Robot Wars: Hard Reset on Geek Chic

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When I was ten I sang the Madness song Baggy Trousers at a school talent show. There was no backing music, I couldn’t sing, and I was so nervous that I barked the lyrics arrhythmically and half the audience thought I was doing performance poetry.  

The resulting, and deserving, ostracisation meant that I had to find social recourse in an arena that contained, well, none of my peers.This solipsistic time in my life was the perfect void to fill with all manner of geekery. With all this time on my hands, that other boys were foolishly wasting on creating everlasting social memories, I went a bit nuts. Across my pre, mid, and late teens I read the entirety of the Discworld novels, I delved so far into Lord of the Rings that I’m still not sure I ever really came out the other side, and I committed every episode of Dragonball Z so much to memory that I can drop into any villain’s monologue at the drop of a hat.

Which is all a long way of saying that I am an awkward talker. I don’t know how to have conversations with people. I do a good job with bravado and bluster and nervous energy, but if you spend ten minutes in my company you’ll smell the panic on me.

What does this have to with Robot Wars? I hear you ask, scanning from article to title confusedly. Well, the new series of Robot Wars is really the first time ever I’ve seen not only the celebration of geek culture, but the earnest celebration of the actual geeks themselves.

Newly revamped, the almost reality-television show now has a striking obsession with the teams who built the robots. Back in the Craig Charles era, a 30 second interview would see the teams bumble through an overview of their technical achievements, but the new incarnation sees a considerable amount of time spent with footage of the roboteers themselves in various interpretations of sheds just talking about themselves.

This is amazing because none of these people – and I mean none – would in any other situation be trusted in front of the camera. They tend to share the ‘oh god if I muck this up I might explode’ sort of approach to interviews that are so uncannily resonant of my day-to-day life that I often have to sink my head between my knees to power through each episode.

These are people, wonderful people, funny people, but people who do not know how to talk about anything. Anything, that is, other than their robots. They stutter and spit and do that thing where they nervously laugh at the end of every sentence because – as every fellow nervous laugher reading this knows – if you nervously laugh the other person kind of has to nervously laugh and if everyone’s laughing I must be doing something right…right?

Joyously, the show isn’t laughing at the engineers and family-teams who have come together to watch robots obliterate slightly shoddier robots. Instead there’s an air of welcoming embrace, of absolute warmth at watching people who are obsessed with something so completely.

That, to me, is the definition of ‘geek’ – to be obsessed with something to the point of dismissing the conventional social obligations of life. You can be a geek about video games, books, history, sports, but to be a geek you have to be so immersed in your niche that you can’t see it’s even a niche anymore. Then, when you emerge from your very specific corner, the wider world is one that doesn’t quite have a spot for you to stand in.

The moment in the very first episode where the team behind the robot ‘Nuts’ walked in had me certain this show was for me.  This is a team whose members each wear different coloured fur vests and matching hats, and are also adorned by ill-fitting top hats – each hat more ill-fitting than the last.

As a team they are so full of ludicrous energy that their presence might be the most heart-warming robot-based television event of all time. They wear bizarre hats and furry vests as part of a colourful uniform, and look alternately pleased to be there and embarrassed to the core with every decision that has lead them to this point in life. This  sent me back to the days of singing Baggy Trousers all those years ago with such force that I got whiplash.

At this point it’s normally customary to say “isn’t it great for the awkward and downtrodden out there, that they are being represented in television?” But forget that – it’s great for me. I’ve been a geek while geekdom has gone from being something shameful to the engine that runs Hollywood, but I never saw that love or attention given to people who were actually like me – the paraphernalia around me, sure, but never a spotlight for the truly, gloriously, odd. Now there’s a welcome mat for the awkward and obsessive and weird.

And it’s a welcome mat that has a fucking flame-pit and fighting robots.  

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