Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The Watcher - Outcasts, episode one

I've been eagerly awaiting Outcasts, the new BBC sci-fi drama from Kudos. The idea of the production company behind great shows like Spooks, Hustle, Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes finally turning its attention to science fiction was fantastic. British sci-fi media has really been improving in recent years from films such as Sunshine through to the relaunched Doctor Who also on BBC TV.

Sadly, I'm a little underwhelmed by episode one. Maybe I was brought low by high expectations but some things really didn't work for me in episode one.

Set in the unbelievably close time of 2040, the series tells the tale of a colony world called Carpathia. Earth has probably fallen and the settlers may be among the last of humanity, anxiously awaiting the arrival of more evacuees from home. The colony has it's own President, a security force, an expeditionary force, a general population trying to build a life and of course, crime. "A society of human beings with everything that involves."

Outcasts immediately tries to wear its science fiction credential on its sleeve, like a try-hard fan boy. The titles phase in against a star field like the start of Alien and the first visual is of a spaceship slowly flying past the camera, like the opening of Star Wars and so many imitators since.

The cast is great on paper, but at first they didn't really gel for me on screen. Liam Cunningham, Amy Manson and Daniel Mays are all fantastic and by act three you can really see Manson and Mays beginning to show a rapport as believable colleagues. Elsewhere, Hermione Norris mostly offers the same bland authority she brought to her role as Ros in Spooks, though I do hope we'll see her subvert my expectations as the series progresses.

Jamie Bamber is entirely wasted in a role that seems to be simply stunt-casting. He is playing the antithesis of Apollo from Battlestar Galactica and he spends a lot of the episode trying to save his performance from melodrama by trying to breath a little realism in the frontiersman he portrays.

It's not Bamber's fault, he does the best with bad material. The dialogue is frequently stilted and some of the dramatic choices are frankly ridiculous. At one point Bamber is forced to shout, "Back off! Or I'll kill you!", whilst brandishing a gun. I though that intention was obvious myself.

Outcasts won't redeem sci-fi for any of the haters. Characters vary wildly in their mannerisms and demeanour, despite hard work from most of the cast to find a baseline to hang their performances on. I was amazed to discover that writer Ben Richards contributed to some great Spooks' scripts of recent years, because here he just can't find a voice for his characters.

Poor Hermione Norris takes the brunt of this poor script. There's one scene where she goes to a bar and picks up the guy she earlier questioned over an assault. For a one night stand. Norris' performance in this latter scene is actually quite believable - despite her having the same sexual screen presence as a stapler - her bland authority almost becomes an asset here in selling this plot point. But the choice of her intended paramour is frankly ludicrous.

The entire narrative framing of this scene is simply to highlight that she isn't as in control as she would have us believe. Her worry and grief over her potentially lost family takes on a self destructive angle. Not unbelievable in itself, but this would have made a much better slow burning plot rather than shoehorning it in before the potential arrival of her daughter in episode two.

The direction isn't much better. There's another scene involving Norris herself that is simply trite. One where she uses a memory recall device called Deep Brain Visualisation (DBV) on herself to recall her missing and presumed dead family, that is rendered completely over-the-top by a jarring piece of classical music and awful camera angles.

This first script also fluffs the potential futurism of science fiction by indulging some incredibly offensive stereotypes. Just because you want to ground it in the realism of colonists struggling to survive, doesn't mean you have to use terrible clichés. The only person with a foreign accent is the au pair of a child. And the child himself - yup, there's a cute little moppet of a child in this. Shoot me now. It's Boxey from Galactica all over again. At least Ron Moore's BSG was smart enough to drop the brat early on.

Despite all this, I don't hate Outcasts and will tune in for episode two. There were some interesting story arc set ups, including hints of a darker back story for Cass Cromwell (excellently played by Daniel Mays, who initially seems to swagger in with a pig, but clearly has much more depth to offer) and the revelation that there are members of the colony that were supposed to be executed, but were instead exiled. They are still out there, seething with resentment, though we haven't seen them yet. My guess is this plot line dovetails neatly into the revelation that the colony's children were ravaged by a deadly virus in the early days, but time will tell.

The hour format remains Kudos and the BBC's greatest strength, having already worked so well in Spooks et al. Despite my misgivings of a lot of the dialogue, some of the character moments are nicely observed. Things that would potentially by lost with the breakneck pace of American TV and the under 45 minute running time.

Ben Fardon would have once used DBV on himself, but is finding he'd rather live in the present

No comments:

Post a Comment