Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Review: Outcasts "Episode 1"

Non Spoiler Review:
Outcasts is a BBC sci-fi series focusing on the human colony on planet Carpathia. The story begins with the settlement of Forthaven in its tenth year as a transport ship approaches. Its arrival is greeted with surprise and hope, given it's been five years since the last vessel and all contact with Earth has since been lost.

The situation on the ground is in a state of flux, as president Tate's regime, with his head of protection, Stella, governs Carpathia seemingly with a pacifistic ideology, but that doesn't sit well with Mitchell Hoban (Battlestar Galactica's Jamie Bamber) and his comrades in the expeditionary forces charged with exploring their new home. They believe their utopia is growing more and more oppressive.

This first episode was a strong beginning. Though some of the accents were a bit tough (child Linus was difficult to understand at some points), the character introductions and backstory were handled pretty well with a lot of stuff to work with over the season. We were thrown into the initial conflict brewing with Mitchell right at the start, and it culminates in a very dark ending for a first episode, promising that this could get into some weighty themes.

The series is filmed in South Africa, and the visuals are suitably unfamiliar enough to stand in for an alien world that isn't too alien. There's no sign of Carpathian native fauna at the moment, but the special effects are well done and serve to accent the story—vistas of the colony ship orbiting the planet, and the frontier town look of the settlement built up around the massive landing shuttle. The setting of Forthaven is the right mix of technology and rustic community—thrown-together architecture that is believable for a town that's had a decade to grow.

Outcasts has been compared to Battlestar Galactica in its dark view of humanity, and one certainly gets a sense of that from the premiere. For fans of BSG, the colony could easily be a callback to New Caprica ten years on. There's a strong sense that this is going to be a character-heavy drama, with a lot of interesting people to develop and broader plotlines set into motion. There are some additional science fiction elements thrown into the mix—mystery viruses and alien weather, for starters. Plus, the ending has a sufficiently head-scratching shocker to bring me back.

Spoilers Now!
As CT-9 approaches Carpathia, the captain attempts to raise someone on the ground, unsure if there's anyone down there. After a five year journey, they've suffered thermal shield damage, which is going to make landing on the surface difficult.

Mitchell returns to the settlement of Forthaven from exploring the frontier. President Tate and head of security Stella Isen greet him, but he's not supposed to be bringing weapons into their community (a new rule). He reminds Stella they're not pacifists, but expeditionaries, but Tate advises him everyone will respect the new regulations.

Tate is drawn away as communication has been made with CT-9. The captain advises of the damage. Tate says it's been five years since their last transport of colonists arrived. As far as the captain knows this is the last ship, as they lost all contact with other vessels in their flotilla after leaving Earth. Contact with Earth has been lost, as well, and the captain has little information for him aside from adding that if there are people left, they're not having an easy time of it.

Tate begins an ongoing conversation with the captain over the course of the episode as CT-9 makes repairs. Though he won't say, he is very worried about the condition of the ship and there is mention of previous dangerous entries into the atmosphere. He tells him Carpathia is warm and hospitable, but with occasional white outs caused by their imposing lunar system.

The captain advises Tate about the growing panic among the passengers, but they can't attempt entry until the ship is ready. Tate asks to address the ship and gives them a pep talk about how welcome they are on Carpathia. The planet is named after the rescue ship that attended to survivors of the Titanic. After ten years they have food and energy, and their expeditionary teams continue to make exciting discoveries. That seems to do the job, and the waiting game begins.

Meanwhile, Mitchell's son Linus recites Tyger, Tyger as his mother Karina comes in. His father returns home just as she happens to be checking her phone regarding a message that says Mitchell Hoban update

He's reunited with his son and advises Karina that they're nearly ready to break away from the colony and establish their own settlement. Mitchell asks her to trust him. He's excited to explore the planet beyond Forthaven. When she goes to leave he gets more agitated, asking her if she'd ever betray him. No one can find out what they're doing.

She's a bit too vague for his satisfaction, saying she only wants to do what's right for Linus. When she's gone he goes through some of their belongings and finds buried in Linus' things a psychological profile on him that describes Mitchell as suffering from multiple personality disorder. 

Rumour of the ship's arrival spreads, leading Tate to make a public announcement about the transport's troubles. Stella is especially concerned but is optimistic because she's hoping her family is on board.

Karina and her friend Fleur are local security and on patrol. They come across two men appearing to be in the midst of a deal of some kind. One of them is Tipper, a local black market dealer. They all share some friendly and flirtatious banter, but Karina is going to write them up with some violations. But then the white sands begin to swirl and an approaching white out rushes through before they have much time to find cover.

The cloud of dust ends just as abruptly. Karina is okay, but as she turns to get  up a figure walks up and bashes her head in. Fleur finds her and takes her to the hospital. Stella is alerted and updates Tate about the situation, and Mitchell now appears to be missing. Both Stella and Tate are aware of his plan to break off from Forthaven. Karina was a spy after all.

Tipper is also a suspect, so is interrogated by another member of security, Cass Cromwell and Fleur. Stella arrives to use a process called deep brain visualization that will tell if he's lying or not, so he agrees, avoiding her having to get a warrant. The machine allows Stella to see his memories, and it's apparent that he's innocent.

Karina's condition is unchanged. Cass is one of the few willing to defend Mitchell. He hasn't always been so unstable, and reminds them he did a lot for them in the early days. He and Fleur are tasked with finding him, so first go to see a man named Jack Holt.

Jack has no sympathy for Karina, as she was always spying on Mitchell. He's told to advise them if he hears from Mitchell, but after they leave we see he's hiding there. Mitchell will head out to the lake and orders Jack to follow him out there with the rest of their group. The weapons ban is a sign that the government is on to them, so they need to go ahead with their plans now. Jack's not entirely sure the time is right.

Meanwhile, Tate makes inquiries about the passenger manifest on behalf of Stella. But she appears to have some issues herself. She's off using her brain machine to relive memories of her husband and daughter. Later, she arrives at a bar where Tipper is hanging out, advising him that he was cleared of any suspicion, and, oh, by the way, do you want to go somewhere? 

Cass and Fleur debate the idea that Karina might have been spying on Mitchell. Fleur is very much a pacifist and holds the ideals of Tate and Stella, so there's no love lost between her and Mitchell. But Cass still holds some loyalty to him.

Mitchell has showed up at Tate's office for a confrontation about his wife's spying. Tate says she did her duty. Mitchell accuses him of being in love with his wife, and admits he did, and she's far too good for him. Then Mitchell reveals that they are still out there, beyond the fence, brooding after he spared them from Tate's executions. One word from him, and they'll destroy Forthaven.

Mitchell is about to kill Tate when Cass comes in. He backs away, gun drawn, telling Cass he's never breathed a word about whatever it is he knows. He backs out, opts to shoot one of the staff, and runs off. This time, he's heading to the school, where he throws the teacher in the closet and runs off with Linus (who is still practicing Tyger, Tyger).

After causing such a ruckus, Tate orders Cass and Fleur to go off in search. He won't confirm that Karina was spying on Mitchell, despite Cass' questions. Then it's off to Jack's, where Cass and Fleur tell him they'll close down his base of operations if he doesn't help. Jack says Mitchell is their leader, and has too many followers to be stopped.

But Jack does go to meet Mitchell and Linus outside of town to talk. Jack doesn't think they're ready for this yet, but Mitchell continues to act erratically and will hear no opposition. With new doubts, Jack returns to Fleur and asks for some assurances before he cooperates. He tells them there's a secret place by a lake where Mitchell's planning the new settlement, so she and Cass leave to find them. 

Tate goes to Karina's bedside and it's obvious he has some feelings for her. Stella comes in and he reveals that Mitchell said the others are still out there. She seems to think he's lying.

Tate returns to command to continue his chat with the captain. He admits his children were killed by a disease called C-23 when they first arrived, a virus that created a halo around the heads of its victims. His wife couldn't come to terms with it and died. He's happy to hear more children are arriving on the ship. But they had to make tough decisions to cure the disease—quarrantine and that sort of thing. Things aren't perfect, he muses.

Stella admits to Tate she's been using the DBV on herself to remember her husband. Apparently that can be dangerous, and he warns her to be careful. Then she admits to picking up Tipper at the bar. It's his turn to fess up and says her daughter Lily is on board the ship, but Daniel isn't. He didn't want to tell her given the tenuous situation.

Cass loses some of their supplies in a bit of a mishap on the trail so they decide to set up camp before nightfall, but they hear strange noises and then someone attacks them when they're sleeping, but they scare them away. They don't know who it could be, given there shouldn't be anyone else out there.

Cass and Fleur arrive at the lake. Mitchell greets them, concealing his weapon. Fleur tells him Karina likely won't recover, but Mitchell won't come back with them. He says they all tried to start over again in a new home and messed things up again. There are things about Tate they don't know. Then He pulls his gun on Cass, and challenges Fleur (a pacifist)  she'll have to stop him from killing him. And she does. She shoots him. 

The captain gets his final shield updates. They attempt re-entry. But that isn't enough and it looks like the ship isn't going to make it, so the captain releases the emergency shuttles, and all contact is lost.

Cass buries Mitchell as Fleur looks after Linus, while above them they realize the colony ship is breaking up in a fireball. Linus sees the falling debris and recites his poem. Karina dies. Tate tells Stella there are survivors, as they've detected the escape shuttles coming down. And Julius Berger, an architect of the evacuation program on Earth, was also on the transporter. Both are pensive about what it will mean if he's survived.

As an escape shuttle enters the atmosphere, panicked passengers prepare for impact, and one in particular seems unusually calm.

The Verdict:
The premiere did a great job setting in motion plenty of storylines and establishing a lived-in world for Forthaven and Carpathia. There's a lot of stuff going on beneath the surface implying some sinister goings-on in the past when the colony was being established. 

There's very little to critique given it is the beginning, and the show is finding its footing. But I found the whole Tyger, Tyger bit with Linus to be more annoying than anything, given it didn't really have much of an impact (despite him reciting it every five minutes).

Mitchel is dead?! I'm not sure what the story is with him, as I thought Jamie Bamber was a regular, so his death came as quite a surprise.

Tate appears an idealist, but there's a lot of ominous talk about bad stuff that went down in the early days, and he seems willing to make harsh decisions if necessary—very Machiavellian despite the pacifist veneer. Stella comes across somewhat the same way, but a little more easy going (as taking home Tipper attests too). It's interesting to consider the fifteen year stretch of time since leaving Earth for these colonists. The fact that Stella would leave her family for that long in the hopes they would join her in the future speaks to quite a long range view of things. But a lot of them would be scientists and valuable members of society to warrant passage on the first transports.

Cass, Fleur and Jack all seem likable, and a lot of their time is spent chatting about the old days on Earth and what might have happened back home (given they have all left people behind). It is ten years in, so that's a lot of history to have built up together in a very intimate survivalist setting.

It will be interesting to see if the writers keep Outcasts out of hard science techno babble, or address some of the key questions about where Carpathia actually is—it can't be any farther than five light years at the maximum, but that limits its star system possibilities. Lots of questions—what are the white outs? What was the story of the mystery disease? Who attacked the camp? Who are still alive that Mitchell didn't kill? What's the story on the DBV machine and Stella's reliance on it? Will we see some of the native fauna?

Ultimately it looks as though Outcasts is first and foremost a character drama, and this premiere proved it's on the right track with that. The destruction of the colony ship shows it's got a very dark tone, as well. I'm definitely sticking with the series if it maintains this level of quality.

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