The BBC have a tendency to produce sci-fi that, as a result of low budgets and a desire to appeal to audiences who wouldn't ordinarily watch the genre, are often confined to a present-day milieu. Even time/space-hopping Doctor Who tends to flit between Cardiff and London. There are few examples of UK TV shows that have the cash and courage to transport audiences to other worlds, but expeditionary sci-fi seems to be in vogue right now. Battlestar Galactica's remake was the early-'00s vanguard, Avatar took it mainstream in 2009, Terra Nova aims to capitalize for US TV this summer, and before then the BBC have their long-gestating Outcasts. The aforementioned stories all concern people leaving their home environment, often because of irreparable disasters, for the sanctuary of a foreign world. Are sci-fi ideas in constant rotation, or do they come into fashion because of an underlying mood writers capture in their fiction? Outcasts takes place on the distant planet of Carpathia (named after the ship that rescued Titanic's survivors), with Earth the sunken ship in that naval disaster analogy. One character later alludes to nuclear attacks on Shanghai and Chicago, so it seems likely Chinese and American superpowers started World War Three. Ooh, topical. Whatever the exact circumstances, the situation on Earth is hopeless enough for spaceships to leave on a five-year trip to colonize Carpathia. A decade after its founding, the small community of Forthaven are enjoying self-sufficiency, with the settlers anticipating the pending arrival of a ship carrying fresh refugees. Unfortunately, the transport vessel encounters problems with its shielding above their atmosphere, putting the likelihood of a successful landing in jeopardy.
With the transport ship in orbit and its crew desperately trying to repair their shields, much of this opening episode introduced the various residents of Forthaven: President Richard Tate (Liam Cunningham), his Head of Security Stella Isen (Hermione Morris), and trusted Protection & Security officers Fleur Morgan (Amy Manson) and Cass Cromwell (Daniel Mays), who represent the forces of law and order. But there are also expeditionary men like Mitchell Hoban (Jamie Bamber) and Jack Holt (Ashley Walters), who appear to be the pioneers who helped build Forthaven but have since become disillusioned by its stiff beaurocracy. In particular, this episode concerned outsider Mitchell returning to Forthaven to convince his wife Karina (Jessica Haines) to join him in the great outdoors with their son Linus (Teague Bidwell), a boy born on Carpathia who has consequently developed a fascination with (likely extinct) tigers. It's unfair to condemn a fairly ambitious show after its first episode, so I won't, but I think it's fair to say Outcasts suffered from a very sluggish start. There's promise in the concept of human colonists having to survive on an alien world, but I'm not sure what's going to make this series work better than Survivors -- which the BBC canned last year, meaning Outcasts effectively replaces it on the schedule. Both focus on disparate characters forced to live together after an apocalypse, and while the locations are, literally, a world apart, there isn't much to differentiate Carpathia from Earth -- beyond its binary moons and the ill-explained threat of "whiteouts" (the lunar system's gravity drags up inexplicably localized patches of chalky soil?) There's nothing very futuristic about Forthaven itself, which is a very uninspired setting wholly lacking imaginative design. They could have gone for retro-futurism, but beyond the fact there's a big spaceship in orbit, there doesn't appear to be many opportunities available for sci-fi trappings. No cool guns, vehicles or interesting technology. And while that's certainly not a major obstacle, it robs the show of some additional fun and sizzle. Outcasts reminded me of the "New Caprica" story arc in Battlestar Galactica's third season, minus the cool robots and compelling totalitarian state. I mean, Forhaven's hardly an Orwellian nightmare, so it was hard to sympathize for Mitchell's desire to save his son.
None of the characters really click from the start, although Liam Cunningham's ability to exude a mix of authority and compassion serves him in good stead as President Tate. I was expecting better things from Bamber, but he looked quite bored throughout; his character's motivation and plan too hazy to care about. Even worse, Outcasts delivered the modern sci-fi TV cliché of killing the show's biggest name in the first episode. Torchwood did it with Indira Varma, Survivors followed suit with Freema Agyeman, and now Bamber dies as part of a curiously blunt shock. And you have to wonder what the logic is of dedicating the majority of this episode's time on a character who doesn't even survive the opening hour. Wouldn't it be best to make us care about the characters who'll be part of the series for longer than one episode? Stella, Cass and Fleur could all have done with more focus. Overall, Outcasts was a torpid bore that failed to rise to the challenge of ensuring the characters and story are so gripping that you forget the production's limited finances. There's mild intrigue in a few places (like mysterious figures in the wilderness), but while it would be exciting to imagine these are native aliens, Outcasts is the kind of show you can't help thinking it's unwise to overestimate.
WRITER: Ben Richards DIRECTOR: Bharat Nalluri CAST: Liam Cunningham, Hermione Norris, Daniel Mays, Amy Manson, Ashley Walters, Eric Mabius, Michael Legge, Jamie Bamber, Jessica Haines, Patrick Lyster, Teague Bidwell, Melodie Abad, Jonathan Hearns & Denzil Thompson TRANSMISSION: 7 February 2011, BBC1/HD, 9PMI will continue reviewing Outcasts every week at my blog, Dan's Media Digest.