Outcasts: Not Your Usual British Sci-Fi

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Following a worldwide epidemic, societal meltdown or disaster a few thousand “useful” people were bundled onto spaceships and rocketed off to a replacement home planet. Five years later, they landed on the spookily Earth-like Carpathia (breathable atmosphere, plentiful H2O, soaring scenery, etc). We catch up with the immigrant humans ten years into their settlement. They’ve built a makeshift mini-metropolis and legal system but it’s basically the Wild West. Now, another shipload of Earthlings is about to land.

Knowing that Outcasts (Monday and Tuesday on BBC1 at 9pm) is British television sci-fi will help keep your expectations low, but unnecessarily. If you can see past the over-polished child actor in episode one, who for some reason recites the first line of that Blake poem about tigers in the night over and over, it’s a striking and successful pilot. The dialogue (at least the lines reserved for the adult cast members) is slick and the lead parts went to actors who could handle them. Liam Cunningham plays the colony’s weary leader, President Richard Tate, and Hermione Norris is his colleague and confidant, Stella Isen. While Tate’s family died shortly after arriving on Carpathia, Stella’s never even made it that far. Norris’s perma-tragic aura really comes into its own here.

But there are niggles. It’s obvious to anyone who watched Battlestar Galactica that this is the BBC trying to do its own version, albeit without the budget or the top-drawer creatives. Still they’ve made best of their resources, including booking Battlestar’s Jamie Bamber. He plays rugged hero, Mitchell Hoban. Even Outcast’s end of episode music is an almost note-perfect reproduction of the dum-der-dum-dum beats that used to signify the flashy pre-cap at the beginning of every BSG.

On Carpathia, peace reigns, just about. It’s a fragile society in its infancy, so not yet the improved version of earth that the immigrants had hoped for. Conflict--the underlying kind and the loud, violent type – seeps into every conversation and glance. The show has an alarmingly grey atmosphere and the muted colour palate permeates everything from the outcasts’ outfits to their perspectives.

Carpathia’s president is more like a police chief than a head of state. He comes off as harried and blunt but also a moral human being. But like all fictional presidents, Tate has his own dark secrets and conspiracies. Now, there’s leakage and so the future inside the compound looks even more uncertain. But what’s happening here is only part of the picture. Outside the walls, something strange and foreboding skulks in Carpathian wilderness, probably. Or at least, we hope so.

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