Every couple of years, it seems someone tries – and fails – to resurrect this once monolithic of children’s game shows. Fondly remembered by many who watched it, and the thing that got me hooked on the fantasy genre, I take a look back at this show with fondness and love. Aww.
Beginning in 1987, and running until 1994, Knightmare was a fantasy dungeon-crawling game show that utilised the at-the-time enormously potent potential of Virtual Reality. Featuring a blend of green-screened natural backdrops and digitally-rendered dungeon settings, one teenager was blinded by the Helmet of Justice, and had to be guided throughout the landscapes via the viewpoint of his or her trusty sidekicks back in the “base camp” of the dungeon. Along the way, they would meet heroes and villains, although on many occasions the loyalties of the cast were changed depending on the choices and paths that the team took at the beginning. Much of it was improvised by the actors, deliberately cheesy and intentionally self-referential, often breaking the fourth wall for the benefit of the viewers and the dungeoneer’s motley crew of guiders.
As a child, I was hooked on Knightmare. It was actually scary, in a sort of Doctor Who way. The build up, tension and incredible pacing of each story ensured that every team that passed through had a different and unique tale to tell, and no two teams ever enjoyed identical playthroughs. It was also difficult, with logic puzzles akin to the early Adventure game genre and often based on luck and fortune, as items could be picked up and carried – and the correct item for the task was not always chosen.
Which led to one of the most shocking elements of this VR Game Show – the dungeoneer could die, and at a time when we were still relatively innocent, the death sequences were often more visceral than people could handle. Indeed, the show courted controversy on many occasions as dungeoneers were shown falling down bottomless pits for all eternity, or cocooned by a giant spider for their meal, or sliced in half by huge spinning blades, or eaten by monstrous golem-walls. The ending of a dungeoneers quest could and was often just as dramatic and gut-wrenching as the tension the tale was telling. Many at the time felt that killing the actual real-life depiction of what was ostensibly a child was too much for a teatime children’s game show.
And yet, millions sat down each week to watch it. At its peak, the show pulled in five million viewers with every show, even by todays standards an enormous slice of the teatime viewing market.
I can’t talk about Knightmare though without talking about Treguard, the “dungeon master”, played masterfully by Hugo Myatt. With an often blatant disregard for scripts and the order of things, he played the Saxon Knight guiding his young apprentices through the perils of the dungeon with an almost beguiling zeal; his catchphrase as dungeoneers fell foul of the evils of the dungeon was originally nothing more an an improvised ad-lib of “Ooooooh… nasty!”. And yet this became is trademark, as he both encouraged his young stars and yet seemed to take great delight in their moral, ethical and intellectual torment.
But once again, rumours abound that Knightmare is supposed to be making a resurgence. When the show was shelved in 1994, it wasn’t intended to be the end of the show at all – rather, a resting. The VR Technology they employed was surprisingly expensive for a children’s show, each series allegedly costing millions of pounds to cast, produce and edit. Also, at the time the PC gaming market had things like Eye of the Beholder and Doom, games that were bordering dangerously close to the styles of Knightmare and were more interactive than a mere TV show. Unfortunately, the show was never picked up again.
Rumours began in the early noughties about the shows revival, as the digital TV channel Challenge picked up the rights to broadcast repeats of the first series of the show, alongside other “cult game-shows”. These repeats drew in at the time a record number of viewers for the channel, and at the end of their Cult TV Show marathon viewers named Knightmare the best of the shows being broadcast. This led to Challenge buying the rights to broadcast episodes of the other seven series, continually drawing in very competent ratings for what was at the time a luxury channel that only a small portion of the country could watch.
Not long after the Challenge repeats in 2002, it was announced that Knightmare was being recommissioned, under the name Knightmare VR. A thirteen-minute pilot was created and shown in 2004, but many were unsure of the fully virtual dungeoneer, or the new Dungeon Master – now an Orc named Garstang. Hugo Myatt returned as Treguard, but as a disembodied head, seemingly having ascended to the position of “avatar”, the guiding force within the chaotic dungeons.
None of this came cheap – the show was, in essence, a video game being played out as a gameshow. With costs spiraling out of control once more, and a mixed reaction from the general public, Knightmare VR was shelved in 2005.
Of course, since then many names have been attached to the shows revival – from Challenge to the BBC, each time brings some hope to us and each time, hopes are cruelly dashed as nothing seems to happen. There has been a constant and ever-present call from fans for the past decade to revive the show, and Hugo Myatt has even taken up his role as Treguard for brief cameos on TV, and to talk about it as Knightmare was rated the 16th greatest childrens show ever, the highest ranking game show on the list.
Broadsword Productions’s parent company Intermedialab Limited went into bankrupcy some years ago, despite regular assurances that they had intended to revive the show. And even today, this year, talk was that the BBC was interested in a revival of the show – although this was later debunked, much to the disappointment of many of the shows original fans (myself being one of them).
But it was such a novel concept that it does truly baffle me how such a brilliant and simple concept as Knightmare could have, in the last 18 years, have been so mishandled. The potential of the name alone for a full, modern dungeon-crawling adventure game experience has always been there, and never released. The show continues to draw in new fans with repeats, and ratings for the show have always been consistently good. Calls for a DVD Box-set of the whole series were never listened to, partially as the rights were never agreed to and probably because, as the show was a children’s TV show, and a very modern worry about pedophilia, there was considerable and insurmountable obstacles in the way of getting every show licensed and “edited” for general consumption.
I will always fondly remember Knightmare, and like so many, hope and desire its return to our screens. It was a TV show that defied the principles of children’s TV at the time – it was tense, scary and adult by a lot of standards, appealing to grown-ups as much as their little ones. It dared to be different, to be intelligent and thoughtful. It taught spelling, basic logic and math to its audience in an indirect and clever means. At every point, Knightmare was a thrilling, addictive TV experience that millions of homes across the UK enjoyed every week, and when it is repeated, many still enjoy its dark narrative.
Knightmare could so easily transition back to tea-time viewing at a weekend. Aimed at a general audience, in keeping with its original style, I’d say that it would be a massive success as so many are still so deeply fond of it.
But until all the legalities are done and dusted, it is unlikely we will see the return of this once proud stalwart of television, one that despite its old style and at times laughable VR graphics, still carries an innate and deeply mystical charm to it.
Knightmare, I salute you. Thank you for getting me so hooked on the fantasy genre, and thank you for giving me some of the best and fondest memories of my childhood. You will never be forgotten, and always treasured.
And I still, whenever something bad happens in an MMO, or on a game, imitate that famous and brilliant Treguard line…