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.