once again underserving an audience they’ve long had trouble catering for. Not that long ago in history, they got rid of BBC Three- replaced by an online service that I personally- am not that big a fan of, and cutting off a vital communication tool to young people. The idea was that BBC Two would cater for that audience in replacement and as far as I can see, they are not succeeding. By axing Robot Wars, they’ve diluted the potential even further.

Between the fans and Mentorn, I think there will be a future for Robot Wars. It’s just starting to take off again and there’s increasingly worldwide attention focusing on robotic combat with the return of Battlebots in America and the frankly terrific launch of King of Bots in China- a show I can see taking the country by storm. We all know what happens when the Chinese sink their teeth into something.

And even if there isn’t, the fans and roboteers didn’t let it die in 2004, they sure as hell won’t now.

Until then, let’s see if the extra Gardeners World we’ll get features Carbide as an innovative lawnmower design.


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