Robot Wars: Episode 3

August 7, 2016 by  
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Robot Wars 6

Image credit: BBC/Mentorn Media Scotland/Alan Peebles

If there is one thing we learn from this week’s Robot Wars it is this: don’t make a robot out of wood.

One of the competing robots, Overdozer, was made out MDF and powered by a petrol engine. The result was inevitable but hilarious. One reason that it was so inevitable, apart from the obvious, was that it was up against two experienced robots: Dantomkia, with its rather egotistic team leader, and King B Remix, which has had several names over the years, the B standing for Buxton, where it comes from.

However, while these were impressive, also as impressive were the new teams, and the star of this week’s episode was flipping robot TR2. It was able to take on the more experienced teams and come out on top.

Another positive of this time around was we got to see more action from the House Robots, and in particular Sir Killalot, toying with the competitors, dangling over the flame pit. On the downside, we didn’t see all of the House Robots this time around, as there seemed to be no appearance from Shunt.

Robot Wars airs on Sunday nights at 20.00 on BBC Two.

Robot Wars: Episode 2

July 31, 2016 by  
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Robot Wars 6

Image credit: BBC/Mentorn Media Scotland/Alan Peebles

The second episode of the revived series was an improvement on the first, with a lot more destruction from the combatants – at least some of them anyway.

The star fighter of the show was Thor, a robot armed with a large blunted axe/hammer. He caused the most damage in the arena, especially against a robot named Shockwave, which was armed a scoop made from a gas main pipe, which Thor totally destroyed. However, it was not the only battle between Thor and Shockwave, and the other battle was, well, shocking.

We also go to see the House Robots do a bit more damage, especially from Dead Metal, who mainly did damage to a robot called Foxic. This was especially good because Foxic had to be one of the worst robots in the history of the show. Armed with a flipper, it was involved in a battle with a spinner named Mr. Speed Squared, but it was so lifeless that head judge Prof. Noel Sharkey said it was possibly the worst battle in the history of Robot Wars. Not only was Foxic terrible in battle, but the team captain was all mouth and no trousers. The only positive part of Foxic’s performance is that it managed to get under Dead Metal and push him around the arena a fair bit.

It is fair to say that following this episode, viewers will be getting more used to the format and the show is finding its feet, or rather wheels.

Robot Wars is on BBC Two at 20.00 on Sunday nights.

Bottersnikes and Gumbles

July 25, 2016 by  
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Bottersnikes and Gumbles 1

Image credit: BBC/© 2016 Cheeky Little Media & Mighty Nice

The animated TV series Bottersnikes and Gumbles is based on a series of children’s books featuring the homonymous characters. The short episodes follow the adventures between the lazy and grimy Bottersnikes and the chirpy and squashy Gumbles. To be fair, Bottersnikes are rarely the initiators of any adventures. They serve as a challenge, as an obstacle to overcome or simply as a source of comic relief for the Gumbles, who waltz their way round the Bottersnikes’ doorstep.

The Gumbles always manage to escape and their adventures can indeed have a moral; for example, the importance of being honest about one’s achievements or lack of them, the value of collaboration and team effort and making the best of one’s circumstances. The Gumbles are always there for one another, protecting and covering for each other’s mischief. They are fun to watch, as they stretch and bounce, hop and roll out and about, often manifesting an unexpected wit. However, they can also be reckless at times, acting on impulse and without considering the consequences of their actions. They do make it in the end, relying on teamwork or merely on physics, but this is where the moral lesson gets blurred. Is everything excused as far as the good guys are concerned?

As for the Bottersnikes, they are filthy and the non-existence of any hygiene makes them even more disgusting. They are eager to squeeze and squash the Gumbles. They even use them as a kind of nose-hair protector (!), a disturbing image which becomes even weirder when the Gumble is thrust out of the Bottersnike’s nose, along with some hairs. In other words, Bottersnikes are easy to despise, because most of the time they behave in a silly, egotistical, inconsiderate way. The relationship with one another bears no resemblance to the unconditional comradeship shared amongst the Gumbles. It is only natural that Bottersnikes are constantly outsmarted and it is easy to root for the Gumbles.

However, the distinction between the two sides is quite simplistic. Yes, the Gumbles do not always behave in an all-around ‘good’ way, since they disobey the elderly’s advice and constantly find themselves in Bottersnikes’ way. But the Bottersnikes are not your typical villain either; nothing they do bears the signs of the sly, cunning and sophisticated behaviour usually associated with ‘bad vs. good’. When ‘bad’ is so bad, there is no dilemma whose side to pick. Yet this decision is seldom so simple in real life. Bottersnikes and Gumbles is an entertaining children’s programme, but if you are looking for a moral at the end of the story, then perhaps you should readjust your expectations.

Bottersnikes and Gumbles airs on weekdays at 18.00 on CBBC.

Robot Wars

July 24, 2016 by  
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Robot Wars 6

Image credit: BBC/Mentorn Media Scotland/Alan Peebles

It has been 12 years since Robot Wars ended, having made an unwise decision to move to Channel 5. Now it is back on BBC Two, with new presents, a new arena, and new look House Robots.

Whereas the original series, first hosted by Jeremy Clarkson before later being presented by its most famous host Craig Charles, was a loud, gladiatorial affair, there has been a shift in tone in 2016. It is out with the custom-made leathers and in with Dara O Briain and his rather regular suit. He and his fellow Irish presenter Angela Scanlon don’t bother with the big showmanship and just get on with the business of presenting. All the tension is saved for the battles and the commentary from stalwart Jonathan Pearce. This series of Robot Wars seems to have shunned the loudness and brashness with an air of quiet menace and a more sinister atmosphere.

The format for this series sees two group battles where four robots fight each other, with two survivors going through to the next round. The surviving robots then enter a league table, where they score 3 points for a KO and 2 points if they win the battle via a judge’s decision, based on the criteria of “damage”, “control” and “aggression” (the old series also judged on “style”, but this has been gotten rid of). Lastly, the two top robots face each other for one last battle for a place in the Grand Final at the end of the series.

Among the positives of this series has been the indication of how far technology has progressed. There have been several robots from the original series that have returned to fight again – but there was a shock in the very first battle when Razer, a former world champion, ended up committing suicide by driving into the arena pit. It was the new teams, such as Carbide with a large spinning weapon, and the eccentric Nutz who go into battle with smaller robots alongside their main bot, who were the most impressive and caught the attention of the people. Another plus side is getting to hear more from the judges, including another member of the team who has returned from the previous series, Prof. Noel Sharkey, who talked about how the machines have moved forward since the series was last on.

On the downside, the main thing that annoyed me was the lack of action from the new, improved House Robots. The main problem was that while there are four “Corner Patrol Zones” which are guarded by them, there was only ever one or two House Robots in the arena at any one time. Thus whenever the battling robots drove into a CPZ, there was always a 50% or greater chance that the zone was empty. While we did get to see the new, improved House Robots do some damage, in particular Matilda and Dead Metal, there wasn’t enough action from them. It would have been much better for all four of them to fight at the same time to make the fights more exciting.

If you are younger viewer, the series will no doubt still be pretty exciting, but for those of us who remember the original, the new Robot Wars still takes a bit of getting used to.

Robot Wars is on Sunday nights at 20.00 on BBC Two.

Taskmaster: Series Two, Episode 5 – There’s Strength in Arches

July 19, 2016 by  
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Taskmaster Series Two 9

The final episode in this series witnesses the Taskmaster trophy finally presented, and a horror film starring, yes, a potato.

Some people have complained about Taskmaster not featuring enough women on the show. I suspect these people will be really furious about the prize task which involved bringing in the best memorabilia, where Greg Davies judged that Katherine Ryan’s suffragette medal was considered less impressive than an autograph of Jocky Wilson brought in by Richard Osman.

The first task proper involved getting some shopping into a trolley, which was placed on the other side of a small stream. Doc Brown partly suffered as he failed to spot two bridges on either side of the stream which he could have just walked across. Not only that, but both he and Jon Richardson failed to put all the items in the trolley.

The next task was a team task, which involved making a stop-motion film starring a potato. While Joe Wilkinson, Katherine and Doc did will with their James Bond parody Spec Tater, in the end, and rightly so, Richard and Jon won with their horror film 28 Days Tater starring Alex Horne as the man who accidentally starts the end of the world thanks to his peeling.

The final filmed task of the series involved building a model bridge strong enough to support, yes, a potato. The interesting thing about this task was that Greg and Alex did try and help by taping some wood, a roll of tape and a pair of scissors under the table, and putting up small signs saying that there was stuff under the table – but no-one noticed. While Jon built the highest bridge, again it was Joe who got the most applause after figuring out he should bend playing cards to make stronger arches. The last live task again attracted Katherine’s wrath as it involved among other things putting a tie on, which as a woman she has never done.

Having seen the whole series, here are some final thoughts: the challenges are very entertaining, but it is annoying when anyone chickens out of them. The best contestant in terms of comedy value was Joe, who ironically was the worst in getting actual points. It would be good to see more diverse contestants on the show. So far each series, including the one coming up that has already been recorded, feature just one woman on each show, one BAME contestant, and no LGBT contestants.

Lastly, it might be worth diversifying into other vegetables.

Taskmaster: Series Two, Episode 4 – Welcome to Rico Face

July 12, 2016 by  
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Taskmaster Series Two 8

In the penultimate episode of the series we witness a hostage taking, fruit hiding and vegetable constructing.

The prize task on this episode of Taskmaster was to bring in the coolest blue thing, in which Greg Davies was most impressed by the people who brought in the stuff that was bluest as in rude rather than the colour. The first task involved rescuing a toy cat named Patatas (more from Taskmaster’s love of potatoes), with the best rescue winning. This meant most people did badly when they found out the cat was a toy and they just threw stuff at it. Katherine Ryan was the only one to care for the cat by providing it a bag to land in, whereas Richard Osman infuriatingly just gave in.

One the best tasks so far this series was concealing a pineapple among your person, with the person winning being the one who could make the Taskmaster’s assistant Alex Horne make the most incorrect guesses. Jon Richardson was the best by hiding little bits of pineapple in lots of places, making Horne guess more; whereas Joe Wilkinson fared less well after he decide to hide pineapple up his bottom.

However, the best task was yet to come. Doc Brown, Wilkinson, Osman and Ryan were given the chance to create their own task for the others. What they didn’t know was that only Richardson was doing the tasks, and Richardson had to guess who create the task as he was the guinea pig for this experiment. This resulted in him having to do among other things provide a make-up tutorial and perform the William Tell Overture using just his hands and cheeks.

The other challenges involved a team task, that was to construct something from a range of flat pack furniture, and in the case of the “father and son team” (Richard and Richardson) they decide to stage a fake kidnapping of Horne. The live challenge once again returned to potatoes, with everyone constructing a tower using only potato products.

There are several thoughts concerning this episode. First, is Taskmaster sponsored by the potatoes division of the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (formerly the Potato Council), because I suspect it is what with all the potato items used throughout this series. Secondly, it is sad to see Osman quitting the cat rescue challenge, and I think Davies needs to punish people more for not doing the tasks. Forgot just giving no points, they should actually lose points.

Finally, the last point to remember is never to shove pineapple up your arse.

Taskmaster is on Dave at 22.00 on Tuesdays.

Forces of Nature

July 12, 2016 by  
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Brian Cox

Love him or hate him, Brian Cox – with all of his mellowed out vocal notes and his soft cushy speech – undoubtedly knows his stuff and understands how to present it in an interesting and engaging way. That’s exactly what you’re getting with BBC 1’s latest series as the Oldham-based professor returns to national television with his captivating “Forces of Nature” series – an informative and largely easy to follow series of documentaries which revolve around the basic principles which form and give life to the known universe.

The first episode of the series, focusing solely around form and shape, kicks the series off in strong style, exploring shape as, essentially, the building block behind the planets, matter and every individual mechanism, construct and life form in existence. Cox presents the episode through a series of real life representations of the shape theme, using the adaptations involved with shape in the lives of honeybees and manatees – to name but a few of the professor’s examples – to illustrate the diversity to which form is exploited.

The visuals used in the programme evoke a real sense of awe, likening the very real topics and theories of the programme with a beauty more akin to something of fiction or fantasy which is only emphasised further by a delicate backing soundtrack reminiscent of the cinematic intimacy one would expect to find in a Hollywood romance. Cox repeatedly uses imagery of crystalline snowflakes and other intricately formed structures in nature before deriving them to what he names the common “most efficient” shape; the hexagon, expanding upon the idea that every shape or form in existence is built up from a lattice of it soon after.

Cox cleverly presents the show in an engaging, “user friendly” way – by which I mean not flooding the show with scientific or mathematical jargon – but also keeps it informative and most importantly interesting for both science minded and more casual viewers.  The topics Cox talks about are relatable; close enough to everyday life but in exotic enough scenarios to keep the show from being mundane. Despite this all, the programme does require a certain level of engagement as it features very little of what I would call eye catching action, opting more for a calm and collected, methodical approach.

The second episode in the series adopted quite a different approach – to put it metaphorically if the first episode was a classical symphony it would follow that this episode would be rock and roll. Cox drops the viewer straight into the action with a gripping ascent into the earth’s stratosphere piloting a “euro fighter typhoon” (put simply one of the most high tech military aircraft on the planet), racing the earth’s rotation in a bid to “reverse the passage of the day.”

Cox presents the premise behind the episode as being focused around the theory and impact of space- time as well as exploring earth’s journey through space.  The show presents its core values with consistency despite contrasting its episodes by taking the second entry in the series in a different direction, keeping the appeal fresh. The latest instalment adopted a slightly more invigorating choice of content with the inclusion of more action based elements such as summer storms and fantastical visuals which would arguably feel more at home in an episode of Dr Who.  As a result of this, the episode is made far easier to watch for the casual viewer as it demands far less attention or viewer engagement that its predecessor.

In short then, Professor Brian Cox’s new programme “Forces of Nature” has a strong two opening weeks, fielding an interesting and enthusing visual display while keeping a classy, informative presentation and roster of themes to appeal to both the casual viewer and a more academic minded viewership.

Forces of Nature:The world in a snowflake runs on BBC I player until August 3rd, While the second episode, Somewhere in space time runs until August 10th. 


Horrible Histories: Staggering Storytellers

July 11, 2016 by  
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Horrible Histories Storytellers 1

Picture copyright: BBC/Lion Television Ltd/Phil Miller

The award-winning TV series returns with a special episode on famous writers and their origin stories. And when we say ‘origin’, we mean dawn-of-mankind origin. The episode shows how storytelling evolved through the eras, from storytelling in caves to printed books. At the same time, it lets us in on little secrets (and weird habits) of acclaimed writers and poets.

The episode opens in the Stone Age, where storytelling in its primitive form relied on cave drawings and on the vivid descriptions of an endowed narrator. Storytelling is paralleled to cinema-going, with special effects springing into existence from the power of narration/imagination, CGI (as in ‘cave-generated imagery’) and epic music coming from skin drums. Rattus Rattus intercepts giving the historical background, while sketches provide trivia information on how famous writers invoked inspiration. With a further nod to British popular culture, the episode shows Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton and Lewis Carroll taking part in a… special edition of the Great British Bake off, where edible tea-cups, worm spaghetti and shrinking drinks are part of the menu. Granted, Blyton was the only one who had something edible on her counter, in its raw form of course, but what does her awarding as a star baker say about feminism? As the eras pass one after the other, we see Vishnu Sharma dropping the narrative mic as his audience get confused over the moral of his stories, George Eliot advising the use of a male pen name and Aristophanes creating comedy in Ancient Greece. What do you get when you try to explain comedy to a tragedy-loving person? A musical sketch on who is the butt of the joke.

The joke still goes on as three fictional detectives have a stand-off on who was created first, who has the most expansive merchandise and who is going to solve the murder they were called for. Going back to feminism, we are transported to Lord Byron’s villa, where there is another competition on who is telling the scariest story among Lord Byron himself, Polidori and Mary Shelley. You guess who won? And girl power goes strong as Beatrix Potter, Malorie Blackman, Jacqueline Wilson and Enid Blyton sing it out commenting on the appeal of their stories. The episode wraps up with a few more trivia about Lord Alfred Tennyson, Charles Dickens, who apparently was the star of his era (semi-agoraphobic and fan-despising as it were), and the Brontë sisters, whose antagonist was Jane Austen in the publisher’s eyes.

Horrible Histories: Staggering Storytellers is an enjoyable one-off special on important figures of British literature. Amusing and funny, it relates to the modern era in an engaging yet not overburdening way. In other words, entertainment for young and adult audiences alike.

Taskmaster: Series Two, Episode 3 review – A pistachio eclair

July 5, 2016 by  
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Taskmaster Series Two 5

In this week’s episode of Taskmaster we see artistic silhouettes, a huge number of Calippos, and the return of old friends.

An exciting prize was on offer to the winners of tonight’s episode, as the prize task was to bring the best dinner party guest. Joe Wilkinson won this challenge by bringing along Britain’s sixth strongest man, while Jon Richardson came last for inviting host Greg Davies to the party. The first challenge however was a lot more intimidating: impress Cllr. Peter Hudson, the Mayor of Chesham. While Katherine Ryan won the task by writing a song about him, it was Wilkinson who was the funniest in my view by offering the mayor 42 Calippos, eight cans of strong lager and fifteen quid.

After this the challengers had to make an unexpected silhouette. While my favourite of the lot was Richard Osman creating an alien abduction on the moon using a glass bowl as a flying saucer, Richardson came out on top with a more artistic effort involving a balloon. However, the most interesting things in this episode is the reappearance of old challenges and former contestants.

One challenge was to get a gift for the Davies, something which appeared in the last series; while another task was the first “Team Task”. The teams consisted of Doc Brown, Ryan and Wilkinson, versus Osman, Richardson, and the winner of the first series Josh Widdicombe. After being given a playing card by assistant Alex Horne, the task involved each of the three challenges being placed in a bandstand, and having to pass a potato from between the two bandstands furthers apart: a task made more difficult by having one challenger blindfolded, another unable to hear and the third not being allowed to talk. As with the last two episodes, Taskmaster seem to be very keen on coming up with odd challenges involving potatoes.

This episode does feel like an improvement on last week as everyone was keen on trying to complete all the tasks, even if they knew they were not going to come out on top. Richardson was even too embarrassed to watch his attempt at impressing the mayor, but he still gave it a go at the time. Plus, while Wilkinson may not be winning, he is certainly coming across as the people’s favourite.

Taskmaster in on Dave on Tuesday nights at 22.00.

The Secret Life of Children’s Books: Five Children and It

July 5, 2016 by  
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The Secret Life of Children's Books 1

This BBC programme comes back with a new episode in which it casts a closer look upon children’s fantasy fiction. The episode focuses on Edith Nesbit and its 1902 book Five Children and It which paved the way for the fusion of magic and realism often encountered in children’s literature like the Narnia and the Harry Potter book series.

Samantha Bond takes us on a journey through Nesbit’s life and writing career and shows how the two were inextricably linked across the years. Persevering through personal tragedies such as the death of her father and her sister, Nesbit found inspiration in the simplest of children’s dreams: a fairy granting an abundance of wishes… with a catch. So what if the fairy, the “it”, was the most bizarre of creatures, not so much resembling the hairy leprechaun of the TV adaptation? Nesbit had a vivid imagination, like children do, and her fairy could still teach children that greed has consequences. Her imagination was the fuel to the weird creatures of her books. One of these creatures was the “it”, the sand fairy, also known as Psammead (from the ancient Greek word ψάμμος for “sand” and the nymphesque ending “-ad”). Since illustrations are key to children’s literature, special attention is to be paid to H.R. Millar, the prominent Scottish illustrator, who captured Nesbit’s weird beings on paper.

Nesbit based her characters on people in her life. She had her own family, which included her children and those that her husband had with her once best friend. The structure of this unconventional ménage-à-trois allowed Nesbit to rid herself of household duties and focus on her writing and political activism. Contrary to the victimised figure that one may get from Nesbit’s personal life, she was quite dynamic and assertive in campaigning for actual political reform. The themes in Five Children and It, relevant to children and adults alike, touch upon socio-political issues which aligned with Nesbit’s involvement in the Fabian Society.

A specific event, though, marked a notable difference in Nesbit’s life and writing style: the death of her son Fabian. Nesbit blamed herself for the tragedy and she used her writing as a means to give her son the life he could not have. Five Children and It is different from her previous books, as it was the first one rooted in magic and fantasy rather than realism. In a similar way that the children in the book asked wishes from the fairy, Nesbit used the fairy’s magic to conjure her son back to life. Her later books still involved the surreal and the magical. However, they were more nostalgic and less wishful and not as genre-influential as Five Children and It.

Navigating through Nesbit’s life milestones, the episode shows how her work progressed along with her experiences. Perhaps it does take a personal tragedy to break new ground in one’s career and this may be even more so when one’s life doubles as inspirational material. Perhaps this is the price to pay to walk the fine line between personal stability and pioneering…

The Secret Life of Children’s Books is on BBC Four on 4th July at 22.00.

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