When I was 10 years old, I printed out the BattleBots contestant submission guidelines and rulebook, then stuffed those into one of my dad’s old briefcases alongside my various sketches for groundbreaking robotic gladiators. I was going to design a champion bot by retrofitting a prebought R/C car with the metal plates from a steamer colander. Weaponry would be determined at a later date. I had no doubts this was a reasonable and appropriate way to spend my adolescence.
I have since grown up (to a certain degree), although BattleBots has not. If anything, it’s somehow regressed in years between my youth and the rebooted show’s Season 6 premiere last night on Discovery. While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, it’s still somewhat impressive to see in a show that, at the end of the day, has always been a competition about which majority-male team can make their bot produce the most sparks, shrapnel, and generalized mechanical mayhem possible.
It is, in so many ways, America’s most fitting pastime.
Scrappy beginnings — Look, I would never argue that there were some halcyon or pure days of machine fights. Series like BattleBots and its British progenitor, Robot Wars, have often proudly embraced the largely insufferable “Science FTW!” attitude as their general ethos and feel. That said, there was something sincere and fun in seeing Bill Nye spend his interim years between “Science Guy” and climate advocate explaining the advantages of BioHazard’s pneumatic lifting arm, or watching the Mythbusters team get comically dominated every single match (RIP Grant Imahara).
The first runs of BattleBots on Comedy Central from 2000 to 2002 generally maintained a DIY feel to the competition, with homebrewed bots squaring up against the occasionally better-funded foe. Discovery’s reboot, as its Season 6 premiere shows, is reflective of the past two decades’ worth of American cultural shifts.
Very few deep dives into competitors’ machines are offered, replaced instead with painfully conscious decisions to ape the massively popular worlds of UFC and MMA fighting: the new season is held in Las Vegas, retired combatant Kenny Florian is one of the rebooted series’ co-commentators, and each match is preceded by a hypeman intro from ring announcer, Faruq Tauheed.
BattleBots, as it stands now, is meant to evoke America’s favorite Pay-Per-View events rather than science fairs on steroids.
Thankfully, there’s really no way to “dumb down” a match between two remote-controlled, weaponized cars smashing into one another within a polytechnic institute Thunderdome. The sparring rounds in Season 6’s premiere were immensely satisfying watches that often displayed impressive feats of engineering. The 10-year-old, briefcased BattleBot aspirant stirred within me after decades of dormancy.
Major upgrades needed — It’s been 21 years since BattleBots arrived on the national radar, and if there’s one thing that’s improved with time, it's the show’s relationship with gender. But that’s not saying a helluva whole lot. The series first aired on Comedy Central in the era of The Man Show, if that tells you anything — on-the-floor BattleBots commentators included a roster of former Baywatch actresses and Playmates such as Carmen Elektra and Tracy Bingham. There are no gratuitous ‘Bot Models that I could see during the season premiere — but there also were very few women at all, an unfortunate reflection of STEM demographics.
One of the round judges is robotics expert and women in STEM advocate, Lisa Winter, and... that’s about it for the recurring cast. Likewise, any female-identifying team members in the premiere took a backseat to the men piloting their destructo-bots. It’s hard to get excited about showcasing advanced technologies when the gender dynamics remain so antiquated.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into last night’s hour-and-a-half kickoff episode. It’s a show about robots breaking the shit out of one another, right? Then again, BattleBots could be so much more — a celebration of diverse, fun tech constructed by an even more diverse group of contestants. At the moment, though, it seems like the competition’s overseers are still more interested in appealing to our cultural id as opposed to our capacity for more complex achievements. You know, like robots that shoot flames out of their asses.