The BBC, British science fiction, and Outcasts

As Outcasts gets moved to a late Sunday night slot, what message is this sending out for those making British science fiction shows? And what can we do about it?

Outcasts

Yesterday, the BBC confirmed that it was shunting its ambitious science-fiction drama Outcasts to a late Sunday slot for the last three episodes of its run. It’s a disappointing decision, for two reasons. Firstly, because I was genuinely warming to the show, warts and all. And secondly, it knocks science fiction out of such a prominent slot and back into a quiet niche.

It was equally disappointing to read some of the reaction to the decision pouring out on Twitter yesterday. Because there seemed to be some vitriolic glee that some were taking in its demise. Granted, these weren’t in the majority, and granted, if you listen to every negative comment on the Internet, you’d be driven mad within a day. But when the shunting of a show is greeted by comments such as “Haha! No surprise” and “Thank goodness” I do wonder what people are actually looking for.

Let’s get a few things straight, first. Outcasts has been a problematic show. Its first episode didn’t give enough solid entry points to get us involved, and the pacing has been off-putting to many. Conversely, it’s really evolved quite nicely, but the audience it needed had gone by the end of the first week. So be it.

But what is it that people are looking for from their television? Those who are delighting in the show’s fate, what would you rather the BBC do? It’s a constant criticism of British television that it rarely bothers to try anything different. That’s why we get a rolling cycle of detective/period/hospital/legal dramas. Because they constantly bring in the ratings and there’s a lesser element of risk.

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Outcasts was a bona fide gamble, and it’s the kind of risk that the British broadcasting system only allows a public service broadcaster, such as the BBC, to take. We don’t have an HBO or a Showtime over here, and so we rely on the BBC to tackle the genre shows that ad-driven channels can’t afford to gamble on.

But then we reward that gamble by slaughtering programmes that try something new, after just one hour has screened. It’s not enough to say you don’t like it. Some have to go actively out of their way to slam it as loudly as possible, as it it’s some Internet rage pissing contest. There seems to be no regard in some quarters to simply say it tried, but didn’t work. Instead, there’s an increasing delight when something fails. And then the circle begins again, as another legal drama fills its place (just wait until you see what’s filled Outcast‘s slot in the schedules).

I’ll be the first to admit that the BBC’s record in science fiction television, outside of the excellent work it’s done in Cardiff, has been bumpy. Ashes To Ashes was superb, but The Deep and Paradox weren’t. Survivors, in spite of those calling for a third series (with some justification), just wasn’t performing, and was never going to increase its audience share. But at least it got a second series run.

Outcasts won’t get that, but the scarier ramification will be if it puts the BBC off trying such projects again. Because I, for one, would far rather the corporation invests in genre gambles such as these and collects a batch of interesting failures, as opposed to following the trend of the day, or stooping to gypsy wedding levels to clutch at ratings.

Britain isn’t bereft of science fiction and genre talent, as shows such as Doctor Who, Ashes To Ashes, Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures, Being Human, Primeval, Misfits and more all testify. And broadcasters need the courage and confidence to back them more and more, and to develop new and interesting shows from them.

That’s why I’d ask the following. Even if you didn’t like Outcasts, even if you hated its guts, at least give all concerned credit for making it. For taking the risk. For trying to go against the grain of what most of British primetime television dictates.

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As has been repeatedly pointed out, nobody sets out to make a bad show, and from each subsequent new programme, lessons can be learned.

Personally, I think Outcasts has exposed a flaw in British scheduling, in that there’s no scope for a double-length pilot episode. That might be one lesson for starters.

My point, ultimately, is this: it’s hard enough getting a science fiction genre show off the ground at the best of times. The people who are trying, who are giving it all they’ve got to give us something different, at worst deserve a little respect for trying.

And the message needs to be clear to the broadcasters, too. We want more. We do want different ideas, different approaches, different genres. And we won’t crucify any project that arrives, should we happen to dislike it.

It’s too late for Outcasts, and that’s a pity. And we’ll have some of the thoughts of its creator, Ben Richards, on the site next week. But next time you spot a show in the schedules that does take such a punt, let’s, as many of us have, back it, and back it well. That way, BBC drama commissioning meetings won’t have to relocate to Holby anytime soon.

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