Scavengers

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After tackling Cyberzone, I felt culturally obliged to cover another stinky futuristic game show from the same period. Scavengers went out on ITV in the summer of 1994, thrust into the prime Saturday tea-time slot where Gladiators had become a national obsession, with huge expectations. What’s it about? Ehh, I’ll let the opening narration explain.

The time: the future. The place: deep space. Aboard the mother ship Scavenger, the shuttle-craft Vulture prepares for take-off. At the helm, Commander John Leslie and a trainee rookie squad. Their mission: To locate the stricken cargo ship, Cyclops; legacy of a long-gone intergalactic war. To scavenge, salvage, and survive with honor! These are… The Scavengers!

Note that Leslie is credited, not as a character, but as Commander John Leslie, suggesting it’s the John Leslie from 1994, put into cryogenic stasis in an effort to save Earth’s mightiest specimens before the planet was ravaged by space genocide. Who else would’ve been on that mid-90’s ark; Stephen Hawking? Statto? Jo Guest? Leslie’s dressed like the Colonial Marines from Aliens, or Robocop if he’d gotten divorced rather than shot to bits. The armour’s got muscle shapes on it, right down to the cum-gutters on his hips, though his height just accentuates the stringy arms. His right eye’s marked by a scar, a testimony to his having seen combat. I wonder if he found a moment’s wistful pause while striding across battlefields of bones, to remember his old Blue Peter pals?

They’ll all be gone now,” he’ll have thought, from hundreds of years in the future; “Anthea, Diane-Louise.. even George the Tortoise. All dead.” Perhaps he made a journey to the ruins of the Blue Peter Garden — its pond now awash with blood, lapped by radiation-mutated goldfish with three anuses — to lay a wreath in their memory.

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John Leslie prods buttons at the helm of a ship, against a greenscreened window showing the blackness of deep space lit by explosions, with clipart visuals you’d expect from ITV in 1994. Armoured contestants sit strapped into the back, once again, just like in Aliens. This, plus background music that’s often reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s score, isn’t a coincidence. Scavengers was produced with Carlton in association with 20th Century Fox; rights holders to the Alien franchise; and its working title was Aliens: The Game Show, however, this was nixed by Ridley Scott, and rebranded into something more generic. Around this time, the officially licensed Alien War was a popular attraction at London’s Trocadero, and there’s obvious similarities in having regular folks be dragged through the grates and grills of a darkly-lit spaceship by some guy in space-army gear who can’t act.

But the deathly seriousness of do-or-die galactic apocalypse is immediately deflated when John Leslie does the usual pre-game chat with the contestants, with everyone dressed like they’re part of a terrible space-Vietnam but trying not to laugh. “What’s so funny?” he asks, while smirking himself; “Cyclops awaits, it’s a deadly serious business out there!” It’s doubly awkward as they’ve clearly not done a pre-interview, with all the answers ums and ahs — “Are you naturally strong?” “I’m not sure?” Asking one pair if they compliment each other, Peter (who’s white) says of he and team-mate Dawn (who’s not) “I think the colours go well together!” while gesturing at each other’s skin-tone. So, this is the future utopia Star Trek promised?

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The male contestants also have sculpted muscles on their outfits, while the women have booby armour, possibly to protect them from– (that’s enough, Ed), which looks like two metal coconut shells glued to a wetsuit. Before we begin, Commander Leslie introduces the imaginatively-named Android, ‘Android’; a sexy robot woman with pointy boobs and one bare shoulder, whose job is directing them where to go and adding up the scores. Leslie steers the Vulture through fiery debris and in through the smashed hull of the disintegrating Cyclops, swerving through fireballs and lightning bolts. “Here she comes, nice and gently,” he says, with all the urgency of getting his Land Rover between the white lines in Aldi’s carpark. And then, we’re off!

In format, Scavengers is essentially Crystal Maze with John Leslie as Richard O’Brien — even borrowing their clock countdown sound effect — but with half the show taken up by the bits where they’re madly running between zones. It’s during these that one thing really stands out; the set is absolutely fucking enormous. Seriously, it’s the biggest set I’ve ever seen. In the two episodes I watched, barring the finale, they never repeated a game, with each task taking place in separate, uniquely designed industrial stages. Housed at Pinewood, it’s a steel maze of corridors and platforms, guffing pipes and swinging chains, metal gantries flooded with dry ice, and spurting random fires. Designed by Quentin Chases, who previously made the arena games for Gladiators, it cost an extraordinary £2.5m, which was recouped by reusing it to tape the international versions, as Fort Boyard would with its fortress.

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The games consist of running to various parts of the ship — The Crusher, Steel Works, Bomb Disposal Area, Solar Tower — to scavenge for futuristic-sounding objects which all have point values. Everyone spends their time clambering up or down girders or yanking on chains, with no safety wires I could see. Christ, imagine having that as your epitaph — ‘Beloved father, son, brother and uncle. Fell off a balcony while being yelled at by John Leslie in a plastic helmet.’ The impressiveness of the set actually plays against it, with confusing rules, and the contestants as tiny figures lost beneath the dramatic lighting and smoke, as Leslie shouts at them to hurry up, and “let’s see some biceps!” But the big budget feel often withers during the tasks. One game involves diffusing bombs, and when the first one ‘blows up,’ it’s with a pathetic balloon pop which makes everyone laugh. When a team successfully completes the mission, Leslie yells a very futuristic “wahey!” Sadly, there’s a real lack of future-y words, apart from the drink bottles thirsty contestants slurp from after the final game, which are filled with “Scav-Juice.” But they’re the scavengers, so does he mean… piss?

Other games see the lads lowering the women down on ropes onto a bed of dry ice that resembles Alien‘s facehugger nest, to collect flashing football-sized orbs into a net. In another, they’re scrambling across climbing nets draped in cobwebs to salvage giant eggs before “Mother Spider” awakes. There’s one game where they’re dismantling robots in a lab, where a bisected upper torso of a dead robot lays on a table (you know, like Ash or Bishop), coming to life to give hints when he’s plugged in, which 20-year-old contestant Dee looks deeply disconcerted by. But the task itself is just a Simon memory game with blinking, booping lights. In a rare game that’s not referencing the Alien franchise, they lift from Star Wars instead, salvaging junk from a trash compactor which threatens to crush them, rooting around in rubbish for ‘fuel rods’ for fucking ages like someone who dropped their car keys in the skip while doing a dump run.

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But the best bits are the ludicrous action inserts, with each episode having a b-plot which showcases John Leslie’s A-List action hero skills. In episode one, we meet series villain Lord Tanargh, and honestly, he looks pretty great. Tanargh is the work of Bob Keen, one of the team who designed Jabba the Hutt, with credits on films like Hellraiser, Nightbreed, and The NeverEnding Story. A fearsome-looking character, with Predator-style dreads, and facepaint like the clown from Spawn, Tanargh is voiced by David McCallum, and really highlights the creative duality of Scavengers. They’ve created a nightmarish creature that genuinely wouldn’t be out of place in a movie, and put him up against… John Leslie off Blue Peter? Incidentally, there’s speculation on IMDB that as Fox also owned the Predator franchise, Tanargh might’ve been conceived as a relation to the titular Predators.

After warning Leslie from trespassing on his ship, Tanargh pulls a lever, teleporting a pair of green Xenomorph looking rubber monsters from their cage to attack him. Leslie pulls the same face he probably did watching Matthew Wright that time, and shoots one with a raygun, before running away, eventually tearing a pipe off the wall and throwing it through the alien’s chest, Commando style. None of these scenes are referred to when he’s with the contestants, with a jarring tonal shift between him fighting for his life, blasting monsters to death, and when he’s back to chucklingly telling some photocopier repairman from Bristol to “hurry it up, mate” as they shimmy down a rope.

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The final game’s played under a countdown, with anyone who’s not inside the Vulture when it takes off getting left behind. Leslie gives them a pep-talk, with a bro-shake for each, and the motto “Scavenge, Salvage, and Survive, with honour!” before he fucks off on a zip-line. Of all the exhausting games of clambering down ropes and girders and winding on winches, the finale is the most exhausting of all, in six long, confusing minutes of people frantically… doing stuff? I dunno, it’s impossible to tell what’s going on. But at least this time, there’s an alien shooting at them from the gantry, though nobody reacts, as the laser beams and sounds are all added in post production, barring some little splash squibs in the water and a few fizzy explosions going off like a cheap box of fireworks from the local garage.

One team gets back in time, but Dawn gets her boot caught in the climbing net, missing the countdown and causing John Leslie’s finest piece of acting work, as he begs “I need more time, Android, more time! More time, Android!” and howling an emotive “Nooooo!” as she closes the airlock. “Sorry,” yells Dawn from the floor, as the Vulture flies off. Everyone else is pretty jovial in their post-game chit-chat, considering they’ve just left two contestants to their deaths and/or slavery and unspeakable torture at the hands of a cruel alien warlord. Weirdly, they dock at the same disintegrating ship at the start of every show, but there’s no mention of finding and rescuing their fallen crew.

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One thing that’s fun is how they fill the ship with a background population of monsters. In various inserts, we see little aliens with eyes on stalks popping up above the water, or robotic eyes peering out of a flap before disappearing with a whir. Running to the final game in episode one, Leslie points something out to a female contestant, who screams and tries to run when she sees it, but he physically restrains her in a way which plays horribly now. “It’s just a limpet!” he says, picking up a little alien puppet, as a blast of fire is superimposed coming out of its cute little rubber gob — “they’re very friendly… say hello!” At one point, when they’re sprinting down another corridor, it cuts to an alien lurking nearby, looking like Jay Leno as Nosferatu. Another scene sees Lord Tanargh pick up and stroke a horrifying animatronic hairless cat, which jerks and kicks its little limbs, tipping its head back in pleasure as it’s tickled, before he throws it to a massive slime-dripping beast, who throttles it in its tentacles before eating it.

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Episode two’s sci-fi subplot gives you a b-movie condensed down into 90 seconds, when Android warns John Leslie he’s got a price on his head, paid to the Cyberoid Clone Squad by Lord Tanargh. We cut to Tanargh speaking to the merc, who’s got another great alien mask, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Star Wars Cantina; at least, in the prequel trilogy. It demonstrates its abilities by cloning itself into John Leslie — which would make a great alibi — though the scar’s on the wrong cheek. I was salivating at the thought of a Good (?) John Leslie/Evil John Leslie face-off, and boy do we get it! “What the hell are you?” asks GJL. “Your worst nightmare,” replies BJL, reminding you in a single line that he is decidedly not a trained actor. They do a quickdraw, and one of them’s killed, but we don’t know who. Not until John Leslie fingers his scar, which is on the left — oh no! But they pull back to reveal he’s looking in a mirror, and the real, true, original John Leslie from Wheel of Fortune was the victor.

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I went into Scavengers figuring there’d be plenty to take the piss out of — and there was, as it’s absolutely abysmal — but unexpectedly, there’s also the kernel of the interesting show that could’ve been. But it’s such an odd mix, with legitimately impressive sets and creature work, and in places, an admirable scope, all blended with a writer from Chucklevision, the director from Jimmy Tarbuck’s ‘Big Break but golf’ gameshow, Full Swing, and starring John Leslie as a Colonial Marine. For a show that’s impossible to take seriously, it’s nowhere near camp enough, with the sci-fi stuff played too serious between bits that are silly and jovial. For example, whenever Leslie speaks, a little mic that’s attached to his helmet whirs down to his mouth, then back up again when he’s finished. Up and down, up and down, every time he takes a breath, and it’s never not funny. Plus, with all the running about, alien subplots, and nonsensical games that last for five or six minutes, there’s no time to get to know the contestants’ personalities, so you’re not rooting for anyone, and just watching people you don’t care about scramble up girders for fucking ages.

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Scavengers was a colossal failure, ending its run with the final episodes being burned off in the post-GMTV Monday morning death-slot. Who knows how many more Alien riffs we’d have seen had the show continued? Perhaps it was all building towards John Leslie hiding under a clothes rack in an airlock while wearing a pair of tiny little pants. If it’d reached the Gladiators-level viewing figures they were hoping for, it’s possible they might’ve ditched the game show stuff and spun-off into a straight sci-fi action series; or maybe Ridley Scott would have changed his mind and brought Big John Leslie in for a proper Alien sequel. And now I’m dealing with my own parasite. It’s pushing against the inside of my stomach; fighting to tear its way out — it’s the urge to do the cliched Alien vs. Predator joke that everyone’s gonna tweet at me when this goes up anyway, so excuse me while I go blow myself out of the airlock.

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.

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~ by Stuart on December 3, 2019.

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