Reality Bites: Robot Combat League

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No one can say for certain, but it's hard to believe the creators of Syfy -- then the Sci-Fi Channel -- could have predicted the direction their humble little TV station would take. For sure, there have been high points (the Battlestar: Galactica reboot chief among them), but for more than ten years now, the station has been steadily moving away from its original vision, airing decidedly non-science fiction fare like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and WWE SmackDown.

And let's not forget the original programming. Since 2003 or thereabouts, Syfy has produced some movies that give The Asylum a run for their money. From Mansquito to Mega Python vs. Gatoroid to, uh, Christmas Ape vs. CrocoStimpy (or whatever), it's enough to make you happy advisory board member Isaac Asimov died before the channel even launched.

Though the movies probably would've killed him soon enough.

But if you want to stay relevant to 21st-century TV audiences, you gotta make reality shows. Syfy's previous forays have been mostly of the Haunted Paranormal Bullshit variety, but now they've branched into a category all of us can get behind: robot fights.

There are 12 two-person teams -- 12? Jesus -- and they have some really inspired names, like "Team Game Over" or "Team Crash. "Team Thunder Skull" is pretty cool, while "Team Drone Strike" seems particularly tasteless. Each team is composed of one individual of athletic inclination (the Robo-Jockey) paired with a robotics expert (the Robo-Tech).

Host Chris Jericho (better than John Cena, I guess) lays out the rules: Each team gets a predesigned eight-foot, half-ton robot warrior designed by animatronics and technology guru Mark Setrakian. After rocking and socking each other through a series of bouts, the winning teams will receive $100,000 and eternal glory, if the exceedingly obnoxious promotional campaign is to be believed.

A few notes: "Team Robo Hammer" includes Amanda Lucas, daughter of George Lucas, whom you may have heard of. Syfy also made sure to snag the most attractive female engineers/scientists/"professional gamers" possible. (Robo Hammer tech Saura Naderi, a USCD engineer, could moonlight as a pinup model.) Meanwhile, Team Crash, consisting of father/daughter team Dave and Amber Shinsel, both engineers at Intel with little practical fighting experience or communication skills, are early favorites. To lose terribly.

First off is the "power up challenge," in which the teams send their monstrosity against a helpless sparring robot, trying to hit a target. The elapsed time determines the seeding for the first round of fights. The initial bout is 1st seed Steel Cyclone (Olympian Bayano Kamani and "Dr. Robot" George Kirkman) vs the Shinsels in 12th. We get a lot of pre-bout armchair psychoanalysis: Shinsel will fight tentatively because he wants to "protect his daughter," according to Kirkman, which would make sense if there were the slightest chance of her getting injured on a platform 20 feet from the actual fighting.

There's also quite a bit of guffawing at Team Crash's clumsy handling of their robot (is it just called "Crash?" I guess that would make sense). A little too much guffawing, if you ask me. Could the first fight see the show's biggest upset?

I'll say this: More than one fight per episode would be nice. And if they'e not going to do that, I wish they'd devote some of the other 50 minutes to more details of the tech involved. Watching robots beating the shit out of each other is groovy and all that, but if one of the purposes of the show is to drum up enthusiasm for the field, maybe showing some of the actual engineering would be beneficial.

The first fight is about what you'd expect: basic pummeling, highlighted by Jericho attempting to sound like he knows what the hell he's looking at. Sparks fly, hydraulic fluid spews dramatically and in the end, Team Crash pulls off the upset with a lucky disabling of Steel Cyclone's left arm. Robot Combat League is exactly what it looks like: doctoral-level Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots. And if the first installment is any indication, the outcome of most of these fights is likely to be the equivalent of using button mashing to win at Mortal Kombat.

Syfy should look at some other ways to spice up the action. Putting humans inside the robot suits would be pretty funny, at least until limbs started coming off (then you might need to move this to Starz as a double feature with Spartacus: War of the Damned). And I assume we'll see other "power up challenges," like a New York Times crossword challenge for the Robo-Jockeys, or which of the Robo-Techs can pick up a phone book. Robot combat has a rich historical tradition. I just hope we can enjoy it before these machines become sentient and destroy mankind.

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