Join GeekChocolate as we look back over the short run of a much maligned science fiction show and ask whether it would have been more successful had the critics and the audience gone into it with open minds rather than expectations based on other shows.
It is often said that life imitates art, and for the production team of Outcasts, a show concerned with the fight for survival of a few determined individualists under difficult circumstances in a strange and unknown territory, the leaders beset by hostility and constant criticism, the irony cannot have been lost on them.
It was a remarkable show from the outset: a high profile, big budget international collaboration broadcast on BBC One, an organisation usually resistant to the concept that science fiction can also be serious drama, though their faith may have stemmed from their relationship with production company Kudos, whose long running Spooks shared writer Ben Richards and actor Hermione Norris with Outcasts.
Filmed in the stunning scenery of South Africa in mid 2010, it debuted in February 2011, and was swiftly dismissed by critics unsure what to make of a show that took the trappings of hard SF and played them in a realist and introspective manner, unlike the fantasy of the BBC’s other science fiction flagship, Doctor Who. Accusations that it was dull and self important were unfair, for Outcasts was primarily a drama, showcasing believable performances and high production values, the alien setting just the canvas the story was painted upon.
Concerned with the struggles of taming the hostile and unpredictable wilderness of an alien world, it was more reminiscent of Kim Stanley Robinsons’ Mars trilogy than traditional televised science fiction. The colonists of Forthaven are struggling on the harsh world of Carpathia despite the benevolent leadership of President Richard Tate: resources are scarce, and contact with Earth has been lost. The approach of a transporter bearing supplies and news of home offers hope, but with damaged heat shields, it is uncertain if it will be able to enter the atmosphere of Carpathia safely.
While each episode was standalone, they also carried ongoing threads, with President Tate’s authority under pressure from newcomer Julius Berger, and the threats the colonists have created themselves. Chief among these are the Advanced Cultivars, genetically engineered to survive on Carpathia, but exiled when they were blamed for the spread of the virus that decimated the children of Forthaven during the early years of settlement.
Scraping out a meagre existence in the wasteland, the AC’s are resentful and violent, and seeking to galvanise the colonists to secure his position, Berger demonises them and calls for their eradication, allying himself with Jack Holt, leader of the armed Expeditionary force, a loose cannon who already bears a grudge against Tate.
All the characters were flawed or compromised – as a President, Tate was an administrator rather than a leader, prone to keeping information to himself, and always optimistic that situations would resolve themselves without direct intervention. His closest ally, Dr Stella Isen, was more adept at perceiving true intentions and so better at seeing the developing unrest, yet was unable to form any relationship with her own daughter. Tipper Malone, the voice of Radio Free Carpathia, was determined to broadcast the truth as he saw it, even though that information might further destabilise Forthaven.
Unfortunately, it was when Outcasts tried to play a storyline solely as straight drama or science fiction that it was weakest. Witness episode seven, where Officer Cass Cromwell, suspecting he is about to be targeted for blackmail, goes out, gets drunk, and takes an obviously unstable woman back to his bunk, then lies to all his colleagues when she vanishes. A plot that moves forward through the stupidity of the lead character is not convincing in any genre.
Similarly, for a show determined to be taken seriously as hard science fiction, when in the final episode the dormant virus finally re-emerges, the producers dug into the stock bag of silly sci-fi contrivances: it manifests as a glowing aura around the infected, is transmitted by radio waves, and is cured by creating a high frequency sonic shield around the colony.
While that is an unsatisfying resolution to an unconvincing threat, the other storylines coming to a head showcased Outcasts at its best. With Berger making his move, Cromwell and Tate argue over their response. “This isn’t about humanity, it isn’t about the future, and it definitely isn’t about pieces on a chessboard.” Yet the President chooses to sacrifice a piece regardless – just not the one that anyone, especially Berger, expected.
With continued critical indifference and declining ratings, the BBC lost confidence in the show, and moved the final three episodes to a late night Sunday slot, and cancellation was confirmed the day after the eighth and final broadcast. Although the immediate crises facing the colony had been resolved, making a complete season, the arrival of a complication in the form of another transport vessel, possibly loyal to Berger, indicated the direction a second season would have taken.
For those of us who have grown up watching televised science fiction, watched it evolve and mature, it is disappointing that this last outpost, a mature reflection on humanity, our needs and flaws and prejudices and our ambitions in the stars, should have been condemned by those who criticised the show not for what it was, but for what it was not. They expected science fiction to have spaceships and explosions, not thoughtful characters struggling with their own mistakes.
It’s easy to criticise with hindsight, look back on the failures of the show and point out things that could have been done better, but it’s also worth remembering the show was a unique experiment that should be praised for all that it did manage to achieve in a hostile and unforgiving environment. It may be a long time before we see another show so bold as to treat science fiction in a literary rather than a fantastical manner, and perhaps we should have appreciated it more while we had the chance.