Why doesn’t Outcasts work?

I rather like Outcasts, and I’m looking forward to stepping into Forthaven again when the next episode is broadcast. Nonetheless, the BBC has activated the contingency plan that exists for all new primetime shows, and decided to shift it to a graveyard slot: implicitly, they have declared it has failed and will not be recommissioned. And for all that I quite enjoy watching the show, I can’t help but feel they’re probably right to take that decision. So, why hasn’t it worked as well as everyone involved must have hoped?

There’s a lot goingfor Outcasts. I suspect the reasons I’m look forward to the next episode are to do with the lush photography – taking full advantage of the HD format – the excellent production design and special effects, the effective use of the South African location to create a foreign-looking world, and the strong cast. The world is well-sketched in its look and feel. So what’s the problem? No doubt many people within the BBC will be asking the same question right now. My thinking keeps coming back to two possible issues: one is that the stakes simply aren’t high enough; the other is that the rules of the world are not fully explained. The two are related.

Let’s look at the stakes first of all. The basic premise of the show rests on a single jeopardy: can a small human colony ensure the continued survival human race in a hostile, or at least uncertain, environment far from Earth? It’s a good premise in as far as it goes, but a lot of the time we are simply told about this: dialogue explains that the birth rate is low, many plant varieties are failing to grow and so on. But the meat of the drama is seldom directly related to this: yes, the ACs often provide the main plots and their existence arises from this jeopardy, but the stories are more often a matter of far more simple conflict: can group A (the humans) get along with group B (the ACs)? In fact, Forthaven seems pretty secure: it’s been established for a good few years by the time we join the story, is clearly quite large, can withstand big setbacks like the big whiteout in episode three, and apparently enjoys political stability. There seems to be no immediate threat of failure.

Combine that with the second problem – that the ‘rules of the world’ are not properly set out – and you have a recipe for muddy rather than compelling drama. By rules of the world I don’t simply mean what the laws say on Forthaven, rather I mean the framework within which the characters interact with each other: why and how are the police force and the scientific corp apparently run by the same person, why can a police officer get such easy access to the President and give him a telling off, where do these people sit within the apparently large society of Forthaven, how come the mathematical prodigy is allowed to run a pirate radio station, what does everyone else do for a living, how does the economy work, and, yes, what do the laws of Forthaven say? What sort of world is this, in other words?

Combine the two, and you’re left with a drama that’s not far removed from The Bill: Fleur and Cass chasing ACs around Forthaven feels not unlike June Ackland and Tony Stamp chasing toerags round the Jasmine Allen. At other times, the rather mild political powerplay involving the President could just as easily be an episode of a boardroom drama such as The Power Game. Both are great programmes, and recipes for highly effective drama, but with Outcasts the viewer has been sold a sci-fi show of some sort, and that’s not what we seem to be getting.

It’s also telling to consider what options seem not to have been pursued. Forthaven could have been portrayed as a frontier town and the show presented as a Western in space, but this seems to have been eschewed. Much of the drama takes place beyond the fence – we spend relatively little time on the streets of Forthaven and involved with the wider society there (indeed, it’s a remarkably small cast for a show of such potentially massive scope).

So there are many elements to the storytelling, some explored and some not… but none seems to dominate. Is this a sci-fi / action-adventure show, a character piece, a cop-style effort or a political drama? It seems to try to be each at different times. Perhaps a clearer focus on the issue of what world we are being shown would have enhanced the programme. The characters are rather good – they’re clearly distinct, and it’s clear enough where they’re coming from… But few are compelling. Perhaps if the stakes were higher, and the characters presented with tougher decisions to make and hurdles to climb over, they would engage us a bit more. I can’t really tell whether any character is on a particular arc: will Fleur become a monster, betraying the values she holds dear in the name of protecting them, as was suggested to great effect at the end of the first episode? Will there be a big pay-off to Stella’s reunion with her daughter? I didn’t quite feel as punched in the guts as I perhaps should when Lily rejected her mother at the end of episode two. And what is the point of Julius Berger? We’re repeatedly told he’s trouble, but all he does is wander round being sanctimonious and enigmatic, his motives unclear. All of this could have a great pay-off of course, but half-way through the series he seems annoying more than anything else. But if there’s a problem with the characters it seems to be not that they’re not well-drawn enough, but that they’re not being put in sufficiently gripping plots to allow them to come properly into relief.

Outcasts also exhibits many of the small flaws that blight primetime BBC drama: there is some clunky dialogue (“It’s not the future I’m worried about…” is fine; it doesn’t need finishing with, “it’s the past,” – we get it!); the plotting too often relies on implausibly high levels of stupidity and low levels of security (dangerous prisoners escape with remarkable ease, people who are clearly at risk from a madman on the loose are not given any protection, the same madman wanders unchallenged into the President’s office); and it’s very earnest, with almost no humour arising naturally from the characters, which is simply not convincing as a depiction of human relationships, on another planet or otherwise. But you can say all that of many much more successful shows on BBC One – the problems that have scuppered Outcasts seem to be more structural.

Comparisons with other shows are illuminating. The most obvious comparison seems to be Battlestar Galactica: humanity is reduced to a small group, removed from its homeworld, contending with a new race of human-like beings, with a baby apparently the key to the survival of both and an ambiguous scientist / agent provocateur knocking around whose motives seem unclear. But the contrasts are significant: for one thing, BSG presents two clear sources of jeopardy: the humans’ internal struggles, and a military threat from a hostile enemy – without the latter source of jeopardy and conflict, Outcasts instantly feels tamer. It’s also notable that the rules and relationships in BSG are instantly clear: the crew of Galactica function like any ship’s crew, a dynamic with which the audience is immediately familiar, while the role of the president and civilian authorities are again set out clearly, rooted in contemporary structures (the US presidency first and foremost) and ruthlessly exploited for drama. Outcasts lacks clarity over these institutions and relationships, and so is unable to produce convincing drama from them.

There are other possible comparisons: both Survivors and underrated US show Jericho presented communities of humans battling for survival after the normal infrastructure of human civilisation has been taken away from them. Again, in both the rules of the world – or lack of – were instantly clear and the source of much of the drama as different characters react to them in different ways. In Outcasts the drama has to come, as we have seen, from more ‘normal’-feeling cop or political-type obstacles for the characters.

Overall, it’s a real shame that Outcasts hasn’t been more successful: a compelling, adult science fiction series would have been a real asset to BBC One (will the promising-sounding fourth series of Torchwood finally deliver this in the summer, after the triumph of Children of Earth?). And Outcasts is certainly not awful: it’s about as good as The Deep, which again was watchable enough on its own merits… but given the amounts of talent and money involved, perhaps not quite good enough. It was telling that The Deep was in five episodes, clearly intended to be stripped across a week like Children of Earth, The Silence and the Criminal Days and Five Days serials, but presumably decreed not to be strong enough to merit it. And that’s the problem for Outcasts: it’s decent, but as a flagship drama for BBC One it invited judgment against very high standards, which it hasn’t been able to meet. For all that, a lot of the bile hurled at it by critics has been simply unjustified, and will probably dissuade the BBC from attempting any new sci-fi type projects for a long time to come, which would be a deeply unfair result.


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