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.