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February 5th, 2004


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11:22 pm - Crisis Command: Could You Run The Country?
Crisis Command: Could You Run The Country? on BBC 2 on Tuesday night was one of the most interesting TV programmes there has been for quite some time.

Three contestants, all successful in their fields, sit about a triangular table. They all pretend to be (generic) cabinet ministers in government. Over the space of about 90 minutes, edited down to about 50 minutes TV time, they are posed with a series of crisis-management situations and decisions of the type which might be escalated to ministerial level. They have three experts to offer opinions, but in each case, they must respond to the developing crisis in one of two-to-four offered ways. They are told the results of their actions, and how the decisions they took affect whatever decisions they have to take in the future. There is no victory or defeat condition; once all the situations have been dealt with, for better or for worse, there is a summary of the effects of their decisions. Er, that's it.

Yesterday's scenario concerned a mass terrorist attack on London. There were bombs placed among the underground network and a major train station, an attack on the electricity network and an airliner which refused to take orders from Air Traffic Control. As the team refused to shoot the rogue airliner down before it entered London airspace, this triggered an uninterruptible cut-scene in which the pilot of the rogue airliner flew it into the Houses of Parliament, 9/11 style. Partly as a result of the ensuing explosion, the London underground tunnel network underneath the Thames became so weak that the tunnel collapsed and the river started to run throughout the Underground network. The team had started to close the flood doors, but, alas, not quite in time. The estimated damage to the British economy of the decisions was £52,000,000,000, which is a good pinball score. (I had the figure pegged myself at about £75 billion, including perhaps 5,000 to 25,000 lives lost.)

The tone of the show was quite straightforward, with acknowledgement that there were no great answers to pick under the situation and everything had its downside - yet, less emphasis on the downsides of all the decisions than there might have been. They could have taken the show much further than they did; having to deal with a hostile media to defend their decisions, having to deal with lost loved ones when the Houses of Parliament explode (though many would have been evacuated in time as a result of their prior actions), having to deal with deteriorating physical conditions and information quality as the situation worsens. Despite the use of real newscasters and presentation graphics, from across the media, the tone was reasonably light without ever getting smiley, humorous or trivial. It was a remarkable balance to find and the production did a good job.

A very interesting question raised, though not satisfactorily answered, is whether this was a game show or not - or, at least, to what extent this was a game show. The BBC argue that it has no prizes, so is not a game show, but this is fatuous. They refer to the simulation as a game; indeed, I would argue that this was as close as you will get in practice to a role-playing game on television, for the contestants were overtly role-playing ministers - just that this isn't a return to swords-and-sorcery roleplaying, à la Knightmare. However, I would argue that a game needs a result in order to be a game. At one level, the consequences of the actions form a result. At another level, for each of the decisions, there was assigned to be one "correct" (least worst!) answer with the others being incorrect; accordingly, at the end of the show, we could conclude "2 correct decisions, 5 incorrect decisions", which has a clear notion of a score.

It's important to note that this was a pilot for a possible series; many an interesting concept has failed to make it past the pilot stage. The first thing to note is that game show pilots, even pilots for broadcast, are often rrrrrrrrigged for the most interesting result. Imagine, in yesterday's scenario, that the team had shot down the rogue 767 at the first opportunity they were given; this would turn out to have been the "right" decision, for some values of "right", but arguably taken for the "wrong" reasons. More to the point, it might have led to the circumvention of later questions and dead air. I'm not sure it's possible for the show to work with all reasonable contestant action choices unless (a) the contestants do not have as free a choice as they appear to be presented with, (b) the scenario is written extremely flexibly or (c) the production team are very good at improvisation and prepare huge swathes of material, much of which will never be used.

Another piece of strained cause-and-effect was the "close the flood doors under the Thames?" decision at the end; the team made the right decision, but took twenty minutes to do so and so were deemed to have done so too late. If they had taken only fifteen minutes, would they really have done so in time? If they had only taken two minutes, might they have done that in time? We cannot know the game is fair here unless there is a heavy-handed and explicit declaration of transparency ("what the team doesn't know is that the tunnel will collapse in six and a half minutes time, so they've got to act quickly!") which would be jarring in its degree of game-like abstraction. Compare with the reasons fantasy role-playing game combat would never work for the mass market in a game show and the level to which the TV war games we have had kept the mechanics under the bonnet.

There are very many ways in which this could be turned into a game show. One that I'd like to see would be to give two independent teams the exact same crisis and the exact same choices, or at least the same decision tree to take decision paths through, then let the public judge whether team A (who only caused 750 casualties, but did manage to alienate the rest of the UN Security Council) performed better than team B (who made 250 square miles of near-coastal Kent exceed safe limits of radioactivity for at least the next 50 years). Now that would be reality television, as well as an interesting way to judge the will of the people as to which fate is worse, macro-Zobmondo!! fashion. Then you could have winning teams continue to meet each other in a single-elimination competition, with increasing levels of calamity as the final approaches. The overall winners would get to come back at the end of the series for the chance to save the world, simply because that was a line far too good to only ever be used in X-Fire.

There are lots of other ways in which the show could develop. They could do it as an overt 24-style "events happen in real time" show, live or as live with the fog of war causing additional possible technical difficulties. This would force the teams to have to potentially deal with many situations at the same time, which is good for games, but very bad for mass market game shows. (I've seen good criticism of the realism of the show, but I don't think greater realism than - say - 24 is possible or even desirable.) Alternatively, they could stretch the time scale out so that it all needn't be one single bad short time period; this would be a fascinating way to see how two competing teams might run the British economy over four years as a competition-ending grand final. It would also be very interesting to see the teams have to cope with crisis management of good news, somehow. I don't think there is the source material for 130 radically different interesting shows using the same format and it might be that even 13 good shows is pushing things too far.

Nevertheless, bags and bags of potential. The show has got a tremendously original feel to it, even though it is really just a natural progression from the likes of Game of War and Time Commanders, playing the Home Office rather than the Foreign Office. The tone of the show could have been far worse in many different ways; by playing it straight down the middle without even a "Don't have nightmares!" to acknowledge the plausible fiction of the scenario then they have got away with it. To me, checking through my old daweaver's weeks, this is more interesting than any new game show that came out in 2003 (it definitely beats Without Prejudice?, Grand Slam, Raven and Starfinder) and I have a strong suspicion that it stands up very well against the class of 2002 as well. Might we need to look back as far as X-Fire or The Mole for our last nine-out-of-ten show before this one?

Lastly, it's an interesting reflection - though of what I am not quite sure - that I am happy to watch fictional scenarios involving the purported loss of hundreds or thousands of lives on this show, whereas the even slightly visual minor tortures of I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here!* press my "don't want to watch" button - and, in conjunction with other of my viewing habits, I know that it's the contestants' arbitrary physical discomforts which turn me off. Perhaps this means that I'm good at separating fiction and reality in my mind, perhaps this means that I'm especially poor with pushing the boundaries of consensuality for entertainment, perhaps this means that I'm just cynical and innured to the point of callous carelessness when it comes to real-world calamities, perhaps it just means that I'm not thinking hard enough about just how awful terrorist consequences really are. Who's to say?



*daweaver points to a fantastic article in The Guardian about IACGMooH! by Germaine Greer here; as a legitimate Australian rainforest owner, she has a fascinating point of view on the show that you aren't going to get elsewhere. I salute you, Germaine; you're too good for 'em.
Current Mood: impressedimpressed

(26 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:applez
Date:February 5th, 2004 04:25 pm (UTC)

Interesting...

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And oddly enough, I was thinking of a reality TV concept very close to this (and your commented version) in an answer to a friend's Q&A meme that is friend-locked on my LJ. :-)

Sounds to me, though, that there is insufficient complexity-chaos in these scenarios - and I mean more than 'fog of war.' Take your shoot-the-plane-or-not example:

I think there should be some randomization so one possible outcome is that if the plane isn't shot down, the plane is found to have proceeded to Heathrow and circled the airport several times (apparently unaware of its radio failure, which lead to the null-response to ATC directions).

AND the political repercussion for not having shot down what turned out to be a perfectly innocent aircraft trapped in an unforeseen situation. (Ridiculous, but true)

---

Incidentally, has anyone commented that a show like this might be a risk to national security? To be entirely frank, if the US public were able to stomach its own inherent ghoulishness, and avoid the wave of lawsuits from offended 9/11 families - such a show would probably be banned nowadays as giving the real terrorists ideas. :-)
[User Picture]
From:folk
Date:February 8th, 2004 02:52 am (UTC)

Re: Interesting...

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apparently unaware of its radio failure

Frankly, I find it hard to believe that any aircraft, let alone an intercontinental airliner of a type used in previous Al Qaeda attacks, would be unaware of its radio failure. Surely it would be intercepted by the RAF prior to entering British airspace, even if the radio failure were limited solely to British ATC, letting any legitimate pilot know that something was FUBAR.

Incidentally, has anyone commented that a show like this might be a risk to national security?

I would wet myself laughing if they had. Honestly, Al Qaeda don't need the BBC's help in planning.
[User Picture]
From:applez
Date:February 8th, 2004 08:28 am (UTC)

Re: Interesting...

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Frankly, I find it hard to believe that any aircraft, let alone an intercontinental airliner of a type used in previous Al Qaeda attacks, would be unaware of its radio failure.

Two factual corrections:

1. The 4 identified aircraft (including the one that crashed) were not all of an 'intercontinental' long-distance type. The use and fuel load of at least one of them was designed for 'domestic' service.

2. Subsequent to the attacks of 11 September 01, there was a 'new' civilian airline interception protocol developed and put to use in the US, France, and other countries. I remember at least 2 separate events, including one in France, wherein a fighter was scrambled to intercept a civilian plane suffering from radio failure.

Communications were subsequently restored (either in-flight; or after forced-landing). Apparently the pilots were unaware that their radio had failed ... mind you, there are multiple parts of a plane's radio communications that can fail and be missed within the complicated apparatus of a cockpit - just a few in mind:

  • Reception works, but transmission fails


  • Voice radio works, but the automated beacon to maintain location and altitude identification fails


  • The pilots/the computers accidentally switch communications to the wrong frequency


  • All innocuous, and frankly, more probable problems to arise in a flight than terrorist/suicide hijackers.
    [User Picture]
    From:folk
    Date:February 8th, 2004 08:37 am (UTC)

    Re: Interesting...

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    1) Ah, I see -- a solitary reference to a 767 above had me thinking differently.

    2) Agreed, but the idea that any pilot, on being intercepted by a jet, would not immediately attempt to make all possible non-threatening gestures (including turning away from population centres, etc.), is contrary to common sense.
    [User Picture]
    From:applez
    Date:February 8th, 2004 08:43 am (UTC)

    Re: Interesting...

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    2. Generally agreed, but that depends greatly on how pilots of both aircraft interact...and with the expectation of military pilots that the 'boghey' is a 'bandit' - they can be really pumped to fire first.

    We'd like to think military discipline is uninterrupted, but I remember well the rogue Mirage pilot who kept buzzing and landing his plane on civilian strips without communications back in the late 80s in France.
    [User Picture]
    From:folk
    Date:February 8th, 2004 08:47 am (UTC)

    Re: Interesting...

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    Quite -- my entire argument rests on rational actors being present in the military, of course, despite notable exceptions (try Kenneth Waltz's stuff on nuclear politics for a number of them).
    [User Picture]
    From:applez
    Date:February 8th, 2004 08:47 am (UTC)

    Addendum

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    The flight path and plan are virtually sacrosanct in civilian flight ... sure there are emergency procedures including diverted landings, but if there is a communications failure and the civilian pilot isn't made to understand that the emergency procedures should now come into play...
    [User Picture]
    From:folk
    Date:February 8th, 2004 08:50 am (UTC)

    Re: Addendum

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    ...then a fighter-interceptor zipping across your nose really ought to make it clear to you.
    [User Picture]
    From:applez
    Date:February 8th, 2004 09:44 am (UTC)

    Re: Addendum

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    Not necessarily - the combat aircraft could be in violation, not the civilian craft. An earnest effort at some form of communication would be required.
    [User Picture]
    From:jiggery_pokery
    Date:February 8th, 2004 01:03 pm (UTC)

    Re: Interesting...

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    I remember at least 2 separate events, including one in France, wherein a fighter was scrambled to intercept a civilian plane suffering from radio failure.

    It was mentioned on the show itself that there was an incident whereby RAF jets were scrambled to find out what had happened to an Easyjet plane which did exactly what you mentioned, and that standard protocol post 9/11 was that jets which refused radio contact and which did not respond to the standard visual contact protocol really would be shot down.
    [User Picture]
    From:jiggery_pokery
    Date:February 8th, 2004 01:14 pm (UTC)

    Re: Interesting...

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    The issue of whether the show might be / have been a risk to national security is, nevertheless, raised as quesiton nine in page 2 of the FAQ.

    Personally, I'm with you on the "wet yourself laughing", but got to cover the bases.
    [User Picture]
    From:jiggery_pokery
    Date:February 8th, 2004 12:43 pm (UTC)

    Re: Interesting...

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    I think there should be some randomization

    Sorry, I disagree. You reach the territory of what gamers are prepared to accept in their television but what the mass market are not prepared to accept. You've got to spell out the cause-and-effect very clearly for the mass market, and uncertainty (at above the level of, say, some of the games on The Price Is Right) really throws things out of public understanding.
    [User Picture]
    From:bateleur
    Date:February 6th, 2004 02:17 am (UTC)
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    I agree with most of your comments (and it sounds like an interesting show), but I think they're probably making a good call in not having "right" and "wrong" decisions.

    After all, real political decisions are seldom like that. Had they shot down the unresponsive plane, would there have been a sequence showing how the government caused 200+ deaths as a result of faulty electrical systems on the plane ?
    [User Picture]
    From:bopeepsheep
    Date:February 6th, 2004 02:45 am (UTC)
    (Link)
    KAL 007 comes to mind...
    [User Picture]
    From:applez
    Date:February 6th, 2004 09:35 am (UTC)

    Don't forget the Iranian airliner either

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    The one the USN shot down, thinking it was a military craft on an attack approach.

    That was back in 1987-ish, wasn't it?
    [User Picture]
    From:folk
    Date:February 8th, 2004 02:56 am (UTC)

    Re: Don't forget the Iranian airliner either

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    Yes, the USS Vincennes incident. Hey, an A300 looks like an F-14. Right? Right?

    I'll point out again that the general opinion, both public and official, of the correct course of action in case of unidentified airliner-shaped objects has shifted completely since then.
    [User Picture]
    From:applez
    Date:February 8th, 2004 08:33 am (UTC)

    Re: Don't forget the Iranian airliner either

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    Was it suppose to be an Iranian F-14? I have trouble believing they would have thought that, since the establishment knew very well that the F-14s abandoned in Iran were incapable of military or all flight (I misremember which) - thanks to sabotauging contractors.

    [User Picture]
    From:folk
    Date:February 8th, 2004 08:36 am (UTC)

    Re: Don't forget the Iranian airliner either

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    I believe so, although that may well have been a different Iranian airline incident. I suspect it's Googlable, although Google is exceedingly slow from China, so I will leave that up to the interested.
    [User Picture]
    From:applez
    Date:February 8th, 2004 08:45 am (UTC)

    Re: Don't forget the Iranian airliner either

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    No, you are correct about the USS Vincennes ... one would have to cast about for any declassified records at this point I think.
    [User Picture]
    From:applez
    Date:February 6th, 2004 09:39 am (UTC)

    Incidentally

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    It is fascinating to find that with all our technological improvements, proper identification still depends mostly on visual confirmation by the pilot's eye.

    IFF is still too error-prone, as various US bombings of British armoured units in this latest war have shown.
    [User Picture]
    From:folk
    Date:February 8th, 2004 02:54 am (UTC)

    Re:

    (Link)
    The KAL007 incident took place in a completely different set of circumstances and opinion (public and governmental) about the correct response to unidentified airliners.
    [User Picture]
    From:applez
    Date:February 8th, 2004 08:40 am (UTC)

    I don't think this invalidates the example

    (Link)
    You have perceived risk - violent action - and political consequences. bateleur's point, iirc.

    The exact background with specific political repercussions does vary due to time, players, and circumstance - but that is little more than embellishment on the core structure of response(s).

    ---

    Moreover, it has never been deemed acceptable to shoot down a civilian aircraft by a military aircraft - by general society, most especially during times of erstwhile peace.

    The new description of willingness to commit such an act against a terrorist-controlled aircraft today makes nice copy, but there would be absolute hell to pay should any Western military exercise the right. They might have gotten by with minimal repercussions up to August 2003 or so - but now all credibility has been tarnished; and the pilot who commits that act will be every bit as supported and reviled as the crew of the Enola Gay.
    [User Picture]
    From:folk
    Date:February 8th, 2004 08:55 am (UTC)

    Re: I don't think this invalidates the example

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    I disagree -- I think that there has been a distinct paradigm shift in the nature of responses to aviation security, aviation threats and, in particular, aviation terrorism or perceived aviation terrorism.

    ---

    Again, I disagree. I fully believe that, on September 11th, 2001, shooting down aircraft would have been acceptable, because members of my family were listening to airliner radio frequencies where just that action was threatened. The US and UK military (to a lesser extent in other nations) likely would have a hell of a time with the consequences, up to and including full political regime change, but nonetheless, I believe the order would be given.
    [User Picture]
    From:jiggery_pokery
    Date:February 8th, 2004 04:53 pm (UTC)

    Re:

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    The show did declare decisions to be "correct" or "incorrect", but it's definitely a tricky one. After all, a decision (that wasn't taken) to have shot the airliner down at the first opportunity would have been incorrect and the decision not to do so later was also deemed incorrect. So I suppose there's, by implication, a result of "correct, but for the wrong reasons". Now that's politics.

    Playing a lose-lose game where there is no correct answer would be Just Not Cricket. Of course, game show pilots don't have to be cricket, but you'd hope for better from a real series.
    From:daweaver
    Date:February 6th, 2004 11:28 am (UTC)

    Good calls...

    (Link)
    I like the idea of some sort of judging panel, perhaps interactive, perhaps through a studio audience. Though with the current political climate, that's probably too much for the BBC, and is more of a C4 idea.

    In theatre, there are only eight plots, so an eight team knockout (seven shows) would be the logical series length. Currency crisis, foot and mouth, human plague, transport problems, weather, invasion, madman ruling friendly power. Though I very much like the idea of running (say) the economy - or the Interior Ministry - over a parliament with a plebiscite at the end.

    Very much like the idea of a Dungeonmaster / Richard O'Brien / Glenn Hugill figure going "What the team don't know is..." Or even worse, having an infiltrator on the panel... but I get ahead of myself.

    One minor Point of Pedantry that didn't strike me earlier in the week: if the plane was at 1000 feet over Docklands, how did it miss Canary Wharf tower?

    (I was going to raise another point about the Waterloo tube and plane crash being independent events, but a quick check of the map shows they're not.)

    With regards to its place in the game show canon (and this is as much a Game Show as BBC4's documentary next Monday about Tetris). My position on Without Prejudice is known, and I accept that it's unusual. I think you'll like Raven 2 far more than the original, and did you catch Hercules last month?
    [User Picture]
    From:jiggery_pokery
    Date:February 8th, 2004 04:57 pm (UTC)

    Re: Good calls...

    (Link)
    Or, perhaps, each team member could have a subtle hidden agenda, and would win an individual prize if they manage to get the team to make a decision to promote their hidden agenda. Mole-esque, but so is real politics.

    if the plane was at 1000 feet over Docklands, how did it miss Canary Wharf tower?

    It flew on its side through the Docklands, obviously, Top Gun style. Nyeeeahhhhnnnggg! You've got to protect your wing man! *beep*

    Didn't see Hercules, alas, though from what brigbother said-ah, I would-ah probably-ah have enjoyed-ah it. Ah.

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