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Posts Tagged ‘Outcasts’

Space: 2011

For the past few weeks I have found the everyday progression of my life disturbed, as – with striking regularity – a burning question pierces to the very centre of my brain, one I have so far been wholly unable to come up with a satisfactory answer to. I can keep quiet about it no longer. The question is this: ‘Why the hell am I still bothering to watch Outcasts?!?’

Like me, many people seem to have found watching this show an unedifying experience. Unlike me, they appear to have chosen to act on this in a different fashion: not by going on about it in a blog, but by abandoning Outcasts and watching Glee or something else on one of the other channels. Outcasts launched in a prime-time slot with a blaze of publicity but by its closing stages had been banished to the late-on-Sunday-night graveyard : a clear sign of plummeting ratings.

I can’t say I’m really surprised by this. I suppose I stuck with this show partly because I’m stubborn and partly because I want prime-time SF to get rid of the toxic reputation it’s sort-of acquired in the UK. With hindsight, though, I’m not sure this justifies wasting my time watching a programme which was neither involving nor entertaining nor nearly as profound as it clearly aspired to be.

Nothing but drab shades and nothing interesting happening: the perfect photo to illustrate a review of Outcasts!

Listing all the flaws in Outcasts would take quite a long time, so let’s restrict ourselves to the key ones. When I reviewed the first episode, one of the things I was positive about was the fact it was fairly ‘hard’ SF: ‘no aliens, no psychic powers, no cloned humans’, I said. Well, the cloned humans turned up in episode two, while aliens with near-as-damn-it psychic powers were on the scene by the second half. What started off looking moderately gritty and political seemed to start to want to be Solaris, which was a bit of a wrench, tonally.

What did stay constant was the general mood of cerebral misery that seemed to permeate the planet Carpathia and all of its various inhabitants. For a series presenting itself as an exploration of ‘what it means to be human’, there was very little about the joy of living or the need to smile. I know that general contentment doesn’t make for great drama, but without even a few grace notes of genuine humour the series was a real drudge to get through. (I generally just stuck it on in the background while I was doing something else, as it simply didn’t seem to warrant my full attention.)

Apparently, Outcasts may well have been an attempt by the BBC to recapture some of the apparent magic of the supposedly brilliant reimagining of the world’s pre-eminent transplantation of Mormon theology into a space opera context, Battlestar Galactica (apparently). (My friend Crazy Cat-lady Janey (name changed to protect her identity, but probably not enough) assures me that the new BSG is the best SF TV show ever made, but, you know, she must come from a parallel continuum where Sydney Newman stayed in Canada, or something.) Whatever the merits of new BSG, I can’t believe Outcasts closely resembles it. However, with its combination of metaphysical obscurity and general po-faced gloom it does have a definite vibe of the first season of Space: 1999 about it. Given that the latter is a show referred to in some circles as ‘the dreaded you-know-what’, the entry for which in The Encyclopaedia of SF concludes ‘See also: Scientific inaccuracies’, this may not be music to the BBC’s ears.

But even during Space: 1999’s most wearisome interludes, you were still always perfectly aware of who the main characters were and what they were up to. Outcasts resembled more of an ensemble piece, or a soap, but one where most of the characters were slightly enigmatic and all of them were quite dull. Not the actors’ fault: you could almost see the effort Liam Cunningham was putting into giving some life to the thing. It was all in the scripts – or, rather, not.

I went to a series of lectures on creative writing recently and while I didn’t necessarily agree with everything I heard, the woman in charge made some astute points about the nature of writing this kind of story. Basically, you have to write to character – make up some interesting people, give them interesting problems, and watch them struggle along as they try to get what they want. If, as a result, you have a story which says something about the nature of being human or the problems people encounter when different political ideologies clash, that’s great. But if you start off writing about the nature of being human or the nature of political conflict, and back-engineer your characters to fit that, then you’re writing to idea, or theme, and the story just won’t have any traction or vitality to it.

This is what seems to have happened to Outcasts. The production was consistently lavish and the actors competent, and when the A-story of an episode was formulaic enough (troubled cop finds himself framed for a crime he didn’t commit, evil twin infiltrates community) the programme achieved a sort of grisly half-life, even though it was running solely on reflex impulses. But the rest of the time it just felt hollow and barren and soulless, toying with ideas but never really using them, and frequently very derivative indeed (the bad guy’s main characteristic was that he was religious – there’s a brave new idea).

Outcasts concluded with a big cliffhanger, as a giant starship from Earth arrived on the planet, carrying with it the bad guy’s masters, who had a mysterious agenda of their own. Meanwhile, the senior main characters had opened up a kind of communication with the alien intelligence native to the planet (referred to, for no reason I could figure out, as the host force), and the young female lead had discovered she was actually a synthetic human being and had left her old life behind to join others of her kind living in the wilderness of the planet. I will be very surprised if any of these storylines are ever resolved.

And yet that doesn’t bother me at all. Something went very wrong somewhere with this series. I have a horrible fear the BBC will say ‘this proves that SF can’t draw a mainstream audience’ and not even attempt anything similar for another ten or twenty years. All the failure of Outcasts proves is that bad drama can’t draw an audience. You don’t respond to that by not making any more drama. You just make better drama. So come on, Beeb. Don’t stop making SF. Just start making good SF.

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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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