Warning: this review contains spoilers.
Well, that was bleak.
Topped and tailed by some poetry reading that had me thinking that Outcasts was about to become the most middle class science-fiction series on the telly (that’s not to say I have a problem with young people reading poetry.r Rather, it’s not necessarily the first thing I’d imagine them to reach for when the fit has been hitting the shan), the BBC’s expensive new drama is going to have to fight to get people back for episode two.
The reason? Because its opening episode gave few concessions, choosing to keep the mood bleak, the tone downbeat, and the conversations long.
It’s presumably done this with a strong eye on the seven episodes that follow, but it’s asking the audience to take a bit of a leap of faith to go with it. Hopefully, they’ll do so, as grown-up science fiction drama on British television is hardly in bountiful supply. And there are reasons to stick with the show, which I’ll come to shortly.
However, what makes the difficulty of getting an opening episode right even tougher in the case of Outcasts, is the obvious comparison to be made with the recent take on Battlestar Galactica (and, going back further, Earth 2), which also tells the story of the survivors of Earth looking for a new home. It’s not a contrast that favours Outcasts so far.
I distinctly remember watching the first, post-pilot episode of Battlestar Galactica, 33, and being utterly blown away by it. Rarely in just over 40 minutes of television had I been so on edge, as a group of people faced a very desperate situation. Rarely had hopelessness been conveyed on the small screen so convincingly. Yet, even appreciating that Battlestar had had a pilot episode beforehand to set up its characters, 33 was outstandingly downbeat drama.
Outcasts, right now, isn’t. It’s got promise, certainly, but it’s not burst into life, and it’s had to devote much of its opening episode to talking. Yet, it does have a few things in its camp.
Firstly, it’s clearly straining at the edge of what a modern day BBC budget can buy you. Shot in South Africa, the world of the planet Carpathia is realised really quite well. It’s bleak, and has a kind of scaled down take on the Judge Dredd’s Cursed Earth surrounding the main habitat on the world. It’s in that habitat that the remaining survivors of Earth lie, awaiting a transporter that may or may not bring more, if it can survive the entry into Carpathia’s orbit.
Given how moody the build up to that event is, and given that the Beeb has clearly spent a lot of money just to get this far, it comes as little shock when said transporter fails to make it to the planet’s surface in one piece (via some solid special effects work). Yet, there’s an escape pod that looks like it’s going to be the source of trouble ahead.
In fact, there’s certainly no shortage of threads for the show to build on from here, not least in the hints dropped as to the dark past that has led humanity to the planet in the first place, and the unpleasant choices that have been made since they arrived.
Also, I really warmed to the interaction between the President, and the captain of the incomning transporter, with their conversations offering a human heart to the episode. This is where the show slowed just a little, to let us take information in, and these scenes were certainly welcome.
Let’s not overlook, too, that Outcasts has already proven its ability to pull a surprise. The quick demise of Jamie Bamber (whose character was arguably the most interesting of this opening episode), for one. This is a neat, almost Hitchcock-esque device. You get the apparent star of the show (at least that’s how many Battlestar fans would see him!), and stick a bullet (or fancy phaser blast) in them right near the start of the adventure. After that, surely anything goes.
I also admire that Outcasts refuses to treat its audience as idiots, hitting them with lots of storytelling in double quick time. Arguably, it takes things too far the other way, asking a little too much as it introduces us to a bunch of characters and gets across a good chunk of story in an hour. It does get quite tricky to follow as a result. But you can’t fault its ambition.
I do feel, ultimately, that it could have used that aforementioned pilot episode, though. This is something that British television hasn’t cottoned on to in the same way that US broadcasters have.
Lost opened with a two hour (80 minutes, once you take the adverts out) maiden episode. Battlestar Galactica had a longer pilot. 24 always used to blast off with two episodes at once. And whilst the BBC has made a concession to this by scheduling episodes of Outcasts on consecutive nights, I do feel that it would have reduced the task on writer Ben Richards’ shoulders somewhat had it just given us a 90 minute special to get things started with.
It would have given some welcome extra space to get used to the show, the way it does things, its deliberate pacing, and the situation we’re being presented with. It also, crucially, would have spared some time to expand beyond establishing work, and to break up the talking a little more. As it is, it feels like 90 minutes of business packed into 60, and more space to do more things would have helped.
It’s a tricky start for the show, then. But still, opening episodes of genre shows are brutally hard to get right, and there’s enough in this maiden hour to get me back for more tomorrow night.
It’s got work to do, but there’s an interesting foundation put in place, that suggests those who write off the show for its tone this early on (as I suspect will happen) might just be missing out slightly further down the road.
And good on the BBC for commissioning the show, too. I’d far rather have Outcasts than another routine detective drama (unless said police drama involves Gene Hunt, of course).
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