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My other half loves this. Has done since we met, which was around the time of the Punic Wars. Old episodes are freely available on YouTube and you wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve woken in the middle of the night to the sound of 5000 Carthaginians roaring into battle on the end of my bed.

I always comfort myself with the knowledge it could be worse.

For the uninitiated (and I’m reasonably sure there is some complex initiation program involving special trousers, should you get sufficiently involved), Time Commanders uses computer games graphics engines to reenact battles from the past, with two teams of enthusiasts occupying the senior military roles and making the decisions, all overseen by Mr Buttery Biscuit Base himself, Gregg Wallace.

You might be inclined to dismiss Time Commanders as a niche show for geeks, and to be fair to you, it was during its early incarnations. But the world, and our expectations of entertainment, have changed dramatically since 2003. Geek is now firmly mainstream and has influenced virtually every show you waste your weekends binge watching. Those huge battles in Spartacus, Vikings, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead?  They’re choreographed to perfection, inspired by the very events Time Commanders deconstructs and reenacts using computer generated landscapes and armies. The infamous ‘Battle of the Bastards’ from GoT? Based in part on the Battle of Cannae of 216 BC, a time period referenced heavily in Episode One.

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See what they did there?

But the corpse littered fields of tactical battle are only half the story. Time Commanders is elevated from dry historical fact territory by earnest teams of contestants who, despite what has probably been years of practice, are inclined to fail spectacularly when placed into a combat situation. Any distaste you might feel at the prospect of watching what you perceive to be a gang of clevs showing off is washed away during an early skirmish in episode one, when a team of ‘historical board game enthusiasts’ manage to turn several Roman regiments into sliced ham by leading them directly into the peckish Carthaginians path.

If Apprentice levels of ineptitude aren’t enough, the show also avoids the inevitable change of pace that switching from the heat of battle to dry explanation by employing brilliantly enthusiastic academics to explain what’s going on.

The Field Team are particularly joyous. Conforming to every stereotype we hold dear about people who spend their weekends dressing up and hitting each other with bits of wood, the show cuts to them stabbing dummies with a variety of spiky weapons, firing muskets that essentially explode in your face and blowing shit up, purportedly to help us understand how weapons were used during the period of history we’re examining, but possibly just because they bloody love it.

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The enthusiasm of others is a very powerful mechanism in Time Commanders and nowhere is this more obvious than in Gregg Wallace himself. While his vigorous love for anything cake related can feel a bit out of place in the sparkling studio kitchen of Masterchef, his apparently intense fascination for battle reenactment is childlike and compelling in the warehouse setting of Time Commanders. Bouncing about shouting “YOUR TROOPS ARE ROUTING!!” at no one or nothing in particular, his excitement is contagious and provokes an additional sense of mild peril for the contestants, who have no idea where he’ll pop up and issue a rallying bellow from next.

And that’s how it gets you. By the end of the show, I was also shouting at the contestants, advising them of the catastrophic, woefully obvious errors they were making and the inevitable consequences of their ineptitude.

I needed an apple turnover to recharge my batteries before plunging into the next episode. A manoeuvre I’m sure Gregg would have also been fully behind.

by Kelly Welles

Time Commanders is currently available on the BBC iPlayer.

 

 

 

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