Archive for October 17th, 2011

“Outcasts”: a review

Outcasts” was a short-lived sci-fi TV show by BBC broadcasted this year. It tells the story of 70,000-strong at a colony in the planet of Carpathia, in just a few short years from now. Earth is almost destroyed and ravaged by war, and these colonists are the only hope for human race to survive. But Carpathia holds secrets, mysteries, and the guilty past of the colonials. You can rent the discs on Netflix.

The show is one of the most expensive British shows of all time. The production value was great, and the locations were amazing (shot in South Africa). Definitely not your kits-looking Dr Who. The sci-fi elements were very interesting and thoughtful: genetically-modified humans, unique kind of aliens, survival and natural catastrophes in a mysterious, hostile environment with its own piece of history. Carpathia itself is a character in this show, which is how it’s supposed to be. Overall, I felt that the producer who envisioned Carpathia and the colony knew where the story was going, and there was a clear path towards resolution.

But where the show faltered is in the delivery. All the right ideas were there, the right visual look was there, but the way the story unfolded was all wrong. The dialog, and the architecture of the story-telling was just very bad. Too old-style, too uneven, and unbelievable at times.

When I checked who wrote the scripts, it was made clear what the problem was. There is only one writer. Ben Richards. Who happens to be the creator and master-mind behind “Outcasts” too. Clearly, Mr Richards is the man with the right sci-fi vision. But unfortunately, he can’t write scripts in a way that don’t patronize the viewer, or progress the story in a more interesting way. Richards made the same mistake as J. Michael Straczynski made in Babylon 5, not letting anyone touching his writings. (Update: I checked the credits on IMDb, but Wikipedia lists more writers).

First of all, these autonomous episodes with characters we never see again, had to go. Such characters/stories have no place in modern serialized television, even if they help to tell pieces of the overall story. The pieces needed to come more natural, and the characters we encounter need to be re-visited, so we get a more rounded idea of the community there and how they live. To sell the colony to the viewer, you have to give information about everything that’s going on, not only what happens in CT1’s bridge or PAC’s/XP’s main office.

Secondly, the mystery is not dealt right (e.g. we should have seen Berger opening his communication device long before we see him using it, Cass showing elements of his previous bad self, Fleur’s intelligence actually showing etc). Instead, we got autonomous episodes where whole major chapters were opening and closing in 45 minutes (e.g. Tate giving up presidency and getting it back). The counter-argument for this is of course that “viewers thought that the series was already slow going, and you wanted it to be even slower?”. And the answer is no, I don’t want it to be slower. But the reason why the viewers thought that nothing was happening in the series was because the past/secrets of the various characters were sprouting out of nowhere in single episodes, rather than creating clear mysteries around these characters in small but clear steps, pushing people to watch further.

Thirdly, Forthaven, the colony felt small. There are 70,000 people living there, but we only dealt with 9 recurring characters. That’s too little, too small, and too unbelievable (LOST had 25, BSG 20 or so). Is the whole PAS office only have Fleur & Cass as the only officers? Of course not, but the story is shaped like no one else works there. The “bridge” only has two speaking characters too. The XPs only have one, the others are marionettes. We learn very little how these people actually live there, where is the power, food, materials come from. We know nothing about how the AC live either, even if they’re supposed to be a mystery, but their whole story is presented in an unbelievable way: it’s like the outcasts have been outcasted by the script itself. On the single scene in the whole series where we see the Council of the colony, only the 4 recurring characters speak, and when the camera pans to the rest of the Council people, it’s like we watch plastic dolls.

Not to mention that the relationships are based on 2: Cass & Fleur, Tate & Stella, Tipper & Lilly, Jack & Berger. Only Rudi is alone, since he’s… an outcast (we never seen his wife & mother of his two babies, let alone his No 2). This is all very simplistic, not to mention the few cases where the show becomes a laugh, like when Jack starts shooting at the attacking ACs like he’s some sort of cowboy who’s invisible to other people’s bullets. Scenes like these were both badly written & shot.

As for the villain on the series, Berger, he’s presented as very black & white to the viewer. It is very obvious that Richards tried to make Berger a modern enigmatic villain, but he failed miserably. Berger should have been someone who truly believed that what he was doing was for the good of the human race. Kind of like the Dr Rush character on SGU, or Locke on LOST. Berger’s character fails to show the same fine line, instead we only get a megalomaniac and liar, trying to grip power via treason. This is not exactly the fine line viewers are looking these days.

Finally, there’s no way we will have the technology to build such ships in 40-50 years time, it’s way too optimistic. Oh, and how is it that everyone’s British (except Berger), in an otherwise seemingly international colony?

To recap, “Outcasts” was very good sci-fi as an overall story idea, but with a terrible script/dialog and delivery. It needed a treatment similar to “Breaking Bad” for believability & characters, LOST for mystery and story architecture, and BSG for relationships & political drama. If it makes it any easier, I felt exactly the same about the also-cancelled “FlashForward”: similar flaws, great ideas, poor realization. Still, I give the show a 7/10 for trying to do something more epic than the standard British shows. Compared to other TV shows rated on IMDb, it’s lower rated than it should have been.

I would very much like to see a US cable TV remake series of “Outcasts” (also shot in the beautiful South Africa, possibly reusing some of the sets), employing Ben Richards as an executive producer, but with better script writers to execute his vision. Personally, the only actors I’d keep for such a remake would be the excellent Liam Cunningham (president Tate), and possibly Michael Legge (Tipper). Eric Mabius (Berger) would be on the fence.