Downcast outcasts

It was with more a sense of obligation than genuine expectation that I sat down to try the first episode of BBC’s new Outcasts science fiction drama.

After all, the signs and portents were not good: the last SF outing on the BBC was the embarrassing Defying Gravity, which was quickly dubbed “Gray’s Anatomy in Space” before being equally rapidly cancelled. It just seems that British TV really has a problem dealing with science fiction, and alas the dull Outcasts opener did little to dispel this impression.

Admittedly, it’s a very hard genre to get right. If you’re trying to create a new world or a new future environment to set the drama in, then you have to pitch it perfectly and achieve the tricky balancing act of making it believable but fantastic, realistic but alien. Go too far and you’ll lose the mainstream audience who will simply roll their eyes at the daft bug-eyed monsters; but be too conservative and viewers will wonder why it’s science fiction at all, and you’ll lose the genre fans.

Perhaps the biggest problem is how to convey the details of this new world to the audience without bamboozling them with too many unfamiliar terms, acronyms and concepts; and all the while avoiding those excruciating infodump scenes where two characters have to carry out a wholly unbelievable discussion along the lines of “Well, as you know John, for the last 40 years we’ve not had fossil fuels but instead rely on …” Right, just like ordinary people in the street suddenly turn around for a conversation about how for the last 40 years we’ve no longer been restricted to black and white television – such discussion about the past and everyday furniture of life is just something that you wouldn’t have in day to day chats.

The original Star Trek series faced exactly this problem in the 60s – creating a whole new future that had to be realistic and believable. They did it by explaining nothing at all, just accepting that this was the day to day reality. Tricoders, communicators, transporters, even warp speed were just part of the scenery, throw-away mentions in the dialogue only expanded upon later on when scripts actually started to utilise them. Because the characters accepted that this was the day-to-day reality without long expositions and explanations, the audience did too.

Sadly, the first Outcasts didn’t seem to learn the lessons of how to solve this problem and had several such infodump scenes (including the ultimate lazy device of sitting in with a classroom of kids getting told everything by their teacher) and too many needless acronyms (PAS, DBV and XPs) so it managed to be both thuddingly obvious and confusingly off-putting at the same time, both too odd for ordinary viewers and too tame for SF fans. There were also too many clichés, such as the minute the colony president and the captain of a newly arrived freighter struck up a video conference friendship: you just knew the freighter was doomed and that the captain would go down with the ship. The characters and plots were all very familiar and could easily have been in any other drama, leaving the big question hanging over it as “why bother setting this on an alien planet at all?”

It could improve: it has a strong cast including Hermione Norris and Liam Cunningham, as well as Ashes to Ashes’ Daniel Mays whom I’ve rated ever since his first starring role in the BBC3 surreal drama Funland in 2005. There are enough little hints of weirder, deeper, more interesting things to come with the appearance of the mysterious “whiteouts” and the final scene arrival of Eric Mabius as the Earth administrator who planned the resettlement to the new world, which clearly implies a sinister backstory all of its own. The show will need the confidence to go with these elements and develop its own identity, and fast, if it’s to have any chance of a second series; but for the sake of the cause of British-produced science fiction, I hope that it can and does.

But why is it that British TV struggles with science fiction as a genre when US television can seemingly pump out such SF programmes right alongside the cop shows, medical and legal dramas that are its staple? Perhaps it’s because American TV doesn’t care if its high-brow or low-brow, doesn’t care whether it has a big idea, just as long as it’s entertaining. But British TV is sniffy about that: everything has to have a purpose, a message if you will, in order to be a serious drama. If it doesn’t then the TV industry just dismisses it as kid’s fare. Even a wonderful, excellent show like Being Human (which is horror genre and not science fiction) is only able to succeed because it’s positioned on the BBC’s teen-friendly BBC3 digital channel and therefore doesn’t frighten the adults over on the Beeb’s ‘proper’ channels.

Which brings us to Doctor Who, British television’s one incontrovertible science fiction success story, but which of late has been getting a backlash from the likes of Stephen Fry and Trevor Eve: “The programme is great, but it was created for kids in 1963,” Eve was quoted as saying in the Radio Times last month, adding dismissively “One doesn’t need to say more.” Basically he’s saying: if it’s science fiction, it’s for kids. That’s the British TV industry way of looking at it, and is why for Doctor Who‘s 16-year hiatus from the screen the BBC didn’t attempt to produce any science fiction shows despite the popularity of SF in US imported series and films.

With that kind of attitude prevalent in the industry, no wonder that when it comes to anyone tasked with producing an “adult science fiction drama”, they’re forced to make it overly ponderous and portentous to prove its grown-up credentials and that’s it’s not another Doctor Who, honest. Dull, in other words, because to make it fun and entertaining would be to risk having it dismissed as kid’s fare. And that’s why we end up with po-faced, boring fare such as the BBC’s recent soulless revival of the po-faced, boring 70s series Survivors.

The irony is that Doctor Who has been tackling issues of how to quickly set up a believable alien world without either losing or boring the audience for five decades, creating a whole new environment every week in a 40 minute show without the need for a single infodump. The ‘grown up’ SF shows could learn a thing or two from the kid’s show, which has been doing this sort of thing far longer and far better than anyone else. But of course, the industry wouldn’t deign to accept advice from a kid’s show – even one with such unparalleled experience and proven track record.

It’s important to make clear that just because a show is entertaining first and foremost doesn’t have to mean that it’s also childish or dumbed down. The show that changed everything in the States in the last few years was Battlestar Galactica, which started as A Really Bad Idea – remaking a kitsch and brainless 70s science fiction show full of space battles, explosions and robots. Could anything sound more childish? And yet by the start of the third season of that show, even mainstream commentators had cottoned on to how the series was tackling issues of religious fundamentalism, terrorism and society’s reaction to it – what it takes to cause even the good guys to become fanatical suicide bombers – in a way that no other drama or factual programme possibly could so soon after 9/11 without causing outrage or knee-jerk antagonism. Battlestar Galactica had us rooting for the terrorists – and then, afterwards, leaving us to realise and ruminate on what an insight it had given us into the mindset of those we rightly revile in real life. Hugely powerful, significant and affecting stuff with real impact to thinking in the here and now.

That show didn’t start off with this heavy philosophical edge, but in hindsight it was clearly part of its set-up from the very start. The writers just knew that the first duty of any TV series – and most especially a genre show – is to appeal to, entertain and win over the audience so that they feel this is a hour a week where they feel comfortable and to which they would like to keep coming back to. Once that battle is won then you can take the audience on the most extraordinary, significant and demanding journeys possible in drama; but if you think you can do that from act one, scene one without earning their emotional buy-in because they’re struggling with weird set-ups and ham-fisted infodump dialogue then you’ll fail. The science fiction fans will be put off by the heavy coating of “worthy drama”, while the rest will be put off by the “juvenile SF”.

The balance can be and has been done, but it’s something that British TV in particular just can’t seem to get the hang of. Best consult the Doctor for a prescription.

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