Weaver's Week 2018-02-25

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Later, we ask for the difference between components of Only Connect questions and the world memory championship.


Last Commanders

Last Commanders

Panda Television / Objective Media Group Scotland for CBBC, from 30 January

The world is in peril! Or, to be exact, there is peril on the space station owned by Ykarus Biotech.

Last Commanders Home sweet home.

Some years ago, these Kaladian scientists and inventors worked to create an advanced artificial intelligence. Sciron was meant to eliminate disease, cure illness, and make everyone's life perfect.

But Sciron, being an artificial intelligence, has its own idea of perfection. "Perfection", in Sciron's vision, seems to involve a shared mind, and everyone trading their free will for the greater gain. To spread this vision, Sciron developed a virus to go from person to person, and brought about 98% of the space station into Sciron's ambit.

Last Commanders Sciron. What's wrong with perfection.

As seems to be the way, some people – those immune to the meme's virus – are hacked off with this state of affairs. They do not wish to make the trade offered by Sciron, and see the AI's very presence as an existential threat. Leading the resistance is Skye, a teenager Just Like You (But A Bit Older And Way Cooler). She's the face of the resistance, the sort who would hack her way into Coding Time With David Dimblebot, and wears head-to-toe red leather. Comparisons with Britney Spears are inevitable, as is use of of the phrase "One for the dads, there".

Last Commanders A revolution in quality and choice.

For reasons of narrative continuity, Skye doesn't take part in any missions. She can't leave the command post, because if she's captured the resistance will fail. Action on the space station gets left to various avatars, of all shapes and sizes. Each character has their own skills and abilities, but it's not clear what effect any of these have on the game. And, because Skye can't talk these characters through their missions, the job falls to last-ditch commanders.

And that's where the game comes in. Ykarus never flew too close to the sun, Theseus never died on Sciron, and Britney never dropped the ring into the ocean.

Playing the game are the characters, and their commanders. Children Just Like You, patched in from a home just like yours, courtesy of a magic box provided by Skye and her friends. (OK, it's a laptop and webcam with sound, shipped out to the children. Colour-coded wires made the tech so simple even a grown-up could put it together.)

Last Commanders Intergalactic commanders, working from home today.


Now, at this point, we must confess to a problem. It's not entirely clear what the players see. On the television programme, we see some footage from the avatar's point of view, beamed in from a camera somewhere near their ear. We hear a commentary provided by the avatar, pointing out things in the room – things that will doubtless be useful, if only the commanders would stop and listen to the clues.

Last Commanders The view from Brodie's camera.

On the telly, we also see some establishing shots, taken by fixed cameras. We see degraded security camera footage, we see full-definition roaming camera footage. We don't know if the players at home get these external shots, or if they have to rely on the ear-cam footage. For the sake of the review, let's assume they only see the avatar's view.

There are many reasons to give the viewers at home more information. It helps us to make sense of the alien environment, helps us to understand why a particular move is correct and why some other move is wrong. It lets us play along more easily.

Last Commanders An establishing shot for viewers at home.

And, more pertinently, it means we're not left queasy. Some viewers have found this style of television gives them motion sickness, expecting the television frame to move along with the picture. Maybe this is a reason why The Crystal Maze didn't use body cameras, an editorial decision. Yes, that was it, not so that they'd be upstaged by some no-budget CBBC shows...

Last Commanders You are in a twisty corridor, chased by a robot.

The set design looks like The Crystal Maze and its future zone. Or, to be precise, the future zone as it would be if Barbara powered down and told Ed to do the cleaning. A little grimy, with scratches on the plastic windows and cables snaking here and there in plain sight. Posters have a coherent aesthetic, angular designs, the antithesis of Art Deco. The set design has its job, to set expectations. This is a living spaceship, though it could use some care and attention. If only the Cybers would keep the place clean, as they were designed to do.

The Cybers are the visible Big Baddie. It's very hard to portray an artificial intelligence on television, Sciron is represented as a disembodied head and a voice giving such mantras as "I see all." To enforce Sciron's will, there are hulking great robots. Coming into contact with the Cybers is a bad thing, as they will easily capture a human and bring them to the laboratory for testing. And probably worse.

Last Commanders Here's our prisoner's cell...

Cover from the Skye

Very quickly, it becomes clear that this show is half a series of Knightmare compressed into half an hour. No fewer than four teams start each episode, each with a different avatar, each colour-coded for viewers' convenience. These avatars never meet, but follow the exact same route through the challenge. We constantly skip from team to team to team, super-fast editing. We've not seen cuts this quick since we reviewed Jigsaw a few months back.

Last Commanders ... And here's a keypad.

The editing on Last Commanders is superb, some of the best we've seen. Everything is synchronised throughout the programme. We hear one of the characters enter the room and describe something. Another character will echo the description, and add something. One of the commanders at home asks a question, and their character replies, then another character gives their team a little more information.

Last Commanders And here's something to link things.

And this is how Last Commanders spins out its 15 minutes of content to fill the slot: they play it over and over again. The plot is reinforced through instant repetition, without drawing the viewer's attention to that fact. Zarq can say something to his commanders, Brodie can repeat the same point to her team, and it all sounds natural. Hard work for the editors, but it's really paid off.

(While we're talking about elements we love, note also the computer text displays at the beginning and end of the show. BBC Micro Mode 7, or a loving re-creation. One for the dads, there.)

Last Commanders Mac taught Chris Searle how to code this. It took 35 years.

Each episode of Last Commanders has a mission, something to achieve, ending with the avatar finding an escape hatch and making their exit. To meet the end goal, the avatar will need to get out of one locked room, evade capture, complete some sort of logical puzzle, perhaps climb through the vents, and avoid Cybers. Most of the show is a challenge of brain and communication, some of it is just sheer terror as the teams try to dodge the baddies.

We mentioned earlier that Last Commanders has a detailed and well-built set. They have to, because the whole series is going to take place there. After a few episodes, it feels like we've seen all of the rooms on the ship, we know all of the doors and are getting an idea of the station's geography. The rooms are re-decorated for each episode, of course, but we lose a little magic when we remember "yeah, there's a bend in the corridor, I wonder if they've got a Cyber there."

Last Commanders Changes in light and angle help to make it look different.

The games themselves follow internal rules, it's the same challenge for everyone, the same time limit for everyone, the same answer for everyone. We've found a few of the failures to be slightly arbitrary, especially when an avatar doesn't spot an open door and the other avatars do. We've also seen at least one example where the avatar tried to talk her commanders out of a losing course of action, in an effort to extend the game.

The Big Skye

Our judgement is tempered by one fact: we're reviewing after four episodes, six are still to be seen. The drama may come into its own later in the series. We find each episode to be interesting, with some tense moments, but the overall effect is that Last Commanders is promising, but not yet excellent.

Something is missing from each episode: they've not yet managed to convey proper tension. They've not yet shown us how a decision early in the quest can make things much harder near the end. In one episode, the teams had a choice between an invisibility band and a freeze gun. The band would make the avatar invisible for a short while but just once, the freeze gun would freeze the enemy for a short while and had "a few" charges.

Whatever item the team chose, they'd use it in the very next scene. Last Commanders hasn't demonstrated looming menace, the bulk of its failures have been after a single wrong decision.

Last Commanders Or running out of time, like in this connect-the-pipes game.

CBBC is meant to be seen by children, and they assume that some children will be watching on their own, without a parent or carer to talk to if they get scared. Last Commanders has to be a bit vague, a bit non-threatening. They do this with the space setting, we do not live on satellites orbiting around a distant star. There's all sorts of sci-fi jargon, Sciron and the Morka and so on. The Cybers might look a bit humanoid, but they're so large and lunking as to be schoolyard bullies, the sort who will push in front of you in the queue for school dinners.

Taken as a whole, Last Commanders is a serial, one episode leads into the next. After four episodes, we'd hope to have some little growth in the characters, and we're not getting any dramatic progress. Skye is stuck away in her escape capsule, the rebels suffer no lasting ill-effects if they're captured, and the story arc is there only to link the shows together.

We demonstrated last week how each episode of Spy School was essentially a spy yarn with some game bits attached, and the drama was often stronger than the game. Last Commanders doesn't offer much in the way of story in its episode. We could reduce all four plots to the same essential summary: get through some locked doors, pick up and use one item to find another. Avoid cybers, get out alive.

Last Commanders The stark posters have a coherent design style.

Sciron is convincing as a baddie. We can believe that the AI is omnipotent, all-seeing, pervasive – in part through its occasional intrusions into our transmission feed. If anything, Sciron is too convincing, too cold and calculating, but then we remember that it's not human. It's certainly a more convincing baddie than Goldfist, but a basketful of kittens is a more convincing baddie than Goldfist.

And therein hangs the final problem: why are we rooting for Skye and her crew, exactly? What is our motivation? If the artificial intelligence of Sciron represents the sum of all Kaladian knowledge, if it's everyone working for their mutual benefit, then might it have a point? Might it know better than these suspiciously-humanoid beings? Skye and her "freedom fighters" claim to be taking back control, but what will they do with it when they get it? If they turn off Sciron, will that represent an advance for Kaladians, or a retreat from modernity?

Last Commanders What's wrong with Perfection? Ask Nick Knowles.

To be fair, there's very little literature about an artificial intelligence better than even the smartest human. Dr Who and Star Trek barely scratched the surface of that ethical conundrum, and it's perhaps unfair to ask Last Commanders to explore this point in depth. But perhaps it's not: CBBC has never been afraid to tackle the big philosophical questions. What makes someone an outsider? What's so great about fitting in? The Worst Witch and Wolfblood and Four O'Clock Club address these questions in their own way, all within the cosy confines of CBBC. As a drama, Last Commanders leaves us wanting more.

Last Commanders


Perhaps that's the best summary of the show. They've done a lot: the technology is foolproof, the gameplay is solid, the acting is just the right side of hammy, and the editing is superb. If this show popped up on grown-up telly, we would appreciate the gameplay. We'd love for them to do more, create better tension than "is there a Cyber in the room?", and give us some character development.

For a first series, what the producers have managed is a major achievement in itself, and we salute their work.

Last Commanders For freedom!

Top Brain

The general knowledge contest of champions

If the annual winners are painted on the honours board, and the triennial Brain of Brains will be carved into stone, these are the true Quiz Gods. Busts will be carved in the winner's honour, and they will look down on us mere mortals. In 1998, the title was won by Kevin Ashman, a civil servant and future Egghead. In 2008, the honour went to Mark Bytheway, a computer operator. Mark can't be with us in person, he died of cancer in 2010.

Kevin Ashman Top Brain 1998.

Competing to follow these fine players:

  • Ian Bayley, a lecturer from Oxford, winner of the annual series in 2010
  • John Benyon, a gardener from Northwich, winner in 2017
  • Mark Grant, an accountant from Sydney via Bromley, the champ in 2014

Mark Grant gets the first correct answer, a bonus from Ian Bayley's question. He gives the next five correct answers as well, all on his own turn. After one round, Mark Grant is licensed to make it a very long night, leading as he does 0-0-7.

Both of the opponents pick up a point in the next round, Ian zags with Dallas when asked about the man who designed costumes for Dynasty. With Mark dropping his starter, Ian pulls into second place, still trailing 7-3-1.

"Seven nation army" kicks off the next round, the first of two correct answers for Ian. Lincoln's final play provides a point for John, and the founder of the Hugo awards scores for Mark. His lead over Ian is trimmed further, 9-7-2.

There's a statue of Minnie the Minx in Dundee? Why were we not told?! On his music question, John zigs with Jean-Michel Jarre, Ian zags with Vangelis, and the quiz gods wipe the slate clean and say "that's quits". Mark doesn't wipe the slate clean, scoring another five in a row, picking up another bonus point, and extends his lead to 15-9-2.

The poor listener tasked with "Beat the Brains" is Richard Owen of Porthmadoc. He defeats them with two questions about medicine.

Dracula's steamship helps land four for Ian, though Mark takes the bonus of Emmanuel Macron's home city. Mark remembers Michael Nyman's masterwork "MGV" (best heard while riding the line from Calais to Lille), and his lead moves to 20-13-2.

Why was Walter Mondale nicknamed Fritz? That's not a direct question, Ian picks up the point just from knowing the fact. It's 22-14-3 when the round comes to a conclusion, and we know who will win as soon as Ian's next set of questions ends.

The final scores: John Baynham 3, Ian Bayley 17, Mark Grant 22.

Which means that Mark Grant wins the Top Brain trophy, and a deserved place in the Quiz Pantheon.


This Week and Next

Great news for fans of !mpossible! Rick Edwards' quiz will make tentative steps towards primetime, with a series of six celebrity shows. A bundle of BBC celebrities will play for charity, and plan to dodge the completely wrong answers.

Good news for fans of Curious Creatures, the animal show has also renewed for BBC2.

Excellent news for Taskmaster and its many fans, the show is going to go on and on. Four series of ten episodes will block out UKTV Dave's schedule for ages yet. Will this satiate the appetite for blokish celebrities doing silly things, or will the show continue to grow like clover on a newly-seeded lawn? We'll find out over the next years.

A pair of very nasty walls on Only Connect, yielding just 7 points between the Detectives and Escapologists. "Illegitimate children!" shouted the teams, but that had been an answer to a Connection earlier. A low-scoring game, until the Escapologists ran away with Missing Vowels and won by 23-12. Our favourite question: the Sequence about airports with 4, 3, 2, 1 passenger terminal; everyone forgets Heathrow terminal 1 is closed, demolished, shut.

Low scoring continued on University Challenge, where Edinburgh took on Emmanuel Cambridge. The Cambridge side have a hole about gay arts, going 1/4 on stills of New Queer Cinema and not identifying lesbian classic "Tipping the Velvet". Edinburgh picked up lots of missignal penalties, and at one point trailed 100-35, but slowly clawed back into contention. A set of bonuses on dinosaurs brought the sides level with a couple of minutes to play, and a missignal for Emmanuel handed the game to Edinburgh, 125-110.

This game won't live long in the memory, an aggregate of 235 is one of the lowest ever, and the teams combined for 8 bonuses from 13 starters during the mid-part of the game.

Mastermind continued its semi-final stage. David Sutherland was first back to the chair; he scored 6 on Marshall Giorgy Zhukov, and his 17 didn't feel like a winning score. Kyle Hobman made 7 with Pink Floyd, and picked the wrong One Direction member for his general knowledge round: 18, and we reckon he could be a series winner in the future. Nicola Nuttall snapped out answers to questions on Tom Hanks (where she scored 8) and everything else; her guess of "Enola Gay" puts the cherry on the score of 17.

Very few people want to remember David Gray's 2001 album. Ken Moreland is glad he did; he scored 9 on HP Lovecraft, and "White Ladder" helps raise his score to 20 (and 1 pass). It leaves David Love with a target of 10, he'd knocked up 11 on footballer Stan Cullis. Two passes mean there's no tie-break, and errors run time off the clock; the final score is 17.

So Ken Moreland will join us for the final. 20 is a low winning score for this phase of the contest, but 28 in his heat is a quality showing. No Mastermind next week, we're again run off the track by athletics.

BARB ratings in the week to 11 February.

  1. Another win for Call the Midwife (BBC1, Sun, 9.55m). BBC The Voice is the top game show (ITV, Sat, 6.25m).
  2. Close behind are Dancing on Ice (ITV, Sun, 5.4m) and The Chase (ITV, Tue, 4.15m). What Would Your Kid Do? had a good opening figure (ITV, Tue, 3.85m).
  3. All Together Now is rock-solid (BBC1, Sat, 3.9m), and sneaks ahead of Pointless Celebrities (BBC1, Sat, 3.85m).
  4. Dragons' Den is top game on BBC2 (Sun, 2.85m). University Challenge (Mon, 2.3m) only just beat Only Connect (Mon, 2.15m) and Mastermind (Fri, 2.05m)
  5. Catsdown brought 2.25m this week (C4, Fri). Village of the Year has been a decent hit, 1.2m for the primetime final (C4, Sat), and about 500,000 for the 3pm daily shows.
  6. Survival of the Fittest had been hyped to high heaven, 1.045m (ITV2, Sun) may be a little disappointing, and the trend appears to be down. Next biggest digital shows are Come Dine with Me (More4, Sun, 350,000) and Would I Lie to You (Dave, Sat, 345,000).
  7. Three more commissions and acquisitions? Portrait Artist (Artsworld, Tue, 315,000), Yankee Masterchef (W, Fri, 200,000), and Rupaul's Drag Race All Stars (Comedy Central, Sat, 195,000).

This section revised 6 March after data for BBC channels was released.

After a quiet few weeks, lots of new shows. A new contest of Masterchef (BBC1, from Mon). More play-at-home fun with Remotely Funny (CBBC, weekdays). The Chris Ramsey Show (Comedy Central, Wed) comes from the basement. Can i Gymru (S4C, Thu) is this year's song contest.

Ending this week: Survival of the Fittest (ITV2), Coach Trip (E4), and All Together Now (BBC1, Sat).

Photo credits: Panda Television / Objective Media Group Scotland, 12 Yard Productions, BBC Manchester.

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