A peculiarly British show, The Crystal Maze may be the daggiest show on TV. But it is also one of the UK's most beloved.
First broadcast in 1990 and based loosely on French adventure show Fort Boyard, The Crystal Maze sees a team of contestants pitted against a series of (usually hokey) locked-room, timer-driven challenges spread across four themed zones: Medieval, Aztec, Industrial and Future, none of which would look out of place in old-school, wobbly set Doctor Who.
Divided into physical, mental, skill and mystery games, they compete for golf-ball like plastic crystals that each garner five seconds of time in the final challenge, an Epcot Theme Park-like glorified wind machine otherwise known as the Crystal Dome, where they must grab golden tinsel tokens while avoiding point-deducting silver ones, all in the hope of securing the top prize.
Originally fronted by maze master Richard O’Brien, the cult creator of musical-turned-movie The Rocky Horror Show, the show has had a number of incarnations over the years. O'Brien hosted four of the six original seasons along with a handful of specials. A long-simmering love for the show saw it come back as a one-off, celebrity-led charity special hosted by The Office’s Stephen Merchant in October 2016. Shortly afterwards, the rebooted series was announced, with the baton passed to worthy successor Richard Ayoade.
Wearing a canary yellow suit and clutching a prodding stick capped with an angry-looking red hand, Ayoade starts the first episode with a knowing wink as his opening monologue gets newbies up to speed while appealing to rusted-on fans. He recalls a fever dream in which “members of the public of mixed ability in standard-issue jumpsuits… flailed their way through a series of fiendish puzzles in pursuit of crystals which… can be exchanged for ultimately underwhelming prizes”.
The winning formula remains. Where so many reboots fall into the “fiendish” trap of going way bigger, losing sight of what made folks love the series in the first place, The Crystal Maze’s producers give devotees exactly what they want and, in so doing, will most likely win a brace of new fans intrigued by the silliness of it all.
It even looks like they never knocked down the original set. The Medieval zone’s cobwebs and candles aesthetic survives intact, as does the insect chirp and monkey call background noise of the sandy floor, pot plant and polystyrene temples of the Aztec zone. The only slight upgrades are spiffier lighting in the Crystal Dome and a snazzier Future Zone with blippity bloppity display panels and bright white light - a much smaller budgeted version of JJ Abrams' Star Trek.
It’s not rocket science, but much like O’Brien’s anarchic eccentricity before him, Ayoade’s oft-arched eyebrow entertains, upbraiding the team’s inability to listen while he blatantly drops a clue or for getting ahead of themselves. “Don’t make me redundant, I’m nearly 40 and have a mortgage to pay. My only job is opening and closing doors.”
Gleefully ribbing the naffness of the format of the show, and the sheer amount of effort expended by contestants in order to win not very much at all – a tandem sky diving session in episode one – the joy for the viewer, as Boon suggests, is the resulting mixture of vaguely willing the contestants to triumph while being thoroughly irked/entertained by how utterly hopeless they usually are.
Watch The Crystal Maze every Wednesday night on SBS VICELAND at 8:30pm. You can catch up with episodes anytime at SBS On Demand: