The Crystal Maze (Channel 4, 2016-present)
The Crystal Maze originally ran for six series on Channel 4 in the 90s. It was widely regarded by viewers as one of the all-time great UK game shows, especially when Richard O’Brien was the host. Long after it ended, it was still fondly remembered by many people including myself, it frequently topped greatest TV show lists, and maybe more than any other game show in UK TV history it was the one that viewers hoped would return to the screen one day.
A few years ago The Crystal Maze Experience opened where people could play games in a replica of the maze. After this did well, in 2016 it was announced that The Crystal Maze would finally return to the screen, but only as a one-off special for charity. However, this was successful enough for there to be a full series announced, the first for 22 years. Who could possibly fill the shoes of Richard O’Brien and Ed Tudor-Pole and become the new maze master? Although hopefully they would be given their own shoes…
The choice was Richard Ayoade. He would be best known to viewers for appearing in various comedy shows including Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, The Mighty Boosh, and The IT Crowd, and I remember watching him in all of them. As the structure of TV had changed rather a lot since the last series, there were several changes to the format, including a remix of the famous theme music.
Firstly, a team of five would take part instead of six, and they would all know one another beforehand instead of being put together. The four time zones were back, with the return of the Industrial zone replacing Ocean, along with Aztec, Medieval, and Futuristic. Also, fewer games were played, simply because there are more advert breaks in an hour nowadays. Maybe the show would’ve benefited from being extended to 75 or even 90 minutes however inconvenient that might be.
Ayoade tried to make his mark on the show by using some quirky terminology, such as describing the length of games as “mins” instead of minutes, and “ALIS” for an automatic lock-in game. Another one of his gimmicks is a fake hand thing on a stick which he uses to guide the contestants to their next game. He also wore a lot of brightly coloured suits.
As ever, the teams play the various games to try and win the crystal for five seconds of time inside the Crystal Dome. One of the games features the severed head of Adam Buxton which was a nice touch. There was also one game which had no time limit which was an interesting move. Some games were also edited down, it seems with fewer games played they still couldn’t fit them all into the available time. The Dome looked very impressive though, and there were plenty of great prizes on offer for winning teams.
Viewers had plenty of opinions about the revival. Firstly, although some of Ayoade’s asides were rather amusing, they seemed to be the same in every show, and his attempts of indifference and sarcasm at the team’s performances made it seem like he didn’t really care whether they won or lost. Intentional or otherwise, he came across as a little too distant.
Also, there was the standard of contestants. I remember watching a video online a while ago featuring some funny unseen moments from the original series, including one where you can hear the production team despair at a contestant’s failure, leading to some “where do we find them?”-type comments.
Some of the performances in the revival were so bad you get the feeling that they were only chosen so their games could be turned into videos with “check out this failure!”-type descriptions to try and gain some easy laughs and publicity. Indeed, in one edition, a team who won some crystals but bought out their locked-in teammates ended up being the first team to go to the Dome with no crystals, making their show a waste of time and some viewers were surprised that it aired at all.
Another problem was the scheduling. Sometimes it was shown on Fridays, sometimes on Sundays, and the running order was all over the place, with some editions credited as from series three being shown before ones from series two. The show then began to be propped up with endless celebrity specials. I very much hope the final editions don’t end up being burned off at around midnight on E4, it deserves better than that. There was also a book released featuring various challenges to play along with.
The Crystal Maze revival has ended up falling between the two areas of younger viewers who don’t remember the original version not being won over, and older viewers remaining unconvinced about the whole thing. After the initial excitement, the ratings slumped and it’s unclear whether there will be any more series. I will continue to watch though, even if overall it can be classed as something of a disappointment.