The Beeb has a new science fiction offering, and as we’ve come to expect from anything the BBC puts out, the first episode alone has more depth and pace than most shows you’re likely to see. “Outcasts” does a fantastic job of setting up a new world (literally), a cast of characters and a tapestry of lies and intrigue big enough to carry an audience through the rest of the series.
Episode 1 has set a high bar as far as pacing goes: from the first few moments, we’re knee-deep in the story of the planet Carpathia and its “capital” of Forthaven, with the set-up coming as needed. There’s very little in the way of info-dumps, as “Outcasts” sets itself up as a series built on intrigue and secrets, playing up how little the audience and the characters know for as much tension as possible. Instead we follow characters such as the unhinged Mitchell (“Battlestar Galactica”’s Jamie Bamber) and his wife Karina as they go about their lives as intergalactic settlers. It’s Mitchell who shows off the perspective of the soldier-esque expeditionaries who may or may not (but probably are) planning a coup, while Karina introduces us to PAS, the Forthaven police force, and other officers such as Fleur and Cass (“Ashes to Ashes”’ Daniel Mays).
Hovering above them in the pecking order are Richard Tate, President of Carpathia, and PAS director Stella Isen (“Spooks”’ Hermione Norris). Literally hovering above them is a transport ship, carrying refugees from Earth, and again we get all the info we need about how these characters came to colonize another planet through the story as it deals with trying to help this new transport land safely. There’s a lot going on in a single episode, but creator and writer Ben Richards juggles everything and makes it work.
The design of the series, high-tech and worn down, is fascinating and somehow a realistic depiction of what life as an interplanetary settler might be like. The long shots of Forthaven are reminiscent of a very sunny New Caprica, and Mitchell’s first scene of the episode, strolling through Forthaven in the bright sunlight, brings to mind comparisons to both the green zone and the wild west, and added to the tense feeling that the series seems to be striving for. The Forthaven “control room”, where Richard talks to the transport’s captain and many of the main characters keep an office, looks like it might’ve been cannibalized from the bridge of their starship, and bears more resemblance to a high-tech submarine than it does the shiny Apple look of the Star Trek bridge.
All the characters wear honest-to-goodness clothing, not silver jumpsuits or anything puffy or overly period: PAS officers have casual uniforms, civilians look positively ordinary, and most characters have climate-appropriate gear. It may seem like small details to focus on, but there’s something very contemporary and logical and sensible about them all that grounds the audience and makes us feel that these characters – and their situation – are barely removed from our own.
Within all this, an atmosphere of tension and suspense is crafted with a supreme amount of skill, both from the characters and the situations they’re presented with. There are several shock deaths over the course of the first episode, including a couple of characters who seemed like they were slated to be regulars for all eight episodes, and the odd line of dialogue that’s clearly designed to make us scared of what’s going on beyond the walls of Forthaven: talk of diseases, and a “they” who are “out there” (never a good sign). There’s some fantastic jump-scare moments during Cass and Fleur’s journey that will almost certainly have implications in future episodes. More than one character who we grow to sympathize with over the course of the episode is hinted to be keeping nasty secrets, and as the dynamic of life on Carpathia is fleshed out, different groups within Forthaven and their tensions with one another are introduced, such as a brewing conflict between the expeditionaries and PAS, each of whom believe their job is more important.
The end of the episode – a subtle cliffhanger, with the suggestion of future conflict rather than simply leaving the characters in peril – leaves the audience with a feeling of suspense and a strong desire to know what happens next, exactly as a good cliffhanger should.
The main criticism of the episode is that in the quest to establish tension and mystery around the characters, they’re only as fleshed out as the plot needs them to be. While their roles within Carpathian society and the little we do learn of their backstories and personalities make for some intense conflicts (the scene between Cass, Fleur and Mitchell at the end of the episode takes the cake), the audience never gets a good handle on the inner workings of these characters, how they think and what they’re likely to do in future episodes. Richard Tate in particular falls victim to this, as we don’t get to see him doing anything other than being the stoic but warm-hearted commander whose speeches can calm even a transport ship’s worth of panicky civilians.
But despite this, the actors all put in excellent performances: you are inspired by Liam Cunningham as Richard, you’re scared of Jamie Bamber as Mitchell (a very un-Apollo role) and you feel the sadness and loneliness of Hermione Norris as Stella as she waits to find out whether her family will survive the events of the episode.
Ultimately, the best thing working in “Outcasts”’ favour is that Ben Richards seems to have a good handle on what makes for good science fiction: what the genre has to say about people. The central question of the series, that its intrigue and tensions, aims to explore is laid out there for the audience to think about: “Do you really believe that human beings can live together in peace? Do you really think we can build a better place for our children?” (And that’s the actual line, so credit to the actor for making something so potentially narmy work so well.) That kind of strong focus suggests that “Outcasts” can build on its excellent first episode, further develop its characters and emerge as one of the strongest science fiction series of recent years.