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Outcasts (2011)
Creator: Ben Richards

review by J.C. Hartley
SPOILER ALERT!
The BBC commissioned a new SF series that isn't a Doctor Who spin-off, a remake of an old series, or an adaptation of an existing work of fiction. Outcasts was originally planned to be broadcast in February and March of 2011, as eight episodes over four weeks, with a release on DVD early in April. However, halfway through the run, when the viewing audience dipped from a starting figure of around four million to half of that, it was bumped to a 'graveyard' slot at 10.25 PM on Sunday evenings...

The Tuesday night slot was then used for the BBC's new legal drama Silk. The two million who ditched the programme after the opening few episodes probably weren't bothered when it went out, although maybe they welcomed a new peak-time legal drama. But the two million or so souls who decided to stick with it, because they liked it, or because there is so little home-grown SF on TV, whatever the quality (or because they intended to review it for The Zone), were probably very pissed off with the new timing, especially if they have to get up at 4 AM to go to work.

The tendency now is to present SF on TV not as something weird and wonderful to make you go 'wow!' but to say, people are people wherever and whenever they are. Thus, all drama tends to the condition of soap opera. Outcasts, created and written by Ben Richards, who was responsible for the popular espionage thriller series Spooks, grafted science fiction motifs onto an everyday tale of - what?

Briefly, trouble on Earth has led to the instigation of an evacuation and colonisation programme to a 'Goldilocks' planet, where everything is 'just right', somewhere presumably in our galaxy, where the human race can start again. The title of the series and the name of the planet raise a couple of questions. 'Outcasts' are rather different from pioneers, and apparently one of the conceits of the series is that some of the colonists are social misfits offered a new start. This wasn't something I immediately picked up from the drama, except in the title, and in the character of Cass (Daniel Mays, Ashes To Ashes) who hints at a violent past. The planet's name 'Carpathia' suggests the region of central and Eastern Europe containing the mountain range, and long associated with gothic and horror literature and drama. Apparently the name was chosen because RMS Carpathia was the first steamship to come to the rescue of survivors of the sinking of the Titanic.

A few things suggested that the science part of the SF in Outcasts was grafted on, and not central to the plot, except as a means to facilitate the narrative. The drama is set in the middle of our century which clearly suggests huge advances in space exploration in the next few decades. We don't find out where the planet is, which sidesteps the issue of distance and time to make the trip. Human cloning has been perfected, as has a means to tap into the memory centres of the brain, both to view memories as images or for their subjects to relive as visual experiences. And yet the colonists have no means of transport on the planet, except by foot, which indicates that they are unable to synthesise a fuel source, or that they are unable to store the electricity that they generate in batteries or cells which would power vehicles.

Electric vehicles are things which are advancing now, but clearly it suits the boundaries of the drama to have the Carpathian colonists isolated. The humans' settlement, Forthaven, is a small city of some thousands of souls but except in some shots from the surrounding hills there is little to suggest size or scope. In the street-view shots there is a claustrophobic edge which may be intentional for the drama. The humans have been established for ten years but their isolation means that the rest of the planet remains unexplored.

The expeditionary force responsible for perimeter security and the non-combative elements of the work performed by sappers in the Army are heavily armed with traditional projectile weapons. With an apparent absence of indigenous life forms it is never explained why this ordnance is deemed necessary, or why the compound is 'locked down' at night. There is a sort of central hub or control room in the compound, the purpose of which is vague. It seems to function like the bridge of a ship, but apart from some weather monitoring and the coordination of the activities of the internal police force there seems to be a great many people and too much technology for little evident return.

These observations are not criticisms as such, just a means to explicate the limits the writer has set himself. Some of the human dramas that will unfold could be explored in any setting, the tropes of the SF genre allow for dislocation and the introduction of uncanny elements. First and foremost this will clearly be a human drama with its thriller aspects provided by those aforesaid elements.

The first episode introduces the main characters and provides some backstory, this latter supplied rather appropriately perhaps in a kindergarten history lesson. Tate (Liam Cunningham, Dog Soldiers) is President of Forthaven. Tate's second-in-command Stella (Hermione Norris, Spooks) is head of PAS - the internal security team. Both Tate and Stella are scientists originally, geneticists and neurologists. Cass (Daniel Mays, Spielberg's The Adventures Of Tintin) and Fleur (Amy Manson, Being Human) are members of PAS.

Mitchell (Jamie Bamber, Battlestar Galactica TV) the charismatic leader of the expeditionaries, returns from patrol to discover that firearms have been banned from inside the compound. Mitchell is planning to lead his force to establish an independent community on the planet. Mitchell's wife has been persuaded to spy on her husband by Tate and when Mitchell discovers this he brutally assaults her. In a confrontation with Tate, Mitchell reveals that he did not carry out a killing that Tate had requested and that 'they' are still alive.

The last spaceship from Earth, CT-9, carrying a final group of colonists attempts a difficult atmospheric entry. In conversation with the Captain of the vessel Tate reveals that a mysterious virus killed many of the children of the first colonists including Tate's own. Mitchell kidnaps his son and takes him to the lakeside site he has selected for the new community, Cass and Fleur track him down, and Fleur, while declaring her belief that the humans can live in peace and harmony on Carpathia shoots Mitchell.

Among the survivors of the planet-fall of the latest colonists are Lily, Stella's daughter, and Julius Berger (Eric Mabius, Resident Evil) some sort of Earth politician who was involved in the original evacuation of Earth, and who has experienced a religious conversion while travelling to Carpathia. Lily is kidnapped by the Advance Cultivars, cloned humans originally put on Carpathia to test the environment for colonisation. These are the people Mitchell was tasked to exterminate by Tate, who thought they were the cause of the virus that killed the colonists' children. The ACs have a sickly baby child, despite supposedly being sterile, and they will only release Lily if the baby is cured. Tate authorises tests on the baby to try and find out why the ACs are able to breed when birth-rates in Forthaven have fallen.

A young female passenger from the ship reveals that Berger stole her mother's pass in order to escape the break-up of the spaceship CT-9; she also reveals that Berger had a relationship with her. She is determined to kill Berger but is prevented by Tipper, a genius maverick who does drugs and runs the local radio station. Fleur establishes a tentative contact with Rudi the leader of the ACs. It is typical, or will prove to be so, that the young female passenger plays no further part in the series.

In the third episode a 'white-out' - a mysterious atmospheric storm threatens Forthaven. These storms regularly threaten the community but on the basis of research done on Earth, and supplied by Berger, Tipper is able to work out that this particular storm will be immense. As Phelim O'Neill blogged in The Guardian, how was this research able to be conducted on Earth when there is no contact with Carpathia? This is just another example of the plot-holes that would be ignored if the series itself was more gripping. Berger uses his people skills to worm his way into the Forthaven community, including making a reassuring broadcast, steeped in religious overtones, to the colonists, despite Tate warning him that they are a secular society.

Episode three is actually quite satisfying dramatically. The following episode sees Elijah, one of the ACs, stumble in from the wake of the storm. Elijah recognises Tate as the person who made genetic modifications to him to develop instinctive reactions and responses, modifications which have made him violent and unable to control his actions. Berger continues his mind games to undermine Tate and create his own power-base. The expeditionaries discover a fossilised human jawbone thousands of years old and Tate is plagued with hallucinations culminating in the appearance of his dead children.

Phelim O'Neill suggests that Outcasts is a pale re-working of Lost, with the 'white-outs' representing the Lost island's 'smoke monster'. By that token, the ACs would be the 'Others'. It occurred to me the whole thing might be an elaborate joke, a pun: 'Lost in space'. The discovery of evidence of human habitation on Carpathia also suggests some variation on the Battlestar Galactica quest; will Carpathia turn out to be Earth? Have the outcasts never left Earth? Does the reappearance of Tate's children mean that Carpathia is a living planet like in Solaris? (Phelim O'Neill wonders at the planet's 'psychic resonance'.)

These questions show that the series is not without interest. My wife wonders about the actual fate of the children afflicted with the virus. There certainly seems to be an anomaly with ages of various characters in the show, and would Cass really talk with that accent after the trip to Carpathia and ten years on the planet? The series continued with episode five, introducing a new character, an old man stumbling in from the outside, cowled and grizzled like Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Pak, the enigmatic stranger, pays for his drinks with diamonds, has a punch-up with the expeditionaries in the bar, and then disappears into the night pursued by Cass and Fleur. Some research suggests that Pak is a member of the original Expeditionaries, the first man on Carpathia in fact, who killed his commanding officer and then perished in a fireball piloting a plane he knew the Carpathian atmosphere wouldn't allow to fly. Stella, and Jack (Ashley Walters), the new leader of the expeditionaries, set out in pursuit of Pak, Cass and Fleur. Meanwhile, the diamonds Pak has left in Forthaven lead to a partial breakdown of order and an opportunity for Julius to continue to undermine Tate.

Pak reveals that the first man on Carpathia was actually an AC who died of a cold because his genetic modification had neglected his immune system; he asserts that Carpathia doesn't like its new inhabitants. He lures Cass and Fleur on, promising to show them the ocean and some 'bodies'. Their journey takes them through a restricted radioactive zone. Here writer Ben Richards and director Andy Goddard decided to plunder the dressing-up box of references. The radioactive zone is never explained but surely simply serves to reference Tarkovsky's Stalker. Fleur trails her hand in the undergrowth in the haunting manner of Maximus in Gladiator. Pak promises to show Cass and Fleur their future, like Dr Zaius in Planet Of The Apes, but thankfully the Carpathian beach is bereft of monumental statuary. Pak has suggested that Cass and Fleur could be the new Adam and Eve. Stella and Jack encounter some aggressive airborne insects, like Bogart and Hepburn do in The African Queen and, when Jack is bitten, Stella has to administer adrenalin to avert the allergic reaction. This scene seems to serve no purpose except for a certain amount of bonding between the pair, but I was minded to recall the short story, which may have been called 'Once Bitten, Twice Shy', where alien wasps sting a human in order to initiate communication between the two species.

Pak dies, and Cass and Fleur try to find their way home, Fleur thinks she sees a snake: and Adam and Eve reference? Reunited at the beach with Jack and Stella, the latter finds the fossil remains of a family of hominids. In a 'I didn't see that coming' finale, Julius is seen in communication with an approaching spacecraft, informing the occupants that President Tate's position has become untenable and that Forthaven will offer 'no resistance'. Not a bad episode and an irritating time for the BBC to lose its nerve and consign the series' final three episodes to the twilight hours.

Episode six at the new time forced the recourse to BBC iPlayer. Jack with the support of Julius has authorised a secret 'black ops' strike against the ACs, but his three agents have failed to return. Finally Josie, a soldier and single-mother in a fine bit of soap box-ticking, returns to a rapturous Forthaven welcome. Josie is played by Juliet Aubrey - rather typecast after three seasons as Primeval's resident time-hopping psycho Helen Cutter. Josie's kids react rather oddly to their mother's return and then one of the other Expeditionaries turns up revealing that they were not attacked by ACs, as Josie has claimed, but were attacked by Josie herself.

In the meantime Rudi, leader of the ACs, authorises his own black op against Jack. While two AC assassins plunge the camp into darkness to facilitate their mission, the newly imprisoned Josie escapes and seizes her kids taking them out into the Carpathian landscape. Then another Josie appears at the camp. Cass and the new Josie track the other Josie and the children. Rescued, the children reveal that their false mother asked them to explain about love. Against this drama, a new child is born to the colonists and once again Julius contacts the incoming spaceship.

With only two episodes to go, it is beginning to appear that this series would fail to tie up loose ends, and instead end on the cliff-hanger that would set-up a second series that, by this time, with poor audience and critical reactions, seemed unlikely to be commissioned. So have the hominid race, evidence of which was discovered on the beach, been destroyed by another malevolent force on Carpathia? Or have the hominids themselves evolved into some kind of mental entities that are choosing to appear as replicas of humans living and dead? Or is it all just the planet's doing? Solid SF storylines were beginning to appear, albeit old-hat, but why was this kind of mystery and drama not introduced from the outset? There's slow-burn and there's barely smouldering and, unfortunately, Outcasts falls into the latter category at this stage.

Some readers' letters in Radio Times appeared in support of the series, and new controller of BBC1, Danny Cohen, described Outcasts as "a bold, ambitious drama," that hadn't found the expected level of audience. One of the letters, from Roy Pemberton, quite rightly stated that much SF "focuses less on the scientific details than on providing a backdrop in which the constraints placed by the real world are replaced by new physical, emotional and political parameters." This is fair enough, but equally an earlier letter had said that there was nothing in Outcasts that couldn't have been done in an episode of say, Holby City. That was stretching it a bit, but I would argue that a series set in a frontline army hospital in Afghanistan could have covered much of the same 'physical, emotional and political' ground. Outcasts' failure has been in not being bold and ambitious enough, and diluting potentially gripping storylines with misfiring moments of emotional drama that fail to convince or create any sense of empathy with the characters.

In the penultimate episode, President Tate is confronted with his doppelganger who delivers a warning that the hostile alien force intends to destroy the colonists as it presumably destroyed the indigenous hominid race. Tate sets out to contact the ACs to ask for their help but the ACs leader Rudi suggests that his people have formed some kind of alliance with the alien force. Cass receives a note telling him that someone knows who he really is. He has a one-night stand with a female colonist who discovers a police file from Earth referring to Cass under another name. The woman steals Cass' gun and subsequently disappears, leading to Cass being suspected of her murder. For the second week running, the memory reading technology that would have provided answers is conveniently ignored. Analysis of Josie's radio broadcasts from the previous episode reveal an ultra-sound trace which breaks down into a series of letters. Stella believes this may allow them to communicate with the alien host. In Tate's absence, Julius convinces Jack to execute the AC prisoner, after which Julius gives a broadcast openly challenging Tate. Jack and Fleur get it together after a drunken night, and during a broadcast to the approaching spaceship Julius identifies Fleur as an 'Omega' subject.

Forthaven is targeted by the alien host with a viral attack. To head off Julius's vote of censure, Tate abdicates in favour of Jack. Fleur is identified as an AC, possibly made from Tate's own DNA. Incited by Julius, Jack arrests Fleur and prepares to lead the expeditionaries in an attack on the ACs. Stella identifies something and goes around telling everybody that "It's DNA". Stella proposes that an ultra-sound barrier might prevent the alien virus penetrating the compound. Julius reveals that another ship is on its way. Cass rescues Fleur and she joins the ACs. The ultra-sound barrier blocks the virus, Jack renounces the presidency because Stella had confided in him, Julius is arrested, but the orbiting ship manages to successfully launch a landing vehicle. In a final confrontation with the alien host inhabiting his replica, Tate declares that his human group are superior to the evolved host because the humans still feel love.

The show ends on a cliff-hanging note obviously geared towards a second series that equally obviously will not now happen. New science fiction writing at the BBC has been damaged, not because there is no appetite for SF, but because this show fudged in its presentation, and was very far from the 'bold, ambitious drama' controller Cohen claimed. The defenders of Outcasts praised its slow-burning escalation of suspense, but every time the programme built up some momentum, the writers, or script editors, felt it necessary to segue into some emotional drama that allowed the narrative pace to fizzle out. Emotional drama, and characterisation, is essential, but it should be at the service of plot. This was supposed to be a science fiction suspense thriller not, as has been suggested, Holby City in space.

Actually I've discovered I was wrong. Reading a fine collection of reviews on the Amazon site for the DVD, some pro and some anti, it transpires that the BBC said Outcasts was not a SF series but a drama exploring humanity in isolation and up against it. The science fictional aspects were just a dramatic device. So SF on the BBC has not been damaged by the shortcomings of this production as it was just the same old crap as usual after all?

There were good things in this. The final confrontations between Tate and his alien double are very effective as is the overall performance by Liam Cunningham. However, again there were slips of logic to the very last. Stella and Tate discuss how the alien host could manipulate DNA to make human copies, but sometimes only Tate could see his children or his double, so these were not copies but mental images. The lander containing Julius' allies is a blocky, stubby, winged craft, which slowly cruises down to land, but it had already been established that the Carpathian atmosphere was not conducive to powered flight. The kind of details that might have been ignored in a better more gripping production just served to highlight the lazy and disrespectful approach both to the genre and any potential audience, fan-based or otherwise. Outcasts is a missed opportunity.

DVD extras suggest a big 'oh, let's forget it ever happened' response. There are cast and crew interviews, and a tour of the Forthaven set.

Outcasts



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