Master Blasters

Master Blasters, a new geeked-out reality show from the SciFi Channel, may be final evidence that our planet has too much time on its hands. The science nerd’s answer to American Chopper and Monster Garage, Master Blasters pits teams of amateur rocket enthusiasts against one another in a series of goofy competitions to launch things that ought not be launched. Although technically amateurs, the contestants here are a few dozen steps past model rocket kits. These guys use some serious missiles, and like nothing better than to strap them to something rather unlikely, push the button, and see what happens. Big bangs. Lots of fire and smoke. Good times.

The premiere episode had two five-member teams squaring off in a Wizard of Oz-themed challenge, to launch Dorothy’s home (a 5′ x 5′ wooden playhouse) skyward, spin it three times, and return it by parachute safely to the ground. Because the stresses of launch will likely rip the wood apart, structural reinforcements will need to be made. Also, this will be a “manned” flight — Dorothy (an appropriately costumed mannequin) is inside and must not be harmed, and the Wicked Witch on the roof (another mannequin) must be jettisoned mid-flight.

If this seems like your idea of fun, then you probably engaged in similar demented activities yourself as a child. I know I did. I remember many a happy summer day with my best friend Mark, experimenting with bottle rockets and Star Wars action figures, and generally perverting the scientific method. The “master blasters” are the kind of people Mark and I might have become had we been more serious-minded. It’s a good demographic match for the SciFi Channel, as we fanboys have a healthy appreciation for the pyrotechnical aspects of science.

This type of show depends on the personalities involved. American Chopper pioneered the genre, and owes its broad appeal to the bickering familial dynamics of its whacked-out father-and-sons team. Master Blasters follows the template very closely. The home team (the Master Blasters) features a father and son: Dan (50-something, goatee, grey hair) and Terry (20-something, goatee, long hair), along with a rotating crew of fellow rocket enthusiasts. Dan and Terry appear on every episode, but the other team members switch out depending on that week’s particular challenge.

The requisite A-Team-style construction montages are regularly juxtaposed with brief intrasquad dramas. In one sequence, the sole female member of this week’s home team protests that she’s being excluded from the boy’s club. (Responds another crew member: “Well, I was surprised when I learned there was a fluff on the team.”) But the main relationship, between Dan and Terry, is surprisingly affectionate and sweet for a reality show. Dad and lad bond over super-sized model rockets.

Another, competing squad of five provides its own set of dysfunctional relations. Each team must come up with its own design solution to the weekly problem at hand, and the camera cross-cuts between the teams over four days of construction. In the premiere, the visiting Roc-oholics (including a husband-and-wife pair) prove much more, well, combustible. (“You wanna do the fucking welding? Then you do the fucking welding!”)

The key to engaging pop science TV is the right blend of hardware and human interest. Here, the science is too dumbed down, and the rocketeers are nowhere near as interesting as the rockets. Too many segments focus on painfully artificial scenes where the competing teams dis each other in an effort to manufacture some conflict. Master Blasters needs to kill the cheesy back-lit tableaus of skinny brainiacs trying to look tough with sunglasses and smoke machines. Instead, the series needs more of the interstitial 3D motion graphics that diagram the rockets and explain the physics behind the design. Done properly — detailed but not too dense — that sort of instructional material can be genuinely engaging. You don’t have to be an engineer to get off on how stuff works.

And, of course, more scenes of the rockets themselves — launching, misfiring, blowing up, whatever. Those are the money shots for a show like this. Remember the mini-trend of fighting robot shows a few years back? Comedy Central’s BattleBots did it best by keeping the visual focus on the fightin’ robot action, providing clear and concise segments on the science involved, and overlaying lots of winking commentary and sarcasm.

Exploding rockets is good, clean, American fun, but it’s a fundamentally goofy thing to do with your spare time. When making primetime entertainment out of it, a little ironic distance goes a long way. Launching houses, rocket-powered lawn darts, and a sports car through a football field goal: c’mon, man! That shit sells itself!