Outcasts debuts tonight on BBC America at 9 p.m. Eastern.
If you’re making a science fiction pilot, all of the characters can be keeping individual secrets from the audience (and, therefore, each other), but all of the characters can’t be keeping the same set of secrets from the audience. That just creates frustration, as the characters talk around certain central facts of their existence, and the audience wonders when it will be clued in. And if you’re making a science fiction pilot, try not to have the entire first half be exposition, even though that must surely be tempting. At this point, we’ve seen enough sci-fi shows to know more or less what’s up when you’ve set a bunch of colonists down on the face of another planet and they’re having a rough time of it. We don’t need to have these facts endlessly explained to us.
Sadly, the pilot for Outcasts, the new science fiction import stepping in for Doctor Who on BBC America, commits both of these fatal flaws. To be fair, I’m not entirely sure all of the characters are keeping big secrets about what’s going on in their new world (they could be all on the level, actually), but they sure talk around things a lot, like they’re in a middle school stage production of Battlestar Galactica or Lost. (Having Jamie Bamber around as a twitchy explorer who’s grown paranoid doesn’t help in these matters either.) It’s entirely possible the show gets better from here—we’re adding it because io9, at least, seems to think it does (spoilers at that link), and, hey, it’s summer—and there are a few solid scenes in the pilot’s latter half. But the first half of the episode does everything to convince viewers that the series has taken an intriguing premise and setting and ruined it via poor writing, telegraphed plotting, and characters straight out of the clichés barrel.
Outcasts is set on the planet Carpathia, to which a number of humans escaped either shortly before or after (the timeline’s unclear) Earth suffered some sort of tremendous catastrophe. They’ve set up a frontier town called Forthaven, and from this base, expeditionaries go out into the great wild nowhere, searching to see what other resources and life might be present on Carpathia. Bamber plays one of these expeditionaries, a man named Mitchell, but once he returns to Forthaven early in the episode, it’s clear something has shifted, though no one—not even his wife—will quite explain to him what he wants to know. Meanwhile, President Richard Tate (Liam Cunningham) anxiously awaits the arrival of another ship full of colonists that will allow Forthaven to continue to grow, and Mitchell’s wife struggles with the weight of a secret she’s keeping. Also, a bunch of people have conversations about things they already know because we need to know them, there are hints of political intrigue, and a guy wanders around with a farting pig on a leash.
Most of the pilot’s major developments can be fairly readily predicted and seem like low-calorie versions of things that have already happened on numerous other series, most notably The Shield. (That ship arriving from Earth might as well have a giant Google maps pin sticking out of its top reading “Important Plot Point” as well.) For all of the benefits the British television system has in allowing its writers to end series when their time is up, the limited episode orders necessitated by this model really hurt shows that try to build entire alternate worlds, leading to rushed, overly expository series that lack room to really dig in and flesh out their characters and settings. Outcasts’ first (and only) series ends after eight episodes. Had that been true of a roughly comparable American series, Lost, viewers wouldn’t have even gotten to see the Hatch. Is there any wonder the best and most enduring British genre show—Doctor Who—is also the one that runs on something the most like an American production schedule? (There’s more discussion of this in the comments thread of this review from The Guardian, where the various readers grouse about how much better American televised sci-fi is than British.)
To be fair to the show, there are some intriguing moments late in the episode, as things start to coalesce into something that might be called a plot. I’d hesitate to call any of the characters “involving,” but there’s a fairly good scene between Tate and underling Stella (a quite good Hermione Norris) where they talk about their faded hopes for what Carpathia could be and realize that the reality of living in this inhospitable place has slowly chipped away whatever optimism they’ve had. I also like a bit where two characters you wouldn’t expect to hook up run into each other in a bar and promptly do, as it gives both of them some intriguing shades (though I strongly suspect we’ll never see at least one of them again). These nice character moments are few and far between, but at least the show knows how to do them, something that indicates it may settle in and do more of them once it’s past this awkward growth spurt.
It should also be said that the whole thing was filmed in South Africa, and the location really adds a lot to the series. There’s an epic sweep here that most American sci-fi shows go to Vancouver to achieve. But where Vancouver settings are by now old hat, the wild spaces of South Africa are little known enough to allow for some impressive and unexpected vistas, as happens with, for example, a strangely eerie and dead lake in the middle of nowhere. The direction of the pilot aims a bit too heavily at the film and TV work of J.J. Abrams (there are lens flares all over the place, and some of the wilderness shots are direct lifts from the Lost pilot), but it’s otherwise serviceable.
And here’s another thing: If you haven’t illegally downloaded the show already and if the BBC America airings are your first exposure to the show, I genuinely have no idea what you’re going to be watching, and I rather suspect it will be better than what I saw. BBC America always makes the full, British episodes available to American critics, which means that I’ve seen a one-hour-long cut of this episode, where you’ll see one roughly 45-minutes long. But this is the rare show that could really benefit from having 15 minutes trimmed out of it. Plenty of scenes go on for far longer than they should, there are lots of clumsy attempts to build atmosphere that don’t really work, and the plot takes too long to get to destinations you knew it was heading toward from scene one. Maybe BBCA will cut the solid character scenes (I hope not), but I rather expect they’ll cut some of the punishing exposition instead. And that would immediately make this a much better episode of television.
But based on what I’ve seen, I can’t really recommend Outcasts. I like the premise and the setting, and I like many of the actors, but what’s here feels like so many of those American dramas that tried to copy Lost but missed that what made the show popular at first wasn’t the complicated mythology or the unique setting or the sounds of a monster in the jungle but, rather, the sense that anything could happen at any time. Put another way: By the end of the pilot of Outcasts, I had the feeling that the story was just starting. But where that is usually a good thing in a pilot, in this one, it simply happened because it felt like the show’s creator and writer, Ben Richards, scrapped his first draft and mostly started over.
- Well, if not for this show, I never would have realized how similar Jamie Bamber and Eric Mabius look, so there's that.
- And, OK, I was won over by the farting pig.
- Scott Von Doviak will be taking over for the future (hopefully better) episodes of this show. Treat him well.