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R.I.P “Outcasts”

I just wanted to say a few words to mark the sad passing of the BBC’s “epic sci-fi” series, “Outcasts”, which isn’t being renewed after the end of its opening season.

If you didn’t watch it, or haven’t heard of it, “Outcasts” was the story of a group of pioneers, on an alien planet, “Carpathia”, struggling to survive there after some unexplained calamity or catastrophe had pretty much trashed Earth. But this was no “let’s all pull together and make it work!” society; the fledgeling civilisation on Carpathia was struggling with political infighting and manouvering, corruption and a virtual civilw ar with another group of humans, sent there to help prepare the planet for settlement.

“Outcasts” could have been brilliant… should have been brilliant. It had so many things going for it. For a start, its cast was, if you’ll pardon the too-good-to-refuse pun, stellar. Doom-laden and darkly-stubbled Liam Cunningham had the gravitas needed to play the President, Tate, who was struggling with demons, internal and external. Hermione (“Spooks”) Norris was at her angst-ridden,  stare-blankly-and-look-tortured best as Stella Isen; the always-brilliant Daniel Mays was superb as the tortured-by-a-secret-past Cass Cromwall, and relative newcomer Amy Manson was fantastic as the slightly aloof but loyal Fleur Morgan. All of these characters were well written, with dark and light sides, interacted well, and laid the foundations for a credible, interesting story…

But the story is where Outcasts fell down, in my opinion. Frankly, it didn’t know what the hell it wanted to be. Or rather, it probably knew what it wanted to be, but it wasn’t allowed to.

Part of “Outcasts” wanted, desperately, to be an epic “new world” sci-fi series. But another part of it, the biggest part of it, seemed almost embarrassed by its science fiction elements and roots, and kept pushing their heads under the water with its foot. So the fact that the Outcasts were on another planet, way, waay out in space, was frequently glossed over, or forgotten altogether, in favour of lots of almost Wild West-style “pioneers struggling to survive in the wilderness” storylines. It’s as if the BBC were scared of making a genuine sci-fi show in case it put viewers off, which was a great shame.

I’m really, genuinely sad that “Outcasts” won’t be taken up for another series because – and this is the test of any work of fiction, on screen or on a page – after it finished I wanted, desperately, to know what happened next! If you haven’t seen it yet I won’t spoil it for you, but basically, after a couple of yawn-inducing episodes in which the story barely advanced an inch and the main characters were grossly under-used, the final episode was an absolute rollercoaster ride, and really built up to an exciting and darkly brilliant climax… but we’ll never know what happens next because it was cancelled, due to poor ratings.

There were lots of things wrong with Outcasts, a lot of them the classic reasons why some people just “don’t get” or hate science fiction. For a start, the main premise of the show – what these people were doing on this planet – was glossed over! The back-story of what happened on, and to, Earth was never fully explained, so the viewers weren’t given the knowledge the characters had of just what horrors they’d escaped. It didn’t feel like the world had ended, and these duty, raggedy people were all that was left of humanity. They just looked like they were homeless. Consequently, the town of Forthaven looked more like a cyberpunk kibbutz than a genuine “last stronghold of Mankind”.

Some of the dialogue was truly dreadful, too. I’ll just leave that at that.

And there was that ever present reluctance to make it a genuine science fiction show. Occasionally, only occasionally, someone remembered the show’s roots, and its genre, and then must have shouted at everyone else “Wait, everyone, I just remembered, it’s a science fiction story! Quick! Show a spaceship! Or a planet!” which then got shoe-horned in, but most of the episodes could have been set anywhere barren and bleak on Earth and have been exactly the same.

Some people have criticised the low key (i.e. cheap!) special effects, but not me. The effects were subtle, and understated, which was absolutely fine. “Outcasts” was, at its dark, bleak heart, a story about humans, about the human condition, about what humans can tolerate – and do – for the sake of survival. So it didn’t need lots of explosions, and force fields and aliens. It was set in, and portrayed, a refreshingly credible future. The guns were guns, not lasers; the town was grimy, dusty and dirty, built out of the dismantled hulls of the pioneers’ ships; the tech was futuristic without being too fantastical. I liked that.

What I definitely DIDN’T like was the cowardly and face-slappingly lazy CGI used for rendering the sky of Carpathia to make it look alien. How do you make a planet look alien? Well. They could have given Carpathia rings. They could have given it two Suns. They could have tinted the sky a different colour – a subtle green, or orange, or yellow, to show it wasn’t Earth. So what did they do? They just gave it two moons, two ridiculously huge moons, to make it look “alien” and “spacey”. Cliche!!!! But even worse than that, all they did, as far as I could tell, was paste into the blue sky two pictures of Earth’s own Moon, so anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Moon that shines in our own sky would have spotted that Carpathia’s moons were just copies of ours. That was ridiculous, and very lazy indeed.

But “Outcasts” had a lot going for it. Writer Ben Richards is obviously a VERY talented guy, with a great sense of story, and drama. I look forward to whatever he writes next, because I really think that he must have been pressured, albeit subtly, into making “Outcasts” less ‘science-fictiony’, which was a great shame. Also in its favour, the partnership of Cass Cromwell and Fleur Morgan was compelling and absolutely believable, and there were some very touching scenes between them.

Special mention must also go to Eric Mabius whose portrayal of Julius Berger was simply brillaint. Berger was the creepiest, slimiest, most arrogant, scheming piece of **** seen on screen in a long time, and the urge to boo melodramatically whenever he appeared was almost too strong to resist sometimes. He would have developed into a fascinating character in a second series, I’m sure. Oh well.

“Outcasts” also looked beautiful. Not just because it had lots of lens flare, which I’m a huge fan of (no? ok, just me then!), but it was edited well, and the filming location looked, in turn, beautiful and barren, quite other-worldly.

There were some very memorable, startling and beautiful images in “Outcasts”. The scenes by the ocean in one later episode were very well done, and really brought the characters of Cass and Fleur (can you tell I really liked Fleur? Ok, guilty as charged!) to life. But one scene, one brief and heartbreaking scene, really won me over, and has allowed me to forgive “Outcasts” for everything that was wrong with it – well, almost everything, there was absolutely no excuse for those two moons.

There was a scene in one of the early episodes where the people on Carpathia are greeting a newly-arrived transport ship, and guiding them in to landing. This ship is a godsend for them: new equipment, new supplies, and more survivors from Earth! But something is wrong with the ship, technically, and its entry into Carpathia’s atmosphere is going to be difficult… very difficult… The tension wracks up throughout the episode, until, almost at the end, after we;ve got to know and identify with the ship’s poor passengers and its captain, and are really rooting for them, the worst case scenario unfolds and the ship is lost. But instead of an over-the-top classic sci-fi CGI sequence showing the spaceship blowing to pieces in a huge blossoming fireball, with debris spiralling away from it, all we see of the death of the doomed transporter is a trail of fireballs crawling silently across the sky, far above the heads of the characters on the ground, which was achingly and tragically reminiscent of the loss of the shuttle Columbia. I can’t get that image out of my head, and probably never well. It felt very real to me, and almost had me in tears.

“Outcasts” finished on a real “Oh boy, there’s going to be trouble now…!” cliffhanger, but it looks like we’ll never know what happened next*, as the BBC has cancelled the series. The writing was on the wall after it was shunted from its prime time midweek slot to the late Sunday night graveyard slot, so I wasn’t that shocked when the BBC put a bullet through its head, but it’s still a shame. “Outcasts” could have been a very succesful series, and it would have been if the stupid BBC hadn’t bottled it and made it into a sci-fi lite show. I hope that next time the Beeb commissions a sci-fi series they have the guts, and the belief in its writer, to just leave it the hell alone and let it BE science fiction, instead of watering it down and hoping no-one watching notices it’s supposed to be set on another planet.

So, RIP “Outcasts”. Maybe it was just too good for its own good. Maybe it was too different. I don’t know. But I am sure that in years to come “Outcasts ” will be looked upon very favourably, and will acquire that famous “cult show” status.

A great opportunity missed. 😦

* …but if you read the brilliant “Coyote” books by Allen Steele you’ll get a pretty good idea.

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3 Responses

  1. Sounds a bit like an American series from a few years ago: Earth2. It featured one of the most compelling first five minutes of just about any science fiction TV series I’ve ever seen, and a great first one or two episodes. Then the writers dragged it down.

  2. I watched the first six, I’ll give the last two a go if you are saying they actually had something happening in them. The poor dialogue, erratic motivation and painfully flagged plot explanations wore me down. It was probably accurate like that but not entertaining. Some of the concepts were intriguing but it would have been better as science fiction.

    Did they explain why the diamonds were so clean and clear?

  3. The series was well devised in terms of plot, and although the delivery was slow in getting to the undertow of what was really happening on the planet, the viewers were left hanging right when the series was ready to take off. It would have gained higher ratings, and interest, had the producers used a time phased delivery of the series. I. Other words, show something in the beginning that is happening down the timeline, and then cut scene to the past. It would have given those hardcore skeptic viewers the sugar on the tongue to keep them interested in anticipation of getting to what they refer to as “the good parts.” It’s sad, really, that so many viewers cannot read between the lines when viewing such a great series. This series still has an abundance of possibilities, and perhaps the producers will give it a second glance and we’ll be seeing this series again. The series is worth watching even though it was short lived.

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