Weaver's Week 2007-09-02
Beat the Temple
University Challenge host Jeremy Paxman delivered a high-profile speech at a television festival last week-end. He asked the big question, what is television for, and finds that no-one has a clue. There's too much focus grouping, not enough passion, and no clear sense of purpose. His said, "We need to be open. We need to admit it when we make mistakes. We need treat our viewers with respect, to be frank with them about how and why programmes were made, to be transparent." It's a long speech, well-written, and worth reading.
CBBC, 6-31 August
Last year, we found Raven: The Island to be the proverbial curate's egg: three weeks of wandering around green fields and going up and down cliffs left us asleep, but the final week's adventure almost made up for the tedium.
In the year since, the weather has been doing strange things. Icy wastes and layers of water have covered the country. Is this the fault of Michael Fish? Not this time. Should we blame Rosemary, the switchboard operator? Nope. Nevar, the architect of all that is evil? That's the culprit, the person responsible for making a year that is always winter and never Wimbledon.
Like everyone else in the country, Raven is cheesed off with this state of affairs. He wants to bring about a land where the sun rises in the east, sets in the west, and can actually be seen in the hours between. Rather than use his magic staff to blast a hole through the clouds, he's decided to adopt a more permanent solution: gather the magical waters that can end the freeze, and prevent Nevar from freezing the land again. These waters are held in "a mysterious land, far to the east", and Raven has gathered sixteen warriors there. Being a bit of a spoil-sport, Nevar has followed the camp, and will do what he can to stop them from succeeding.
The waters are held in the titular Secret Temple, and its location is, er, a secret. Assistance is provided by Princess Satyarani, a character of some moral ambiguity. She is whole-heartedly behind the quest Raven leads, but insists on her warriors demonstrating their worth. Only those who prove their competence will be granted admission to the Temple, and she will not break centuries of protocol merely because Raven wants it.
That's the backstory, as detailed and well-written as last year's. Certain structural elements have been retained - the teams still face fourteen tasks in which they might collect items of value, before the final week details the assault on the final goal. Sixteen contestants allow for four teams of four, and the opening episode was spent establishing the team leaders. In the context of the quest as a whole, this was of limited importance, but it did allow us to get to know the various teams a little more quickly. The commentary repeatedly mentioned the importance of the team leaders, and suggested that they should show the way, but gave them no particular privileges. Would a collective team, without a single leader, fit into the programme's collaborative ethos?
Before the quest began, each team was awarded six gems. During each day's tasks, they would have the opportunity to gain up to four more gems. Should a contestant fail to complete some of the tasks, they would be taken from the game. The rules allowed for any contestant to be brought back, but only the once, and it would cost eight gems to do this. If the team didn't have eight gems, or chose not to bring their comrade back, the player was out of the game for good.
Unlike last year, the tasks were well varied. There were physical games, an observational task, a couple involving skill, and a riddle to solve. Some of last year's games returned - moving through a web of threads, not touching things while blindfolded - while a game involving ropes was previously played on Jungle Run. Most pleasingly, no two games were clearly derivatives of each other. Even the sharp-shooting tasks were varied - archery is a different task from firing rocks using a giant catapult. Not all of the games carried a serious possibility of losing a comrade, and not every player had to play each game, though all teams faced all 14 tasks.
Some of the games made for particularly good television - in addition to the giant catapult game, we were impressed by the ring of fire game, which featured a real ring of real fire that was really hot. Intercutting between four games, rather than three, made for more action and less filler than last year. We don't think the practice makes for particularly good television, but it worked to advance the story. If we are going to criticise, it's the apparently arbitrary nature of the timed games: would it be possible to build an egg-timer or water-clock into these challenges, so that the viewer can see they're being done fairly?
Tactics came into play: is it worth a team's while recovering a fallen comrade? Satyarani gave the impression that only the team securing the most gems would progress, but that was not correct. The team with the most gems did continue on the quest, joined by those other players who were able to compete a brief additional challenge. Rather than ensuring their survival in the game, the winning team earned only relief from one task.
The last week adopted a more conventional structure, with the remaining warriors set tasks so that they could follow a pre-determined path through a narrative. Dotted along this story were arbitrary eliminations, most notoriously by opening a basket and seeing what's inside. If there's one concept that hasn't previously featured in the Raven universe, it's removal at whim, and we do not welcome its arrival. At least one challenge was lifted directly from Fort Boyard, and we will not knock that sort of safe scare.
The biggest difference from last year is that the backstory allowed Satyarani, unlike Erina, to interact with the contestants. She or Raven introduced each game, and brought back warriors when this was required. This provided a firmer structure to each show, ensuring that there was none of the apparent wandering around that made The Island such a trial. Tara Sharma wasn't the star of the show, and played her role well enough to understand that. She and Raven had a short piece each day about tactics to defeat Nevar, and the series culminated with a set-piece battle between Raven and Nevar. There was a lot of filler on the final day, for reasons that can be deduced after seeing the episode, but constitute significant spoilers beforehand.
The "mysterious land, far to the east" was played by Ramoji Film City in India, and showed the country as a place where the sun shines, and bright colours dominate. Satyarani's orange clothes were a change from Raven's black outfit, and the Spirit Guards who patrolled the fourteen challenges were both frightening and so colourful as to be exotic. The Indian motif continued with the use of Sanskrit letters and numerals, and even Satyarani's name, which translates as "Princess of truth". It's very difficult to know how much local culture to import - too much and the show is unrecognisable, too little and they may as well have done it in Scotland. Neither criticism applies, and we reckon that the series got the balance right.
Raven's character was much more impatient than we've seen it in the past. We suspect that this was a narrative device, partly to emphasise Satyarani's poise, and partly to give James MacKenzie an excuse to be on screen when the action did not strictly require it. We should also note the special effects used to transform MacKenzie into the titular flying raven, something we don't see in the Scottish episodes.
Overall, this was a much more evenly-paced series than Raven: The Island. The first three weeks were not tedious to the point of gouging out one's eyebrows, and the final week was a credible live-action adventure; perhaps not as well-plotted as last year's, but we could be over-compensating for the early weeks. There is still work to be done, but this was a quality series.
Indeed, there was a point where we thought that this would be the last instalment of the Raven franchise, now stretching to eight series over five years. It's not, and there is still more to come from this show. A version for adults, perhaps.
After last week's show gave away the secrets of how to turn base metal into gold, we're expecting something almost as good this week. How to turn a three-inch square of paper into fifty million smackers, that would be good.
William Barrett is taking The Royle Family, a television series from the turn of the century. Is it hideously uncool to suggest that we never found this particularly amusing? It is? Ah well. This is a tremendously cool score, a virtuoso performance into turning small pieces of card into points - a maximum 20 (TWENTY) with no passes.
Christopher Tunnah is given the task of Following That. The Life and Music of Dimitri Tiomkin, a film composer from revolutionary Ukraine. His round is good, 14 (2) is a quality score, but it's not a winner this week.
Ian MacDonald takes the Swann Novels of R F Delderfield. He has no passes, one error, but doesn't quite rattle through the questions, and finishes on 16 (0).
Bernard Critchley discusses the Life and Career of Richard Nixon. You may remember him from such shows as America Decides 68, The President Resigns, and the horror picture When Nixon Met Frost. The last is the subject of one of the questions, and he finishes on 13 (3). Mr. Critchley's discussion centres on political autographs, apparently quite a small market. He finishes on 22 (9).
Mr. Tunnah confirms that Ruslana is not the only Ukranian to have won a significant song-and-dance prize - Dimitri Tiomkin won four awards from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Mr. Tunnah's round starts strongly, but soon falls into Pass Hell, ending on 20 (7).
Mr. MacDonald found the Swann novels interesting because he works in transport. He gives a strong plug for trams, and suggests that hydrogen fuels are no more than 20 years away. Whoever is writing this column in 2027, here's your mark. The round splutters from point to point, never quite breaking first gear, and finishing on 24 (1).
Mr. Barrett, therefore, needs just five more to win. He says that the show was popular because it was so realistic. There are a couple of errors on the way, but there's never any doubt that he's going to secure the points he needs. Final score: 30 (2).
First round, 8/14: Worcester Oxford v Pembroke Cambridge
During the week, Mr. Paxman faced questions on The Ephemeral Today Programme from Mr. Humphrys. This show's host didn't have the arrogance to fire one back: why does everyone watch my show, and no-one watches yours?
From the big question to lots of little ones. It's the second Oxford versus Cambridge match in this season, and this time it's the Keepers of the Ducks against the side who prepared by going rock 'n' roll dancing. It'll be the Eurovision University Contest next, mark our words.
Though the starters are willing, the bonuses tend to be weak: of the first nine available, the teams correctly answer just two. Pembroke does better on the last set, and picks up the visual round - on British record companies - and leads 65-15. If they couldn't name Factory Records from its logo, they wouldn't be allowed out of town.
The malaise continues through the second stanza - bonuses on constellations, epigrams, American history, tools in woodwork, all more incorrect than correct. They do remember the achievements of Legendre, a man revered by mathematicians with the addition of a "y". The audio round is Name That Guitarist, but no-one can remember who strummed for Led Zeppelin, and Pembroke retains a 70-60 lead.
Pembroke is unable to remember who replaced Whitbread as the sponsor of the Whitbread book awards, showing just how good their investment was. See also: whoever's sponsoring the Mercury Music Prize this year, an award named after its original sponsor, which ceased trading a decade ago. There's an entertaining set of definitions from Chambers in the mid 1900s, including "a cake, long in shape but short in duration." The second visual round: Name That Castle, and with both sides matched in quality on the buzzer, and equally poor at securing bonuses, Pembroke has a slim lead, 115-110. An error at some point during post-production left the contestants appearing to mix up Arundel and Warwick Castles. Now, who was it that said, "We need to admit it when we make mistakes"?
Pembroke spends forever constructing answers for a set of bonuses on the dates, locations, and winners of battles, and getting them comprehensively wrong. With three minutes to play, the teams are tied at 125, Pembroke gets the starter, but completely misses bonuses on computer benchmarks. Worcester is able to expand French political parties into their full names, and in a fluent French accent. Pembroke collects a missignal, a showful of starters is dropped, and at the gong, Worcester has won, 160-130.
Still no change for the repechage standings
- Lancaster 185
- Liverpool 165
- Magdalen Oxford 160
- Birmingham 145
Though entertaining and close throughout, this wasn't a vintage display of quizzing: Worcester answered 13/30 bonuses correctly, with one missignal; Pembroke scraped together a miserly 8/30 with two missignals. Peter Pemberton-Ross led from the front for Pembroke with seven starters; Chris Smith was his opposite number, also leading with four.
Next match: Bangor v Edinburgh
This Week And Next
The BBC's regular Test The Nation The National How Good Are You At Taking IQ Tests Test went out last Monday. Lest we forget, this is an entertainment programme, and a rather good entertainment programme at that. For all the trappings of science, and pictures of brain activity, the test tells nothing more than how good you are at doing this sort of test. "What type of penguins were featured in this film" is a trivia question that someone like Kate Garraway might know the answer, though judging by last week's Millionaire, probably not. It's no more a measure of intelligence than the size of one's ring finger.
The overall average for the test appeared to be around 93. The scoring system is meant to be a Normal distribution with mean of 100 and standard deviation of 15. Some will call this further evidence that the BBC is dumbing itself down, or that its viewers are now much thicker than they were last year, but it is more likely that the test was mis-calibrated by about half a standard deviation. At least one previous test had a mean score of somewhere around 111, showing (if nothing else) that it's surprisingly difficult to calibrate these tests to within more than a very broad area. We're still slightly annoyed that the BBC gives so much airtime to the point of view that intelligence can be measured, and can be measured by tests such as this, without offering a platform for those who argue that it's all a load of kerphooey.
Which brings us to the clairvoyants, who said that a male surgeon would be the highest score. Actually, it was Lusipher from last year's Channel 4 show Unanimous. One of the participants has written about her experiences.
There are two reasons why we've not reviewed Dance X. First, the way that the BBC cut off the credits from School's Out in order to plug its derivative nonsense. Second, nobody else is watching it, so why should we? X Factor returned to ITV on 18 August, pulling 9.8 million viewers. Revamped Millionaire had 6.3m, but Dance X continued its free-fall through the ratings, and landed with a small plume of chalk dust outside the BBC1 top 30.
Big Brother was third on the game show list, 4.3m saw who would be getting on with their life. On the Couch secured 2m. UC had 2.75m, Link 2.45m, and Mock the Week 2.2m. Deal or No Deal also returned from its summer break, attracting 2m viewers. It still beat Eggheads (1.85m), Mastermind (1.75m) and Come Dine With Me (1.65m).
X Factor gubbins gave ITV2 a lift: a recap of the previous year's shows drew 530,000 on Saturday teatime, the Xtra Factor took 1.25m later that night, and a Sunday night repeat also had 530,000 tuning in. BBLB peaked on Friday with 525,000 viewers, and Big Mouth had 470,000 the previous night. After wating all year for a game show to crack BBC4's top ten, we've now had two in as many weeks - a QI repeat on Friday was seen by 305,000. CBBC continued to prosper: Raven The Secret Temple had 205,000 on Friday, and The Slammer 170,000 on Tuesday. Deal on More4 had 205,000 on Tuesday, Come Dine With Me 195,000 on Sunday. G2's Monday quiz block was headed by HIGNFY (165,000) ahead of QI (160,000) and Buzzcocks (105,000). Challenge's best performance came with Sunday teatime Family Fortunes, 95,000.
From the Secret Temple to Scorpion Island, and CBBC's new game asks youngsters to escape from the island. BBC1, 5pm weekdays. ITV responds with a new series of Hell's Kitchen (9pm weekdays), with Marco Pierre White and Angus Deayton, and Don't Call Me Stupid (10pm Tuesday) is Swapheads on a new channel. If neither of those will work, call in the cavalry: Antan Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway returns next Saturday night.
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