Weaver's Week 2018-01-14

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This week, we run the gamut from Game of Thrones to Scavengers.




The New Tournament, 4-22 December

In the beginning, there was Raven. It was a high fantasy game, featuring the battle between good and evil. The bad guy wanted to take over the world with his mindless minions, and bring eternal winter to the land. Raven, our protector in the north, trained an elite cadre of warriors to repel this chilly advance. Through thirteen series, Raven told a tale, established its mythos, and burrowed deep into the hearts of a generation. And then the tale stopped.

There is a new protector in the north. In the show's story, Raven and Nevar were both banished to an infernal realm, from which neither could escape alone. One of the elite warriors Raven had trained followed clues to find his staff of power, and when she wielded it herself, that warrior became the new Raven.

Raven I have the power. My name is Raven.

We can argue that Game of Thrones is drawn from the same bloodline as Raven, being a battle of good and evil and mythic creatures and ancient lore. This comparison runs into practical problems. Raven, being a CBBC show, doesn't show blood, and can't afford to pay dragons. Game of Thrones, being on HBO, does have blood and dragons, but doesn't bring people back from the dead.

There is one similarity. Both shows are confident in their own myths, they build fictional worlds and flesh them out with detail. Raven is able to talk with Raven Of Old, Nevar observes the warriors' progress through his mystic portal. Danerys takes care of her dragons, and the Ice King sends care packages to Olaf. There is a meticulous storybook behind all of the action, and no-one does anything to break the spell. It's another world, and it's easy to suspend disbelief.

Raven Take the ring; don't let them take your skull.

There's another difference. Game of Thrones shows us action from all sides: the baddies, the goodies, and Kitten Kong. Raven is a one-sided account of a mystical war. Our viewpoint is embedded in Raven and her training programme. She will face representatives of her enemy. We viewers won't be privy to Nevar's plotting, or the instructions he gives to his hench-demons; we do get to hear Raven Of Old's counsel.

Game of Rings

Back in the last decade, Raven had a complex scoring system of lives and rings. Failing a challenge cost a life, success brought rings, and rings could be exchanged for a life. In theory, a warrior could be removed if they lost their final life, but this literally never happened. Nudges from the producer always ensured that the last warrior would have a life, and could be eliminated through the Surely Impossible Way of the Warrior.

The new series of Raven has a very simple scoring system of rings. Failing a challenge will cost rings from the hoard, success will bring rings, and rings are rings. Whoever has the fewest rings will leave the quest, or be disadvantaged in The Final Stand.

Raven +1

Why have they made this change? Two reasons spring to mind. The old system was complex and cumbersome, the equivalent of shillings and pence. More simple scoring systems didn't detract from quest series Lost Island, Hidden Temple and Dragon's Claw. What's more, the simple scores allowed the show room to tell a more complex story. We're comfortable with this change.

Players are coloured red, yellow, green, and blue. We had a gentle snigger as Raven totted up the scores. "Let's put these rings into the master scoreboard, and the leader with a Young Krypton factor..." The colours were subverted in the last few episodes, where everyone played in black with their group's emblem.

Raven The leader, with a Young Warrior factor of 15...

Game of Impressiveness

Raven has always tried to use computer graphics. Looking again at some of the early series, we're surprised at how dodgy the CGI looks. Oh, it was fine at the time, but state-of-the-art in 2003 looks a bit shonky in 2018. These days, we expect villains to transform easily, or to spread their vile poison over the waterfall. Raven doesn't disappoint, demons are gone in a wisp of smoke, their contagion spreads with speed and terror.

One CGI doesn't work so well: Raven brings back the warriors who have been captured by demons, and they're in a particular pose every time. We guess that there's only time to film one resurrection scene for each contestant, and they use that footage every time it's needed.

Raven The demons now arriving.

The production values are immense. As the episodes progress, it's good to see some familiar haunts: the whitewater river, the tree for the Leap of Faith, the cliff, the bank, the courtyard, even the loch where they have mines. These memories swiftly fade, replaced by the new warriors' progress.

The show has been filmed in HD since 2007, and now looks even better than ever. Bullet time is used so well. Time becomes an illusion: it can't take that long to jump off a rock and grab a ring, we see the warrior leap, and reach, and – yes – grab it. Then time returns to normal, and the warrior collapses into the water. Contenders wear small cameras on their tunics, and we can see what they're seeing – what it's like under the raging water, or from that height on the tree, or at that point in the final. It's a masterclass in editing – both cutting the footage available and getting the right shots in the first place.

Raven They come in like a wrecking ball.

We also love the music. It's darker and more intense than before. The guitars from 2002 are long gone, and Jode Steele and David Wainwright's whole package is coherent and atmospheric. This column would certainly line up for a CD release.

Raven speaks in cliché and keeps her distance from the warriors. In the show's narrative, this works; Raven doesn't want to get too close to these warriors, because she knows that most of them are not the True Warriors she seeks. If they are the True Warrior, the battle may be long, and not all warriors may return. It's a defensive mechanism: encourage, but don't get so close it warps your judgement.

It's almost eight years since Raven was last on screen. CBBC refreshes its audience every six years. The target is children aged 6-12, with a limited resource for 12-16s. They're moving out from under their parents' wings, but not yet flown the nest. Raven taps into some of these emotions, and reflect them back to the audience. The story is couched in high fantasy, but at its heart is a simple truth: this could be you. You could do great things. You can take on your demons and despatch them to a nether realm.

Raven Raven (right) seeks counsel from Raven Of Old.

Game of Challenges

And so to the challenges themselves. At heart, Raven remains a series of mini-games, pitting warrior against Nevar's representatives. It's not like The Crystal Maze, because there are grades of victory. You'll win Leap of Faith by jumping off a very high platform, but you can win more by grabbing gold rings as you make the jump

Sometimes they pit warrior against warrior. We were surprised at how rarely this happened. The vast majority of challenges were warrior against Nevar (or his proxy). Warriors would survive in the quest on their own ability, unrelated to anyone else's success. This column understands what they're trying to do, ensure that the champion warrior wins through their own effort, not from the luck of the draw.

This led to a slight problem, just before the elimination on day two. We might know that Yellow and Blue are safe, the elimination's between Red and Green. These warriors have a solo challenge, so we're going to find out Red's result, and know what Green has to do. This can result in an anticlimax, Green just has to leap off the tree, or has to grab all of the hanging rings in all three hands. For this point, a race – with the last two warriors going head-to-head – is entirely justified. If we're not going to have the Surely Impossible Way of the Warrior, we need a mini-climax for the elimination. More than once, the elimination felt tinged with sorrow, but had drawn out its emotion over the minutes before.

Raven Tonight, Matthew, I'm going to be shooting glow-worms in the woods.

A number of challenges were for the whole team. All four warriors would win or lose rings, based on their performance. The relative standings cannot changed, Blue remains two rings ahead of Yellow, win or lose. Because rings aren't carried forward from the heats to the final, standings between the groups don't matter. In practical terms, these whole team games are literally pointless. They work only as part of the story, these whole team games advance the storyline, and in a different way from Raven talking with Raven Of Old.

Even without these whole team games, there's a lot of plot exposition. The storytelling's a bit repetitive, because the heats could have been shown in any order. On a couple of episodes, we felt there was more story than game, which isn't a path we particularly care for.

There are many familiar games from last decade, and even more have been re-skinned. We particularly enjoyed some of the riddle games, and more than once this column would have had to hand over a ring to Raven because we'd been captured by the demons. Also enjoyed a communication game with one player in a cage, opening combination locks. The combination is shown to their team-mate, who has to explain the answer to the player in the cage. And the roof of the cage is falling, and if it touches the warrior...

Raven Demons lower the cage; the warrior wants to escape before it falls right down.

Game of Crystals

CBBC refreshes its audience every six years. Children who were 12 in 2002 are now 28. They might have children of their own, but few of these children will be old enough for high fantasy. Parents who are watching Raven with their children are likely to have been aware of the show before, might not have grown up with it. Had CBBC left it a few years longer, parents would bring their memories and expectations to the revival; right now, the CBBC audience – and any passing parents – can judge the show on its own merits.

That helps us understand why Raven works so well, and The Crystal Maze left us slightly floundering. After this long off screen, we need to see some difference. Raven has brought us the same challenges in a different package. It uses a different shooting style, a simpler scoreboard. They've used technology and tropes from elsewhere in culture. They've not messed about with the heart of the show: children see Raven and want to join in.

Raven The Last Stand in the heats.

By comparison, The Crystal Maze didn't bring so much progress. Different challenges from before, and in our opinion they were inferior to the later series in the mid-90s. We didn't see any of the technological excellence Raven brought. They could use time dilation effects, but didn't. They certainly could use cameras affixed to the contestants' jackets, but didn't. And the producers had changed the emphasis of the show: it's now a frivolous piece of fun, and doesn't pretend to be at all urgent or serious. We still wanted to shout at the buffoons on screen, but we also had to be adept with the fast-forward button.

Both shows are typical of their channels in 2017. The Crystal Maze joins Fifteen-to-One and The Price is Right in Channel 4's Comfort Zone: programmes familiar from the recent past, and partly trapped by their own heritage. Raven was authentic for the early years of CBBC, and it still is. This new series joins such zeitgeist shows as Creeped Out and Dengineers as quality shows for right now.

For our money, the best bit of Raven came right at the end. The last three warriors take part in a trial of brain and brawn, agility and intelligence and endurance. We got so many echoes of games from the past: the water course of Total Wipeout, the multi-level test of the Kryptic Rings, the Final Abyss from Scavengers, and the sheer exhilaration of the Fun House finale. The final made for riveting television, we simply had to see the winner emerge.

Raven The final in progress.

The revival of Raven is not perfect. It's close enough to be one of our Top Five new shows of the old year.

This Week and Next

Only Connect continued, with the Dandies and Arrowheads up for it. Everything fell in the Dandies' favour, from Dickens character occupations to descriptions of John Williamses. 7-1 after the opening round turned into 9-5 after Sequences, with the easier questions falling to the Arrowheads. An error from the Arrowheads on the wall – they missed Royal Society presidents – yielded three points, and the final score was 24-19 to the Dandies.

Second round match 6 on University Challenge, where Newcastle beat Southampton by 215-130.

Claire Slater won this week's Mastermind, a score of 25 taking Leonardo da Vinci. There had been a Perfect Round from Jon Stitcher on The Inbetweeners, but his general knowledge left him a point adrift. Jim Mason (Dreyfus affair) and Craig Thomson (JS Bach) completed the heat.

BARB ratings in the week to 31 December 2017.

  1. Top show was New Year's Eve Fireworks (BBC1, Sun, 10.4m). It's one of the biggest series on television, always behind Strictly Come Dancing. Call the Midwife (BBC1, Mon, 9.55m) topped the consolidated ratings for Christmas Day, with Strictly Christmas Special (BBC1, Mon, 8.3m) the week's top game show.
  2. Xander and Richard share silver and bronze, with repeats of Pointless Celebrities (BBC1, Sat, 4.85m) and Pointless (BBC1, Fri, 4.65m). Christmas Burn Off (C4, Mon, 4.35m) finished ahead of Celebrity Mastermind (BBC1, Thu, 4.3m) and The Chase (ITV, Fri, 4m).
  3. Also on air: The Big Fat Quiz of the Year (C4, Tue, 3.25m), Guess the Star (ITV, Sat, 2.9m), Christmas University Challenge (BBC2, Thu, 2.5m), The Price is Right (C4, Sat, 2.25m).
  4. There was World's Strongest Man (C5, Fri, 1.4m), a Robot Wars special (BBC2, Sun, 1.3m), and Blind Date (C5, Sat, 1.15m).
  5. Top game show on the diginets was Swashbuckle (Cbeebies, Tue, 330,000), ahead of Would I Lie to You (Dave, Mon, 320,000) and A League of Their Own (The Satellite Channel, Mon, 315,000).

More good stuff from CBBC, with a new series of Horrible Histories Gory Games (from Mon). Older viewers might enjoy Village of the Year (C4, weekdays and Sat). A new run of Portrait Artist of the Year (Artsworld, Tue). "The Most Dangerous Quiz on TV" is The Wave (W, weekdays).

And the results from the Bother's Bar / UKGameshows Poll of the Year 2017 will be announced. There's a live webstream on Wednesday at 9, and the text write-up will follow shortly afterwards.

Photo credits: BBC.

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