Masters of Combat



Gail Porter and Trey Farley


Supreme Master: Cecil Cheng

Commentary: David Yip


TV21 for BBC Two, 7 September to 19 October 2001 (7 episodes in 1 series)


Martial Arts is probably pretty interesting. As proper martial artists ourselves (trained in the combative arts of kara-oke and ke-bab) we were quite looking forward to this. And it's made by Mentorn who do Robot Wars so it should be in a safe pair of hands.

Two teams of four fighters representing a school of combat enter The Gateless Kingdom (a kingdom without gates but that's alright because if you were caught trying to burgle any of these people you'd know about it) and the Supreme Master's domain. The idea is for each team to climb the Eight Steps of Enlightenment (read: points) and win the game. Between rounds the teams are interviewed by Gail Porter and (inventor of the rusk and annoyingly unplaceable accent) Trey Farley. They do this in what look like bamboo huts, and the teams don't have contact with each other except on the battlefield.

There are six rounds. Rounds 1, 3 and 5 are tests whereas rounds 2, 4 and 6 are actual fights. The tests test things that good martial artists should be good at (breaking boards, punching bags, avoiding revolving sticks, firing crossbows, wielding swords, finding the end of the Sellotape etc.) These are reasonable fun to watch but we think it would be safe to say that the main thing people are going to watch it for are the fights. Rounds two and four are one on one affairs (male vs male and female vs female) whilst the final round is like a team combat.

Given that the barneys are the main business, it's quite disappointing that they come across as... well, a bit dull. The contestants kick each other for a bit and then the Master decides who wins, simple as that. It seems a bit aimless (har, har). This is despite the fast-paced music and the badly intercut kicks to camera. Essentially the winners of these bouts tend to be who scores best in artistic impression. Lovely for Watercolour Challenge, not quite so exciting for a Friday night show that prides itself on combat. Air kicks don't have the same appeal as Diotor's black and red fur being set alight.

This is further confounded by the show's final round. The teams line up and face off against each other one on one going in weight order, lightest first. Whoever wins wins the point, sorry 'step of enlightenment', and stays on to take on the next challenger. If a team loses all four people and the game isn't over they can send whoever they like in. The first team to reach enlightenment (sigh) is the winner and no doubt fortune wants to take them out to dinner in the Banzai stylee or something. And they progress onto the next round.

The production values are reasonably good. The set is minimalist but thoughtful, there are raising drawbridges from the player's bamboo huts to the fighting ring, the lighting is mainly provided by fiery torches. The Master and gong banger stand on a Willow pattern balcony. Bizarrely, a ring of ascending podia - eight of them (the Steps of Enlightenment?) - don't light up as you'd expect, the score being kept by a plain computer graphic instead. Eh?

There are very impressive introductions to all the rounds from the house robots (er, I mean resident martial artists) who use weapons and everything. We are obliged to point out that the female who wields the sword is particularly striking. The Supreme Grand Master bloke is good, has lots of Eastern Philosophy (things along the lines of "remember, if you lose you haven't lost for the team you have just failed yourself. Actually that's not strictly true, sucker!"). What a shame, therefore, that the commentator for the actual events seems so out of place. Sounding a bit like Mr Yan out of fab 80s afternoon cookery show Wok With Yan, the Chinese Detective himself David Yip provides faux-entertainment in the form of mockery, which we don't think is warranted.

So the show seems to fail because of a lack of focus. Which is ironic really considering focus is one of the most important aspects of marshal arts. This is The Way of Masters of Combat.


Based on an idea by martial arts expert Neil Axe (yes, really!)


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