Robot Wars Season 10 Post-Mortem

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This post is much later than intended, as I wasn’t able to watch all six episodes at the time and had to wait for reruns. Late enough, in fact, that the unfortunate news of its cancellation has already had its 15 minutes of angry tweets. So consider this a retrospective look at Season 10 rather than a live response. Also, spoiler warnings for the finalists and winner of Season 10.

Going into Season 10, I had been concerned about a few aspects of the show, such as the low profile of female team members, the robot reliability issues, and the focus on professionally-built robots. Rule changes ahead of Season 10 promised to bring in more diverse robots, and to counteract the dominance of spinners. So, how well did Season 10 live up to those promises?

Robots and Weapons

Episode One started well by introducing clusterbot The Swarm, built by Ian Watts of Team Big Brother fame. Clusterbots have often been failed experiments in previous series, mostly due to their weight limits and elimination rules. Clusterbots were either equally-sized pairs, or a near-heavyweight bot accompanied by a distraction minibot. As they were ruled out if either piece was immobilised, minibots were merely a liability, while paired bots were weaker than standard competitors without many corresponding advantages. However, due to advances in materials and weapons, The Swarm was made of five featherweight robots with individual working weapons. The Swarm could use four robots in each fight, and they would remain in if at least two robots (>40% by weight) were moving. This approach meant they could carry out the roles clusterbots were designed for, and generate tactical advantages like distractions and multiple angles of attack.


Due to these material advances, the rule changes, and the team’s cohesion and experience, The Swarm performed well for a clusterbot. Team Big Brother defeated Donald Thump by tactically combining the clusterbot’s weapons, while they used the clusterbots to protect and self-right each other during their narrow defeat by Sabretooth. Unfortunately, the sheer weight and power of Behemoth was too much for the small bots, and Team Big Brother were eliminated.

Season 10 achieved its goal of weapon diversity relatively well. Episode Two brought back clusterbot pair Crackers ‘n’ Smash, who continued to take advantage of the elimination rules by balancing their weight so that they could only lose if both bots were eliminated. Many teams also added minibots to their competitors as a tactical accompaniment. New contestants Track-tion and Bucky The Robot sported crusher weapons, which had faded from use due to the dominance of spinners and flippers. In theory, crushers can be a good anti-spinner weapon, if they are strong enough to clamp over spinners without being ripped away from the frame. Thwackbots Nuts 2 and Gabriel 2 also returned, both with new weapons designed to entangle and slow spinners. The massive upgrades to Nuts 2 and its minibots turned them from joke entrants into lethal jokes, as they were the first robot to defeat the untouchable Carbide.

The only missing category was the notoriously tricky walkerbot/shufflebot (robots which “walk” on legs instead of using wheels). Although one shufflebot (Apex) was built, its legs failed before filming began so it was converted back into a standard wheeled robot.

Fighting and Reliability

Season 10 featured longer fights with greater consistency, which were more engaging to watch. This was partly because the majority of teams had fought their robots before, so they had fixed many of the invisible mechanical and power issues displayed in Season 9. Fewer battles were won by the arena this season, and fewer robots destroyed the arena.

While there were some issues, such as the flying floor spikes in episode 1, these did not force fight resets. The only robot disaster this season was Apex, which self-destructed and launched 38kg of spinning bar through an arena wall. That further demonstrated the terrifying tech involved in the race for faster spinners.

A new arena hazard was also introduced, the Fog of War; a blast of CO2 intended to obscure drivers’ view. Although the Fog of War was fairer than the Rogue House Robot because it affected every competitor, I don’t think it helped the fights. Reducing audience visibility seemed counterproductive, while the distraction disproportionately affected newer and less experienced drivers. Also, its increased unpredictability felt unfair rather than entertaining; the first instance of Fog of War resulted in Sabretooth crashing heavily into the floor flipper and breaking their own weapon. Fog of War was also the deciding factor in the fight between Magnetar and Explusion, as the Fog allowed Magnetar time to fully power its spinner. One giant hit from Magnetar launched Expulsion on to the floor flipper they had been trying to avoid, and ended the match instantly.

While this season had its share of short fights, they were mostly due to inexperienced first-time teams accidentally putting themselves in compromising positions. Bucky lost most of its fights through poor CO2 management, while Team Collingwood Carnage (Track-tion) confused themselves with the Fog of War and drove themselves into defeat. Similarly, the unlucky team Expulsion mostly lost because of their limited driving experience and lack of tactical knowledge.

Episode Six was advertised as the season highlight because of its innovative 10-way battle, where the second- and third- place robot from each heat fought for a spot in the final. While I was interested in the idea and the potential chaos it could bring, I found 10 robots hard to follow. I was repeatedly pausing and re-watching segments to make notes- without that, I would have been lost. Having so many robots also meant that some competitors could just hang back and wait for others to be knocked out: Team Eruption won the 10-way fight mostly by letting other competitors damage each other first.

Roboteers and Narrative

Televised fights featured occasional comments from the judges and reactions from both presenters. Although these reactions did technically cut away from the fight, they provided effective context of when a move was tactically surprising or impressive, which may have helped newer or younger viewers. Similarly, bringing competitors into the arena for debrief rather than announcing results inside the control pods was an unexpected choice, but one which helped to ground the show and display greater interaction between teams. It also let losing teams get a little more time in front of the camera.

Season 10 focused on young roboteers and student teams such as Team Collingwood Carnage and Team Expulsion. The young roboteers were generally the least experienced, which strengthened the youth vs experience plot theme of this season. Unfortunately, Track-tion had few chances to get experience in their episode; Apex’s explosion guaranteed them one victory, while Team Immersion’s (Vulture) forfeit granted another. As a result, Track-tion didn’t know how to fight against Rapid; their 5.6 second loss is the quickest in UK Robot Wars history.

Another plot theme was a class divide between DIY and high-budget approaches. Episode Three was framed to set up rich-kids Team RPD against the scrappy underdog teams. This was most obvious with Team Immersion, proud amateurs who espoused the DIY spirit common to old Robot Wars. For example, when fighting against their heroes Terrorhurtz, Team Immersion built a surprisingly effective anti-axe buffer from Velcro and foam. However, there was a more complex side to Team RPD. In addition to avenging Rapid’s previous loss, they had another motive for competing; headhunting. Entrepreneur captain Josh used the show to search for future employees, proclaiming;

“Robot Wars inspires engineering, it’s how I got into engineering. The best people that we want to hire need to be better than everybody we know, so anyone that beats us, come and see us!”

Two issues with Season 9 were the lack of notable female competitors, and the emphasis on professional roboteers. The second problem was partially solved by the DIY vs professional framing, which helped to make non-professional builders visible. However, as veteran teams were unchanged from Season 9, the majority of female roboteers still belonged to the younger teams. Team Expulsion’s captain Georgina discussed how she found robotics to be male-dominated, but also found that everyone involved in the show was supportive of the female competitors. One improvement is the BBC website, which didn’t describe anyone’s role as “clothing” or “making the tea” this time at least.

Also, the introduction video for Push to Exit contained an interesting bit of characterisation which was also a good science communication opportunity. Team captain Shane discussed his main hobby of breeding show-dogs. His explanation focused on the shared goals of both crafts- the months of behind-the-scenes planning and perfecting something only to unleash it for a short time and see what happened. This was an interesting way to draw parallels between STEM and non-STEM pursuits without making either seem inferior.

Behemoth were a major part of the narrative in episodes One and Six. The driving question of episode One appeared to be “Would Behemoth, the unluckiest contestant in Robot Wars, ever get to the Final?”. This question was answered spectacularly in their fight against Apollo, as a give-and-take of flips and evasions culminated in a brilliant flip which sent Apollo careening into the pit. In episode Six, the narrative focused on the emotional meaning that Robot Wars and robot-building holds for competitors. This was most poignant in the Behemoth vs Magnetar fight: Behemoth captain Ant had been trying to win Robot Wars since 1999, while Magnetar builder Ellis was only two years older than the robot he faced.

Here are some of Behemoth’s early fights, for sheer nostalgia.

This narrative gained extra complexity after Eruption’s victory, as Eruption builder Michael is younger than Robot Wars itself and became interested in robotics because of his love of the show. His victory felt like the passing of a baton from one generation of roboteers to another. As a result, it’s even more rewarding that Behemoth finally got the Grand Final place they deserved.

Conclusion

My first conclusion after watching Season 10 was that inexperience with driving and fighting was the largest issue for new teams. The Season 10 matches reinforced that amateurs need spaces where they can test and drive robots before the main competition. Originally, I wondered whether Robot Wars producers could have opened the arena up pre-filming for roboteers to practice driving and test functionality outside of direct combat.

My second conclusion was that Robot Wars was that the show didn’t move too far away from the awkward place it was in after Season 9, in terms of the potential conflict between amateur and professional participation. In my Season 9 post, I wondered if Robot Wars might fork into a professional side and a amateur or kid-friendly side. For now, the live events will probably continue to interest family audiences, while professional competitors may find a new home in Battlebots or similar robot combat shows.

If you compare this version of Robot Wars to the original, then Season 10 is the reboot equivalent of Season 3, which was commonly regarded as the peak of the series. While Season 3 had greater impact, I don’t think Season 10 is too far behind in comparison; the increased reliability and greater emphasis on talented drivers rather than one-hit weapons is enough for me to say that I think a Season 11 would have been welcomed.

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