Shit having gone suddenly sideways on Earth, a handful of humanity's best and brightest—all British folks, of course—have made a home away from home for themselves on Carpathia, a so-called Goldilocks planet named in honor of the ship which rescued a scant few survivors from the wreckage of the Titanic. It's a neat nod; one that Outcasts, the BBC's recently canned science fiction series, no sooner makes than moves to force down your throat.
So it begins.
As the folksy clowns who've made Top Gear such an international success story so often conclude of their proto-pioneering challenges, Outcasts is ambitious, but rubbish. Like the Millennium Dome and the war on terror—indeed, as with virtually every project of any real magnitude we Brits are moved to undertake, whether by hook or by crook—Outcasts is an unmitigated disaster on numerous levels. And when I say numerous, I mean in the sense that as a society we seem increasingly given to judging things a travesty or a triumph by way of numbers: statistics, percentages, shares, scores, and so on. An arbitrary and immeasurably reductive tendency Outcasts itself hews close to.
To wit, fifteen years ago, something like seventy thousand souls came to colonize the planet Carpathia, bearing dreams of a fresh start for humanity; a second chance as a species on a canvas as forbidding as it is beautiful. Upon arrival, communication with the powers that be on Earth was promptly lost. Not the types to let a minor administrative mix-up throw them off their stride, the determined folks of Forthaven have made a fair go of this brave new world. Nominally, they all answer to Liam Cunningham's softly spoken President Richard Tate, a philosophical sort who rarely seems capable of leading himself, far less the great spread of settlers whose very survival depends on his state of mind.
There has, thus, been unrest. Just a touch, you know; nothing out of the ordinary. Murders. Robberies. Widespread civil disobedience. A minor alien plague which killed almost all the children—including Tate's own twins. At the outset of Outcasts, the people of Carpathia are on the edge of an uprising, courtesy a few dissatisfied members of the EXPs: an expeditionary force led by Battlestar Galactica's Jamie Bamber as the charismatic Mitchell Hoban, and his easily led second, Jack Holt, which is to say Ashley Walters channeling Stargate Universe's army oaf with a heart of gold, Jamil Walker Smith; an odd reference point to say the least, in that Smith's performance has been one of that similarly ill-fated series's very weakest: a cartoonish cartwheeling of broad strokes and narrow import.
SF fans are accustomed to doing a lot of legwork when beginning a new narrative. Check off technologies far advanced from our own, alien species, alternative energy sources, entirely invented modes of thought and belief . . . all of which is surplus to the usual requirements: that readers or in this instance viewers get to know these particular characters, this specific situation, this relationship and that conflict, and so on. It follows that it can take longer than the norm for the suspension of disbelief such stories demand to feel in the least natural, and with so very many irons in the fire, perhaps it’s par for the course that Outcasts seems a dreadful muddle to begin with.
Eight impossibly protracted hours later, the excuse has long since worn thin. Dire enough, surely, that the entire first half of the series is devoted to clunky setup via talking heads talking, the talking itself is cringe-worthy throughout thanks to a script positively wanton in its obviousness: a minefield of stunted dialogue and awkward speeches which sound as if they've been lifted wholesale from Outcasts's confused elevator pitch. And the characters—Mitchell and Jack and Tate, Tate’s underlings Cass (Daniel Mays) and Fleur (Amy Manson off Torchlight), who are as a pair easily the best of a bad lot, and Hermione Norris as Stella Isen, a character, an actor and indeed a performance straight out of Spooks—feel randomly generated, constructed from such muddled motivations and internal inconsistencies that they seem the creations of a madcap AI.
Cass, for instance, has a thing for Fleur—real once in a lifetime love, we’re to understand—so one night he overindulges in the space moonshine and ever so accidentally sleeps with a crazy lady. The morning after, he wakes to find said specimen scrabbling through his closet in search of skeletons, which of course Cass has, and would you credit it? He's been safekeeping them in the very closet where the crazy lady looks. Now needless to say, rather than owning up to his many and various mistakes, Cass attempts a woefully misguided cover-up which can only culminate in Surprise! Discovery! Revelation! And so the story goes, or seems as if it shall, for in one fell swoop Fleur finds out about the skeletons aforementioned and the accidental sex to boot.
Thus the relationship between these star-cross'd political minions must change, mustn't it? Because with conflict comes character development, or else it's only so much pointless squabbling. Well, quite. For a few scenes Cass and Fleur are more guarded than usual around one another—sulking in so many words—but that's practically the long and short of all these sordid secrets and lackluster lies. Here Outcasts adopts a sideways approach, tried and tested, to what could and should have been a pivotal moment between these two characters, cast as the series's emotional core, yet it amounts to sweet swear all; so much grist for the narrative mill, weak and thin and unconvincing as even that.
When it's not infodumping all over you, or brazenly filling in backstories and character arcs like baby's first book of crosswords, or teasing certain narrative developments so interminably you'll be sick and tired of hearing about the apparently imminent arrival of another ship from Earth, and then another, or the predictable power plays of one Eric Mabius as President Tate's sole rival before they’re even going concerns, Outcasts seems perfectly contented to roll out scenario after formulaic scenario of what might be termed survivor of the week. A geneticist is abusing his depressed partner; a newcomer has a hard time fitting in; a pirate radio DJ turns out to be an algebra master: over-familiar story threads, each and every one, made all the more unbearable by crass actors bumbling their way towards petty resolution by way of scripts which are ignorant at the best of times and downright insulting in the erstwhile.
So too do the same factors make a meal of Outcasts's only notable attempt at an overarching narrative, the tragicomic tale of the advanced cultivars: GM people cast out from Forthaven a decade ago for fear they carried the plague which you might recall killed the kiddies. In short, there was an old lady who swallowed a fly. Perhaps she'll die?
Oh would that she had! Alas, all signs point to her survival, hers and the fly's and the spider's too, because the ACs manage to eke out an existence in the alien wastes, and the virus returns to Forthaven unabated, years later. Evolved or not, it never seems a real threat, and its sophomore bow is so easily beaten back by the magic of future science that to call it an anti-climax would be giving the weightless thing more credit than it's due. Nevertheless there is time, in the midst of all this overwrought nonsense, for the selfsame societal divisions and Difficult Personal Choices to arise as they did in the wake of the first space-plague: mobs of extras—I mean settlers—get together to express mean-spirited sentiments about the ACs, while some insist they were only ever collateral damage, innocents chucked under the bus by a president who has begun to fall from grace. These developments are to the advanced cultivars a long sought-for shot at redemption, and to Tate the emergent specter of a dark chapter from his past, shall we say oft alluded to and leave it at that, yet again Outcasts squanders an almighty overabundance of setup on a payoff so slight as to feel a leering long con, for careless treatment of the ACs—they are cruel marauders one minute and heedless victims the next—has left our presupposed sympathies with them in tatters, while Tate has already telegraphed exactly how he would react if faced once more with the same Difficult Personal Choices he had to make a decade ago.
At least Outcasts looks the part. Shot on location in South Africa, what little we see of Carpathia does a better job of setting the scene than any other aspect of this lamentable production: the desolate Martian desert smack bang in the midst of which Forthaven sits is an awesome sight, all stones and sand and scree, expanses of utter emptiness stretching as far—farther!—than the eye can see. South Africa is in itself no substitute for smart writing or a passing sense of emotional resonance, but it serves all the same as startling eye candy, and to suggest in lieu of more direct means the inescapable loneliness of this place, so very far from home and the known.
On the design front, there's a dirty, sand-blasted dryness to Carpathia's sole settlement that speaks to the truth of this place, and these people, as something perhaps more meaningful than a tiresome body politic or a soap-opera assortment of lovers, louts, and loons: Forthaven, we are reminded, is essentially a refugee camp on another planet. A place of death and disease where the air, you imagine, must be hard to breathe, so thick it is with stink, and flecks of rust and grime. Would that these aspects of Outcasts were anything more than skin deep.
Too late it transpires that Outcasts isn't really SF at all. It’s Worldbuilding Weekly, by way of Being Human, the little speculative sitcom that could, from which Outcasts creator and co-writer Ben Richards has drawn no more meaningful lesson than the mediocrity of the day to day, even when at the whim of such far-flung circumstances as these. Really rather British of him, don’t you think?
Indeed, Outcasts is particularly British television, oftentimes excruciatingly so: immediately upon making contact with the colonists, for instance, an incoming captain in real danger of death asks after the weather on Carpathia. Outcasts has its priorities down pat, then. It's eight hours of bland architecture; it's The Complete Idiot's Guide to engineering a new world, and with it a new people in the shape of the advanced cultivars. From its clumsy conception through its rote execution on, Outcasts is so symptomatic of typical British endeavor as to embarrass: ambitious but derivative, vastly overthought and so underdone as to seem insipid. Mistakes were made, as ever, and budgets exceeded.
But at least we tried.
Niall Alexander (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes about speculative fiction of all shapes and sizes from a dank and none too mysterious hidey-hole somewhere in the central belt of Scotland, where no one can hear his screams. Neither coincidentally nor particularly imaginatively, he blogs his days away at The Speculative Scotsman.
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