It’s not tough to sell a show like “Robot Combat League” to a TV audience, particularly when the audience is that of SyFy, formerly the sense-making “SciFi Channel.” Giant robots wailing on each other in the style of “Real Steel?” That’s all you really need as far as advertising for the new show is concerned. What else matters? Certainly not the motley crew of people assembled to pilot and shadow-box the things. And yet somehow, SyFy manages to get this wrong.
I tuned in to watch the premiere of “Robot Combat League” this Tuesday on SyFy for a variety of reasons. First: robot fighting. Second, the show is hosted by Chris Jericho, one of the best pro wrestlers of his generation. And third, I wanted to see if it would turn out as ugly as I expected it might. And I was not disappointed on that front.
Pace is the first big thing. I know that you have to introduce all the people who will be competing in this season-long tournament, but did it really have to take up the first 45 minutes of the hour-long program? Is it safe to hope that future episodes will be more about robots slowly waddling around and ineffectually punching things?
Speaking of the actual robot combat, it’s, ummm … a little herky jerky. The range of motion conveyed to the bots by the human combat controllers seems quite limited, especially in terms of their striking motion. Having watched the first fight, I’m not certain the robots’ arms are long enough to hit each other in the “head” area. They mostly have a tendency to lock up against each other and just dig in body shots over and over, presumably giving the win to whichever robot is gifted with the best torso armor. And what is up with these ratings of the robots? “Endurance?” It’s a robot, guys — it doesn’t get tired.
This clearly doesn’t sound quite as thrilling as the TV producers were probably hoping for, so they decided “Screw it, let’s just fake it then.” Great gouts of sparks fly out of the midsections of the robots as they are hit. How, exactly? At one point, I watched a robot smacked in the torso five times in a row, and each time an identical shower of sparks came flying out. Was anything broken or malfunctioning with it? Of course not. Instead, it seems clear that there are the equivalent of “spark cannons” on the robot’s body, presumably activated when it is hit hard enough, to make it look like the strikes are “doing more damage.” To recap: This is a television show about giant fighting robots, and the producers had to rig part of it for not being exciting enough.
To be perfectly honest, though, it was the people on the show that killed me more than the robots or the combat. In true American reality show fashion, they went out and got that ideal mix of people with actual qualifications and others willing to show a lot of cleavage in every shot of every episode, or otherwise be cast as sexual objects first and competitors second. Go ahead and point out the backgrounds of these women as MMA fighters or computer technicians or science teachers: what factors do you think were primary in choosing this competitor? This one? Okay, how about this one? Yeah. I think we probably know. The only female pilot who isn’t overtly sexualized is the one nerdy-looking one who is there specifically to be part of a father-daughter angle with her dad.
…you know a show is on shaky ground when the promise of robot combat takes a backseat to father-daughter relationship building.
I will probably be curious enough to watch one more episode of “Robot Combat League” next week, just to see what they do with their hour timeslot when they don’t have to spend most of it introducing people you’d rather not meet. After that, though, I have to doubt the prospect of 8-foot tall hunks of metal lurching around and walking into each other as something that will hold my attention. Of course I might be in the minority—ratings for the show set a two-year high for a new SyFy program.
What do you think, sirs? What do you want out of a robot combat show?