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Television Review: 'Time Commanders'

'Time Commanders', BBC2, Sunday 7.45pm

There’s no doubt that the rapid development of computer graphic imaging has done wonders for livening up history documentaries that used to rely on bearded men lyricising over lumps of masonry in a field. By filling in all the visual blanks it has opened up a fascinating subject to a generation of new enthusiasts who find archaeology a bore and Tony Robinson terminally aggravating. But even with CGI there’s a limit to how gripping you can make an Iron Age settlement or an Egyptian temple complex. Now, perhaps inevitably, comes the adrenalin-fuelled rush of a real time video game crossover where teams of men (well, it’s a man thing) take on the roles of ancient generals and refight famous battles on a huge computer screen.

In the first series Eddie Mair, normally lugubrious even on the radio, looked positively tragic as he watched suburban Essex car salesmen pretending to be world-conquering military leaders and throwing away their virtual armies in clueless abandon. In the second series Richard Hammond bounds around like a boy scout cheering on all the corking good fun and offering pointlessly inane advice like “don’t let them get you in the flank!”, while two dour bona-fide experts sit upstairs and witter grumpily about everything the ‘generals’ are doing wrong. Occasionally they even win, but even so it rarely seems that they have much idea what they are doing. To anyone who imagines that historical battles were gigantic chessgames played out by masterminds this game reflects the truer historical picture, which is that battles were usually ugly and confusing messes presided over by frequently incompetent generals who were there by virtue of birth rather than merit.

The popularity of this show can scarcely have anything to do with any widespread knowledge of or interest in the history behind these battles or of the times in which they occurred. The vicarious thrill of being a general in charge of mass slaughter is perhaps bound to appeal to individuals who have no real power in society and whose only realistic experience of battle would ever be as cannon-food. Yet the concept is surprisingly repulsive. All through history soldiers like these were ‘spent’ like so much disposable currency on the whim of human beings behaving like gods in the interests of wealth and power. For all their clockwork clone appearance these virtual soldiers are real enough as representations of historical but nameless human beings whose cruel lives and terrible deaths are being played out for our amusement. And as the graphics improve and the mutilation and gore acquire better and more prurient detail, the savagery of power and powerlessness becomes ever more poignant, and the pity of war ever more pitiable.

What really sticks in the craw and what this show inadvertently emphasizes is the thought that everything that holds meaning and value in our lives is actually meaningless and valueless to our rulers. Indeed the computer graphic algorithms reinforce this in a way since they simply create one virtual soldier and then make multiple identical copies to form the virtual armies. One can’t escape the feeling that the owning class of the world must see us in largely the same way, as essentially wealth-producing bacteria without names, faces, rights or identity, cultured on their slides in order to grow them new wealth, and to be disposed of whenever we become unproductive. What is even more chilling is the idea that we ourselves might even adopt in some sense their view of us, certainly enough to fight all the savage battles of the future on their behalf. No wonder socialists oppose all wars.

PJS