Thursday, 2 March 2017

Edit Wars #2


Let joy be unconfined: it’s one of those other articles about Robot Wars I promised you some time ago. (This story may already be familiar to you if you’re a big fan of the show, but I still reckon it’s worth telling again.) Last time around, we were interested in two different versions of the same episode. What we have here is a rather different kettle of fish – there’s only one version of this episode, but it’s been edited to avoid giving us the whole story, and what really happened is alluded to later on in the series.

This time, we’re interested in Series 2, Semi-Final A, as originally broadcast on BBC2 on 19 February 1999. This was back when the main tournament was made up of a mixture of actual fighting and ‘trials’, and what we’re specifically looking at is the Pinball trial. The trial starts at about 6:45 here, and continues until 4:17 in the next part.

What seems to happen on television is fairly straightforward on the face of it: Napalm score the least points, get eliminated, and are upset about it. But look at Mortis’ run, starting at 1:16 in part 3. Hmm. Was that really enough to get through? And they scored a nice, round 100 points? Looks a bit odd, doesn’t it?

There was then a special “Grudge Matches” edition at the end of the series, which featured a match between Mortis and Napalm as a result of the above incident. The relevant link is here, and the battle starts at 5:54. There’s a little introduction, showing some unseen footage where Mortis damages its tracks on the arena spikes at the start of the semi-final trial, but then it looks like they appeal and get a second shot (the one we saw get broadcast) at doing the trial and go through. So that rather dodgy run was actually their second attempt, and there was no mention of that at the time? Curiouser and curiouser.

Well, not so curious after this next bit, maybe. Here’s what actually happened:
When Mortis first ran the trial, the arena spikes came out of the ground and damaged Mortis’ tracks, immobilising it and meaning they scored 0 points. As you might imagine, this meant they would be eliminated, and the team accepted this in spite of the fact they had been told the spikes would not be used.

However, someone on the production team then decided to let Mortis run again. The usual driver, Rob Knight, was unhappy about this decision and refused to drive the robot in the second attempt, which meant the much less experienced Ben Impey was at the controls. On the second run, Mortis scored what Jonathan Pearce said they did – about 35 points. However, the scoreboard stated 100 points, putting Mortis through. (Most iterations of this story I’ve read say that the house robots started scoring points for Mortis; this can’t be seen on the footage that was shown on TV, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Note that when the trial is introduced it is explicitly said that points scored by the house robots won’t count.)

In other words, the producers conspired to rig the show in Mortis’ favour, at Napalm’s expense. Mentorn’s editing means that the problems are never seen in the semi-final, and they are at the very least a bit disingenuous about the whole thing when it’s covered later on in the Grudge Matches show.

You may very reasonably ask why the producers were so keen to keep Mortis in. The answer, simply put, is that Mortis was the favourite. It was described as “the most feared and technologically advanced robot of the first three series”; it was certainly one of the most expensive, with a stated cost of £40,000. (The team definitely spent much less on it than that – a lot of the components were donated – but it was still probably the most expensive robot in the competition.) The producers wanted their favourite in the final, and were prepared to play dirty to get it. (The epilogue of this story is that Rob Knight still refused to drive the robot for the rest of the show, the team no longer thought they could win and were demoralised by what the producers had done, and they were eliminated in the next round by the eventual winner of that series, Panic Attack.)

Despite the internet being a fledgling thing in those days, the story about what really happened seemed to leak out pretty quickly – fansite Tectonic Robot Wars seems to report on it fairly soon afterwards, and Napalm captain David Crosby doesn’t seem like he kept quiet about it (although exactly how the public, or at least Tectonic, learnt what happened remains unclear to me).

Two and a bit questions arise from this:
1. Surely, by any standards, the competition was rigged to ensure Mortis went through? Are there any other examples of something like this making it to broadcast?
2. What would’ve happened if the press had reported this at the time, or the show had been a bigger deal?

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