Sunday, 13 March 2011

BBC's Outcasts cast out?

A couple of weeks ago, the new BBC science-fiction series Outcasts, was moved from its prime-time Monday 9pm slot to a post-10 O'Clock News slot on Sunday nights. This scheduling demotion suggests (once again) the problems of trying to launch a new SF show on British television (or, at least, one - unlike Doctor Who and Primeval - that doesn't rely on a family demographic). The assumption seemed to be that the show, an expensive co-production, just wasn't bringing in high enough audiences, and had been put out to pasture, to live out the last three weeks of its existence in the hinterlands of the schedule.

And, at one level, I can see why that decision was made. From the outset, Outcasts has been a hard show to love. In some instances, a hard show to watch, with risible dialogue, plotting, pace and scope. Yet, I find myself tuning in, week after week, and I remain unsure why that is.

I'd like to say it's simply because I'm a fan of SF, but the show seems unsure whether to embrace its generic roots. For all that this is a show about the future colonisation of the planet Carpathia (christened thus by the settlers - a reference to the RMS Carpathia, which rescued survivors from the Titanic, but also presumably to the Carpathian mountains, near Dracula's home) very little of the show seems science fiction-y. This is a future where Earth may have been destroyed, where interstellar travel, anti-matter drives, human cloning and 'quantum computers' are in existence, but DJs still play vinyl, guns fire metal projectiles known as bullets, and everyone seems to get their storage units from IKEA.

I often wonder if the show is ashamed of its SF roots. The first few episodes had the requisite visual effects of a spaceship, escape pods and things burning up on entry into the atmosphere, but its emphasis remained very much on the day-to-day soap opera stories of the humans who are already on the planet, with their Gap jeans and home-made hooch. Eliding SF might have been a deliberate aim, to attract a wider audience who are unsure about anything with the tag 'SF,' but it serves to brand the show as uncertain about its own identity. Casting Jamie Bamber ('Apollo' from the new Battlestar Galactica) for a 1-episode role seemed to be a knowing nod towards SF fans, but the rest of the cast are more known for non-genre fare in shows such as Spooks (Hermione Norris) and Ashes to Ashes (Daniel Mays). (okay Ashes to Ashes was kind of SF, but ultimately more nostalgia and fantasy-led)

(visually, the show owes a lot to both of those predecessors and to Survivors - all 3 Kudos-produced - with a fast-paced but ultimately bland mise-en-scene occasionally enlivened by the vistas afforded by its South African locations)

As the show has progressed, it has continued to avoid the visual 'trappings' of SF - but has found ways to introduce more thematic elements. Debates over science/religion have been key since episode 1, alien doppelgangers have loitered on the fringes of the story (before becoming central in episode 6), technology is both unreliable (clones went 'bad', ships burn up when entering the atmosphere) and predictably everyday (although Hermione Norris's memory scoop device has strangely vanished from the show), and there has been a continued uncertainty over identity (both around body-snatcher aliens and people with secret backgrounds - such as Cass) and trust.

Even with this, however, I'm uncertain why I continue to watch. Seven episodes in, each has been dominated by cliched and predictable storytelling - which, I'll admit, the genre has been guilty of in the past - and, at times, has felt more like a crime show than a SF one (the focus on cops Cass and Fleur - perhaps the most appealing of the recurring cast - has helped with that). Questions remain unanswered (and will likely remain that way):

1. If there are 7000 people on Carpathia, why do we only ever see about 10 or so milling around in the streets? (yes, budget is an issue, but for a story with the kind of scope this is going for, seeing the same 8 people isn't enough - it needs background characters)
2. The inhabitants have really forgotten about losing their children to a disease, and about the ACs who apparently caused it?
3. Everything on the planet happens within a half hour stroll of the city?

Yet there are hints each week that keep me coming back:
- I love the look of the colony, made up of huge metal cargo containers that have become people's homes, places of work - the spaceship squatting in the middle of the colony is also interesting, but underused - another way the show tries to ignore generic elements
- I like the relationship of Cass and Fleur, even if the dialogue is tortuous at times (the writer previously wrote for Spooks - a show I enjoy and happily defend - but the melodramatic and camp tone that works there doesn't transfer over well to this show)
- Episode 5, with the original astronaut, toyed with my ideas of what the show could do (moving beyond Fort Haven, largely ditching the clone storyline - by far the most tired elements - ignoring Hermione Norris and her annoying daughter) and seemed to be introducing a time travel element a la Lost... (although it has moved away from this in eps 6 and 7 - so maybe Fleur and Cass go back in time, have a kid, and then die on the beach in the past... except why the references to them as Adam and Eve....)

In fact, Lost might be the show that this best reminds me of. Frustrating, annoying, seemingly made up on the fly (yet with hints of an overarching narrative), about a bunch of castaways who don't get on (but are part of something bigger), with their own version of 'the Others' in the ACs, and which, despite having a whole planet/island to play with, never seems to move more than a mile from the fort/beach.

There is something here. I don't love Outcasts, but I do care for it a lot. Unfortunately, despite all this potential, the move to Sunday nights would suggest that, no matter what I think, tonight's final episode will be just that. Final.