Imagine a show that’s like Legends of the Hidden Temple without the urgency; hosted by Riff Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show dressed and behaving as if he were a character in Clue; and concludes the exact same way as Grab That Dough, the best game show to only air brief episode.
That is The Crystal Maze—or my best attempt at describing it, at least. This Channel 4 series, which aired four seasons from 1990 to 1995, is weird yet watchable, and it’s easy to see why it was popular. The person who runs the UK game show web site Bother’s Bar mentioned it in a comment on my review of Race to Escape, pointing out that “it might blow your mind (as it was sort of doing this 25 years ago),” and they were right. It absolutely seems like a show from the early 1990s, but elements of it seem way ahead of their time.
I wasn’t actually sure if I liked it but I also kept watching, mesmerized. It is so weird! Yet it’s also comfortingly familiar, and quick enough that there’s no time to get bored.
There is elaborate set design but no music, unless you count the host sometimes playing the harmonica as a contestant attempts a timed game. The games are simple, but also challenging; they’re not unlike Big Brother challenges in their simplicity. Those who fail at the challenges still get to share in the prize. The finale is anticlimactic. There is no actual maze. Yet, it all comes together in one amazing package.
The Crystal Maze is weirdly watchable
Host Richard O’Brien, who played Riff Raff in Rocky Horror and also wrote it, races the contestants between themed zones on a massive soundstage set that’s actually four different areas, each of which has a bunch of individual game rooms. Sometimes he explains the games; sometimes he doesn’t.
He’s really the star, at once the contestants’ friend and also Big Brother. His behavior is often random, and sometimes seems to connect to an overarching narrative about these zones and games, though it’s not one I was able to discern. He’s just having a lot of fun—more fun than the contestants, even.
The Crystal Maze is mostly about the games, which are played by a single contestant and last three minutes or less. Some are puzzles; others are physical challenges. The player can bail from a task before time runs out, though some rooms will lock them inside if they screw up too many times. The other contestants can look on, in a way befitting that zone (in the Futuristic area, it’s via monitors; in the Aztec area, it’s via holes in the walls). They can also help, which means there’s camaraderie, but on the episodes I watched it was very subdued and almost overly polite. I couldn’t tell if they were having fun or were ambivalent about their presence in this bizarre set.
The show is coming back, sort of, as “a live immersive experience” in London that was funded on Indiegogo. That makes a lot of sense, especially with the escape room craze, but I’m still amazed it hasn’t been rebooted in the UK or imported to the US.
With the right host–and I can’t emphasize enough how important the host is–and updates, it could be a perfect network game show. But for now, I’ll dip in to some of the episodes archived online whenever I need a dose of whatever this is.