Two of the more interesting science fiction shows hitting U.S. airwaves this year are BBC’s Outcasts and TNT’s Falling Skies. The former has already had its run in the UK (cancelled, sadly) and is only now getting its fair shake on BBC America. The latter is the much anticipated, and heavily pushed, Noah Wyle vehicle. Both show remarkable promise.
The first episode of Outcasts is an eye-opener. As a Doctor Who fan, I’ve been used to seeing science handled with a heavy dose of humor on the BBC. Outcasts is everything but a humorous show, though it tries hard to lighten the mood with a few jokes. It’s a fine display of what the BBC can do when it puts its mind to serious SF, with a strong cast and beautiful CG and cinematography.
Outcasts focuses on the first settlers on the planet Carpathia, who have been specially selected to pave the way for future settlers from Earth. Our home planet, for reasons yet to be explained, has gone to pot, leaving humanity very little choice but to leave.
The production quality in Outcasts is astonishingly high for a television show. CG, when it is used, is almost movie quality and the sets are designed with the future in mind, with large screens displaying unique interfaces and so on. Even the development of Carpathia is handled well, showing us from the start that it is a dangerous, but wondrous place, and hinting that there might be something more about the planet that we don’t yet know.
But what will carry the show right now are the characters. The cast is solid, though some of the actors are certain to have big shoes to fill, including Liam Cunningham as Richard Tate, the president of Forthaven. Daniel Mays as Cass promises to bring a great deal of humor and wit to an otherwise stark series, while Hermoine Norris as Stella Isen and Amy Manson as Fleur Morgan offer the series a strong female touch. Sadly, Jamie Bamber, who featured prominently in the advertisements, headlines as the short-lived Mitchell Hoban. His story sets up much of the conflicts outside of Forthaven, which should prove to be worthwhile if the first episode is to your liking (it was for me).
While the show is setting up violent conflict, it is more accurately a show about character drama, which is what the best science fiction is always about. Even Battlestar Galactica gave appropriate attention to the relationships between its characters, throwing in action only as necessary as the series progressed. Outcasts promises betrayals, tension, suspense, and even a little bit of violence. But it also promises mysteries from all corners: Carpathia is hiding something, but so too are a great deal of the primary characters.
Cast: 4/ 5
The two-hour premiere of Falling Skies is an action-packed introduction to a series that wants us to believe it will be this summer’s hit. In truth, the show has great potential, but not if it continues with the cliches of post-invasion science fiction. As much as I love serious science fiction, it cannot survive on the cliches of the genre on television. One can get away with it for some reason on the big screen, but I get the impression that TV viewers are far more picky about what they spend their evenings watching.
Falling Skies takes place in a post-invasion Earth. Humanity has more or less lost the war with an alien race with vastly superior physiology and technology. Many of the families in the remaining human populations have lost children to the aliens, who use a process called harnessing to control children as slaves. The show follows Tom Mason (Noah Wyle) and his family (Hal, played by Drew Roy, and Matt, played by Maxim Knight). There is also a third son, but the Mason’s believe he is dead.
Much of the problems with this long introduction stem from stereotypical characters. While I have no doubt that the writers have planned to make the characters more three-dimensional as the series progresses, the introduction to these characters provides little more than cardboard cutouts. There’s the hard-nosed, no-change military man (Captain Weaver, played by Will Patton), the soft-hearted female doctor (Anne Glass, played by Moon Bloodgood), the loving-father-turned-soldier (Tom Mason, played by Noah Wyle), and even the do-everything-for-myself-criminal-survivor-with-a-gang (John Pope, played by Colin Cunningham). Even some of the themes are cliche, and none more so than the conflict between the military and the civilian population (i.e., the military get nice things, while the civies sleep on the ground, etc.). As much as I want to love these characters, I don’t feel like I know who they are yet, even after two-hours of getting to know them.
There are also a number of confusing aspects about the world, which I hope the writers will explain in coming episodes. For example, it’s unclear why the aliens can find and track groups of 500 people, but not groups of 300, let alone why they have trouble finding humans at all. We have fairly accurate infrared technology, and I assume aliens from beyond the sun would have such things too. It is also not explained why humanity was unable to nuke the aliens either at the beginning of the war or at the end. We’re to assume that those in command decided against it in the beginning, but nobody seems to find it odd that the bombs weren’t dropped later on, when the war seemed to take a turn for the worst.
But what the series does seem to promise is a guerrilla war led by Tom Mason and a ragtag team of human fighters, most of which are little more than civilians who have taken up arms. Mason’s status as the former-history-professor lends him credibility among his underlings, despite the fact that he has very little experience as a soldier. He frequently cites historical battles as the basis for why a guerrilla campaign would work against the aliens, although the difficulty everyone seems to have with killing the aliens, even when they aren’t in their power armor, suggests this will be a very difficult job to do. It’s a good thing, though, that the budget for the CGed aliens isn’t so low that we’re left with Syfy-quality garbage.
In any case, where things stand with Falling Skies, there is a lot of potential for a high-octane military SF (or post-apocalyptic revenge tragedy) television show. I don’t think they can sustain the show beyond two seasons, though future episodes might prove me wrong. Right now, what we have is a show which promises a lot of gunfights, a great deal of family drama, and, perhaps, some interesting twists and turns. Whether these are worth following will depend greatly on future episodes.
Cast: 3/ 5