"Enter Stranger." And so it began.
As a child growing up with the rapidly spreading use of computer imagery, I remember the awe that scratched away behind my eyes whenever I saw the revelations and wonders brought forth by such technological marvels. Nowhere on the small screen was this more apparent to me than the strange and mysterious world of Knightmare.
The concept of Knightmare was simple. One brave child, the Dungeoneer, with the giant, horned 'Helmet of Justice' on their head, against the forces of evil. The story goes that the helmet will protect our hero from the true horrors around him. Of course the true horror was the blue screened studio bare of all but the most basic adornment. At the start of each show, appearing out of the magic of basic television editing, to aid our dungeoneer in their epic (and unseen) adventure, were a team of 3 friends. These were the people who had to advise the blind hero around the dangers of the dungeon, keeping their steps true. The Dungeoneer was the poor fool who had to work out how far 90 degrees was to turn. It never ceased to amaze me how many 11-16 year olds didn't know what a right angle was, or how many steps you had to count to get to 6. I tell you, nothing spurred me to improve my understanding of trigonometry like Knightmare.
Hosting this mighty quest was the often cryptic and smotheringly smug Dungeon Master, one Treguard of Dunshelm; a delightfully over the top trope of a name and played fantastically by Hugo Myatt (think Brian Blessed with less yelling). His job was to spur on the Dungeoneer’s allies who watched on from his olde-bedecked throne room. This bearded, epically voiced Dungeon Master was the lynchpin that held the show together. Without the grandiose condescension of his scorn I don't know if I'd ever have held back from attacking the television while yelling at the various incompetences of poor, hapless victims of the giant-helmet.
I sometimes wonder, looking back, if the name of the show was inspired by the long suffering parents of avid viewers. How many mothers must have come home to find a son or daughter in the living room, a cardboard box on their head, while a sibling guides them around a table in ever more dramatic demands of where to step? That's what was so amazing about Knightmare; you could put a box on your head, walk into a wall, and it was fun!
Of course it would be ridiculous to face a dungeon of blocky computer generated monsters with only a giant helmet. You definitely had to have a knapsack too (a knapsack is like a backpack, except a lot more medievalish). It was with such a mighty vessel that you could collect the myriad of food items that stretch the length of the land, improving your life force – the vital element to survive on the show. Yes that's right, this show that illuminated the wonder of my childhood was basically a quest for a kid with a cumbersome helmet to find some vittles. In truth there was a variety of tantalisingly mysterious items that the Dungeoneer was supposed to find to complete their mission. Knightmare was unashamed of how difficult this task was however, providing no more than one or two winners each series over the entirety of its 8 series run. Of course Knightmare had the responsibility of preparing children of all ages for the possibility of becoming a Dungeoneer in a dangerous blue world, something not to be taken lightly. Most challenging were those poor fools who took part in the final episode of each season. Racing against time (by time I mean the slowly decaying computer image of an adventurer's head that represented their life force) while the very dungeon itself collapsed around them. You might as well have just taken the helmet off and thrown it at the Dungeon Master for the likelihood of you winning on that particular day.
There were others dangers lurking in the strange world of the dungeon; not least the hammy acting of some of the ensemble cast. In their defence they had to be truly exceptional to act out a scene in a giant box of blue, various members of the production team assuring them that yes, they are in fact standing on the back of a dragon or that a mysterious Storm Geist is in fact hovering above them ready to chomp them with its large, pixelated jaws. Above it all were the goblins though. Beware the sound of a roaring horn, for there be goblins coming. How we laughed at those poor foolish questers who blew the goblin horn themselves. Of course the rooms weren't totally bare. Each different section provided some strange and essential plot item; a bag of bones here, a strange cup, a key that just might help out in the next room in opening a giant electronic door that otherwise bars your way. Our brave heroes even had magic on their side, able to recite each letter of basic magic spells that would aid them in their quest. Later series went so far as providing a 'magic wand'! It all seemed so simple. But almost everyone died. Kids fell from bridges, drowned in swamps, got sawn in two or simply expired from not finding enough food. All so often this happened to the sound of the Dungeon Master's sneering "Oooh nasty." It frequently was. No show ever prepared children for failure like Knightmare.
With its swelling popularity the latter seasons saw changes to keep the series fresh. The show made its way further into the real world; various scenes being shot in location around the ancient castles and creepy forests of the UK. The 'Eye-Shield' was introduced, a shield with a forward looking 'eye' that carried sections of pre-recorded footage to "show" where the Dungeoneer was heading. But for me it was always those bare blue rooms with a solitary table and an over acting elf, stuffed full of blocky computer images, that made me love it. Well that and the music. I still find myself looking around for a knapsack and a giant helmet in which to battle evil when I hear that rousing opening score.
Like all good things it had to come to an end. Eight seasons completed and the quest was done. Sadly the show itself headed towards the scrap heap. The dungeon crumbled for the final time. Audiences changed and despite its popularity the show's own life force slowly trickled away. And even after all this time, I can't help but think, if only the producers had picked up more food.
Review: Josh Turner 2014
for Television Heaven