In PBS' "Robot Wars," man-made machines fight to the death. 

Rock 'Em, Sock 'Em Robots

PBS isn't just for the stuffy, intellectual set anymore.

And if you don't believe it, check out "Robot Wars." It's a British import, but there's nary an upper-class accent within earshot.

"Robot Wars" is just what its name implies: homemade, remote-controlled robots — most no larger than a breadbox — battle the show's robots and each other for bragging rights and geek glory.

Who makes these mechanical fighting machines? High school students, college students, inventors, engineers, tinkerers and radio-control enthusiasts — anybody who wants to compete. Some are made from scratch, using the latest electromechanical technology available. At the other extreme is a robot a recent competitor made from the innards of a battery-powered wheelchair found in a neighbor's back yard.

The battling bots take on the "Robot Wars" house bots in gladiator-style competition. Age and credentials don't count. But survival does.

The action is played out before a live audience on a set with more glitz, glamour, flashing colored lights and bizarre sounds than "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." It's a question of the survival of the fittest in the face of obstacles more awesome than Regis Philbin - obstacles such as a gigantic mace on a pendulum, the Pit of Doom, and the ever awesome Mathilda, a killer house-bot that shoots sparks and maneuvers the unwary into the Flames of Death.

Powered mostly by a couple of 12-volt batteries, the robots move at speeds ranging from 2 to 6 miles an hour. Armed with weapons such as metal-ripping saws, rotor screws, steel spikes, hydraulic forklifts and air-pressure-powered hammers, the bots first battle one by one against house bots to move from point A to point B, then take on each other in one-on-one "King of the Hill" contests until only a single bot is left standing — or functioning. Their names evoke doom and destruction: Killdozer, The Mule, Enzyme, Phoenix, Mega Hurts and Plunderbird (whose operator, on one recent episode, kept calling for "more violence, more violence!").

Presiding over the competition and providing blow-by-blow commentary with breathless frenzy is host Craig Charles (Lister on "Red Dwarf"), whose working-class British accent provides the only clue that "Robot Wars" just might be a public television presentation.

"Robot Wars" is kinky television. It's bizarre, fascinating and absurd. It's also an enormous amount of fun.


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