Cyberzone

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Nowadays, with all the videos of dads wearing goggles smashing their heads on the living room floor, it’s clear that Virtual Reality works, but its first iteration in the early 90s? Not so much. Graphics consisted of looming, brutalist blocks, allowing players the fun of slowly waving a disembodied hand in front of their eyes, before falling prey to a crippling migraine. It was far from the cybernetic paradise we were promised; to be whisked inside computers like Lawnmower Man and roll around in badly digitised jpegs of naked ladies with big hair, like happy dogs on a bed. Not that it stopped television embracing VR 1.0 as the next giant leap.

In the early 90s, TV was constantly searching for ways to bring the technologically-adolescent medium of videogames out of stinky bedrooms and onscreen, under the banner of being ‘interactive’. This was the era of the phone-in gaming slot on Saturday Mornings, with viewers calling in to ‘play’ computer games in the studio, via touch-tone sounds on their land-line, or by straight-up yelling instructions of “Go left! Duck! Jump!” to an unseen crew member with a controller. With the added split-second broadcast delay, it was incredibly clunky, giving the kind of lag you get on Fortnite when your flatmate’s got a torrent going for every episode of a Japanese cartoon about a sentient highschool with a sixty-foot penis.

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That disconnected feel is evident in 1993’s Virtual Reality gameshow, Cyberzone. Lasting for a single series of ten half-hours, Cyberzone was part of BBC2’s DEF II strand of hip youth programming, and hosted by Red Dwarf‘s Craig Charles, who’s an intensely irritating presence. It did at least have a tech-gameshow calibre, as the creation of Tim Child, the man behind Knightmare, and made by Child’s Broadsword production company. There’s a lot of fuss kicked up about sending man to the moon with wobbly 1969 computers, but the real miracle is Cyberzone‘s set-up, with the entire show powered by six 486 PCs, each with 8MB of RAM.

Only one full episode survived into the fascist shithole future of 2019, and opens with Craig Charles castigating the audience, who’re behind a chain-link fence and dressed in dystopian rain macs and sunglasses, banging on the metal railings of the grim industrial set, which looks like the hull of a grotty spaceship salvaged from Charles’ more famous show. He wears a fringed brown jacket — fitting with the loose neo-Western theme — with glass eyes as rings on two of his fingers, like Jimmy Savile.

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We know we’re in the digital realm, by the way he uses computery-sounding words, and constantly saying “cyber.” Viewers are “cybernauts,” and the audience “cyber-filth,” while contestants kick “cyber backside.” Clued-in digital junkies like us are “cyber-dudes,” tossed into a post-apocalyptic world, where he tells us “Great Britain just got lucky,” suggesting other nations have been destroyed, or in the least, are without the haven of a virtual world to escape from the miserable drudgery of cockroach sandwiches and roaming the wasteland in rusty cars powered by piss. Aside from cyber, there’s another word that’s thrown around like sausage rolls at an Eastenders wedding brawl, heard for the first time as he bursts through the fence — “Awooga!” But more on that later.

There is a very Knightmare feel, with Charles a swaggering Treguard, beckoning contestants with a cry of “enter the arena!” In Thesp, “the sentient centre of the hyper computer,” Cyberzone has its own Lord Fear. Thesp is a kind of computerised oil baron, in white suit and ten gallon hat, with a bootlace tie and pocket square, who sets the challenges for the “data-duelists.” Contestants wear rather non-futuristic t-shirts and shorts, setting a pair of blokes against champion women rally drivers, one of whom Charles is aghast to learn has an MBE, and the other, a blonde Swede, that he greets with “I’m in love already!

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The games themselves involve players controlling an onscreen avatar by jogging on a treadmill; an avatar known as the borg (short for cyborg), in an incredible show of lazy naming, right at the height of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Charles tells Thesp to build him one, as the crowd chant “BORG! BORG! BORG!” standing well back while it forms in the centre of the room. What emerges is a monstrosity; Frankenstein’s monster with an ICQ account. The crudely sculpted female borg has vacant eyes, sexy lips, and a Hitler-esque side parting, while the male avatar resembles a nightmare Vin Diesel, built like a green body-stocking stuffed with broken bricks. These digitised wraiths shamble through a poorly-rendered landscape of house-shaped blocks solving puzzles. And I do mean fucking shamble.

Though its lofty ideas are admirable, Cyberzone simply does not have the technology to make it work, with every game consisting of players madly sprinting on the spot to make their borg float across the screen in a random direction at one frame a second. They earn points via puzzles, which mostly require (very slowly) moving a crosshair over an object — rubber ducks, arrows, footballs — and pushing a button to shoot it, but there’s so little correlation between the actions of the players and that of their avatars, it’s like giving an unplugged controller to a toddler when they’re bugging you during Call of Duty.

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During all this, the opposing team give chase in virtual buggies or helicopters which handle just as poorly, with the aim of trapping the enemy by parking in front of doors, or crushing them from above with blocks. Craig Charles does his best, overexcitedly whooping at the thrill of players painstakingly trying to make their avatar face the right way, but it’s like watching someone swish at the air after they’ve thrown a bowling ball down the lane, hoping it somehow affects what’s happening. Given decent controls, these are literally games a baby could do, with no ingenuity beyond slowly dragging a crosshair towards a block and mashing a big button; but fighting against the lag, these are monumental tasks of human mettle.

Thematically, it’s all over the place, with Western clothing, and maps set in medieval times, where a futuristic tank roams the streets. Another setting’s called Cyber-Swindon, with a maze-like layout that satirises the confusing design of the real Swindon; effectively turning a local newspaper’s complaint letter about incompetent town planners into a trendy televised computer game. Teams are tied at the final round, where Charles calls them “dudelies,” and for no reason at all, tells one of the male contestants that he’s never liked him, doing his Ernie from Sesame Street fake laugh. “It’s a battle of the sexes, and I want the girls to win!” he says, and they do, after repeating a bunch of puzzles from earlier, with the avatars spending most of their time walking into walls. The prize? Literally anything they want, says Charles, as “I’m in love with yers!” One requests a helicopter licence, so he hands her a prop computer cartridge, said to contain a virtual helicopter. So, no prizes, then? Our host signs off by telling us “reality is for losers!” though he’s yet to develop the Robot Wars kiss salute.

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The most interesting thing about Cyberzone is Craig Charles’ constant use of “awooga!” By the end of the half-hour episode, it’s been said 30 times. In fact, I had to knock up a montage to keep track of them all.

But surely awooga is the intellectual property of John Fashanu? Rarely has a catchphrase been so tied to an entertainer. Awooga is Fash’s “awright at the back?”; his “nice to see you, to see you,” or “as it ‘appens, guys and gals.” Who does Craig Charles think he is?! Brilliantly, there’s a long-brewing controversy over its ownership. Red Dwarf fans will recognise the word from 1989 episode, Marooned, when ship’s computer Holly mimicked the broken siren, with a warning of “Awooga! Awooga! Abandon ship!” Craig Charles brought it with him to Cyberzone, where one of the contestants in the very first episode was… John Fashanu. Fash liked awooga so much, he pinched it, and began using it on Gladiators; a show with a far larger audience and cultural imprint; where consequently, it became his. Still, 25 years on, I’m sure Craig Charles isn’t bothered about it.

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Hope you’re well! In further confusion, it’s often attributed to Kris Akabusi, seen here in a video confirming that he’s never said awooga, and that his catchphrase is “awriiiiight!” while raising his fist to his ear and pumping it in a circular motion. Glad we got that cleared up.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

~ by Stuart on October 24, 2019.

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