QI is the cockroach of the television world. Not because it is a pestilent interloper disseminating disease and effluvia throughout the world – at least not until the episode featuring Jeremy Clarkson. It’s because that it seems impervious to the world surrounding it; and that Stephen Fry and four of his witty acolytes could be confined to a bunker while a nuclear holocaust unfolds outside while they cheerily debate the merits of giving honey to a bee to keep it alive or savour the fantasy of sinking the entire French Navy.
Of course, nothing has changed since the last series. But for Fry’s marked weight loss – which awards him the mien of a kindly, wise librarian – and Rob Brydon’s thicker hair, they could have all been locked away since the end of the last series.
It is perhaps a small criticism of the four panellists in this opener – Brydon, David Mitchell, Dara OBriain and the resident Alan Davies – that they all play their allotted roles like actors returning to a soap they once dominated but were unable to translate their talents to more nuanced dramas.
Mitchell takes up the reins of the indignant noble, vituperating about the perils of reviving an ailing bee with more honey than it will produce in her lifetime, leading to the potential diminishing of the world’s honey supply – “It’s like showing a very tired mason a whole cathedral!”
Brydon, meanwhile, envelops himself in an even deeper disguise of a bombastic ignoramus who condescendingly mocks his fellow panellists only to have his pomposity pricked for comic effect.
And Davies plays the stupid child who initially tries to keep up with his more intellectual peers, until, chided warmly by the brilliant Fry, he gives up and devotes his time to making silly observations or cutting up the studio with a valuable antique saw – even if it was evident that such a renegade escapade had been planned in advance.
It was only Dara O’Briain who struggled slightly, and this was because of his similarity to Mitchell in that they both thrive through the unhinged, indignant rant against the ills of humanity. O’Briain’s disdain for a sign in Ireland that had a comma where an apostrophe should have been was kidnapped by Mitchell, who expanded the joke into sign writers who notice that clients have spelt ‘accommodation’ wrongly in their instructions but who will only correct it if the client has signed-up for their more expensive deluxe service. It really needed the laconic Rich Hall instead of either one of these.
But it doesn’t really matter in the long term. QI has the joyful capacity to endure long after we’re gone, even if it metamorphoses into something different. Five (almost always) men debating impotently about the indignities and idiocy of the world is something that will endure, and has endured, throughout human history, and has often been the foundation for governments and kingdoms. When its most fruitful situation has invariably been proved to be a darkened television studio.