Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Earth is a long way from Arg!

Since the 1960s, science fiction and television have gone together like A Horse and another A Horse that love each other very much and dream of rearing a little foal. Caught up in the counterculture revolution, it was Director General of the BBC, Sir Hugh Green, who made the momentous decision to discard the first five episodes of a new drama featuring an avuncular gentleman and his struggle for PhD funding and instead expand on the final instalment, which saw the newly graduated Dr travel around various locations within a twenty mile radius of Television Centre in a police phonebox. Soon the small screen was awash with spacecraft, aliens and malevolent balloons called Rover. The public's fascination with all things science fictiony led to the commissioning of more expensive, and more successful shows, such as Star Trek in the US and Thunderbirds in the UK. When teenagers in the sixties weren't swinging around Carnaby Street in their Beatle wigs, they were sat on the sofa watching a bunch of oak-jawed puppets rescue some other puppets from puppet disasters with some futuristic puppet vehicles. Around the same time, science fiction became science fact, with the Apollo space programme landing men on the moon. And that, dear reader, is where it ALL WENT WRONG. Of course there were further series of intergalactic daring do over the next three decades, the original version of Battlestar Galactica for example, as well as The Tripods, Buck Rogers, Red Dwarf and the best-forgotten-no-matter-what-anyone-says Blake's 7, but increasingly science fiction became tethered to the mundane lives couch-based explorers had hoped to escape when they turned on the Little Black Box In The Corner Of The Room. Programmes with a science fiction theme, notably cartoons such as Transformers and Centurions, weren't so much bothered with transporting viewers to other worlds as they were with transporting them and their parents to their local toy shop where they could purchase plastic replicas of the show's main characters. Perhaps an equally cynical move was the paring of science fiction with that most unlikely of bedfellows, the gameshow. Nothing says 'the future' like Bruce Forsyth offering you the chance to win a cuddly toy and a washing machine in return for your dignity eh? Nevertheless I have fond, if somewhat hazy, memories of three particular sci-fi/gameshow cross-breeds that aired during my youth. These are they:

1) The Adventure Game

It is only in the past couple of years, thanks to extensive Google searching and expensive psycho-therapy, that I've come to accept that The Adventure Game actually existed and wasn't some made up memory of childhood caused by too much Sherbet Dip and Cherryade (a potent combination that I would only recommend to the most adventurous sugar fanatic). Ostensibly a kid's programme, the show attracted an adult audience and was moved from Saturday mornings to early evenings from series 2 onwards. And it was in this postprandial slot that I first came across the world of the Rangdo and his fellow shape-shifting dragons, the Argonds. From the planet Arg. Natch. Conveniently the dragons shape shifted into human form before the contestants arrived in order to avoid frightening them (and presumably the person in charge of the BBC special effects budget).

The programme was a sort of proto-Crystal Maze, with added C-list celebrities*. Three such 'names' appeared on Arg each week and had to solve puzzles set by the Argonds in order to win their passage back to Earth. The Argonds helped or hindered the contestants, depending on how well they were doing, and included Dagnor, who spoke backwards with an Australian accent, and the aforementioned Rangdo, who, from series 2, shape-shifted into an aspidistra atop a Doric column. It is quite possible that the creators of the show had read 'Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy'.

The puzzles were rather difficult, and much more mentally taxing than the sort of 'fill a cup with water up to a certain level' fare that appeared on the Crystal Maze. As a child I found them quite boring. What I really wanted to see was *drum roll* THE VORTEX! At the end of each show the contestants who hadn't been arbitrarily 'evaporated' by Rangdo were tasked with finding a way across a hexagonal white lattice towards the mean-spirited houseplant. They took it in turns with 'The Vortex', a sort of blue flashing smoky thing, super-imposed on the lattice by, what used to be called, 'TV wizardry'. Because of this, said The Vortex could not be seen by the celebs, so they had to use a combination of luck and guesswork (they were allowed to throw 'green cheese rolls', which they'd earned earlier in the show, at the intersections of the lattice to check for the presence of The Vortex). If they stepped into The Vortex they were evaporated, a process signalled by a red cloudy thing or a multi-coloured starburst depending on the series. To keep the show family friendly this 'evaporation' did not result in death, rather the unlucky contestants were made to walk back to Earth along the 'intergalactic highway'. Those who managed to reach the other side were rewarded with a shuttle back to Blighty. And not much else really. They truly were Simpler Timez *sigh*

Marvel at The Future, tremble at The Vortex.

*Including 80s stalwarts Bonnie Langford, Johnny Ball, Noel Edmonds, John Craven, Keith 'Cheggers' Chegwin and the wondrous Sarah Greene *swoon*

2) Cyberzone

The Adventure Game had included a super basic
BBC Micro powered puzzle, in which a dog had to be guided round a maze, but it wasn't until the 90s that Television People seemed to cotton on to the fact that 'ver yoof' were more likely to be squirrelled away in their bedrooms fiddling with Mario and Sonic than rolling a hoop around their estate or playing hopscotch. Unfortunately Cyberzone tried to make up for this belated realisation by using the, then cutting edge, 'virtual reality' technology. I say unfortunately because virtual reality was, quite frankly, shit. Home gamers had just been wowed by Mortal Kombat's 'realistic' graphics, modelled on real actors, and Star Fox's 3D worlds and VR looked hideously clunky in comparison. Although similar in graphical style to Star Fox, VR's frame rate was painfully slow and the environment created for Cyberzone was dull and blocky. I still made a point of watching it every bally week though.

The show was hosted by Craig Charles, who also starred as Lister in the Beeb's science fiction sitcom, Red Dwarf, which had just finished its third series. Despite annoyingly shouting "awooga" at every possible opportunity (years before John Fashanu adopted the same catchphrase when presenting Gladiators), Charles's humour was infectious and he pretty much saved the show. Although the graphics weren't much cop they needed ALL the processing power available in 1993, which meant that, when contestants strapped on their virtual reality helmet and gloves, they were presented with such 'puzzles' as 'shoot the duck' and 'move the box from one place to another'. Although visitors to the Cyberzone could walk and perform an 'action', they could not do both at the same time and the collision detection was so bad that my main memory of the series is Charles corpsing while a contestant ran into, or rather ran somewhere near, the corner of a computer generated house, over and over again, wondering why they weren't progressing towards their goal. Laughs aside, Cyberzone did not make for a particularly satisfactory televisual experience and was cancelled after its first series.

 "Awooga" indeed Mr Charles.

3) GamesMaster

The year before Cyberzone aired on BBC2, Channel 4 had produced their own sci-fi inspired computer game gameshow. GamesMaster took place first in a church and then on an oil rig in a vaguely post-apocalyptic future/present. The programme featured game reviews, a cheat section, whereby viewers would be granted an audience with the eponymous GamesMaster (Patrick Moore's head superimposed on a computer generated background) to ask for help and advice with their favourite video games, and several 'Golden Joystick challenges', with contestants battling against each other/for the highest score on classic titles such as Street Fighter II and Tetris. God it was good. Presenter Dominic Diamond had a cynical, surly sense of humour, and occasionally seemed to step over the line of acceptable behaviour expected from the host of a teatime show. This obviously went down very well with my early teenage self. The reviewers were snarky too and the fleeting glimpses of as-yet-unreleased games set my heart a-quiver. Sadly Channel 4 had to go and spoil it by saying something stupid like... Dexter Fletcher. For reasons best known to themselves, GamesMaster's broadcasting overlords replaced Diamond with the boilersuited mockney tosspot for series 3. This change coincided with the frequent disappearance of the review section and an increasing reliance on 'joystick challenges' with celebrity guests. Diamond was brought back from series 4 until the show was eventually cancelled in 1998 after seven seasons, but it was never quite the same.

 GamesMaster Series 1. The REAL freakin' deal.

1 comment:

  1. Nice read, reminds me so much of the 80s growing up to these shows.