ITV’s revival of the Krypton Factor slipped on to the airwaves on January 1st, with apparently little fanfare – at least, that’s how it seemed to me, although maybe if I watched ITV more often I would have seen more promotion for it. Few people seem to have got very excited about it one way or the other: nobody is hailing it as the greatest quiz ever; nor is anyone claiming that the revival has ruined the format (as far as I can see). For my money, an essentially sound format has withstood the updating exercise, although the peripheral problems that the original experienced have been replaced by a new set of peripheral problems for the new version.
The challenges remain fiendishly difficult. The opening mental agility round in particular was horrifically tricky – although I did better than the first two contenders. Mind you, I wasn’t slammed in a needlessly over-dramatised “cube” to answer the questions – more of this gimmicky tendency later. In the web age, further problems are now available for viewers to try via the ITV website, which is quite neat.
The other big studio-based challenge – usually to reassemble some shapes in some obscurely difficult way – seems to have been retained similarly in keeping with the original; ditto the general knowledge round. The other rounds have been subjected to quite a bit of tinkering. The observation round, for instance, is now based on clips from old TV shows, rather than a specially-shot skit as in the 1980s – undoubtedly a bit of cost-cutting! But it still works tolerably, and is surprisingly difficult.
The obstacle course has been changed substantially, however. It is no longer the traditional army course near Ramsbottom, but a new one in Yorkshire – but that’s neither good nor bad of itself. More significantly, the contestants have to go two at a time, so we lose the ability to see all four competing against each other simultaneously; instead the result is decided by the times set by each, which does add a bit more suspense, I suppose. More serious is the fact that the round is edited together: with a good time being sub six minutes and a poor one over nine, we do not get to see the contestants’ attempts in real time, which frankly makes the whole thing look a bit nonsensical, as the viewer really has no idea how each contestant is doing unless it’s either conspicuously well or conspicuously badly.
Worst of all is the treatment meted out to the aircraft similator round: it’s gone! Dropped completely. Now, it might no longer hold the novelty it once did, as today’s games consoles can produce better graphics than the most sophisticated simulator of 1990, but it seems a bit much to lose the entire round. The Krypton Factor was always pretty slow-paced, with regular and very slow scoreboard reports from Gordon Burns and ponderous introductions and explanations, but dropping a round does not help! The new version is undoubtedly pacier in style, but compensates by injecting short films introducing each competitor – I can live with these, except the producers have clearly told the contestants to big themselves up, as is currently fashionable. Still, there are worse things.
Those worse things include rather needless gimmickry: the “cube” in which the contestants take the first round is one example; the fact their heart rates are being monitored at the same time is another. On the up-side, the new set is heavy on lighting effects and manages to be visually stimulating while maintaining the old colour-designation of each contender, without obliging them to wear an item of clothing in that colour. Overall, the show could perhaps have been made more tacky and gimmicky than it has been, so good on the producers for showing some restraint, even if maybe not quite enough.
On the presentation front, truth be told, Gordon Burns was always likeably rubbish: he was presented as an authoritative figure, though why on earth he was qualified to comment on the particular skills demanded of each contestant was never really explained. His presentation was reliably cardboardy. Ben Shephard is a bit more natural in front of the camera, but too often descends into lightweight smarm; rather than being informative or authoritative, his commentary is too often unhelpful and snide. But this is on the evidence of one show: he could well improve over time, and is certainly not recovering from a bad start.
There is also a fundamental problem with the format that the new series has not tackled: owing to the scoring system, it was always possible to win the show even if you were rubbish at one or two rounds: the inaugural winner of the new series came dead last in one round and joint last in another, but won the rest and snuck it by one point; the second-placed contender scored more consistently albeit that he won fewer rounds – it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t at least as worthy of victory (although they do operate a “highest scoring losers” system, so he may yet reach the next round). In particular, the general knowledge section can still be a bit more pivotal than should perhaps be the case for a quiz that mostly tests a diverse range of skills rather than knowledge. On the up side, Shephard still announces the scores by saying “in the lead, with a Krypton factor of ten, is – “.
Titles are new, of course, although the graphics remain based around a stylised letter “K”; in a bigger departure from the original, the iconic theme by Art of Noise has not bee retained, even in a re-worked version. Bit of a shame.
Overall, the series seems to remain fundamentally sound; it’s not perfect, and it seems unlikely to become appointment television. But it is still an example of an old format remaining essentially workable on modern television, and shows that innovation for its own sake does not lead to good programming.