SFX.co.uk editor Dave Golder wonders if Outcasts could ever have succeeded as prime time TV
Ironic, isn’t it? The BBC and Kudos create Outcasts , desperate to make a show that isn’t niche and appeals to more than just the sci-fi fraternity, and it ends up mainly appealing to… a niche within that very niche they were desperate not to fall into.
Don’t worry. This isn’t another column either slating the show or defending it. You’ve probably chosen your side and are well entrenched by now, and nothing I say is going to change your mind. For the record, I'm not a great fan, but I do think it’s improved and I do think it has potential, and it is admirably ambitious.
But the bottom line, whether you like it or not, it is a failure. It was a show that was produced to go in a prime time slot, which fell far short of attaining prime time audience figures.
I am just stunned that Kudos ever believed the show they came up with had mass appeal.
I’m glad some people enjoyed it. I’m glad that some people thought it was an attempt at adult sci-fi. I’m glad some people warmed to the characters.
But the whole way it is written, directed and produced had “multi-channel cult hit” written all over it, not BBC One prime time. Quite how a bunch of writers with little to no SF background, with a remit to create a popular hit, managed to produce a show that was clearly only ever going to preach to the converted beggars belief.
What is it about sci-fi that suddenly changes all the rules, and makes people who know how to produce great television suddenly lose all their sense of reason? Whether you like Outcasts or not it was slow, it was difficult to follow, and it was (initially at least) without a real focus. There was too much to take in.
Now, I’m not saying that all TV should be spoon-fed to viewers. Hell, I love stuff like Silent Witness , Waking The Dead and The Devil’s Whore, stuff that demands you pay attention and invest a bit of thought. But we’re talking a new SF show here, aimed at a non-SF literate audience. They have to get to used to the whole universe first; the rules, the settings, the characters. Making them work hard trying to understand what the hell is going on too is just a leap of faith too far. It was just too much like hard work to assimilate if you’re versed in sci-fi lore already.
Alternatively, that doesn’t mean I think the show should have been all whiz-bang Doctor Who action and quips. I love Doctor Who , but I would also like to see the 21st century equivalent of Blake's 7 : a truly adult sci-fi show dealing with adult themes, but still populist enough to draw in mass audiences. Blake’s 7 , for all the jokes made at its expense, did just that, and it wasn’t afraid to wear its sci-fi trappings on its sliver, padded sleeve.
Outcasts could have learned a thing or two from the first few episodes of Blake’s 7 . It too was grim, and serious and pretty remorseless. But it drew the audience in with clear, uncluttered, economical storytelling, concentrating on one man and assembling the elements of the show around him. It became an ensemble show later on, but it started off by concentrating on Blake. The person episode one of Outcasts concentrated on finished up dead before the end of the first hour. It was all a bit disorientating, and not in a good way.
Blake’s 7 was also rather good at showing rather than telling, fleshing out its universe and concepts visually as much as verbally. Outcasts opted instead for an awful lot of info dumping; important concepts and ideas and set-ups were often introduced almost by-the-by within longer scenes of dialogue. Again, it just wasn’t very audience friendly, unless you had the attuned sci-fi ear to pick these things up.
The odd thing is, these potential pitfalls are all things Kudos is well aware of and usually effortlessly addresses with economic skill. Life On Mars , Ashes To Ashes , Spooks and Hustle all have potentially quite complex set-ups, yet the scripts use good, solid storytelling tricks to keep the audience intrigued and watching (actually, in the case of Hustle they occasionally overcompensate with pointless flashbacks to things you’d picked up on already – but that’s so much a part of the show’s DNA it’s all part of the fun of watching it).
For some reason, though, faced with a science fiction show, they abandoned all that and almost wilfully decided that the show should be as obscure as possible. Weird.
It’s a shame, because this may well prevent BBC One from commissioning any more space based sci-fi for a very long time. But it’s not the genre that’s at fault. It’s the fact that Outcasts , by trying not to be too generic, ended up one of the most generic shows imaginable.