Posted by: Paul | February 8, 2011

Outcasts

Kellerman: ‘I didn’t come expecting perfection.’
Tate: ‘What did you expect?’
Kellerman: ‘A society of human beings…with all that that entails.’

This little exchange between Richard Tate, president of the human race’s new refuge Carpathia, and Kellerman, captain of a transport ship on a fatal journey to the surface, neatly sums up the BBC’s new big-budget sci-fi drama Outcasts, which opened last night and continues tonight. It’s not perfect, but there’s hope, and there will be conflict along the way.

I’d been looking forward to this since I saw the first full trailer – and not just because it made brilliant use of Foals’ ‘Spanish Sahara’. It looked intense, intriguing, beautiful and very well produced. It’s all of those things and more. I love sci-fi and very much enjoyed the first episode despite it by necessity having to be heavy on the exposition. Hey, it’s not just a new planet but a whole new society, people! Give them a break!

It’s an unspecificed time in the future, when long distance space travel has become a last ditch attempt to save mankind, and humanity has fled the Earth. Throughout there are oblique references to a nuclear war, ostensibly between the US and China over Taiwan. Characters mention ‘The Second Taiwan Crisis’ and the bombing of both Chicago and Shanghai. The new home planet Carpathia (named after the ship which rescued survivors of the Titanic), has been colonised for ten years and cracks in the new utopia are already beginning to show. The planet is stable save for the occasional dust storm, but the same can’t be said for human society – they’ve already managed to bugger things up somewhat.

What is assumed to be the last transport from Earth is approaching Carpathia, heavily damaged from the journey. The small population of Forthaven on the surface haven’t received any new arrivals for 5 years; re-entry is dangerous and other transports in that time have perished. Things are tense, and to add to the problem Forthaven has already become segregated between the civilian and military/expeditionary populations. The expeditionaries are also planning to form a splinter group and move out of Forthaven altogether to start again by a beautiful lake in the mountains. Karina Hoban, wife of their leader Mitchell (Jamie Bamber, Battlestar Galactica’s Apollo lending sci-fi credibility) is tasked with spying on her husband and reporting to President Tate and head of Protection and Security Stella Isen (Hermione Norris). When her betrayal is discovered, Karina is attacked – we are to assume at this point by Mitchell, who absconds with son Linus – and dies from her injuries. Two PAS officers, the idealistic Fleur (Amy Manson) and Cass (Daniel Mays) are dispatched to recover Linus at all costs – children are precious to the people of Forthaven since most were claimed by a mysterious illness they called C-23 shortly after their arrival. Doubly precious, therefore, is the cargo of the ill-fated transport captained by Kellerman – many newborns arrived on the 5-year journey and are the key to the future survival of Forthaven.

There’s already a lot going on here, a large number of different elements in the mix. Outcasts manages to cleverly balance all of them, without falling too heavily into any particular camp – there’s a whodunnit (did Mitchell really kill Karina?), impending conflict (the imminent arrival on a survival shuttle of the mysterious Julius Berger, played by Ugly Betty’s Eric Mabius), a burgeoning love story between Fleur and Cass, suspense (did Stella’s daughter Lily make it onto the shuttle? Where is her husband Daniel?), and lots of human interest (why the segregation?). It also looks wonderful, that South African location shoot put to very good use, and the show manages to pull off the neat trick of being both expensively glossy and believably grimy. It looks, appropriately, rather like District 9 in it’s one-step-up-from-a-shanty-town settlement, location and one or two SA-accented cast members!

But perhaps the most interesting part for me is the allegory with modern society. It’s taken them precisely ten years to establish a benevolent police state – there are ‘Big Brother’ overtones everywhere. The ‘Deep Brain Visualisations’ they use to interrogate suspects, the all-pervading presence of PAS officers, the attitude that Forthaven must be held together at all costs. The biggest question though, comes from the title – for it’s not the inhabitants of Forthaven who are the ‘Outcasts’ – it seems to be another group who, for reasons unknown but connected to the C-23 infant deaths, have already been put out into the wilderness. Just what is going on on Carpathia?

At college, one of our lecturers once said that about any story you have to ask yourself two questions – ‘What’s it about?’, and ‘What’s it really about?’ If you can’t give compelling answers to both, then your idea is dead in the water. So far, Outcasts is coming up trumps on both counts – prepare to have Monday and Tuesday evenings hoovered up for the next four weeks.

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Responses

  1. I think a good question is “Who are the Outcasts of the title?”
    Are they the ACs, I think not.
    Maybe the Carpathian settlers are the outcasts and there is no war on Earth, much like the way we got rid of the Golgafrinchan Telephone sanitisers in Douglas Adam’s masterpiece “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”
    Any other ideas for who are the outcasts (maybe everyone ?) would be gratefully received.
    This series got good just as they moved it to TV no-man’s-land, what a shame.

    • Yes, it’s a sure-fire sign of the BBC abandoning all hope when they shift a high-profile show so visibly out of view. It’s like they’re saying ‘Yeah, OK, we know it’s not very good. But now we’re committed so let’s just get this over with, shall we?’ It’s a definite guarantee they won’t make any more, and you can bet that someone in commissioning got their arse kicked over this.

      All that is a shame, because as you say it’s getting better. I hope the story resolves itself as we sure as hell won’t get to see anything which might happen on the other side of any end of series cliffhanger. And the distinct lack of success exhibited by ‘Outcasts’ means unfortunately the Beeb will be disinclined to try anything like it again.

  2. Well, the show has made it to Australia, and yes, it’s a little slow
    in the beginning, but getting more interesting as the characters
    develop and you start empathizing with them. Is Berger somekind
    of Scientology freak? Will he take over from Tate? And there
    is the appearance of Pak. And finally we see the ocean.

    The town is rather drab and why has no effort been made to
    beautify it? Why no gardens? How do they eat? Why does
    everyone look under so much stress? Well, they’ve made
    migration from an apparantly dying earth look grim with everyone
    running around in a state of shock. In ten years they’ve only
    managed to brew one kind of alcoholic beverage.

    Don’t know what the audience figures are here, but to me it
    has little competition for quality in the Australian saturday night
    field at present. But being a fan of sci fi, I will be watching it
    to the end. No second season coming? Still reasonable entertainment.

    • I have to say I see Outcasts as a massive missed opportunity all round. Lots of money and promotion thrown at the show here, but the scripts ultimately weren’t up to it and Sci-Fi just isn’t suited to primetime on BBC1 – so they quickly stuck it in the graveyard slot when the numbers fell off after week 1. Lots of good ideas to start with I thought, but it veered off in a direction I wasn’t really expecting, which I thought just didn’t really work (no spoilers!) I don’t think it’s been recommissioned, no – I’d be very surprised if they gave it another chance.

      Thanks for reading! Do check out ‘The Killing’ (Danish version) if you haven’t seen it, highly recommended. ‘Angry Boys’ is also going down a storm over here.


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