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Posts Tagged ‘her off Spooks’

I’ve been trying to think of the last time the BBC (or anyone else in the UK) had a go at a proper, prime-time SF drama series, at least partly set on another planet. (You may already be saying Doctor Who, with which I would politely disagree – but this isn’t the time for another rehearsal of my Doctor-Who-is-really-fantasy argument.) The BBC’s dribbled a relatively large amount of SF out over the last couple of decades, but it’s all really been near-future or present-day stuff, resolutely Earthbound. I suspect the last proper ‘outer space future’ show the BBC made was Blake’s 7, a show utterly unlike anything made (or likely to be made) nowadays.

The cause of this racking-of-the-memory is the debut of Outcasts, supposedly a proper, prime-time SF drama series, set on another planet. The world in question is Carpathia (an odd name, but explained in the course of the first episode), colonised ten years ago by pioneers from an Earth which is in pretty bad shape by now. Contact with the home-world has been lost but the colony seems to be getting by, and the arrival of the last group of new colonists is due.

However, there is trouble afoot between different factions – primarily the President (Liam Cunningham) and his staff, who are trying to create a central authority for the colony, and the Expeditionaries, who are big Charlton Heston fans and don’t appreciate being told what to do. So worried is the President about the plans of head Expeditionary Mitchell (Jamie Bamber), who is a bit nuts, that he has retained Mitchell’s own wife (Jessica Haines) to spy on him, something which will have grave consequences for all involved…

‘You know, sir, I told you we should have brought more lightbulbs from Earth.’

On the strength of its first episode, Outcasts is the kind of SF that very rarely shows up on TV or in movies: there are no aliens, teleporters, psychic powers, cloned humans (so far…), time travel, or visits to other dimensions. There seems to be some sort of limited FTL and a plot-device machine that turns thought-waves into pictures (presumably bought second-hand from Quatermass’s research group circa 1968), but that’s about it. In other words, this is relatively hard SF, of a flavour I like to read and write myself.

And so I tried really hard to like Outcasts, honestly I did. As I say, I’ve just seen the first episode, which is very rarely an indicator of the way a show’s going to go (the first episodes of Doctor Who, Survivors, Blake’s 7 and Red Dwarf were all rather unrepresentative), so I remain hopeful. But this clunked along rather than soaring.

The production values were very nearly flawless, and – up to a point – the actors were doing good work. They were generally hamstrung, however, by a script which… well, look, there are various colony factions on Carpathia. Some people are PAS officers. Some belong to the Expeditionaries. But everyone appears to have signed up to that most dreaded of SF fraternities, the Expositionaries.

Wham! Here’s a scene where Mitchell, the Pres, and his security chief (her off of Spooks) are reunited after some time apart and begin by reminding each other of their names and what they do. Pow! Here’s another scene where the security chief’s job is made clear, when a flunkey (Daniel Mays) introduces a cloned piglet to her. Ker-pow! Here’s a battle of the sexes discussion between two of the characters: ‘It wasn’t women who designed, built and fired nuclear weapons!’ says she. ‘Yes, but it was both men and women who were turned into shadows on the pavement in the streets of Berlin and Shanghai!’ he elegantly ripostes.

Outcasts-making guys, I know it’s better to show the audience something than tell it. But having characters tell each other things they both already know, just for the audience’s benefit, isn’t showing. It’s telling making a very feeble pretence of being showing.

And the script does depart the planet Earth (and not in a good way) elsewhere, too – security chief Stella has been feeling a bit down and so pops in to see the President for a chat, as you would. She recounts a sorry evening, concluding with, ‘…and then I went to a bar and picked up some kid.’ The President hesitates before speaking, which rings true, then says ‘And how did that go?’, which does not.

But I suppose the main reason I’m so lukewarm about Outcasts so far is that the SF element comprises the setting of the story but doesn’t seem to intrude very much into the actual drama. If the colonists have ever had discussions and conflicts over the kind of society they want to build, they’ve been resolved by the time the series starts. Similarly regarding how they should exploit the new world they’re living on. This may change – the first episode makes it clear that everyone on Carpathia has Big Secrets and Issues just waiting to be explored – but at the moment the plot seems to revolve around the personal lives and politics of the colonists, with all the SF material off in the South African background where it looks nice but won’t upset anyone.

Such are the pitfalls of making SF for a prime-time audience, I suppose. Outcasts doesn’t scream ‘this could turn into something brilliant!’ the same way that, for example, the first episode of Babylon 5 did, but it looks good, the cast perform well, and it has some very effective moments – the climax revolves around one character asking another ‘Do you think human beings can live together in peace?’, and her response is a terrific piece of writing (sadly, spoilers…). I’m going to stick with this show in the hope that the Expositionaries can be banished and some proper SF ideas can come out of hiding and sneak into the actual scripts.

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