Well, here we go again. Sci-fi TV continues its slow death spiral with Outcasts — BBC’s new post-apocalypse sci-fi. It’s the replacement for the horrible Survivors remake, which the Beeb cancelled after the second series. Thankfully.
What irks me are the similarities between the two. Outcasts puts us well into the “fool me twice” category.
For the Survivors remake, we were all excited by the news that Freema Agyeman– Doctor Who’s former companion Martha — was cast as Jenny. Jenny, in the original Survivors, is essentially our central character insofar as she’s the only lead character who makes it through all three seasons. She certainly doesn’t do anything central except complain and get pregnant but, whatever, it was the 70’s. Survivors lost its way after a disagreement between Terry Nation and the studio during the first season, anyway, so it’s not like we ever had a stellar series on our hands. We watch because we’re starved for post-apocalypse TV, right?
A modern day remake seemed like an awesome idea. And having Martha be Jenny? Wheeeee! That on top of the relationship with Doctor Who back in the 70’s had all of the Who fans settling down to eagerly watch the remake and see New Jenny rule the day.
But then Jenny is killed halfway through and the baton is handed to the remake cast, none of whom would have survived the apocalypse depicted in the original show… But they do fine in the new one where the cities are still habitable and every mod-con is still magically available.
Now here comes Outcasts — which has had a rocky production history. But why are we tuning in? OMG! Because Jamie Bamber has been cast in the show! And it has Battlestar Galactica elements! There are things about it that are just like BSG! Or so all the buzz seems to suggest.
This time the BBC is almost suspiciously playing up the Battlestar Galactica connect the same way they played up the Doctor Who connect for Survivors but, despite our wariness, we tuned in to see Bamber and…he’s killed halfway through! They did it again! The exact same thing! They go on and on and on about a big name star from a large sci-fi franchise, get all the geeks watching, then kill off the star and leave us with a group of student actors and a storyline that appears to have been written by three cats walking back and forth across a keyboard.
The first episode is consumed with setting up a deeper mystery for the series. Something we’ll probably have to struggle with in every sci-fi series until people start to forget about Lost. The mistake is that, unlike in Lost where we experience the mystery along with the characters, the assumption is made that we know all about the universe of Outcasts. Their method for setting up the storyline is to speak conspiratorially to each other and never actually tell us what the fuck’s going on.
“What if Mitchell found out?”
What? Find out what?
“We’re almost ready.”
“We’re, almost, ready!”
What? Ready for what?
“Who was it?”
“Some SP deadbeat.”
Wait… A what?
“We lost the signal from Earth five years ago.”
“Yes… Let’s just say they’re not having a good time of it.”
Huh? Wait! So you know what’s happening? What do you mean?
And, of course, we get the obvious Lost influence with the whole “there’s something out there in the wilderness” thing. However, pretty much everyone knows what that something is! So the reaction to “there’s something out there” is “that’s impossible! It can’t be them!” *change subject*
As the series goes on, we get our answers, of course, and they’re all pretty mundane. It’s the sort of thing that could have been done with a quick prologue, or an opening text explaining shit. Such as we saw with Battlestar Galactica – the Cylons “have a Plan.” We don’t know what the plan is, but now we know they have one…and that sure sounds ominous because it’s capitalized. So now we’re suspicious of the Cylons even when we’re asked to sympathize with some of them. We always know there’s something bigger going on. And that’s great. BSG did in five seconds what Outcasts spent 59 minutes doing.
So…the story. An advance team of colonists have fled a dying Earth and prepared
South Africa a new world for the main group of colonists. But something’s gone wrong. They’ve lost contact with Earth and the fleet of colonists are delayed and/or missing. Our rag tag group is composed of military freaks, pacifist police that make you want to watch Demolition Man again, and deadbeat genius citizens who, out of boredom, have applied their intellect towards getting drunk and being moody. Their “president” likes to give meaningless speeches to doomed spaceship crews and…he has a Plan! It mainly involves cloning people, then panicking and ordering the clones destroyed, then panicking when he learns they aren’t destroyed and saying that we’re all the same, goo-goo-goo-joob.
It’s the flawed human race overcoming their own problems while also facing their equally flawed and rebellious creations on a hostile world! Starring Jamie Bamber! Tune in, suckers!
Most of the critics are caught up on the very poorly aped Lost elements, but the real influence that I see is Earth 2. The 90’s PA series that failed miserably but, nonetheless, was infinitely more watchable than Outcasts. Earth 2 has an advance team of colonists fleeing a dying Earth and landing on an Eden-like planet with unknown hostile variables because I guess they don’t have unmanned probes and rovers in the future. They’re sabotaged, so they land a few thousand miles from their destination and have to hike across country. Along the way, they battle with themselves, the hostile world, and the amusing fact that the planet just recently discovered and unexplored turns out not only to be a penal colony but also to have been settled over the last few decades by various individuals and tiny bands of refugees. The latter are apparently a surprise to the uber-government ships that (we are led to assume) are in orbit.
Outcasts had a great opportunity to improve on the Earth 2 storyline. A distant colony cut off from everything and forced to survive by hook or by crook. Yet, like the new Survivors, and most of modern British sci-fi, there’s just no real threat. There are angry people who haven’t bathed and there are other angry people who have bathed and, maybe, one of them might kill another and we’ll spend long scenes where the killer is weepy and upset about it. There’s meaningless political tension between two people we can’t ever sympathize with because both have hired thugs do their dirty work and are surrounded by vapid simpletons.
Since the resurgence of Doctor Who, British sci-fi seems to have become incredibly self-conscious. There seem to be elements of a backlash (the need to create an “adult” sci-fi show) as well as an almost pathological fear that they shouldn’t upset the apple cart. Survivors and Outcasts are shows about grim, post-apocalyptic topics. They’re modeled after shows where none of the main characters are safe from harm. They are “adult” in that sense. But then every punch is pulled. There’s a glittering, Roddenberry-esque overlay that removes all conflict, all threat, and just about all of the story. We get the initial unexpected death of a guest star in the pilot episodes, but even that is so clearly a ham-handed attempt to get us watching a sub-par show. After that, everything’s just fine. The main cast of Survivors are sleeping in comfortable beds, always look well-manicured, and have plenty of food and water and unlimited spotless cars to leap into and drive around, even a year after 99% of humanity is wiped out. The cast of Outcasts enjoys similar creature comforts even though they’re technically just scratching by at a besieged outpost and their supply run is five years overdue.
Outcasts does amp things up, eventually, and things get fucked up here and there… But that veneer of bad storytelling, unsympathetic characters, and no real threat that we can care about makes even the biggest explosion worthy of rolled eyes and a patronizing fake yawn.