Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Castoffs

Back in the summer of 2009, after Tony Garnett circulated an email accusing the BBC of stifling creativity, Ben Stephenson, Auntie’s drama commissioning controller, stuck his little head above the parapet and lobbed back a list of the various new dramas the Corporation would soon have on the screens to placate the critics and prove Garnett wrong. However tempting previews are you never can tell until you see the finished product. I have to admit to being suspicious of Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis’ update of Sherlock Holmes, which, when transmitted, turned out to be one of the best darned things on television. The same couldn’t be said for The Deep.

It was promoted as a drama set on board a submarine trapped beneath the Arctic ice floe, where a team of oceanographers, left with no power and limited oxygen, discover they are not alone. That suggested a whole lot of possibilities, none of them involving a bunch of idiots wasting their time bickering, which was pretty much what we got in the end. Instead of following in the footsteps of the likes of The Abyss and Ice Station Zebra with their claustrophobic angst, what surfaced was a bunch of nonsense that felt like it was influenced by the final couple seasons of Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which was not good.

Trying to think back to late last summer when it finally pitched up in the schedules, it’s difficult to come up with just one redeeming feature from all five episodes. Just as difficult is trying to think of the worst thing about the show because there’s so much to choose from. There was Minnie Driver, absolutely unconvincing as the captain of the submarine. She might have been the designer as well, in which case she needed to be punched hard in the face because this submersible, named Orpheus (oh, dear God!), made Skydiver seem utterly feasible. It had a moon pool for fucks sake! Then there was the oversized and utterly impractical bridge. And that was manned by, on the whole, a useless (but thankfully disposable) crew who looked like they should have been home revising for their A–levels rather than alternating between hissy fits and hysterics once they were submerged.

The bunch of imbeciles reminded me of the clowns running the Mars base in the Doctor Who episode The Waters of Mars who didn’t have a clue of what to do in a crisis. Oddly enough, one of the television channels was showing Mission to Mars on Sunday afternoon and I caught the last half of it. It’s not a brilliant film, but at least it showed that Brian de Palma might have finally gotten over his Hitchcock fixation. Because of a couple of unfortunate incidents, the crew of the second mission have to run through emergency protocols. They work against the clock, running through all kinds of procedures. Just because they know what to do in these situations it doesn’t mean that everything will go to plan. But what it shows is that the writers have done some proper research.

Yet when the BBC attempts to produce something that comes close to adult science fiction drama it’s happy to produce scripts that sets up a situation and then fritters it all away because the writer hasn’t either put in the research or given proper thought to both the environs and what the characters would actually do in those circumstances. So what it descends into is one faux drama after another. Think about that adaptation of The Day of the Triffids the Christmas before last where Bill Masen has to be rushed to a hospital because Triffoil, the company that farms the violent vegetation, apparently doesn’t bother to have any medical facilities on site. Obviously Masen needs to be in a London hospital so that he discovers the city deserted after the solar eruption, but the reason to get him there is thoughtless and unconvincing, which brings us to Outcasts.

A few clips had appeared in the montages squeezed in between the scheduled programmes to promote the new BBC dramas but they didn’t really show much, which was probably a good thing because are the weeks got closer to transmission the more the previews showed the less inspired Outcasts appeared. On the BBC TV blog, writer Ben Richards explained:

The inspiration behind Outcasts was the desire to tell a pioneer story, and the only place you can do that really now is in space. I wanted to explore second chances, most fundamentally whether humanity is genetically hardwired to make the same mistakes again and again.

That does sound like a pretty good idea to explore. And hopefully anyone interested in that sort of thing tuned in at 9:00pm this evening to watch the second episode of Battlestar Galactica on Sky Atlantic because it took the concept of humanity of making the same mistakes over again and created a work of real genius. As for Outcasts, I’m afraid the reviewer in The Times’ Playlist magazine from this week got it right when they wrote:

Not since Bonekickers has the BBC broadcast such an irredeemably awful series. Sometimes catastrophes on this scale can be enjoyed precisely because they are so dismal, but this one has a kind of grinding badness that defies enjoyment of any kind.

The first episode actually put me to sleep – which is not a good sign – so I had to catch it again on iPlayer. Unlike a new medical or crime drama, science fiction needs not just new characters and situations but a credible environment for the story to play out in. Outcasts told me very little and made me question a whole lot more, simply because nothing seemed to have been thought out. When it came to that early money shot of the Forthaven settlement, my initial question was, where’s the bloody river? Surely fresh water for drinking and to aid sanitation would be a priority to help keep the occupants healthy, along with nutrient–rich arable land. And a nearby forest would be good for lumber.

Finding out that the planet is only being explored by members of the expeditionary force – on foot, no less – it made me wonder why, with no ground transport, there was such a bloody big gate at the settlement. And since they obviously haven’t covered much ground shouldn’t there be some kind of fortification against either an unseen indigenous life form or a carnivorous animal species? And why wasn’t this sort of analysis conducted from orbit when they first arrived, because otherwise it just seems like they plonked themselves down at the first place they landed. And how come the newly arrived settlers in the second ship haven’t spent their five–year journey in some kind of suspended animation, thereby cutting down on the massive amount of supplies needed to sustain them for the trip? Instead they’ve been stuck inside, making babies, which eats into their limited resources even more.

Wouldn’t this have been figured into the back story for the show, especially when it apparently spent three whole years in development?! Because without any rational thought applied all we end up with is inconsequential action and a load of blather rather than proper drama for characters in such a situation. The programme makers obviously want to hold information back to add to the (tedious) mysteries revolving around the colonization, but some sensible details upfront wouldn’t have gone amiss to stop making it appear so bloody amateurish. Maybe they should have watched Battlestar Galactica first, which brought up the issues of how much food, water and fuel the fleet would need and then wove their procurement into the ongoing narrative. Firefly and especially Serenity would have also been worth looking at too.

In the case of the latter, within the first few scenes we get a flashback to River Tam at school where the teacher briefly explains the mass exodus from Earth. Once that’s set up, establishing the circumstances for the audience, we get on with the story. In Outcasts’ first episode, in a similar scene, which would have been the prime time to clue the viewers in, the teacher only tells her class that the key was finding a planet in the “Goldilocks Zone” – one that is “just right” to support human life. Yeah, we got that already. The earlier shots of clear blue skies and reasonably verdant countryside pretty much gave that away, you muppet!

It hadn’t surprised me that the teacher was rubbish because by that point it was already apparent that almost all the people sent out to the new planet seemed to be utterly useless at their jobs, especially members of the security detail who have handed in their guns following new regulations that everyone else blithely ignores. When we’re told that one of the achievements of Hoban, the militant member of the expeditionary force, is that he was the first person to set out and find water, you can only surmise that they’re even more moronic than the morons from the recent remake of Survivors.

In fact just before nodding off I wondered if this was a big joke and we’d eventually discover that all the colonists had arrived on Ship B of the Golgafrinchan Ark Fleet having previously been employed as insurance salesmen, hairdressers, telephone sanitizers and account executives. When I eventually saw the remainder of the episode I was rather disappointed that the ineffectual captain of the second ship wasn’t sitting in the bath saying how much he was looking forward to a nice gin and tonic. When I saw what I’d missed, all I discovered was that they’d killed off the only character with any depth, played by the only actor putting some effort into their role.

Still, I thought I’d give the second episode a go, not because there might be a modicum of improvement but because there might be an explanation as to why the transport’s lifeboats were called Sub–Shuttles. Instead we heard there had been an uprising in Shanghai, when I’m sure previously someone said the city had been previously nuked. Maybe a gigantic swarm of twelve–foot piranha bees got them. And then Outcasts’ version of the Others turned up. I think they were supposed to be clones but by that point I was trying to figure out 29 Across and frankly couldn’t care about what was dawdling along on the television screen.

With every bit of action undermined by the moronic dialogue, the attempts at drama were frankly underwhelming for the set up and came across as something that could just have easily been played out in a soap opera with characters arguing over their market stalls. By the time I have up, Outcasts just felt like a suit that had come from a tailor who hadn’t got the measurements right. Still, it was nice to see Auntie continue its recent tradition of producing a massive cauldron of shit whenever it attempts adult SF drama. All that should be said of Outcasts is “No, say we all!”

9 Comments:

At 4:54 pm, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 5:09 pm, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

Second try...

World-building is one of the fundamentals of SF writing and it's a rare non-media convention that doesn't feature a panel on it... and a rare media convention that does! I heard a lot about the world-building in Avatar but then the whole movie hung on a sparkly fantasy mind-transfer magical tree moment straight out of My Little Pony Twinkle Wish Adventure.

Mind you, it's not like I was fully invested up to that point.

 
At 10:52 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Getting caught up in inconsequential minutiae is definitely a bad thing. When, in the lead up to Avatar’s release, Cameron started going on about how long they had spent designing the various strains of flora and fauna it all started feeling a bit... precious. After seeing the finished film, you kind of wished more time had been spent on an engaging story rather than the pointless twaddle.

With Outcasts there as no tone. The introduction of the Battlestar Galactica, in the miniseries, with Starbuck jogging through the ship and shouting, “Make a hole!” to the people in her way, announced to the audience that this was a military craft. And the characters, once introduced and when on duty, acted accordingly. Whereas in Outcasts any chain of command was nebulous at best.

I suspect a lot of that comes down to budgetary restrictions. If I remember rightly – without having to go back to iPlayer to check – all the extras in the settlement’s control room are non–speaking roles. So the President of the colony and the Head of Security seem to be doing everything, but even then chatting like they’re on a coffee break. As for the captain of the newly arrived shuttle, the role was played out like the guy was sitting around in a retirement home, not exactly clued up as to what was going on.

Without any focus on procedure it all just seemed a bit silly. And as for the few colonists who got a line of dialogue here or there, there was no suggestion of what the day–to–day existence was like, and in fact they gave the impression that Tom and Barbara Good had a more difficult time of it.

If this kind of lack of thought was brought to a new crime or medical drama it would be laughed off the screen. Apparently poor old Ben Richards has admitted recently that he’s not “sci-fi literate” and it really shows. Why didn’t Kudos bring in some consultants or other writers who could have helped establish a credible background for the drama to play out in front of?

 
At 12:41 am, Blogger qrter said...

I didn't even bother watching the first episode - one glance at the cast was enough to put me off.

The BBC keeps producing these glossy dramas that have no depth to them at all, and they keep using the same gaggle of stale, glossy actors in them. They try to throw in an unexpected face now and then ("Minnie Driver is in it? Really?"), but that won't fool anyone. It'll be same kind of overproduced yet underwritten pap.

(Although I actually kind of like Hermione Norris - the BBC is trying to confuse me with her I'm guessing, she used to be in okay stuff, and then she went the horrible glossy drama route.. I won't fall for it, Beeb!)

Thanks for mentioning Bonekickers, btw. I had purged that name from my mind completely, just reading it again made me laugh out loud.

 
At 1:09 am, Blogger Good Dog said...

Hey fella,

Well, you’re not missing much. And as I mentioned, anyone who wants to watch a science fiction drama that explores the notion of humanity being genetically hardwired to make the same mistakes again and again should opt for Battlestar Galactica.

After Sky made a big deal of promoting the new season of Mad Men as part of what Sky Atlantic would have to offer, leading up to the channel’s launch last week – even though the show is so far away from that fifth year with contracts still to be signed before it even gets to production – and the BBC rubbing their noses in it by stripping the most recent season of Mad Men into BBC’s late night schedule, it made me laugh to see Sky take their revenge by putting Galactica up against Outcasts.

Even if the writer has come up with something interesting to say, because he hasn’t created a credible reality it just feels like everyone has scampered off to the dressing–up box to play “let’s pretend”. And there’s this big speech the President gives to the doomed new arrivals where he reminds them that the planet is called Carpathia in honour of the first ship that came to the rescue of the stricken Titanic. It’s so overblown, and I’m sitting watching, thinking, yeah but the RMS Carpathia was later sunk by a U–Boat. That made me wonder is the person who named the planet was the same chucklehead who decided the ship carrying the scientists and astronauts in Sunshine should be called Icarus.

I normally like Hermione Norris, but in this it’s like they’ve instructed her to do what she did in Spooks but mix in a vulnerable side. And it doesn’t really work. But she’s certainly more credible that Minnie Driver. Alas Outcasts makes Bonekickers look credible.

 
At 12:28 am, Blogger ghkdh said...

I could not have said it better, although FYI, Norris is a terrible actress. Ben Richards talked about Deadwood being an inspiration for outcasts, which makes the whole thing even more tragic. The sad thing is that no one is going to touch sci-fi for a while now, so anyone working on a sci-fi treatment right now had better pull open their desk drawer and place it gently inside. Thanks Ben Richards. You fucked us, hard.

 
At 1:14 am, Blogger Good Dog said...

Deadwood was an inspiration? For Outcasts? Seriously? That makes it utterly tragic. Someone deserves to be fed to the pigs.

 
At 2:58 pm, Blogger mark said...

That speech he made about the Carpathia ship was so unintentionally funny to me, but the moment when the other captain said "they're clapping" the laughter was cut short by projectile vomit spraying through the gaps in my teeth.

 
At 1:45 am, Blogger Good Dog said...

Mark,

Oh jeez, that clapping. That was... something. Forgetting about all the nonsense down on the planet, it was the way the arriving shuttle was handled that pretty much killed it for me – so that’s basically from right from the start.

Since Outcasts wasn’t set in the sort of Utopian Star Trek future, where spaceships run on unlimited power supplies and money doesn’t exist and your clothes are freshly laundered and all the food you can eat appears out of nowhere, I started asking myself who funded this sort of program. The big expense of a project like resettlement on a distant planet isn’t once they get there but actually getting there.

If you look at the voyage the Pilgrim fathers had to make, they weren’t just given the Speedwell and Mayflower, so who funded the ships to Carpathia? Did it come from corporations with a vested interest or with monies pooled by governing bodies? In which case, how were these colonists selected, especially since most of them appeared to be useless feckers from the get–go?!

The captain of the ship was the most uncaptain–like captain I’ve ever seen in any television show (and that includes comedies). I found it strange that he used the word “flotilla” when he was talking about the other ships that, supposedly, had set out along with his, rather than fleet or convoy. And there didn’t seem to be any real regret expressed for the ones that hadn’t made it, or explanation – although my money is on the enormous mutant star–goat taking them down.

Although my memory of that first episode is (thankfully) now pretty hazy, I’m sure they try a planetfall even before the ship was properly repaired because the passengers are getting restless. So, idiotic all the way. I wouldn’t trust the guy with one of those clown cars that does a circuit of the big top’s ring and then falls apart.

 

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