A month or so ago the original English version of University Challenge saw something approximating controversy spring up, when a contestant named Shah Kamil had the temerity to upset the show's unofficial dress code.

Instead of a turtleneck, fairisle or cableknit, this young man sat down on the bench of the King's College, Cambridge team wearing a sleeveless pleather vest. Social media erupted at this brazen display of non-conformity, for once, mostly in a chorus of approval. That such a bastion of tradition had been stormed by a fashion warrior seemed to delight those who were still watching this quaint televisual fossil.

Over the weekend the second season of the New Zealand version's revival returned, with no such concessions to changing times or tastes. Indeed, every contestant gave off the strong appearance of having been created by a university cliche generator or perhaps transported via cryogenic freezing from 1983.

There was Alexander, the captain of Canterbury. His hair lank, his teeth well-spaced, his glasses steel-framed. He didn't know a lot, but lit up with an infectious pleasure when he did. Next to him, a Swedish import, a babe-nerd hybrid named MacLeod-Hungar, well-versed in arts and science, to whom the answers came easy. Was he brilliant, or are New Zealanders dumb dumbs?


We might well be, but Rose Swears, as well as having a fine sentence for a name, was the sharpest knife in the University of Waikato's top drawer. She might have been the only knife in a drawer full of spoons, in fact, as the rest of the dairy farmers sat befuddled while she carried them through the competition.

Alongside her sat a trio of men who mustered maybe two answers between them all night, practising an expression of serious, searching mental engagement while little of any consequence was happening behind the eyes. Their captain, Oldfield, fixed his companion, Kay in the eye, and asked "what have you got?"

There was a lengthy pause while Kay considered the question, and came up with his only response of the night. "Nothing," he said, sadly.

The competition rewards winners with extra bonus questions, a strange kink akin to giving a try-scorer three conversion attempts. There were pictures of fruit and names of American cities - most questions were unchanged by the internet, or even the motorcar.

There was poetry from the 19th century ("Oscar Wilde!") and plays from the 17th ("Hamlet!"). So in addition to the format and personal style of the contestants, only a rogue reference to Ugly Betty, of all the modern world's creations, betrayed that this was not simply a reissued episode from the Lange era.

Therein lies its charm. University Challenge is not The Block, My Kitchen Rules or The Bachelor. It is not even the deeply 70s Dancing with the Stars. It's simply a quiz show, with a new cast of oddball brainiacs each week, thrust under hot lights with their most mildewy general knowledge challenged in a sporting setting.

Despite its age, it is not broken, and does not need fixing. Host Tom Conroy might be the most old-fashioned thing about the setup - he betrays little humour or affection for the participants. No joking, no allowing slipups to slide. If he'd been in charge of Scotland versus Australia Cheika's mob would be on a plane. His rigour is commanding, his authority absolute.

But while his approach is anti-modern - contemporary hosts cuddle and cajole their charges - it is the source of all the show's gravitas and meaning. None of this matters - very little of the strange things we humans busy ourselves with does - yet Conroy makes it seem as important as your final exams.

Thus the show, which now airs in a plumb Saturday night slot on Prime, remains deeply attractive, even without a pleather vest.