Oh Outcasts, with your big budget, your fabulous cast, your lovely starscapes – why were you so bad?  What in the name of God happens in our near-future to make human beings so humourless and interchangeable? Why do they all buy their clothes at Gap? Why was there a stupid conversation in which a man and a woman complained to each other (respectively) about women and men? How does Gap survive the apocalypse? And why oh why would anyone paint the future magnolia? Gods of the Tellybox, why do you taunt me?
Last year, I all but convinced myself that television – an intimate, domestic space – will always struggle to deliver an outward-looking sense of wonder, and therefore is hampered when it comes to delivering science fiction drama. I am revising this opinion. Because really all the Tellybox needs to do is show me a spaceship flying over a planet, and those early-formed pathways in my brain will happily respond, “OMFG SPACE.”
But while film can get away with showing me a series of spectacular images for umpty minutes, television cannot. Television – domestic, intimate – requires people. But Outcasts did not have people. It had interchangeable person tokens. Interchangeable person tokens wearing beige. Not a glimmer of wit, not a glimmer of absurdity. Not – in other words – a glimmer of humanity. Outcasts (episode 1) took itself completely seriously. Oh dear me no.
Men, women, and all points between are from Earth. They only work in outer space.
This morning I watched episode 1 of “Revelation of the Daleks”, and in 45 frisky minutes it delivered more wit, pathos, and humanity than I suspect the whole of Outcasts will manage in 8 episodes. Production values are of course miles apart (although “Revelation of the Daleks” still does well with a sheaf of peacock feathers and some marble-effect on the walls). But where Outcasts is outclassed is in the characterization. One short scene in “Revelation”, partway through episode 1, summed this up for me. In it, company owner Kara (Eleanor Bron) hires the ageing mercenary Count Orcini (William Gaunt) to assassinate Davros, who is bleeding her company dry. The scene also involves Kara’s lackey Vogel (Hugh Walters), “a past master of the double entry”, and Orcini’s minion Bostock (John Ogwen). These two are brilliant in their own right, although I just want to focus on Kara and Orcini.
The set is BBC studio standard; the dialogue (this being Doctor Who) could easily be played only for laughs. There is an undertone of absurdity – how can there not be, with William Gaunt in leatherette and Eleanor Bron in velveteen – but the absurdity is cut through with total authenticity. I have not been (yet) an ageing mercenary taking on one last job which I know in my heart is beyond my capabilities, but I can understand fear of mortality, denial, shame. I have not been (yet) the CEO of a company under the tyrannical thumb of a crazed scientist, but I can understand fear, desperation, the desire not to lose face. Look, the performances say, this situation is absurd – but what else can it be? Because human beings are absurd. They are self-deluding, they are desperate, they are full of fear and shame, and they are therefore, also, tragic. In the carefully judged particularities of these wonderful performances – which could after all be played cynically, contemptuously, purely absurdly – we are given the human condition. We are invited too to participate in that most human and alien of experiences – imagining the reality of another.
John Ogwen (centre), not being outclassed by either William Gaunt (left) or Eleanor Bron (right)
Not so in Outcasts, and this, I think, is because it has no sense of its own absurdity. Too busy being serious, being important, it has forgotten that television is, at heart, the intimate space, the domestic space, the space in which stories about people – particular, absurd, tragic people – unfold. Gods of the Tellybox, I implore you – give me a future populated by people.
Outcasts: outclassed by Colin Baker-era Doctor Who.
 NB I only watched the first episode; obviously this qualifies me to judge.