Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Outcasts (BBC1)

The first three episodes of BBC's new science-fiction drama have shown real promise, but left me with questions beyond those its makers were intending to pose.

Outcasts charts the progress of the inhabitants of Forthaven, the first pioneer settlement on the planet of Carpathia, following some as yet unnamed catastrophe that has rendered continued life on Earth untenable. These settlers have been chosen for their usefulness to society, which apparently means scientists, law enforcers, and soldiers. Not a banker in sight.

It's a real ensemble piece, there's no obvious main protagonist, and it's hard as yet to place who is the emotional centre of the series. President Richard Tate (Liam Cunningham) is the noble, but imperfect leader; Stella Isen (Hermione Norris) is Tate's head of Protection and Security (PAS), desperate to rebuilt a relationship with her daughter Lily who arrived on the latest transporter; Cass Cromwell (Daniel Mays) and Fleur Morgan (Amy Manson) are PAS officers tasked with upholding the values of the new society, and Jack Holt (Ashley Walters) is the hot-headed leader of the Forthaven's armed force, the Expeditionaries.


There are echoes of two big US dramas here, firstly Lost, being a tale of castaways in a strange land, confronted by a ragtag bunch of 'others'. In this case the others are clones known as Advanced Cultivars (ACs) whose history is still shrouded in mystery. And that mystery is also reminiscent of Lost, the oblique storytelling characterised by the slow drip-feed of information and, perhaps, mis-information.

The other is Deadwood, for it's pioneer setting, and the struggle for power in this brave new world which is brewing between Tate and American Julius Berger (Ugly Betty's Eric Mabius). At it's heart Outcasts is a Western, we have the establishment portrayed as good (Tate et al), the challenge to that establishment portrayed as bad (Berger and his religious following), and we even have a tribe of marauding Indians (the ACs).

But like Deadwood, there is no black-and-white moralising here, Tate is troubled by his past order to exterminate the ACs, who themselves are only an oppressed underclass trying to survive on the fringes of society. And Julius Berger, well we know next to nothing about him yet.

As for the parallels with Battlestar Galactica, I will have to leave those to others more qualified than myself.


Obviously Outcasts can't pull down the same sort of budgets as those US shows, so there are issues around the production for such a large scale TV series. The scenery, filmed on location in South Africa, is fantastic but some of the outdoor sets feel too small, and parts look a little stagey. And the CGI, while vastly improved from previous efforts by the BBC, still doesn't look a million dollars. These are forgivable faults though.

Where I really begin to question Outcasts is in elements of the script, and character writing. It might seem unfair to criticise a drama for unbelievability when it is set in the mid-21st century on a foreign planet, but those aren't the problems. I'm prepared to suspend belief on those aspects, but the whole mechanics of life in Forthaven don't quite ring true.

President Tate is just too cuddly a leader to be tasked with keeping the human race alive. When questioned by his subordinates, as he is constantly, he is far too quick to back down, rescind orders, and generally be a bit wet defending tough decisions by whining about his dead children. Okay, that's a little harsh, but where's your stiff upper lip man? Where's that blitz spirit?

I ended episode three thinking that the Carpathians might be better off under that shady American feller, at least he has a bit of ruthlesness and a strong survival instinct.


There's great potential in Outcasts, and despite its faults I will be happy to give it all the time it needs to play out the current storylines. I'm sure we have plenty of twists and turns to look forward to in the remaining five episodes, I just hope one of them involves Richard Tate growing a pair of balls.

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