I am now going to say something that will sound scandalous
and evil, and will doubtlessly be greeted with outrage, indignation, and even bewilderment in some circles (as there are those
out there who know that I am one of the Greater Game's more devoted followers).
CITV and Broadsword were quite right to get rid of Knightmare.
It was boring.
To be more precise, Knightmare became
boring. In the first four seasons it was the most entertaining and original programme on television without question. It was
still entertaining in season five. But from season six onwards it became increasingly tedious.
Yes, the question has been touched on before, not least
by Phil Colvin, about how it suddenly seemed less difficult in later years and that it seemed to be less of a challenge, and
there's no doubt that there's a loud echo of truth in that. However for me that wasn't a problem in itself, it was just
one of the causes of a much more serious weakness. I felt from about 1990 onwards that Knightmare was gradually losing
its edge, losing its excitement, because year-on-year it kept throwing away the fundamental aspects that made it, well, Knightmare.
Take, for example, the much-vilified Eye-Shield. Now
I won't go into too much detail about all the various shortcomings of the ES because they've been gone into so many times
before, but I have to ask this - did Tim Child and co. not understand their own creation at all? The thing that made dungeoneering
so exciting, a top spectator sport by all accounts, was that the dungeoneer was practically helpless. The lack of outside
vision made them vulnerable, and therefore made the show scary. Furthermore, the dungeoneer's dependence on the advisors was
integral to the character of the show. Suddenly, along comes this shield and takes the dungeoneer/advisors relationship
out for long spells of the game, and instead of all the frantic instructions and footrace-to-the-line dashes to the wellway,
all we got from the advisors were hesitant, half-muttered commentaries on extremely dull bits of video-footage.
Which leads me indirectly to my next point - from the
start of season six right to the end of season eight, every quest in Knightmare, even failed ones, seemed to become
a 50 minute non-event. In the early seasons, every room presented a threat, a puzzle, a challenge of some kind - "every step
spells danger" - and it meant that a dungeoneer could die at any moment. Think of this...
The dungeoneer enters the clue room where he has to
answer at least one of the riddles correctly or the wall monster will eat him, and although he succeeds, in the next chamber
he finds a bomb that's about to blow him to pieces, so he dashes frantically for the exit, but before he even has time to
sigh with relief, he finds himself facing Lillith across a wide chasm and if he doesn't have anything to bribe her with he
won't be able to get to the other side, and instead she will destroy the ledge he's standing on and he'll tumble to a messy
death, and even if he does get past her, he stumbles into the Corridor of the Catacombs and the floor is slowly falling to
bits all around him and he has to hurry out or again he could fall to his death, but he has to make sure that he chooses the
correct door or he could get locked in a prison cell and starve to death, and even if he gets it right he winds up in a room
with a giant scorpion and he has to get to the door without getting hit by the scorpion's tail or he'll die of poisoning,
and even if he gets past that into the wellway room, there's a guard here who wants to cut his head off, and even if he has
a spell to restrain the guard, once he drops through the well and reaches Level 2 he comes face-to-face (or perhaps more accurately,
face-to-kneecap) with a catacombite and it'll kill him if he so much as makes contact with it, but his life force is already
critical and the catacombite is guarding the only food that's available in the chamber and so he has to risk going near the
creature in order to get the food he needs, and even if he survives that, he winds up in the corridor of spears and he has
to to try and cross that without getting skewered, and even then he finds himself trying to cross the Mills of Doom, yet another
opportunity to fall to his death, and even if he gets past that...
It was frantic and it was incessant. It could be
terrifying just to watch it, so God knows what it must have been like for the dungeoneers. But by season six this element
of danger at every turn, a challenge at every step, was completely gone. It had evaporated. In fact, it was now entirely possible
for up to fifteen minutes at a time that nothing interesting would happen at all. I'm not kidding.
For example, I have a few episodes from season seven
on video. The last fourteen minutes of one of these were the first fourteen minutes of Naila Kahn's quest (if you ever
read this, Naila, I apologise if I've not spelt your name correctly). A few months back I watched it for the first time in
years, and what amazed me was that, from the moment her quest started to the moment of Temporal Disruption, nothing happened.
I mean it, nothing happened, or at least nothing worth the bother of mentioning. All she did was walk through a dwarf tunnel
and have a quick natter with Brother Strange, go to an inn and have a quick natter with Sly Hands and Marta, go to a table
outside a farmhouse and, completely unchallenged, get some food, then go to a market stall in a forest clearing, and have
- oh gasp, splutter, please try to contain your excitement, ladies, gentlemen and others - a quick natter with Rothberry the
Phwoarrrr, thrilling stuff, eh? Honestly,
I was more scared last time I watched Herbie Goes Bananas. I was more entertained last time I watched Scottish Football.
Almost a quarter of an hour played and we're still waiting for a moment of any difficulty or danger whatsoever. The chances
of Naila getting into trouble were about the same as me getting hit on the head by an asteroid with the words "Oh boy were
you suckered!" scrawled on it in turquoise crayon tomorrow afternoon while I'm sitting on the toilet at work. (That would
be impossible in fact - I work at nights.) The danger was gone completely. And this is a long-running pattern throughout the
last three seasons. Honestly, you could quite easily cut out over half an hour from most quests and you'd still keep all the
important details, and the resulting higher tempo would probably make it more exciting. Moments of threat were so few and
so far between that you almost wonder how the dungeoneers still kept losing.
The root of the problem for me was that the makers,
in their determination to properly plot out the entire quest and build up as much background to it as possible, began to make
each Level hinge almost entirely on one room/puzzle, rather than each room having its own obstacle to overcome. Now there's
no problem with having a lynchpin room, of course - after all, the Clue Rooms and Merlin's Study/Throne Room in the early
years were a very similar ingredient. But why did they suddenly decide to make the rest of the level so utterly pointless?
With the Eye-Shield taking out some of the important interaction between dungeoneer and advisors, and the removal of riddles
and alternative exits to rooms, there was already a sorry feeling of just going through the motions. Now this was exacerbated
by a feeling that most of the time it didn't really make a blind bit of difference what the team did anyway, it was only going
to be important once every quarter of an hour or so. It just wasn't worth the bother of watching the rest of the time.
It's really a dire reflection on how far Knightmare
had deteriorated that it was now less consistently dangerous on Level 3 than it had been in the early years on Level 1, and
I seriously mean that.
It also didn't help that when you finally did come to
one of the puzzles that actually counted for something they were almost always the same. Season six was especially awful,
with all those endless, seen-one-seen-'em-all causeway puzzles. Nicholas Lam has stated that Team 5 in season six was possibly
the best of all time. I can't help but agree with him, but at the same time I also can't help feeling that they were wasted
on such a dull season. Wouldn't it have been great if they'd been in season three? Not only might they have been the only
team who had a real chance of actually winning in that great Knightmare year of 1989, but they also would have done
so while the show was still watchable and therefore they might have got more recognition.
The other aspect about the decline of Knightmare
was also the one that saddened me most, and that was Treguard himself. In many ways what happened to him was a microcosm of
what happened to the series as a whole. In the first three seasons (the first two in particular) he was a genuinely fascinating
character, who in many respects added to the sense of fear and of heading into the unknown. Because as much as he enjoyed
seeing the regular occupants of the Dungeon getting knocked about a bit, by the same measure he was able to laugh at the dungeoneers
when they got into trouble. He clearly enjoyed seeing the Dungeon (it was his own Dungeon let's not forget) outfox the challengers,
and quite rightly he also wasn't afraid to berate the teams when they did something stupid. Let's face it, he wasn't the only
one having a go at Team 4 in Series 1 when Danny stumbled into the bomb room, was he? Everyone at home was shouting at the
TV screens, "Don't go that way, you cretins!!!!!" So Treguard was quite right to admit that he was thinking the same thing.
Treguard was a sadist, his allegiance was unclear, and
these were qualities that added to the feeling that the teams were really on their own, and unable to truly rely on anyone
except each other (in most cases of course, not even that). It made the show more scary and the need for good teamwork from
the contestants all the more paramount, not to mention giving Treguard a more interesting personality for the viewers to contend
with - trying just to figure out if he was good or evil.
By contrast, from season five onwards he'd become a
nervous Ben Kenobi-type figure, a sort of kindly Grandfather/mentor always gently, patiently explaining the dungeoneer's situation,
always politely encouraging the team, and, whenever somebody did something stupid, always being tediously reassuring. It just
wasn't right that Treguard should be on the side of the dungeoneer; it made him into nothing more than a bog-standard game
show host, Bob Monkhouse in a beard. In short, they'd made him, horror-of-horrors, nice. And it shouldn't have happened,
it's just not what Treguard was meant to be. He should have remained a completely neutral referee of the Greater Game, one
whose favourite hobby was schadenfreude, and it's a pity that this honest policy got the boot in later years. For instance,
it really made me cringe when he was all kind and consoling to Team 3 in season 8, after such botched manoeuvring to evade
the fireball. Not only was it tedious to listen to, but in hindsight it was also far more insulting to the team than it would've
been if he'd had a go at them.
And witness all the other daft initiatives and changes
the makers undertook in the later years, again many of them well-recorded; -
...the unnecessary insistence upon giving Treguard an
assistant, creating a lot of time-wasting pre-meditated chatter, most of it painfully undiverting...
...the inexplicable conclusion they reached that the
show would be scarier if taken out of the dark, gloomy and claustrophobic confines of a dungeon and instead brought into the
bright open spaces of the hills and valleys of rural England...
...the absurd pointlessness of the Reach wand. (A Reach
wand? A Reach wand? What in God's name was that supposed to be? Last time I checked, keys were working just fine. Or
alternatively, Tim, you could try being really radical and introduce door-handles!)
...changing the tried-and-trusted shape of the Helmet
of Justice (thus giving the dungeoneers occasional sight and so further-disrupting the dungeoneer/advisors relationship)
...the appalling final version of the theme tune...
...the daft end-of-season confrontations we started
getting. I mean if Lord Fear was able to freeze up Knightmare Castle, or send the Red Dragon to burn it down, or send a Troll
crashing through the antechamber floor and smash the Castle to bits, why didn't he just do that in the first place instead
of going after the dungeoneers all the time? (And to be honest it would probably have been more interesting if he'd succeeded.)
About the only change for the better was replacing Mogdred
with the much more rounded and entertaining Lord Fear. But even there one has to say that, despite being a rather hoky imitation
of Arthurian legend, Mogdred was still the scarier enemy.
Knightmare needs to be scary, and
that's what it ceased to be. Never mind Tommy Boyd's irritating instructions, telling us to close the curtains and turn the
sound up. It should provide a frightening atmosphere of its own without demanding that the viewer sorts it out. It also needs
strong participation from the contestants, which became seriously lacking.
The very few things in Knightmare that they might
have changed for the better, they left alone. The many, many things that they got right first time and should have left as
they were, they ended up getting rid of, or altering. The result was a dull, bland series, and on sober reflection it was
absolutely right that CITV took it off the air when they did. This is another statement that may confuse some people, as I
have added my name onto five different Bring Back Knightmare/Bring Knightmare Out On Video petitions, but don't
misunderstand me - I wasn't suggesting for a minute that they were right to take it off the air for good. What they needed
was to postpone it for a couple of years, to give the makers a chance to stand back and compare what they did in 1988 with
what they were doing in 1994, and hopefully see where they were going wrong i.e. everywhere. After nine years they've had
plenty of opportunity, but even so, if Knightmare ever did come back I still wouldn't put any money on them getting
it right again. It's not just the dungeoneers who are blind after all, it seems TV companies are as well.