Have you been watching the BBC’s new science fiction drama Outcasts? What do you think so far?
After last week’s first two episodes, I was feeling an enormous meh toward the show, but was willing to give it a few more episodes to find itself. After last night’s third episode (the fourth airs tonight on BBC One at 9pm; there will be eight in all in this first series), I’m still hugely ambivalent: I saw more of what I wanted to see, but also more than a couple of things I emphatically would not have wanted to see, had anyone thought to ask me about them in advance.
The premise? It’s sometime in the latter 21st century, and a small group of settlers have escaped Earth’s troubles — which include, at a minimum, limited nuclear warfare that has taken out, at least, Chicago and Shanghai — and set up shop on a mostly lovely planet called Carpathia. They haven’t heard from Earth in a while, and though they were expecting more ships loaded with colonists, there’s been nothing for a while… until the first episode, when a transporter does finally arrive in orbit.
The drama revolves around these people trying to make a new life — a new civilization, even — for themselves. Or the show is obviously wanting the drama to revolve around that. So far, the drama has been so low-key as be nearly nonexistent. There’s a certain oomph missing from the show so far: and I don’t mean the usual sci-fi accompaniments of laser battles and monsters and such. The show does not have that, and that’s fine. But the characters, which include the colony’s president, Richard Tate (Liam Cunningham), and the security chief/scientist Stella Isen (Hermione Norris), simply aren’t vivid enough, and their problems aren’t drawn vibrantly enough. There should be at least a little sense of wonder — they’re on another planet, after all! — and that’s utterly lacking. Even the sense of danger the show has been trying to create — something to do with the weather and the odd gravitational influences of multiple moons — simply doesn’t feel quite dangerous enough… although last night’s “whiteout” sandstorm started edging in that direction.
I think the real problem was beautifully summed up by the legendary science fiction zine Ansible, which unearthed these thoughts about the show from its creators:
As Others Avoid Us. The BBC’s forthcoming Outcasts takes place on a far world colonized after Earth’s nuclear holocaust: ‘But don’t call it sci-fi, which is pretty much a banned word on set,’ warns the Daily Mail. Set designer James North of Doctor Who explains: ‘Sci-fi has its own dedicated TV channel, and the BBC doesn’t want to give the impression it’s putting out a sci-fi show on prime-time BBC1.’ Unthinkable! ‘This is futuristic drama with the focus on pioneering humans who, out of necessity, just happen to be living on a planet that isn’t Earth. There are sci-fi elements to the drama. But in terms of the sets and the dressing, we’ve tried to make it as Earthbound as possible. So no sonic screwdrivers.’ Admittedly the South African setting has ‘such spectacular and unusual scenery you could almost believe you were on an alien planet.’ But series creator Ben Richards nervously adds ‘… an alien planet without scary monsters. Little green men and fearsome creatures isn’t what Outcasts is about at all.’ (all Daily Mail, 29 January) [JB]
I think that’s the problem right there: no one is giving this the SFnal thought processes and creative impetus it deserves. No one is thinking enough outside the box. That might be best illustrated by one thing that really bugged me in last night’s episode. I like the notion that one mathematician, Tipper Malone (Michael Legge), is so traumatized and guilt-ridden over the fact that he was saved and got an escape to Carpathia — but his family didn’t — because of his genius for numbers that he has simply shut down and can’t do any work as a mathematician at all. I even like the fact that he has created his own new job on Carpathia as the colony’s deejay. But it rankled me to see that he was playing vinyl records at his little radio station. There’s simply no way in hell that the weight allowance a vinyl record album would take up — because, you know, it’s really really expensive, energy wise, to get stuff up into orbit — would be taken up by a vinyl record! All of humanity’s recorded music could probably fit onto one hard drive not much heavier than a couple of vinyl albums. Yeah, sure, maybe the colonists would all have been allowed some go-crazy weight allowance to bring items of sentimental value. But enough vinyl to run a radio station? Unlikely.
I’m still watching… for now. But I hope Outcasts figures out what it wants to say soon.