Friday 18 March 2011

Outcasts (BBC TV)

This eight-part serial has now finished, so as promised I'll sum up. To refresh your memories, I'll include some of what I said after the first two episodes.

The scenario is far enough into the future for humanity to have developed huge starships, one of which had managed to establish a colony on the distant planet of Carpathia (named after the ship which rescued survivors of the Titanic disaster) some fifteen years before. The name is significant as civilisation on Earth is collapsing, and the last starship is due to arrive.

Almost all of the 70,000 humans are concentrated in one walled settlement, Forthaven. The president (Liam Cunningham) aided by the head of security (Hermione Norris, who famously played a formidable MI5 agent in Spooks) try to hold the line while preparing for the arrival of the starship. All is not well, as the ship has suffered some damage which threatens disaster if it tries to land on the planet, so it launches an escape pod to ensure that some survive.

All is not well on Carpathia, either, as the team of explorers who spend most of their time away from the settlement are planning a rebellion. Just to complicate matters further, there is a band of renegade artificial humans (advanced cultivars, or ACs) in the wild, rejected by the settlement years before, with whom there is intermittent but bitter conflict.

The focus is very much on the human drama and the acting is initially variable (Norris being the stand-out performer) with some of the dialogue sounding stiff and awkward; a perennial screen-SF problem. This seemed to get better as the serial progressed, or perhaps I just got used to it. Also developing through the serial was the role and relationship of two of the internal security officers, played by Daniel Mays and Amy Manson.

I was amused to note that the one clear villain - the former head of the evacuation programme (played by Eric Mabius), who arrives on the escape pod and immediately starts to worm his sly and manipulative way up Carpathia's hierarchy - is constantly criticised for bringing religion to the secular colony and cynically using this as his vehicle for building a power base. I suspect this might not go down too well in some markets…

The SF elements are initially weak, and by the half-way stage I was ready to dismiss it as a soap opera with a few unusual plot elements in a mildly exotic setting. It is a puzzle to work out what everyone does or how they live, as the town is surrounded by wasteland and hardly anyone ever goes outside the walls. The discovery of natural diamonds lying around to be picked up is acceptable, but the fact that they are mysteriously gem-cut rather than in the rough is not. However, the background music is worth a mention as it is one of the strong points. It reaches elegaic heights, powerfully reinforcing moments of high drama. Intriguingly, the more stacatto music used to accompany action scenes is very reminiscent of similar music in Spooks.

The second half of the serial contains a lot more science-fictional mystery, although it frequently doesn't seem to make sense. First comes the discovery of fossils of early hominim remains, despite the fact that there is no other animal life on the planet - just plants and insects (I still don't understand that: hominims dying out, sure, but they would only have been the tip of an enormous pyramid of animal life - did that all die out? We are not told). This is accompanied by hints from one of the first men on the planet, who has been living rough in the wild, that the planet did not want humans there. Then people begin to report seeing loved ones they know to be dead, a convincing duplicate of one of the explorers appears (the fact that this duplicate is clearly solid, whereas others appear and disappear instantly, remains unexplained), a mysterious disease strikes and it becomes clear that the colony is facing a deadly but hidden threat. Meanwhile, a further and unsuspected starship secretly approaches Carpathia with malevolent intentions.

By the start of the final episode I was wondering how all of the plot threads, both human and alien, could possibly be resolved in just one hour. The answer is that they weren't; it ends on a huge multiple cliff-hanger, the point of maximum crisis for the whole story so far, evidently lining everything up for a second serial. This would be fine if a sequel was coming along soon, but the viewing figures were disappointing and the BBC announced immediately after the finale that the planned second serial had been cancelled. So, rather frustratingly, we will never know the answers to the many questions.

Why did it fail? I think it was too adult and slow-paced to appeal to the usual Doctor Who/Primeval band of TV SFF followers, while containing too many unexplained inconsistencies to satisfy more mature SF fans (a nit-picking lot, we are). And of course, few people who are not SF fans bother to watch any SF programmes unless they are so good that they transcend the usual genre prejudice barrier.

Outcasts is easy to poke holes in, but I found I had become strangely attached to it and will miss my weekly visits to Carpathia. Despite a slow start and the unexplained inconsistencies, it had managed to get its hooks into me.


M Pax said...

Maybe I'll check it out sometime.

Bill Garthright said...

Logic means a lot to me in science fiction. I can accept any premise, but I need the story to make sense after that. I think that's why I'm not a big fan of SF movies.

And re. the religion angle, America could accept a religious villain, but the show would have to go overboard with religious good guys, too. Showing a villain bringing religion to a secular colony - and that not a good thing? It's hard to imagine a show like that here.

Anthony G Williams said...

Umm, yes Bill - I did have the US in mind ;-)