Ben Richards interview: looking back at Outcasts, its critical reaction, and where next
The creator of Outcasts responds to the criticisms aimed at him and the show, and talks about his feelings towards the programme now, and to TV drama in general...
It’s been a month since Outcasts left our screens. Over its eight episode run, it attracted some intense criticism, not all of it particularly constructive. Personally, I liked the show. I appreciated and saw its problems, but thought it really built over the course of its run, and was more ambitious than the majority of TV drama.
I was keen to catch up with its lead writer and creator, Ben Richards, though. Because I wanted to understand just what the impact of such intense criticism is on the human beings the other side of it. Plus, I was interested in his thoughts of the genuine constructive criticisms of the show.
In the end, we had quite a long chat about it all. And here’s what happened…
So, let’s start with the obvious question. Had Outcasts had got a second series, what was going to happen next?
I’m very keen on doing a novelisation of the ‘missing’ series, because we had brilliant stories. It’s one thing that galls me, and causes me and the people involved with the show real pain.
We would have learned some of the lessons about issues like pacing and action. They’re reasonable lessons to learn. I think, in general, it takes two series for a show. Often it’s the third where a show hits its stride. The second series you sometimes over-adjust.
Anyway, we had a huge episode one planned, which was a kind of battle for Carpathia. It was a battle that was fought on a number of fronts and involved some causalities among our main cast.
We did think there would be a second series. We had to think that. Of all the shows I’ve ever done, this is the one where I thought there’s so much story, the premise is so good. I thought there would probably be a second series, even though I’m a natural pessimist.
So, there was Fleur with the ACs and her relationship with Rudy that was only hinted at. So, we had all that to deal with. We had where the ACs were going to go, and what they were going to become. We had the fertility issue. And we had a fuck-off sci-fi populist character appearing who was going to be the female commander of CT-10, and the absolute opposite of anyone we’d ever seen on Carpathia before.
She was going to be terrifying. She was going to be like Ian McShane in Deadwood. It was the one thing missing in season one.
One thing we did in series one that was brave was that neither Tate nor Berger were strict heroes or villains. Tate had a lot that was wrong with him.
But the one character I thought we were missing was this Tony Soprano/Al Swearengen figure, who you know is really bad, but you want to see on screen all the time, because they’re funny. And she would have been really funny. She was going to be an absolute, no-nonsense, kick-ass character. And she was also going to play, by the end, a slightly heroic role.
So, we had a really good story mapped out. And, I think, keeping some of the moral issues of the show.
The big answer not given in episode eight was about transhumanism, which was partly where this was going, that this was about space being the last place a new species could start. And with the arrival of CT-10, there was an element of how this new species might look. And within that, there was a selection process over who would be fit for modification and who would remain with Tate.
And that’s where I do go back to some of the nastier critics and the way they helped ensure that none of this would happen! And I think: well you were sat there giggling about gypsy weddings, and you gave us a hard time? You could have chosen to support and nurture a new show, even while expressing reservations, as many Internet sites did. It was such a different type of show and it could have grown into something so interesting, given the chance.
In the end, it was often quite hard to make much sense of the early disapproval, as all we usually got was a storm of hysterical adjectives rather than any substantive criticism.
But a series 2 would still probably have been quite different from the first. That’s something now we’ll never see, which is sad both for me and lots of disappointed fans.Have you come out of the Outcasts experience armour plated now? Did it get to a siege mentality feeling?
Yeah. To be fair, if it had stayed at the level of episode one, it would have been hard. And it didn’t. But even on episode one, as I keep reminding everybody, we had some decent reviews.
Of all the shows I’ve worked on, I never expected vitriol on this one. I really didn’t. I could understand people saying it’s not their cup of tea. I can certainly understand people saying that the first episode was bleak, and we’ll come back to that, as there are things I’d definitely do differently. But I didn’t expect a hardcore who went completely ballistic.
I don’t like, as no writer likes, personal criticisms, but I do think that, when it had became so disproportionate and so illogical, and so knee-jerk and to a certain extent bandwagon jumping- I was quite convinced that some people who were being really vitriolic hadn’t watched it with any care or attention.
It really does toughen you up, though, because I stopped caring about what they were saying. For example, one previewer said that “Nick Griffin would approve of this show,” because Carpathia was run by white, middle class people. And you’re not supposed to answer back, but I nearly went after him. I thought that was both insulting and completely untrue. And you see as the episodes go on how untrue it is.
Then there was one particular commentator who used the phrases “discount CGI” and “pestilent script”. And I think that was wrong on two levels.
Firstly, the CGI was far from discount. That wasn’t what really bothered me, though. What bothered me was the knowledge I had of the enormous, unbelievable time investment that had been put in by Darkside, and Radford Neville, our brilliant producer, to try and get that right. Sleepless nights and endless tiny adjustments. And for it to be dismissed in such a breezy cavalier fashion, I found really shocking.
When it comes to works like ‘pestilent’, and this did toughen me up, I thought it’s a word that should be used if the drama had been titled “The Nazis: a reappraisal”, or “Paedophilia Reconsidered”. That’s when you might want to use the word ‘pestilent’. For me, that was indicative of a kind of ‘criticism’ where they’d abandoned all responsibility, both for accuracy and to engage with the topic in any meaningful way.
And that did toughen me up. It just made me shrug, in the end. I thought if you could use such an unpleasant word about a script which is fundamentally about human beings attempting to explore the possibility of starting again, and which ends with a melancholy but dignified approach to humanity, I think such an opinion isn’t worth worrying about, about anything or at any level.
We spoke once before and you talked about how the strength of the criticism for Outcasts had left you feeling as if you’d committed a crime?
Yeah. Even before we went out, after the press launch, there were some interesting comments, about how the show was bleak. But there were also indicators that people were going to stick with the show. And I remember saying to one of the producers that what I found encouraging was there was nobody going around saying this was absolutely terrible. I felt we were going to get a decent hearing. And we also had some good online reactions. So, I was fairly confident that we would get some mixed reviews, and that’s what I expected. That’s also what we got. There were plenty of people who liked the show as well. We had positive reviews in several broadsheets.
But some of the stuff that came from sections of the press, I was just surprised. I think there’s an element, and it’s slightly created a perfect storm, where it was sci-fi, that it was trying to be both grown-up sci-fi and mainstream sci-fi. I could feel some of the antennae twitching. It was a bit like watching a dog that was crawling along the ground towards a bird, and the dog is kind of trembling with anticipation and wants to get stuck into that bird. I did feel a sense of that.
Conversely, I’ve found a lot of the considered reactions to the show, the sensible, constructive and engaging discussion of the show, were coming from the Internet. And so, I engaged with several of the sites and that really, really helped me. These people are smart without being sycophantic and you can talk to them. That was a real pleasure.
I think the problem was that the people who were down on the show in newspapers were shouting very, very loudly.Like a flashmob?
But then a flashmob disperses.
And it did disperse, actually. It got much better after that first week. The angry mob tended to go away and the people who liked the show or, even if they didn’t like it, were interested in what we were trying to do, stuck around, and the tone changed for the better and became much more courteous and rational.
Can I ask what the personal ramifications are for you, your family and the people around you when you’re subjected to such intense criticism?
Well, I’d also say that we have to expect it, because we’re well rewarded. And I’m really, really not a whinger. I accept that criticism comes with the territory.
But it’s horrible. It’s absolutely horrible. You open the paper, you see your work described as “pestilent”, and you look around at your house and kids and life, and it seems to challenge everything. You need a thick skin to work with that, and some writers don’t have thick skins and that’s precisely what makes them good writers.
I think it definitely has an impact on your personal life. It’s eight weeks where you can be thrown into a tailspin by one comment. You can read a bad review, shrug, and get on, take your kids swimming and everything like that. But then one comment from leftfield can go like a poison dart into you.
And sometimes you do wonder, “What I have I done that’s so bad? Why is it becoming so personal and vicious?” When actually, what we tried to do, was to write a show that not only entertained people, but had deep moral concerns at its heart.
Certainly, another issue, I think, which is where I’m not hurt, it’s where I’m absolutely livid, is that there is plenty on British television which was far more deserving of being judged harshly.
[Outcasts] was never a project that was undertaken cynically, and in fact, if we were being cynical, we could have done a lot more crowd-pleasing stuff, but deliberately eschewed any attempt to camp it up, take the piss out of ourselves, or ridicule our own premise. We didn’t do any of that. And it was a show that took itself seriously.
Now, whether it succeeded or not is a debate you can have. But we were trying something different, something really ambitious.Just to be clear here. There are a lot of people who didn’t take part in that ‘flashmob bullying’, but who genuinely really didn’t like the show. What are your thoughts towards them?
I think that’s perfectly reasonable. There are a number of reasons you might not like the show. You might not like sci-fi. You might now like the kind of sci-fi we did, which I completely understand. You might not like the slow pacing, although I mind it far less than some.
It probably would have won more friends if it had more action and we deliberately didn’t go down that route. We tried to focus on the characters and relationships and issues that were involved in the premise. And I can completely understand people not liking that, or it not being their cup of tea. That’s completely different, though, from the kind of ‘haul the shark out of the water, cut its fin off for a laugh and then chuck it back in’ approach to some TV criticism.
I will also never share some of the criticisms of episode one and will defend it to my last breath, because I think it was beautiful, and it was elegant, and it was emotional. I think it was moving.
Was it a good episode one to introduce a new series? There are criticisms I can completely understand. It was possibly a mistake to start with characters with a lot of backstory. There was a big backstory to Mitchell that nobody had seen. And it was hard to invest in that story, because [people] didn’t know the characters, and they didn’t know what was going on.
The intention was good, though, to get people into a story quickly, and to develop exposition through story rather than too much ‘ah, a journalist has arrived to be taken around Carpathia’. We hoped to kick off with a lot of story.
It makes me laugh when we were attacked simultaneously for having too much exposition, which is an accuastion I utterly reject and which I think is nonsensical, and for being too opaque and not giving the audience enough, or at least a central figure to hold on to guide them through the world, which is an accusation that has more merit.
The other point that was raised, particularly after the press launch, was the tone. I would certainly go back to look at that. It’s surpising, because there were plenty of laughs at the readthrough and I try and write scripts which might not be laugh-out-loud but have nuggets of wit through them. Both myself and the director, Bharat Nalluri, like humour and it’s been part of all my previous work, even a show like Spooks. So, I certainly don’t privilege bleakness.
So, we might have tried to make episodes one and two a little more accessible if given the chance again. Having said that, though, the early epsiodes work on another level for me ,because I think they feel both epic and moving.
I would be surprised, though, with regard to your question about people who genuinely didn’t like the show. I guess I would question the critical judgement of somebody who’s watched episodes one to eight, if they could see nothing positive in it whatsoever. I would think that that person was critically at fault. But I could understand them still having reservations.
And actually that was a common experience. Most people who watched the whole thing found plenty to praise in it as well. Including those who had had reservations about the early episodes. And, without wishing to get all Mr Angry, what did people expect? There are very few of my favourite shows where the first epsiode had me totally hooked. The online response changed almost entirely during the run of the show, which is evidence that the slow burn paid off.
My in-tray is full of e-mails asking what happened next from fans of the show, the BBC received a barrage of complaints at the cancellation, and there are online campaigns for a second series. This is a show that had an impact, and certainly did not end friendless!If America had done Outcasts, you’d have had a pilot, and they’d have started the story earlier. They’d have thrown lots of money at Earth blowing up, and everybody fleeing…
Money we didn’t have!
Going back, do you think that this is where British TV needs to at least seriously think about pilot episodes?
I think sometimes a 45 minute episode would have suited us better, in some cases. And with episodes one and two, without a doubt, it should have been a 90 minute pilot. Almost everyone I know who watched the show thinks the same thing.
You learn with hindsight. The story of episode two would have belonged much better to episode one. Now, looking at it, for an episode that sought to bring people into a very difficult and new world, a 90 minute pilot with more action, faster pacing, and less backstory, definitely.
But they were often honourable mistakes. The Mitchell story, the frontier man who no longer has a place in this society,it was a good starting point.
One of the things that’s always exercised me greatly is that men are a danger to their children when they fall apart. And I thought it was interesting to show a story set in a new world where this was still true. The same kind of human dynamics are still at work, and when he feels the world crumbling, he becomes a great threat to his child. I thought it was really interesting.
Obviously, with hindsight, we would do some things differently. But that doesn’t mean that the way we did it was completely wrong, and I would argue that we got a lot right and that it was treated unduly harshly in some corners.
It’ll be interesting to see when it goes out on BBC America. The feedback we had from them was that they really like it. They believe, and they may or may not be wrong, that an American audience would find it easier to deal with than a British audience.
Sci-fi has a tail, too. An upside of the Internet age is that shows live on a lot more.
And I stand by the show one hundred percent. I’m proud of it, and I don’t regret doing it. I would much rather have written Outcasts, with no disrespect to genre shows, many of which are very good, than just another procedural.
Can we talk about the scheduling change that took place halfway through the series? When the BBC moved Outcasts from 9pm on a Monday to late Sunday night?
I said, when we first spoke, that it was struggling in its timeslot, and it was. It came as something of a relief from the pressure when we moved to Sunday nights. And I was pleasantly surprised by our Sunday figures, which I thought were higher than I was expecting.
I was pleased, because, at the time, it might have felt less embarrassing to have moved to the same time on another channel, but it wouldn’t have got the amount of viewers we had on a Sunday night, on BBC One.
I was quite pleased when I saw the Sunday figures, and obviously, it also took the pressure off, which was great. I think the second half of the series is very strong and perhaps easier to engage with, and I had no doubt about that in my mind. So, I could enjoy the second half of the series, and I was very confident about it. I was confident in myself. And I was pleased with the loyalty shown by many who had stuck with the show.
I think it raises a massive, massive general issue. If you’re going to make a niche show, which Outcasts undoubtedly became in the end, if you’re going to make a niche show for a niche audience, then you must accept that the figures will not be as high as you might want them to be.
Obviously, they can’t just bomb completely and Outcasts might have been more at ease on another channel. But then we have to ask how will we get the budgets we need to make such drama? Because only a major channel has the money to make those kind of shows. We couldn’t have made Outcasts on a smaller budget. It wouldn’t have worked.
Maybe it would have fared better on another channel. If it had got three million viewers on BBC2, it would have been a hit. I’m sure that the BBC will be asking the same questions. If they talk about making bold, ambitious shows, what kind of shows will they be? And what will be the lowest rating acceptable for that?How much, ultimately, should the ratings matter to the BBC, I wonder? Because the show that took Outcasts‘ place at 9pm on Mondays got less than a million viewers more.
Well, yeah. That didn’t go unnoticed! But I understand that ratings matter. I was not hostile or incandescent with rage about the move of slot, and I didn’t feel I’d been betrayed.
We were fabulously supported by the BBC Drama Department, by Ben Stephenson, who stood shoulder to shoulder with us the whole time. Lots of people said that it was a snidey thing for the BBC to do, but I did not at all feel that the BBC was being unsupportive in general towards the show. And I understood at the time why they took the decision they did.
With hindsight, I wonder what would have happened if it had been left in its slot, getting just shy of three million. Three million with catch-up and with AI rising steadily. Because three million is not a small amount of people. If I sold three million novels, my publishers would be throwing parties for me every day of the week. That’s what we have to look at. What is the benchmark? Three million is clearly a floor beneath, which they don’t want to go on main channels, and I can understand why they have to set some kind of benchmark.
But it seems to me that, for a show that as challenging as Outcasts,- we’re discussing, by episodes seven or eight, the capacity for superior species to make copies of us by reading and storing our DNA – that’s never going to get six to seven million viewers.
So, I just think the decision opened up so many questions. I wasn’t really reading the press by this point, so I didn’t see much of the reaction to the schedule change or how it was received. But I think it would be very healthy if the one thing it does is to open up a debate on how – and this includes both ratings and the responsibility of the critical fraternity – do we treat new drama series, and what expectations do we have for them?
Drama series are essential to TV, and yet they are the hardest to make and receive the toughest treatment. I’d be interested to see whether that could change a bit, or we’ll become very limited in the type of television we watch, a point which you made very well, I think.
I think, at the time, though, I accepted the schedule change, could see the reasons, felt relief at being out of the spotlight. I hoped that a hardcore would follow it, which they did. But now I feel slightly sad about it, because I think that if we’d just accepted that it was going to get three million viewers, we might be in a slightly different place to where we are now. We might have had the second series that would have allowed us to do things with all the interesting pieces we had put into place.
Can you give a glimpse of how tight the time issue is when working on a show such as Outcasts? Because it was in development for several years, but then got the green light, and I understand the schedule was very, very tight?
The biggest issue was time, without a shadow of a doubt.
We only had the first episode ready when Outcasts was greenlit. It had been in development a long time, because of changes at the BBC, and because I didn’t start as soon as the first script was announced. We then were asked for delivery in not much more than a year.
And by delivery, you mean?
Episodes in the can. So, we had to write seven episodes, shoot them and deliver them for the autumn of 2010. They then decided to hold until the new year, so we had a bit more time.
Once you get the green light, you just go like a greyhound. You spend so long waiting. And it’s not like America. There’s no writer’s room. It’s starting to go that way, but it’s very hard to do. British writers don’t work like that, the whole culture is different.
Torchwood sort of did it?
Yes. More shows are doing it now. Skins has one. It’s easier to get a writer’s room when you’re up and running.
For us, we had to find the writers, which was hard, given the nature of the show, and how difficult and personal a vision it was. We had to get the scripts together. We had to find another fucking planet!
And presumably when putting those scripts together, you found writers who didn’t work out, and had to try again?
We had other writers in mind. We had a list and approached them quickly. And once again, what you had on this show was a lead writer, again because of time pressure. There was an episode where one of the writers didn’t work out, which meant that David Farr, who was writing episode 6, then had to write another episode, in an incredibly short period of time.
When you say “incredibly short”, how much time are you talking about?
Well, you can be talking about- To get an episode seven, from the beginning to a shooting script, in about a month. And that story, I thought worked really well.
Episode seven was a credit to David and to Jamie, the director, that they managed to get an episode ready in a very short time. And on top of the writing pressure, and I’m really not making excuses, it’s just the reality of a show like this, you have such tight schedules. We had twenty-four days to shoot a block of two episodes. And look at those episodes! How complex they are in production terms.That’s at the longer end of TV drama too, isn’t it?
It is, yeah. There’s no rehearsal, either. One of the things is that you don’t have pick-up days. If you get a scene wrong, and the director is under so much pressure, then that’s it. It’s off the schedule. If it’s in a location, particularly in a location, you can’t go back there.
So, the time pressures on writing and shooting were enormous. And I can only say how proud I am of the show, just what a credit it is to the actors and directors, to the producer. You just don’t have all the time in the world, but they did an unbelievable job and I think time will show that.
Ben Richards, thank you very much.
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