Well, it seems that the reviews are coming thick and fast this week. Today it’s the turn of a new science-based TV quiz show for children: Richard Hammond’s Blast Lab. As you may have guessed from the title, it features the Top Gear Hamster himself as the host. I heard about the programme from last week’s New Scientist, in which Hammond had an editorial lamenting children’s loss of interest in science due to formal education. Of course, he was plugging his show as remedy, but isn’t that always the way?
Hammond is no stranger to science programmes, having been presenter of Sky’s Brainiac (which always seemed to be a poor-man’s Mythbusters), and his editorial seemed fairly sincere, so I was interested to find out what Blast Lab was like. Jumping on to my beloved iPlayer I tracked down the first episode, originally broadcast last Saturday morning on BBC2.
It’s been a while since I watched a children’s show, but they don’t seem to have changed much. Lots of shouting and bright colours are still very much the name of the game. The intro sequence consists of a cheerfully cheesy comic book/live-action style montage, in which Hammond drives to his “mansion” and down in to the “secret underground lab”. It reminded me very much of a CITV show I watched long ago, the name of which escapes me.
Down in the lab, we’re introduced the Hammond’s helpful Lab Rats, as well as his Ninja Nan. It’s exactly what it sounds like – an elderly woman attempting to perform kung fu. I was slightly unsure of the relevance (Hammond mentions the need to defend his underground lab) but she was quickly shuffled off and never seen again. Strange. Next up are the red and yellow teams, three kids to each, who get a quick introduction before we are into the first round.
This consists of responding “true” or “false” to statements such as “there are 300 bones in a child’s body but only 206 in an adult” (true, as children’s bones fuse as the grow) or “the Earth is completely round” (false, it bulges in the middle). The answers are determined by Oliver, Hammond’s “artificially intelligent” car, which honks its horn and flashes its lights according to the answers in its “Fact Nav”.
Hammond never quite seems comfortable with the children, almost mocking them at time for getting the wrong answers. It’s as if he has left his Top Gear hat on and thinks he’s arguing with Jeremy Clarkson, not school kids. Maybe it’s just teething troubles in the first episode, but I found it a bit off putting.
That aside, he did a good job in the next round. The two teams had to fly a “balloon rocket” across a pool of gunge (that old children’s TV staple) in order to score points. The balloons must be attached to a small guiding rope, and then fly across.
Whilst this is being set up, Hammond explains exactly why the balloons act in this way: Newton’s Third Law. “Oh, here we go,” I thought, but I was perhaps too cynical, too quick. Hammond gives a decent and entertain explanation (all actions have an equal and opposite reaction), as well as praising Newton as a Blast Lab hero.
Unfortunately, that’s the highlight of the program science-wise. The next segment consisted of a man with a jet-pack (Eric Scott) attempting to sink a basketball in a net 30 metres high, but there wasn’t much explanation of why the jet-pack was able to lift him into the air, whilst an earlier attempt by a Lab Rat consisting of two fire extinguishers wasn’t.
The final part of the show was classic game show, and not really scientific at all. The two teams had to fling pellets across yet more gunge using a large catapult. The only “science” was Hammond warning them against going too near one end of the gunge pool, because he had placed a uranium rod there earlier, making it rather hot. Oh dear.
The team with the most points at the end got a whole host of science and non-science related goodies, whilst in a rather cruel twist the prizes for the other team are placed in a bidet and blown up. Yes, I’m not sure why either.
So, to sum up, in a half hour program we only really got once decent bit of science on Newton’s Laws of Motion. To be honest, for early morning on a Saturday, I think you could actually do a lot worse. At least Hammond seems to have a genuine passion for science, whilst presenting a distinctly non-science personality. Cringe-worthy as it may sound, he actually makes science “cool”!