Growing up, I was a huge fan of the British game show The Crystal Maze. Originally shown between 1990 and 1995, the show invited teams of six strangers to take on the maze, completing challenges in order to win crystals that would buy them time in the Crystal Dome, where they are challenged to obtain enough gold tokens to win the “big prize”. The first host was the inimitable Richard O’Brien, who gave way to Ed Tudor-Pole for last two series. A one-off charity celebrity special hosted by Stephen Merchant was broadcast on Channel 4 last year. It inspired much shouting at the TV, “I could do that!” being a prime example. It’s since been repeated ad nauseum on the game show channel Challenge. At home I sometimes watch the show with my 2 year old daughter who has also become a bit of a fan (“Get the crystal!” she’ll say). It’s fair to say that I’m rather fond of the show, and my lifelong dream of appearing of it sort of came true when I got to go to the Crystal Maze Experience in Manchester. It was superb fun, I can highly recommend it!
So, imagine my excitement when it was announced that the show would be returning to Channel 4, hosted by comedian and star of The IT Crowd Richard Ayoade. Immediately I thought “That’s an odd choice of host”. As far as I’m concerned, a Crystal Maze master needs two qualities: eccentricity and authority. Ayoade is famed for having the persona of a socially awkward nerd, so eccentricity isn’t a problem, but authoritative he is not. Never mind I thought, let’s see how it plays out.
The show actually starts out really well. We get to see a montage of contestants playing the games while a reworked version of the famous “Force Field” theme tune is played. So far, the show is exactly what I’m after. I wasn’t expecting, nor was I wanting, a carbon copy of the original. I was hoping for a show that went off and did it’s own thing, but stuck to the core formulae that made the original such a hit. Unfortunately, the revamped show strays so far from those that the ways in which it does can be put together in a big list. Let’s do that shall we?
1. Five team members instead of six
This may seem like a minor point but it gives a big clue as to what’s to come. With six team members, you expect a certain amount of games to be played so that each team member is given a fair crack of the whip. With one less, you expect them to be able to get away with fewer games. As we will find out later, this sadly comes to pass. Also, in the original series the teams were balanced between men and women. Obviously this gets thrown out with an odd number of team members.
2. The team members know each other
In the original, you got to know the team member’s names, ages and jobs, and that that was all you needed to know. The team members were strangers, so they had little to talk about. In this new version the team members are all from the same family, so of course we have to hear excruciating dull “banter” about which one is the bossy one, which one is the messy one etc etc. At this point I’m screaming at the TV, but not in the fun “What are you doing you idiot?!? It’s over there!” way of the old series, but a frustrated “Play some games for f**ks sake!” way.
3. Ayoade constantly mocks his own show
Sure, the original never took itself too seriously often poked fun at the prizes, but Ayoade makes jokes at the expense of the show so often that you start believing them pretty quickly. It gets old and tired before too long, and it just becomes unpleasant to hear.
4. The contestants are told which games they are going to play
This is one of my more major gripes. In the original the contestants were always given a choice to play a mental, physical, skill or mystery game. Even if the team captain is told what to choose by the show’s director, it still gives the illusion of choice, and therefore size. While watching the original, you feel that each zone is large enough to house a significant variety of games, and therefore must be a sprawling mass of alleys, corridors and ultimately, rooms. In this new version, the contestants are told which game they are going to play, so this illusion is completely shattered. As beautiful as the sets are, having only two games makes you think that they must be tiny. Which brings me onto my next gripe…
5. Only two games per zone
I suppose for me this is the worst crime: the original was all about the games, and it managed to squeeze in three or four per zone. The chatting was kept to a minimum and the teams rushed around the maze, so you got the impression that the show was desperately trying to cram in as many games as possible. There was a real sense of urgency to it. This new series only allows for two games per zone, which is frankly pathetic, and makes you wish they dispensed with all the completely unnecessary banter that went beforehand.
6. Incidental music
One of the great things about the original Crystal Maze was how real it felt. It made you believe that entering the maze was something anyone could do. The contestants would scamper from game to game, there were no unnecessary cuts, and if they won a crystal you’d know because the team would get genuinely excited. It would only pump out the theme music when they were in the dome or they went to the adverts. For some reason the new version has seen it fit to add incidental music. So now, when they win a crystal you get a little revelationary “aahhhh” sting, as if you couldn’t work out for yourself that something significant has happened. I detest this sort of incidental music because it treats the viewer like an idiot and slightly detaches the show from reality.
7. The maze is not contiguous
One of the many factors that anchored the original series in reality was the fact that the contestants could run around the maze in a contiguous route. Each zone was connected, so if a contestant got locked in in the first zone and the team didn’t want to buy them out until they were in the fourth, a team member would have to race back through the previous zones, release their team mate with a crystal, then rush back again and hopefully get back before the team went to the dome. Of course they always did, but this race added to the show’s drama. In the revamped 2017 version, the future zone is cut off from the rest of the maze (they have to get into it via a “teleportation” special effect, which of course Ayoade has to make fun of). So, in Friday’s episode, the team was in the unfortunate situation of being in the future zone while their team mate was locked in, languishing in the industrial zone. They wanted to buy him out, but going back through the maze was out of the question, so he just appeared. Once again, pathetic!
8. “Don’t worry, that’s just editing”
For some games in the Crystal Maze the contestants are required to don protective gear, such as a helmet and some knee pads. In the original, O’Brien would tell the contestants about the game while they took all of fifteen seconds to get kitted up. In this new version, the contestants put the gear on off camera, and before they go into the game Ayoade without fail warns them “You will look different when you go through the door, but don’t worry, that’s just editing”. It’s a joke that isn’t funny the first time, and it once again serves to slightly disconnect the show from reality. They spend so much time on “banter”, is it really that much trouble that they put on a pair of knee pads on camera?
9. Games without a time limit
Now, I’m prepared to accept that any new version of a show might bend the rules a little, but the new version of the Crystal Maze has games without a time limit. A key dynamic of the show is that contestants can get locked in if they run out of time, so the viewer and the other contestants are always keeping one eye on the clock. To remove the time limit, and for no obvious reason, is a big no-no.
10. No extended universe
An aspect of the original series that gave it such a charm was a small array of characters ad-libbed by the first host Richard O’Brien. He stated that the medieval zone was his home, where he lived with his “Mumsy” (played by Sandra Caron), who would occasionally appear in a mental game to pose brain teasers to the contestants. Of course it wasn’t exactly Shakespeare, but the brief interactions between the two gave the audience something to anchor themselves into the show’s narrative. For example, in one episode during a lull in a game O’Brien quickly complains to the camera that Mumsy has a new boyfriend called Dwayne that he disapproves of. After the mental game, O’Brien quickly goes into the room to voice his concerns about Dwayne to Mumsy who quickly rebuffs him. The whole interaction is over in about ten seconds, but it does the job and as a viewer you feel like you’ve had a brief glimpse into the workings of the characters.
What is such as shame about the new show is that all the ingredients are there for these interactions, but they are not utilised. Ayoade himself is an excellent character actor, and he’s joined by the great comic talents of Jessica Hynes and Adam Buxton (who I once nearly poisoned with a dodgy chill cake). However, while it’s nice to see these two fine people getting work, their talents go to waste. Hynes plays a knight who guards the medieval zone, and Buxton is a head in a jar who presents riddles to contestants in the future zone. In both cases these characters have little to no interaction with Ayoade, and they have no back story whatsoever. Why is there a head in a jar posing riddles in the future? No explanation, there just is. The cast and crew could have come up with a quick backstory and a connection to Ayoade to give the audience something to cling on to, but they didn’t bother. It’s such a shame. Oh well.
11. Erm, that’s it!
So, my rant about the new crystal maze reaches it’s end. I should finish by saying that while the new show has numerous fatal flaws that make it very difficult to watch, it isn’t a complete disaster. The sets are fantastic (especially future world), and they’ve done a great job on the dome. One of the things that bugged me about the original is that when the fans in the dome are turned on, the gold and silver tokens should blow all over the place, whereas they seemed mostly stuck to the ground. In the new version the tokens are spinning around everywhere, it’s quite satisfying to watch! Added to that, the games are good and it does go some way in recreating the frustration, small joy and tension of the original.
In boiling it down my two main gripes are the miscasting of Richard Ayoade, and the lack of urgency. The original was an exhilarating rush to get as many crystals as possible, whereas this new version feels like a gentle saunter through some very pretty sets with a few games along the way. The problems the show has could be addressed by getting in an authoritative host, removing the banter, cramming in more games and adding just a sliver of character development. I hope they act on these issues for the next series!