Friday 25 December 2015

What should you be doing on Boxing day?


Looking for something 'fun' to enjoy with your family/friends/alter-ego?

Sata presents, 4 sets of 21QW! Tired and tested on our own, real-life, friends and family.

In case you didn't know, 21 Questions Wrong is the hottest quiz format / activity which has never made it beyond the internet. If you don't know how to play already look here.

Here is an example of the concept with rules and tips for how to 'do' it around the dining table, and different formatting to me, kindly produced by Nick.

And here is the real deal. Enjoy.

Tuesday 17 November 2015

Hunted has been recomissioned

Oh yes.

We don't need to remind you, dear audience, that Sata strongly endorses Channel 4's recent docugame Hunted

The only new news we have about series 2 is that there is a £100k prize fund to be divided between any winners. We have to say, this news surprises us - we wonder whether the show will be taking a more gamey tone, we wonder whether the prize will be emphasised as part of the programme, and we wonder whether that will actually improve the programme.

We certainly think Hunted As A Game has more longevity than Hunted As A Statement About Modern Britain, and probably more international appeal. We fear Hunted might go the way of the Million Pound Drop, and gradually decline in interestingness and depth as it grows in popularity. 

Regardless, we are very, very pleased to know more Hunted is on the way in 2016. And we shudder at the thought of how much more pressure the fugitives will be under with thousands of pounds on the line.

We never got a chance to use this picture in the review.

Saturday 7 November 2015

"This is fucking marvellous"

Not our words, but his:

It was good though.

Ok, it is unusual for us to break the fourth wall in the first proper paragraph, dear audience, but before we can talk about Hunted we need to talk about this author, and this blog's aims and objectives.

Primarily, I write about things which I find interesting. Generally, that means not terrible things, because they don't interest me enough for opinions to form, and not perfect things, because I would have little to say about something that was unilaterally perfect.

Sata views the interesting middle, then. We also find that level of programme to be the easiest to write about thoughtfully: not too good as to be distracting, not too poor as to be annoying. Hunted breaks this rule because this author, really, really enjoys Hunted. Normally, this would make us reluctant to write: we might gush, we might pull punches, we might overuse the word 'excellent'. Excellent. We hope to avoid doing these things, but also, now that we've made a big deal out of it, we are basically allowed to. Excellent. And now, in the words of Paxman: Let's get on with it.

Taken as a whole, Series 1 of Hunted was an excellent programme. It was exiting and interesting to watch. It was a sound, well-thought out game, but, we think some mistakes were made in the edit. We noticed that it didn't rate too well, and (although the life and death of a show is rarely something we actively care about) wonder about whether it could be refined well enough to return.

Most impressively, though, Hunted was a fantastic experiment. It was an experiment internally: an exercise in surveillance which could never have been created outside of television, and it was an experiment in merging the different styles of television: the reality-gameshow and the documentary, made with incredible care, flavoured to feel like (and advertised as) a 'real-life drama' and thrown into a prime-time slot on channel 4.

Earlier this year, we criticised another quaternary channel for failing to repay its debt to the genre of games. There is no time to thoughtfully assess whether the same comment might apply with Channel 4, but our gut feeling is that it does not, and Hunted is a strong example of why.

The game will not take long to describe. 14 players: 6 pairs and 2 individuals, are told to go on the run. It seems they are aware that they either will or might appear on Channel 4's Hunted, but not when the call is coming: on the morning that their cameraperson arrives, they are thrown into the game immediately. 

The Fugitives...

They must hurry, too, because at the same time, the hunters are set off. Operating from an underground bunker (we embellish) in London, the hunters are a team of 30 - a few field agents, but many more commanders than infantry. The hunters are given basic information on the fugitives: name, address, and photo - any more information is theirs to seek out.

...and The Hunters

But seek it they will, as the hunters use a variety of methods to track the fugitives, themed around the show's documentary side, the methods are introduced by talking about how they might be used by the police or secret services ('the state') in real life. The methods in question are a mix of technological, direct surveillance, and psychological. The direct methods are the most often used - the hunters can request any* CCTV footage, or ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition) data, but the technological and psychological are also surprisingly powerful. To go into detail on how would be to replicate the programme; we won't.

(*Fantastically, Channel 4 released their own, slightly opaquely-worded explanation to how this was done.)

This is half of the game, and about 50% of what we see on screen each episode. The other side of Hunted is the fugitives' stories. The fugitives have a reasonable idea of how they might be hunted and this places natural constraints on them: all travel tens of miles from their ordinary home, most hundreds. Travelling undetected is difficult, as is living undetected: the fugitives can withdraw money from a provided bank account, but this will certainly alert the hunting team.
Adversity breeds creative solutions, though, and we'll talk more below about some examples of the general inventive, determined, positive and likeable approach the fugitives took to the programme. Overall, we would describe the Game here, as a magnificent asymmetric battle, both of wits and of determination. 

We think Hunted made a lot of small but important choices well. Fugitives had limited funds, and there was a safety cost to obtaining more money. Using public transport was made risky by the CCTV replication. The 'hot start' made the beginnings more interesting than they would else have been, it made the contestants less able to make elegant plans. Footage of scenery, music, and accounts were all used well to make sequences emotive. There were moments of quiet as well as of noise: the fact that fugitives' communications were so restricted made loneliness and trust key themes of the game. Our favourite quote comes again from Dr Allen:

We agree up to a point.

One question lies at the heart of every episode of Hunted: What's going to happen? The game here is presented as an "experiment about modern Britain", but it primarily functions as a story generator. We think Hunted's core merit is its quality as a process to make exciting things happen. It makes sense, then, for us to talk about some specific stories from the first series, even though in some sense this is a narrow assessment of Hunted: we only have a single sample from the mechanism to consider. 
One high point, possibly the best of the series, came in the second half of episode 2. (If you haven't seen any of the show, jump in around 35 minutes before reading on. Go on. Go on.) 

A spot of bothy.

Ricky Allen, a fugitive with a sense of fun, sets a 'trap' to turn the tables and spy on the hunters, by drawing them to a remote building while observing them hidden in a forest shortly away. The audience see a little of Ricky's preparations, but mainly follow the hunters as they approach the cabin - then cut over to Ricky as he sits in the bushes, asking his Cameraman to be quieter, gazing out over the hunter team and declaring the scene fucking marvellous.

The sequence is excellently presented, but mainly it's just an excellent event. How do you produce great television moments like this? Take experiments, design the game well, cast interesting people, and make the story as organic as possible. Hunted did extremely well in all 4 of these criteria.

We'll also mention the standoff and chase at the end of episode 5. All the same praise applies to this sequence, and some extra. The first is that episode 5's final quarter was exceptionally well foreshadowed. The lead in built us a sound connection with the fugitives, and twisted beautifully. When we thought things were good they went bad. When we thought things were awful they came through. Good and bad and good and bad again, through a combination of great gameplay and great editing, watching Adam and Emma was a nonstop rollercoaster ride. 

Our favourite newlyweds.

The very best thing about this ending, though, was the ingenious decision to have 2 of the 'office' team go out to perform the capture. This was unprecedented, and suddenly turned the tables on the audience's emotions. Who were we to root for now? The heroic runners were no longer being chased by big-chinned, broad-shouldered goons, but instead by our friends from the office, who we had seen working tirelessly to track them down. This sense was compounded by the shot as we rode in the car with the 2 hunters, as they anxiously twitched on their way to the location. 


By luck or design, this was the best capture sequence of the series, with one of the fugitives making an impressive and (according to twitter) very long run around the area, and one of the Hunters impressively tailing them. As runner finally nabbed runner, we felt less sad than we might have, thanks to the impressive presentation, and we were genuinely impressed by the quality of the quarter-hour we had just seen. 

There are no decent stills of this chase sequence, because it was genuinely spontaneous.

Our only niggle here is the series' ending. We acknowledge that the series needed an end point, something more interesting than watching a clock run to zero while hunters look on gloomily. We think the decision to make the ending effectively all-or-nothing, with the Hunters incredibly likely to capture all fugitives or none, was poor. If all had been captured, we think the audience would have called this unfun and unfair. As it was, all escaped, and there was no real chance that we could get a close finish, which is a shame. 

They did have a clock anyway, though.

We aren't convinced the ending was organic, aren't convinced by a lot of the themeatic arguments around it, and aren't convinced that the Hunters couldn't have reached the airport in time, although we certainly think Hunted is the better for it. We understand that this was difficult to design, and don't really see another option, other than to suggest more than one exit point. We also appreciate the clever decision not to make the escape an emphasised part of the series as a whole, so, will return the favour and not make it an emphasised part of this review.

As a series of events, as a game, we think Hunted was nearly flawless, however, we've yet to talk really about Hunted as a Television Programme. This is again difficult, because while so much on the TV side was done well, the errors stick out to us abruptly.

Tonally, the series was excellent. Our fugitives were introduced to us: not as heroes, nor reality stars, nor people particularly sure in their own suitability, but as keen amateurs. See for example the typical promo shot that was released before the broadcast. Our love for them - and I challenge the audience not to fall in love with Ricky Allen - was left to develop organically.

Indeed, there was a real lack of force - a few times we saw the fugitives refer to the Hunters as 'evil bastards' (which we hope they took as a compliment) - but the audience were impressively left alone. We think there was a narrator, but they always said things like "Emily is in a car", not "Emily is in trouble". The edit took no side, decisions by Hunters and Fugitives were never critiqued by the programme, and the isolated nature of the game meant there was little internal criticism. The Hunters provided occasional comments, but these were vague and rarely fully informed. Hunted presented itself as primary evidence: a record of occurrences that the viewers were invited to build opinions from, rather than a designated narrative illustrated by the events.

This comes at a small cost - not being told what to think means the audience have to work more, and especially makes the early episodes feel like tough watches - BUT it adds so much to the potential value of the series. Viewers who tune in each week feel like experts in the game, they start to engage more deeply, eventually, they start to fill in the gaps themselves.

It's important to emphasise that this is a really rare and brilliant thing for television to be doing in 2015.

This is a really rare and brilliant thing for television to be doing in 2015.

We have complaints though, mostly about the timing. The series was filmed so that all the stories could exist independently, and then decisions were made afterwards as to how they would fit into episodes, and how much of each episode would follow each story.

In general, we often felt the wrong points of the story had been emphasised, while better parts suppressed or rushed-through.  Many commented that the first episode emphasised the Hunters' story too much over the contestants, and unfolded too slowly. We don't think this was true of the series in total, but certainly think that the opening could have been weighted to be a bit more newbie-friendly. Indeed, we think the opening broadcast was generally a little weak, and probably the worst of the lot.

We criticise the decision to spend most of the first episode on stories that weren't resolved in that episode. Episodes 2, 4 and 5 focused mainly (not entirely) on a single open-and-shut story, and we really feel Hunted would have done better to open on such an episode. Instead, we got too much of Lauren and Emily (who we see plenty more of), a large amount of Ricky (who could have been held back), and a weird, 5-minute departure mid-episode to capture Elizabeth and Sandra. Elizabeth and Sandra weren't the most interesting capture, but they were the most interesting thing in episode 1 - and they weren't even put at the end.

They only lasted 26 minutes.
The strange rhythm of e1, throwing it's best story into the middle, setting up too much, and ending on a weak anticlimax, left the audience - even this author - feeling a bit iffy after the first broadcast. We also really think a better story like that of the Singh Brothers could have been used instead. Indeed, it was only the excellent developments of episode 2 that really confirmed that the series was capable of all we'd hoped, and we worry that those who didn't stick around never saw Hunted for what it could be. As evidence for this point, we'll mention that of this author's IRL friends, those who fell into an episode mid-series all stuck around for the duration, whereas not all those who ran from the start did the same.

There are similar criticisms which we'll list quickly. Episode 2 had enough without the bothy trap. The demise of Ricky Allen was a massive emotional low point, and could have been pushed back so that we had a new hope to root for at the time. The ends of episode 3 and 4 felt too similar, with solo fugitives being pinned down at stations. Presenting Freddie and Jacqui's story 3 episodes after Davinder and Harinder was wrong and confusing. Adam and Emma were too interesting to be given just one episode, and their episode, 5, took an unfairly large share of the series' great moments.  

We want to emphasise, again, that we think Hunted was excellent, exciting, brilliantly-made television. It was not perfect, but the problems that existed were missed details, not fundamental flaws. It was unique, it was original, and it was brave. We understand Hunted may be made soon in the US, and we strongly wish to see more of it back in the UK. Failing that, though, we hope it will be remembered as an intelligent and influential programme.

Saturday 10 October 2015

"These are all really fit people"

Forgive us, audience, for indulging in our own musings. (Although, really, what else are you here for?) This time on Sata, we will invent a term for a new genre of television.

The word docu-game first arrived in this reviewer's head courtesy of Special Forces: Ultimate Hell Week (from here on, just 'Special Forces', and a glare to whichever exec thought the audience would be more confused by a title that doesn't entirely define its programme than a week which has 12 days). After 1 episode, our friend Nick said "I haven’t yet worked out if this is meant to be a competition or not" and it isn't difficult to see why.

We have more to say about the notion of a docugame, but that waits for another day, because we have plenty to say about Special Forces.

Each week of Special Forces sees the remaining participants tested by a new instructor, who represents a different nation, that nation's most elite military branch, and that military branch's unique style of training. For 48 hours the participants are required to complete a series of tasks set by the instructor. There is no particular similarity in what might be required, except for a constant high level of physical endurance. The instructor may set discrete tasks with a gap between, a long task made up of many different steps, or a continuous regime of barely-halting activity, all 3 have been done.

Participants (the programme's noun of choice is "recruits") are eliminated if they choose to leave the process. They are eliminated if they are hospitalised so badly that they cannot return within a reasonable time. They are eliminated if the instructor that week chooses to eliminate them: this can happen during the tasks or at the final 'parade' which concludes each episode.

There are some question marks over exactly what means elimination. We've seen participants be temporarily hospitalised and miss tasks, but return. We've seen participants be removed from a task by the medical staff, but return. However, we've also seen the opposite happen in each of these cases. We've seen failure to complete an instruction be given as a reason for instant elimination, but we've also seen it tolerated at other times.

It seems clear, though, that the show has started with no exact quota for how many eliminations should occur in each episode - participants are removed when they've say had enough, or when it becomes clear that they have anyway. Rarely (although once) does a specific error lead to elimination. Rarely (although sometimes) are keen and capable participants sent home against their will.

(Amendment: in episode 5, it was mentioned, a lot, that only 6 participants were allowed to continue to the final . We imagine this was for logistical reasons, rather than television, because it didn't fit well with the general open-ended feel of the series to date. We would really have liked this not to have been announced, and the limit to have been reached naturally, but we think the show would have struggled to make the necessary eliminations seem plausible. Failing that, we would like it to have been mentioned less often: it got grating, and doesn't feel like good television to know that some of these impressive and enthusiastic participants are to be sent home.)

The Americans: Pointy and Shouty.

Episode 1 has been the stand-out episode of the series so far, entirely because of the American instructors who appeared in it. The tasks set by this pair were tough, near-continuous, and visually remarkable. They created a sense of awe in their nature: doing 100 press-ups is quite difficult. Doing 200 is probably more difficult, but this author has no idea how it would compare to doing 100 in the breaking waves of the cold, Welsh, sea. Regardless, the "sea-torture" is something no member of the audience couldn't be mildly horrified by. Vox-pops of the participants saying how horribly cold the water is are used, but completely unnecessary: the audience have already seen them shivering as they raise and lower themselves into the water, over and over again.

This looked really horrible.

This is a key point, and the one on which every episode of Special Forces has done well or badly. There are plenty of difficult tasks in every episode, but the good ones are the ones that *look* *very* difficult. When it comes to physical tasks, to look difficult is not the same as to be difficult: for the group to do hundreds of burpees is probably difficult, but to do 100 for each pebble in a bucket of pebbles looks horrendously impossible. A run across any distance of flat ground is looks less difficult than a run up a sand dune which we can see the participants slip down with every step.

An ACME heavy box.
Rarely does Special Forces forget to make the task in some way visually impressive, but sometimes the job is half-baked. Stretchers, sandbag, rifles and logs are often to be carried as part of a challenge. These things are always heavy, and a voiceover will often tell us how heavy exactly, as well as clips of the participants remarking that they are heavy. They don't always look heavy, though: the Special Forces LogsTM are the canonical example of this.

Our personal best moment in television terms came about 20 minutes into episode 1 (unfortunately not on iPlayer at time of publishing), when the US Marine commanders spoke to 3 recruits who had been pulled into a warming tent for possible hypothermia. The instructors gave them an ultimatum: return to the cold training, or be eliminated. This didn't seem too unreasonable, except for the speech of encouragement ("Fear is a choice") that accompanied it: the participants were strongly pressured to continue - with the instructors showing no concern for the possible harm this could cause them - and reducing their capacity to make an informed and reasonable impression.

In an environment where there wasn't a massive medical team observing for safety, this would be unacceptable. Even with these provisions, it made for dark and uncomfortable viewing. Indeed, it gave the impression of a game that maybe wasn't quite sure how far it was allowed to go- a game that was pushing the edges of what a producer would sign-off, in search of a simulation of a genuinely harrowing and unsettling process.

We claim this was Special Forces at its best: straddling the line between controlling a process and recording a process that was unravelling under its own momentum.  Part creating, part curating, if you'll excuse some very forced wordplay. 

The tent scene.

The series took a bit of a dip after the high-impact episode 1. The challenges continued to gently escalate - but that was all. There was not much room to go harder after the high bar set by the American team. Over the weeks the challenges began to shift focus - testing other attributes alongside endurance: NAVSOG in ep. 3 emphasised water skills and navigation, the SASR in ep. 4 focused on leadership and negotiation, and the Spetznaz in ep.5 focused on fear and concentration under pressure.

Some tropes got tired. The changing of goalposts, deprivation of food and sleep. Appointing a quiet person as leader - or appointing no leader and watching to see who emerges. Carrying a wounded colleague. Being set off on a long task, then told to stop once enthusiasm is demonstrated. Certain participants were always last in a footrace, or always first in a carrying challenge. Special Forces could have done more to emphasise the variety that existed between the various weeks, because hearing that these are top athletes being pushed right to the edge of their ability to march and carry heavy things gets old over 6 episodes.

The Spetznaz episode was the best for this - and still not great. At the begging of the episode, at the beginning of some tasks ("speed is not the only criteria I will be marking you on") and in the final elimination, mental strength was emphasised as a criteria by which the participants were being judged. Despite this, the episode concluded with a slightly zany obstacle race, which didn't fit well with these ideas (and in fact, was pretty irrelevant to the episode's outcome). 

The Spetnaz task, feat. Dogs.

We need to mention Freddie Flintoff, who appears in this programme. He seems uncertain as to his exact purpose, and we certainly were. Sometimes he talks to the participants, asking them not-particularly-useful questions about their situation and status. Sometimes he talks to the instructor: partly interestingly finding out about the purpose or history of the challenges, but often asking not-particularly-useful questions about the contestant's performance.

Freddie's appearance is justified in the show's opening by describing him as a 'top athlete' who 'knows what it takes' etc. etc. We find the opposite is mostly true: Freddie's most apparent characteristic is his ignorance - but this does vaguely work on Special Forces. By being essentially clueless Freddie can often get the best, especially out of his conversations with the instructors - and crucially - he often knows to step back, and let the events of the programme speak for themselves.

We must also mention the anonymous 'directing staff'. These are a team who appear in every episode and basically act as lackeys for the instructor - setting up challenges, running them, and shouting at the participants when the instructor is not around to do so. They are as much a part of the programme as the instructor, and we question the decision not to give them more of an identity onscreen.

We add a few remarks following the broadcast of episode 6. The first is a massive well-done to all of the participants, in particular the finalists, and in particular the winner, Clare Miller. We were impressed by Clare's performance, and her ferocious attitude in every episode. 

Winner Clare Miller

We were struck by the camaraderie that had developed between the finalists, and suddenly realised that Special Forces has been an example of "everyone gets along" elimination reality the whole time. This is a trope we believe was popularised by bake-off, although Strictly may also stake a claim to it.

Clare is, perhaps notably, a woman, and we wondered quietly about the show's tendency to make discouraging comments about women in the armed forces. This, it might be argued, is an issue of creation vs. curation: Special Forces treated its male and female participants equally in all the tasks, the fact that a number of the instructors talked about their belief that women were less suitable, or unsuitable for roles in their own ranks is the BBC presenting evidence of sexism, rather than perpetuating it.

We challenge the argument in that last sentence. The first is that there were qualitative assessments and decisions to be made by the instructors every week. For an instructor to be shown expressing this kind of prejudice, and then go on to deliberate on who will be eliminated, and for this to go unchallenged by the show, we think is poor. We disliked the way instructors would share poor views with the host, and no assertion would be made that this process was being adjudicated fairly.

We wonder whether the editors thought they had licence to negatively mention gender more often, knowing that ultimately a woman would win the competition. We hugely celebrate Clare's victory: but wish that given that the programme decided to make reference to gender so often, it could have done so more positively throughout.

The Interrogations
We also saw a potentially iffy sequence in the final, with the finalists subjected to a severely gruelling interrogation sequence. This time, the presentation fell on the side of creating much more than curating - with the cameras going 'behind the scenes' of the scenario, and the narration explicitly describing the safety procedure. We praise this, but wonder (with thoughts wandering back to the tent scene in episode 1) whether this was forced by the fact that one participant used the safeword, and, we wonder what we would have thought of a broadcast that omitted this detail. We also assume, and would liked to have had it shown that, good aftercare was offered to all the participants of this part of the programme. 


To conclude on Special Forces: We found episode 1 very impressive, we found the following episodes less impressive,  and a bit lacking in focus. We came back every week for the good moments: we respect what was attempted, but we think more could have been achieved. We think another series could be entertaining, although we wonder where else there is to go with the idea. The fact that we believe Special Forces is accidentally the first entry into a maybe-new genre, we'll discuss more in the future.

Monday 27 July 2015

Behiveing predictably

While this jury still hesitates over its verdict on King of the Nerds UK, we discuss Hive Minds, the Fiona Bruce-fronted BBC Four replacement for Only Connect.

Google says: A hive mind is a group mind with almost
complete loss (or lack) of individual identity. A bit harsh.

Oh sorry! We meant to write "lateral-thinking-quiz" there, but "replacement for Only Connect", well, it just spilled out. Goodness. Still, just under seven years after Only Connect began, BBC Four have decided to see if there was anything else in the quiz category worth trying.

Excuse me a moment, because this is still a review of Hive Minds, but I feel a need to ask an otherwise unasked question. Only Connect began nearly seven years ago, and is not in any sense, a recent success story. Its audience has been steadily growing, and for a number of years it was very often the most-watched programme each week on its channel.

Why, then, has it taken so very long for BBC Four to attempt any other game or quiz programme? From the perspective of the UK landscape, maybe most game/quizzes seem to vulgar for the generally sophisticated BBC Four style, but OC was a perfect example that there is an appetite for an enhanced quigame, a BBC Four quigame.

I say this with half an eye on the world scene. There are huge cult successes like The Genius, WIDM, and De Slimste, that would fit more naturally on BBC Four than anywhere else on the UK channels. We see around the world, broadcasters taking risks, and often succeeding with, complicated, elegant, intelligent quizzes and games. There is a channel, in BBC Four, generally happy to risk alienating the mainstream viewer in favour of an occasional quiet, excellent, hit, and with a proven success on their books. 

None of them are quiz books. None.
In 2012, VCM could joke about being simultaneously the best and worst quiz on BBC4. Now, she lives on BBC2 and space was opened on BBC4 for something new, something impressively different.

Yet instead, 6.5 years after the first clue was revealed, BBC gave us The Quizeum, a show I literally couldn't watch enough of to review coherently, and now Hive Minds. And so I want to set this complaint out separate from the review proper: Hive Minds is hugely, hugely uninnovative. Almost everything about it has been carbon-copied or nearly-carbon-copied (silicon-copied?) from OC. There is no need to list, here, it will take enough restraint from the reviewer not to mention it in every sentence of the review proper. 

Perhaps, one would argue, there is no need to change what works, and indeed perhaps. This would irritate me less if Hive Minds were being made three or four years ago, or today, but accompanied by some other, more-experimental offering(s) from BBC Four. But it isn't, and so a general moan must foreshadow actual assessment of the programme.

This author then, as an admittedly staunch supporter of the quigame, is a little miffed that BBC4 has taken so long to rekindle its relationship with the genre, and is a little saddened further that the offering is so meagre.

And now the review proper.

Unremarkable titles, and a point early for the best original music this author has heard on a quiz in a number of years. Host Fiona Bruce, rather than being an entertaining-person-who-turns-out-to-be-knowledgeable, is a knowledgeable-person-who-turns-out-to-be-entertaining.

It is actually some accomplishment to be neither so similar in style to VCM that one could criticise, nor different but so much worse that one could criticise. Bruce manages this rather well; presenting the persona of slightly-over-excited-teacher: keen on the facts, but also often on the verge of laughter. We acknowledge her positive first impression on us, (something VCM didn't manage) although warn that it takes time for a host to become 'great' in the way that Only Connect's has.

We meet the teams, who are always three Only Connect players sat in a different order, and then before round 1, a demonstration of the 'Hives' that make up the show's USP. 

And, well, now seems about the time to mention it: there is a massive problem with Hive Minds. I will explain shortly why the problem is so awful, but let me first explain why it is a problem.

The Hive graphics are awful. They are simply horrid, firstly aesthetically they are not nice, but much more importantly, they are too visually noisy to be read easily. Each letter, in white, is surrounded by a black outline on all sides, then brownish shadow on some sides, then a hexagon, which is not monochrome but instead has a white light effect across the top, and on the top two sides. Then, as well as each hexagon having a depth-fade effect, to make it look like an individual object rather than part of a connected grid, there is a dark-brown and light-brown outline around each hexagon, meaning that, on the visual path between the white of one letter, and the white of the next, there are around 8 other colours to be seen, many of them paler versions of the other colours around. The grid is difficult to read. It is quite difficult to follow out an answer once you have been told where it is. It is exceptionally difficult to scan for an answer, or for a few answers.

Other commenters have suggested the font should be squarer, and perhaps in lower-case rather than CAPS. This author agrees on both fronts, but thinks that by far the most important thing is to reduce the amount of visual noise between grid cells. Regardless, the problem is very precise: the grid needs to be easier to read.

Why is this awful? Perhaps it is already obvious to the reader: but Hive Minds ought to stand strong on its play-along value. Few viewers will have knowledge comparable to the on-screen players, (some may, of course) but the Hive - like the lateral thinking on OC, or, to a lesser degree, the guessability of questions on UC - serves as a great leveller, allowing the uninformed to, occasionally, feel the satisfaction of accomplishing a great move just like the ones they see the teams pull-off in the studio.

The terrible graphics massively reduce this appeal, and so reduce the appeal of the whole show, but in particular the appeal to the casual viewer. I would argue that OC saw its audience grow, not by becoming more mainstream in its question matter, but by making the lateral thinking gradually a more important part of the programme than the general knowledge. Hive minds will struggle to pull in a less BBC4-ish viewer if it can't do something along the same lines.

Anyway, we arrive at round 1: the answering some questions round. The questions are usually combine two different (or quite different) fields in a way which allows for a lot of false-leads to be set in the hive. And lots of false-leads are set. Over time the grid diminishes, as do the points, and teams buzz in to stop their individual clock before answering, much like that other programme. Incorrect answers are handed over with all clues revealed for just 1 point, much like... you get the idea.

Throughout, except for a 1 second flash at the start, the grid is presented at the bottom of the screen, at about 1/3 the size it is when in 'full'. This is too small, and combines with the problems mentioned above about readability. 

A R1a question in progress.
Onto round 1b: after two normal questions, the teams get two double questions: this time there are two answers in the hive: you might be looking for an inventor and their invention, an artist and their work, etc. This is immediately harder because two answers need to be located in the hive, and also subtlety harder because the questions are now of the sort to not have a unique pair of answers, so scanning the hive *will* be necessary.

These questions are no less fun for the audience, but they are definitely going to result in fewer points in general, so it feels wrong for them to be coming second*.

A R1b question in progress.

Onto round 2: here hives will contain three answers, again from a larger set of possibles. Instead of decreasing points-over-time, this round offers 1 point per answer found in 45 seconds (although an incorrect submission will end the time immediately), and instead of letting them talk like normal participant, the team are separated to 3 podiums, where they all stare downwards and pass control around confusingly until the time is up. The studio is too small for both teams to do this at once, and the choosing of categories requires they alternate, so we see 3 awkward changeover cuts, not done nearly as well as they are on... yes.

This is apparently almost all of the Hive Minds studio.
This round irritates the reviewer a little, because we don't see any reason it is more entertaining than the first round. Sure, it's different, and one would likely criticise for a lack of variety if another round of straight questions were played... but the twist here of separating the teams isn't adding anything for the audience - it's just a quieter version of the questions we saw before, only with one more answer.

Round 3 is the Superhive, and teams are asked if they want the A-hive or the B-hive, a much better joke than water-wall ever... anyway. The aim here is to find answers to a category in a larger hive. This time the team work together to keep things thematically different from round 2, and there's an extra challenge: the answers have to completely fill the grid, using every letter exactly once. This seems about as difficult as sorting 16 clues into 4 connected... never mind - but it *is* made more difficult in a key way.

The Hive wall Superhive.
On the connecting programme, correct-looking incorrect wall guesses exists: often a set will have 5 potential members, often a faux-set of 4 will exist among the others. This is distracting, but the distraction is no more than a "ooohh yes... oh no!" back-and-forth: it can happen a few times and it doesn't set the team back very much at all if they set off on the wrong path.

Contrast the Superhive where again there are false leads: potentially correct answers that don't fit into the perfect solution but do fit into the chosen category. However, there is no intermediate feedback - a wrong answer entered into the grid will stay put, and cause problems with trying to find other answers later on. Teams can manually erase the answers, but the time taken to realise they've made a mistake is lost. Here the process of realising is more "hmmmm... maybe.... hmmmmm... no, this can't be it".

There are problems with doing things this way: it's frustrating for the audience and team, and it's somewhat unfair: luck can be a big factor in noticing the right answers first. There is some skill, for both viewer and player, in the knack of being able to figure out that a configuration is truly impossible, which is a bit of fun, and I think this could be an 'interesting difference' rather than a 'bad difference' as long as the difficulty of the Superhive topics doesn't increase so much that it becomes really difficult to recover from an error.

Round 4 is the quickfire round, and deserves real praise for a quickfire round that fits well into the programme - too many producers recognise the appeal of a speedy ending without thinking about this. In this round, single-answer questions from all topics are asked with the answers all being hidden in the same hive - that means, as Bruce points out, one may see the answer to a question before it's even been asked.

Here, more than ever in the show, the presence of the Hive feels natural and additive: the challenge of spotting words in the gird is affecting the q&a, rather than just complimenting it - sometimes you can notice an answer ages before the teams do, sometimes having spotted something will allow a player to make an incredibly early interruption.

So, Hive Minds. We have to present an overall opinion on Hive Minds with a few different perspectives: Is Hive Minds better than its sister Only Connect? No. Does it need to be, to be successful? Almost certainly not, and indeed, Only Connect has the massive advantage of many years of refinement. Can Hive Minds fit comfortably alongside Only Connect, perhaps, as comrade and not-quite-so-equal equal? Yes, and we think the scheduler's decision to have both shows start series simultaneously this year suggests that that is the intent: if you want to, watch both - if you don't, watch OC. That's fine.

Would Hive minds prefer to be assessed without falling into its older sibling's shadow, or, in other words, does Hive Minds stand soundly on its own? This author has a couple of concerns on that frontier: first is the overwhelmingly noticeable similarity to the connecting programme, which implies a lack of confidence in this area, and second is that really, really grating graphics package.

That's Hive Minds then. Like it (we do), or loathe it (you might), it's difficult to love it.