TV Review: Last Commanders

In a world where Children’s TV budgets have been repeatedly slashed, Last Commanders is an innovative attempt at refreshing a classic adventure game format, which – taking its lead firmly from TV shows such as Knightmare, The Adventure Game and The Crystal Maze – makes for a genuinely entertaining watch.

Children’s TV has changed a lot in the last twenty five years. Whereas the previous generation of youngsters could return home from school to see bespoke programming on both Children’s BBC and CITV for two hours every afternoon, nowadays we have many dedicated all day TV channels available, as well as other competing mediums online.

While CITV has seen budget cuts and advertising constraints force its content down to mainly repeats, cheap imports and cartoons, its mainstay BBC competitor has ridden the storm and continued to thrive both as CBBC and CBeebies television channels, and online through the BBC iPlayer.

Adventure games have a long history on children’s TV, perfectly suiting the vivid imagination of youngsters with the interactive nature of a game show. With The Crystal Maze and Raven recently returning to our screens, and even Knightmare getting a 21st century reboot, it’s no surprise then to see the format used once again.

What many of these shows had in common was a commitment to that format and the universes they created. Whereas much children’s programming is throwaway, these successful shows developed overarching stories, characters and complete fantasy worlds, giving a truly immersive experience to both the viewer and contestants.

It’s great to see this depth of realism continue with Last Commanders. Much like Knightmare, the premise is a simple one – guide your chosen challenger through a series of game rooms to reach the end of the mission – but with a complex backstory that certainly treats its viewers as intellectuals rather than passive consumers.

The story, in a nut shell, is as follows: The Ykarus Space Station is home to an AI called Sciron, created by Ykarus Biotech engineers in order to eliminate disease from the Kaladian population after a huge loss of life during an event referred to as ‘The Sickness’. Sciron became too sentient and powerful, creating the Perfecting Virus which, instead of just protecting the Kaladians health, turned them into emotionless, unfeeling drones. Still with us? There’s more…

Young programmer Skye – the lead face of the show – foresaw Sciron’s power and hid code within the Perfecting Virus to stop it being 100% effective, leaving a handful of Kaladians able to battle to defeat Sciron, guided by humans on Earth – the Last Commanders.

Luckily for the viewers, this is explained online, rather than at the beginning of every episode. Indeed the promotion for the series is very well done, with its own Last Commanders minisite containing extra information and side missions that can be completed by anyone online.

For the contestants taking part things are much simpler, albeit thanks to a very clever setup. Each episode sees four teams of children choose a Freedom Fighter from the eight available to solve a mission onboard the Ykarus Space Station, not from a television studio, but in their own home via laptop.

It’s a really smart move from the shows creators, and a huge money-saving one too. In an age of sofa lounging video games, a physical sci-fi gameshow would have been a hard sell, but by taking the contestants out of that realm it brings all kinds of production benefits.

The kids sit in front of a pre-loaded ‘Mission Pack’ laptop sent by the producers – their only technical requirement being to turn it on – then the whole show is shot live with them guiding their chosen Freedom Fighter around the studio rooms, solving the puzzles via video link.

Like Knightmare, much of the show’s authenticity and excitement comes from this live setup, with both the editorial team in the gallery and the actors having to react in realtime to decisions the children make – often unexpected from the preferred outcome. Crucially, it makes the contestants part of the action rather than just spectators, something that Knightmare equally thrived because of.

It also solves one of the hardest problems with any kind of sci-fi on modern television, namely that of HD resolution. Fantasy ‘realism’ is very hard to fake cheaply if every inch of an actor’s make-up and costume is visible, along with every piece of painted polystyrene scenery. Luckily for Last Commanders, any cost implications are bypassed with the use of fuzzy single person GoPro style headcams on the Freedom Fighters, with cut away shots shown as noisy CCTV images to enhance the viewers’ perspective on the puzzles.

This allows for the rooms to be fairly cheaply made, and indeed often recycled across the series. There’s much use of the dystopian look, with plenty of metal pipes, vents, UV lighting and smoky, dimly-lit areas, with absolutely no thought of expensive CGI.

The puzzles themselves are little more than simple codebreaking, bridge building or climbing and ducking – think Jungle Run rather than Crystal Maze – and given the Freedom Fighters are in control of their own movements, it’s more “watch out for that laser” rather than “side-step left”.

Huge plaudits must go to the editing team though, as that’s where Last Commanders pushes new boundaries. Each of the four teams’ missions are identical in each episode, with all then spliced together into one coherent fast-paced overlapping montage. You’ll often see one Freedom Fighter enter a room and explain the situation, then cut to another team to begin the game and so on.

The only slight cheat in comparison to its more brutal predecessors (namely Knightmare, where winning was famously difficult), is that in each episode at least one team is guaranteed to complete the mission, which is necessary for the overarching story to work.

To adult eyes it’s fairly obvious that each outcome is largely decided by what the camera feed chooses to show the teams at home – clues are often ‘revealed’ by the Freedom Fighters moving the camera for some and not others. The whole thing also feels a lot more linear than Knightmare did, but that may well be the benefit of an older viewing perspective.

That said, it’s a credit that Development Producer Ryan Meloy and Series Producer Louise Brown have created a whole fantasy world based on little more than a series of low budget futuristic-themed escape rooms. Indeed, aside from the Freedom Fighters and Zoe Barker’s additional shots as Skye, only one other speaking character actor is employed (Dr Klein, an ambiguous professor who’s mostly concerned with perfecting the virus), but the show never feels flat.

The baddies too are genuinely frightening, and could’ve come straight from Doctor Who’s top drawer. But it’s the excellent video game inspired soundtrack that ramps up the tension, feeling like the characters are constantly under threat and being pursued, with limited time to escape each room.

It’s often the little things borrowed from past shows and point-and-click adventure games that make Last Commanders excel: quest objects can be found, and, while never decisive, do add to the excitement; the different traits of the Freedom Fighters add a layer of characterisation to the world; and even the story centred around Skye’s family is a well-rounded narrative.

That said, whether the contestants really choose which of the eight Freedom Fighters they use seems implausible logistically, and seems to be one of the only pieces of televisual ‘poetic licence’ used. It feels like these individual character traits should have more effect on the actual playing of the game – they are much referenced at the start of each episode and would be a welcome improvement.

It is, of course, worth remembering that watching this as a thirtysomething nostalgic adult is a far different experience to that of a fresh-faced under ten. While it doesn’t seem that emotive and intense in comparison to older shows, children’s TV is aimed at a much younger audience than it used to be. That said, in the last couple of episodes there are definitely some jump scare and tense moments – whatever your age – as the story reaches its climax.

Although the final puzzle does feel like a letdown – being a rehash of one seen previously – and the ‘victory’ slightly hollow, you still hope the BBC have seen enough in this format to give it another series. It’s not perfect, but certainly something to build on. And with an increased budget, it could, like many of its predecessors, easily become a cult classic. For freedom!