‘Outcasts’: A Review

The BBC sci-fi series ‘Outcasts’ has come to a cliffhanging climax (or beg for second series, depending on your view point). As the suspicious transporter ship blasted over Fort Haven, and the screen inevitably faded to black, I was reminded of two other such televisual pleas for a ‘second series’. The former – a compliment – was agent Cooper smashing his head off a mirror before viciously rasping “how’s Annie?” in Twin Peaks[1], the latter – not a compliment – was Alan Partridge thrusting a cheese into the head of the BBC’s face, bellowing “smell my cheese, you mother!”.

Whether Outcasts will get a second series or not is unclear; reception has been lukewarm. However, I for one would not only like to see another series, but would love to see the BBC stick its neck out and commission a much longer run of episodes per series.

HBO has really set a precedent for this sort of ‘intelligent programming’ (emphasis on the inverted commas here); ‘The Sopranos’, and particularly ‘The Wire’, have both been extolled for the way in which they refuse to patronise the audience, the way they allow plot lines to unfurl naturally, like a novel[2]. They do so, of course, because of a solid ensemble cast, some inherently believable acting, and a commitment to a storyline not jeopardised by the carrot of a second series needing to prolong the plot arc. But they also do so because they are given 13 episodes – nearly twice as many as Outcasts – to establish themselves. In a show such as Outcasts which definitely attempted to position itself in this mould of shows that drip information subtly, rather than spoon feeding it, to the audience, another six hours would have really helped flesh out the characters, would have allowed more time to tease out some of the moral concerns, made the world a little more robust and encouraged the suspension of disbelief a little more. It would have also given more meaning to the human relationship stories which played out on this alien planet. These aspects in particular came across a little like ‘Eastenders in Space’, but they needn’t have. I am by no means a post-humanist in my appreciation of sci-fi. There is a place for love, jealousy, emotion in sci-fi, certainly. But, as with all drama, you need to ensure that the audience has invested something in the characters first.

This was perhaps the main problem I had with the show; it always felt rushed. Though each episode was resplendent in its ‘real hour long’ format (rather than American ‘hour long’ shows which often clock in at 45 mins of action), they still felt hurried; characters running from one crisis scene to another – shoot-out to emotive, tear-soaked speeches in a matter of moments. This was particularly hard to buy into with the characters of Stella Eisen – the emotionally stunted head of security. It was clear from the first moment the character was shown the template she was to be cast in; emotionless, almost autistic, brilliant scientist, terrible mother etc (not particularly original) who would eventually ‘break down’ or show her ‘human side’. However, Stella spent the vast majority of the series sitting down, staring into the middle distance, eyes misty with tears; of joy, or lament, of fear: you name it, this ostensibly hard-shelled scientist didn’t half like a blub! Given a little more screen time, however – a little bit of a rest-bite between sobbing – these moments would have been all the more profound.

The same could be said of almost all the characters, particularly ‘dial-a-baddie’ Julius Berger; a sinister cult leader-esque new arrival to the planet who has designes on the seat of power, and machinates to drive a wedge between almost everyone in this burgeoning settlement through duplicity, gossip, fear, and arrogant assumptions of superiority. Actually, he was pretty effective in being loathsome and sinister, but again, the realisation of this was too quickly forced upon the audience. A slightly longer reveal would have made the final confrontation that bit more meaningful.

Having said that, I though the main cast were actually pretty strong. As with most British dramas, there was a fair amount of “oh, it’s him/her from that other programme”. There was ‘her from cold feet’, ‘him from Ugly Betty’… and Asher D off of So Solid Crew…. really.

So, was the programme itself any good? Well, I have such a soft spot for sci-fi that I sometimes find it hard to tell. And this programme certainly knew its forebears, making the task of discerning quality that bit more difficult. Other reviews I have read have claimed the programme was attempting to pander to a non sci-fi audience; true enough I guess for a major BBC drama series (though, like I said, I quite like the soppy romance bits in sci-fi). But I actually thought there were a number of prominent sci-fi references; enough to keep me happy!

There was a hint of the classics: a dash of Forbidden Planet in the poisoned utopia, disconnected authority figure, and invisible alien miscreants (possibly of our own making?) motifs. There was more than a nod to Invasion of the Body Snatchers in the ‘my mother is not my mother’ episode (featuring ‘her off of Primeval[3]’). There was a wink to P.D. James’ book ‘Children of Men’ (and not particularly to the film; the two are significantly different) in the near-total drop in birth rate. Maybe a little bit of Blade Runner in the clone humans (and their exclusion from ‘human society’). Certainly a reference to Asimov (how could one steer clear of him?) in the motif of humans stranded on an alien planet; Earth but a distant memory.

But Outcasts owes as much to contemporary sci-fi as it does to these classics. There was more than a passing resemblance between the ship designs in Serenity, and the ‘documentary style’ CGI effects, replete with the crushing silence of space (“no sound would be heard in a vacuum”). Also the characters – particularly the joyless, burdened President Tate and ‘cheeky genius scamp’ (i.e. prick) Tipper Malone – could have found their way onto the deck of Serenity[4] without standing out too much (the same is true of Cas and Fleur – the will-they-won’t-they police duo).

Let’s address the elephant in the room. There is a sci-fi series to which Outcasts pays its most ubiquitous homage: Battlestar Galactica.

Now, as far as sci-fi television goes, Galactica has sort of become the gold standard. I don’t know why particularly. Yes, it’s very good, but no more original, no more ground breaking than many others of its ilk (particularly ‘Serentiy’). BSG peppers the world of the Outcasts so heavily, it’s untrue. The beleaguered last vestiges of humanity (even the numbers – circa 50,000) refugees from irrevocably destroyed homeworld(s), under attack from a species that, though not human, can take the form of humans. The clones also share traits with the Cylons. Created by humans, they rebelled, they evolved, now some don’t even know they’re not human. I know it’s not a trope unique to BSG, but it’s pretty damn close. Outcasts even has Jamie Bamber in. It has Apollo in it for fuck’s sake. He might be doing a mockney accent (actually less convincing than his American in BSG, though he is from London), he might have trendy designer stubble and be kidnapping his tiger-obsessed (and totally shit acting) kid, but he’s still Apollo. He may have died in episode one, but in only served to highlight the dues Outcasts owes.

But it was good. It was more than that. It had a lot going on; a back story of what happened to Earth, the religion/ science debate, issues around what constitutes humanity, human agency, environmentalism, an all-too-brief stab at consumerism (not surprising in the current economic climate), there’s issues around who gets to survive (and how) some apocalypse, hidden pasts and whether anyone can ever have a ‘fresh start’. There’s even a machine that can read your thought and project them into images.

But again, all these themes – all staples of the genre, all well conceived within this world – were condensed and thus left unexplored in full.

Whether this show will get a second series or not is a moot point. It has really only had half a season, and deserved more.

[1] Alright, I know this was a plea for a third series (or maybe just a deliberate loose end in protest at the way the studio had forced the premature wrapping up of the programme’s central story; who killed Laura Palmer.)

[2] I for one, though I loved the Wire, do not really accept that ‘it’s like a book for television’ argument. I just think it’s a well made television show; the dichotomy between good story telling is in books/ bad story telling is in television is proved false by such shows if anything.

[3] I have to recount another eavesdropped conversation from my days as a runner here. I was teasmaid for the post production of the first series of Primeval. One day, towards the end of the post, I heard an exec. Say to the director:

“I’m just not sure about the name Primeval, I just don’t think the audience will know what Primeval means”

Director: “well, you know, Jurassic Park had the word ‘Jurassic’ in,  and people understood that”

Exec.: “Yeah, but that had the buzz word ‘park’ in. People would’ve gone and seen that film just because of the buzz word”

Director: [after a baffled pause] “well why not call this programme ‘Primeval Park?!’”

Exec.: [enthused]“yeah… that has a ring to it you know!”

[4] I heard once that Joss Whedon had wanted the captain of Serenity to me much more demure and joyless, but was forced into concessions by the network. I suspect Tate is a lot more like Mal would have been (that is not necessarily a loss for Serenity, nor a gain for Outcasts).

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