The idea of a robotic uprising is one of the classic tropes of science fiction because humans are subconsciously frightened by the notion that the very machines we have created can one day find a way to dominate this planet. What if I were to tell you that this dystopian future predicted by Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and virtually every other genre writer of the last century has finally happened? That we are just moments away from the synchronicity? I am talking, of course, about SyFy’s “Robot Combat League,” a show that breaks the cardinal rule of entertainment: it makes robot fights boring. Gurren Lagann this is not.
“Robot Combat League” is an uninteresting format wrapped with uninteresting contestants and tangled in the wiring of the uninteresting robot fighters. The strategy necessary to win at “Robot Combat League” is so basic that it makes your five-year-old cousin playing Rock’em Sock’em Robots look like Boris Spasky at his prime. Each team consists of two players. The Robo-Jockeys wear metal suits on their upper bodies that trigger the robot’s punch-ability. The Robo-techs sit down and control the robot’s “movement.”
I hesitate at using that word because the deathtraps are tethered by a steel rod that the Robo-techs control and actually have very limited ranges. One solid punch is all that is needed to defeat your opponent. Sometimes a punch will trigger sparks. And sometimes these punches break tubes, making a robot’s arm spew fluid in a Pythonesque display of madness. The Black Knight might have refused to surrender, but you can give up at any time giant robot.
Robots fight to the disqualification in a series of two-minute rounds. It’s a single-elimination format, so don’t bother getting attached to any one robot or his fighters because they are bound to be eliminated regardless of performance or skill. Teams were seeded based on which robot could hit a target first.
If you think that this sounds like an inadequate way to measure the performance of our first-time robot commanders, you would be correct. Of the 12 robots to enter, three of the four semifinalists were seeded nineth, eleventh and twelfth. And the top three seeds all lost their first battles.
You know that these robots are awesome ‘cause half of them sound like rejected action movie titles of the 1980s like Drone Strike, Steel Cyclone, and Thunder Skull. Robohammer sounds like Robocop’s generic cousin. The other half of the robots are inspired by rejected names from American Gladiators like Brimstone, Medieval, and Scorpio. Each robot has been given a unique “identity” but good luck trying to tell them apart.
Robots are awesome. Contact sports are awesome. Mashing the two ideas up should be a perfect combination. So why does this show so thoroughly suck? It’s not like there haven’t been interesting robot-war programs before like “Battlebots” and “Robot Wars.” “Robot Combat League’s” major issue right now is that it isn’t sure what type of show it wants to be: a reality show or a pseudo-sporting event.
Half of each episode is spent getting to know the Robo-Jockey and Robo-Tech using an edited interview format like other modern reality series. But the other half is dedicated to “mechanics” that never go deeper than reattaching armor and tightening screws. And the fighting scenes are so spastic they make professional wrestling free-for-alls look like Swan Lake. It takes a special type of talent to get such wooden performances from giant hulks of steel that spark and crash.
There is a special circle in hell reserved for the television executives who have figured out how to mess up as surefire a premise as fighting robots. “Battlebots” lasted for several seasons on Comedy Central despite not actually being a comedy.
Part of the appeal of “Battlebots” is that at any moment those robots could be crushed or get caught by a spike pit or thrown into a flamethrower or tossed into the audience. Many of these same danger elements are present in “Combat League,” but they just don’t work here. Perhaps images of warfare have just desensitized the modern viewer to the spectacle of machine carnage by flamethrowers and spike pits. And all of the robots have been centrally designed so although they each feature different design elements they are mostly interchangeable.
To step into Ayn Randian territory for one moment: engineers on “Battlebots” were able to customize their machine from the ground up and were free to think of new strategies and innovate. These factory-assembled bots are heartless creatures in every sense of the word. When Brad Bird adapted a children’s story by Ted Hughes into “The Iron Giant,” he understood the need to humanize robots because they are ultimately cold pieces of metal that viewers have issues sympathizing with. Robots like WALL*E and EVE had missions to motivate them. These robots just look desperate.
Give me a machete and a ten second head start and your lowly television critic here bets that he could disarm one of these robots. Literally.
I would run behind the robot and with one or two well-placed strikes I could cut the fluid cables and disqualify my opponent. This is neither rocket science nor a scene from “The Terminator.”
Hell, a team of poorly-trained Ewoks could probably take one of these down with a solid hit from a spear. Frankly, “Robot Combat League” is so bad that the very threat of being forced to compete on this travesty will keep future generations of robots from starting a revolution. Humanity is safe as long as there are YouTube clips to keep the robots in check.