The third episode of Outcasts again walked that line between tediousness and mild perkiness, eventually delivering the show's best half-hour once this week's deadly "whiteout" storm hit Forthaven. Ironically, everything felt more relaxed and settled than the previous two episodes, but it still suffers if you give anything more than cursory thought.
There are still too many times when you stop to wonder why, for example, the outcasts don't have any form of transport. Then you remember it’s probably because high-tech buggies are beyond the production's budget, which is likely stretched given the location filming in South Africa and erecting large standing sets. It's a shame, but it wouldn't matter if the characters and drama were so absorbing you didn't have time to contemplate transportation issues. But I still find most of Outcasts' characters underwhelming, with the possible exception of President Tate -- partly because Liam Cunningham's voice and mannerisms are naturally captivating, but also because he's the focus of the show's best element: the weird hallucinations Tate suffers regarding his dead children. This week, Tate discovered a drinking cup his kids used, resting on the ground outside Forthaven, only for us to realize it's all in his head. I suppose that explains episode 2's memorable moment, when a picture Tate's kids drew revolved on his table of its own accord. Is the President cracking up?
Anyway, episode 3 concerned the discovery of scientific data from a Professor Rosen, who died on the transport ship before he could deliver his calculations to Forthaven in person. Julius Berger (Eric Mabius) instead brought the late professor's research to Stella's (Hermione Norris) attention, and she had genius-turned-DJ Tipper Malone (Michael Legge) decipher the complex mathematics, deducing the professor was predicting a devastating period of "whiteout" storm activity. How could Rosen have predicted such an event, having spent years aboard a transport ship without ever having set foot on Carpathia? Don't ask. In the future, scientists can apparently forecast weather patterns of distant planets. Why couldn't Rosen communicate his findings to Carpathia from the transport ship when it was in orbit? Don't ask.
Meanwhile, Fleur (Amy Mason) was tasked to hand the Advance Cultivars' (AC's) baby back to their grim-faced leader Rudi (Langley Kirkwood), after her people's bungled handover with hostages Cass (Daniel Mays) and Jack (Ashley Walters) last time; and Stella made slow progress with her sulky teenage daughter Lily (Jeanne Kietzmann). The take-home here was that Rudi is clearly fond of Fleur, making her the ideal emissary of Forthaven, although Rudi still mistrusts the community that tried to have his people killed. For some reason it didn't click with me that most Forthavenites don’t know the AC's exist (Tipper spoke of people beyond the settlement like it's an urban legend), but that became clearer here, leading to the moment when Tate admitted everything to his citizens. Hopefully there will be repercussions and questions asked about all that, as nothing really happened here, because everyone was focused on the approaching whiteout. I'm still a little confused about why Forthaven's scientists would create the AC's (cloned humans, better able to cope with Carpathia's environment) and not tell anyone what they were doing? Why the secrecy? And is Carpathia really so inhospitable that you'd bother creating another sub-species? Was slavery intended?
I feel like I'm asking a lot of questions about Outcasts, which is the curse of an inquisitive mind. I suppose that's a good sign in some ways, but it's also evidence that Outcasts has holes in its premise, or just hasn't explained things well enough for answers to have stuck in my memory. The weird thing is that the premise is sublimely simple: humans living on an alien world together, struggling to build a utopian society now they've been given a second chance. So why aren't the flourishes and details just as lucid?
Still, I enjoyed the subtlety of how the story introduced the idea Forthaven's a secular society, with Tate worried that Berger will use an opportunity he's given to calm citizens to preach a religious message. Indeed, it was an opportunity Berger couldn't resist; calming everyone about the imminent whiteout with talk of his Universal Spirit again. This idea of Berger slowly ingratiating himself with Tate (he ends the episode with an invitation to join the general council) feels like a decent storyline to pursue; with Berger likely intending to become more popular than Tate and the figurehead of his religion. So has faith has fallen out of favour back on Earth? Were most people chosen to travel to Carpathia atheists? More questions, sorry.
What made this episode marginally better than episode 2 (if not quite better enough to justify a higher star-rating) was the handling of the whiteout in the second half. These whiteouts are quite puzzling phenomena (smoke-dust electrical storms caused by the gravitational pull of the planet's moons?), and have an unfortunate visual similarity to Lost's Smoke Monster, but Outcasts teased the threat well and delivered on the promise. I particularly liked the inclusion of real-life footage of mist pouring over some mountains, and the CGI for the whiteout thundering into Forthaven was great. It also reminded you of how large the settlement actually is (when CGI is employed), as the physical sets don't give you that feeling of expanse. I'd love to see more areas of Forthaven -- perhaps different districts with their own identities and points of view on Carpathia, Forthaven, and Tate's administration?
Overall, episode 3 wasn't a huge improvement, but it was an improvement. The only problem is the improvements had nothing to do with my attachment to the characters, which is proving the biggest obstacle to fully embracing Outcasts and accepting the BBC can't afford to "world-build" effectively. But, c'mon, would some restyled buggies have been too much to ask for? It was also very strange to include a subplot about Dr Trix (Fiona Button) and her imminent marriage to Leon (Jamie Sives), who got lost outside in the whiteout, because both characters have made zero impression, so it was impossible to care about them and feel any elation that they got married in the denouement. You need to earn those moments from audiences, but I don't even remember Trix from the preceding episodes.
What do you think about Outcasts so far? I know the general feeling online is that it's a damp squib, fuelled by brutal press reviews last week, but is anything about it working for you? Is there enough promise to make you continue watching? Is the fact it's only an 8-episode commitment the main reason you're sticking with it? Or do you think it's a good show just learning to walk, so best give it time?
written by Ben Richards / directed by Omar Madha / 14 February 2011 / BBC1/HD