BBC 1’s new SF drama series ‘Outcasts’ features a group of ‘courageous pioneers’ who have left a dying earth for a new beginning on the planet Carpathia. In BBC-speak “they are passionate about their jobs, confident of their ideals and optimistic about the future. They work hard to preserve what they’ve built on this planet they now call home, having embraced all the challenges that come with forging a new beginning … inevitably our heroes cannot escape the human pitfalls of love, greed, lust, loss, and a longing for those they’ve left behind.”

‘Outcasts’ was initially aired on Monday and Tuesday evenings in the primetime 9 pm slot, the first episode gaining 4.4 million viewers. However, through episodes two to four the audience dwindled to 2.6 million and as a consequence the BBC moved the four remaining episodes to the graveyard slot of 10.25 pm on a Sunday evening.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. Kudos, the production company has a good track record with previous series such as the MI5 drama ‘Spooks’ and the charming con-artist comedy-drama ‘Hustle’: programmes marked by full-on energy, edge-of-the-seat engagement and high production values. So what went wrong?

The slow plotting for one thing. The scriptwriters opted for the leisurely build, with storylines piling up for later resolution. But as the episodes went by with nothing much happening, the audience just peeled away.  Another problem was genre confusion: the British Sunday Times commented that, with the cast cooped up in the fort of ‘Forthaven’ (sic) and a bunch of hostile tough guys out in the wild, this was just that deadly hybrid, the politically-correct western. The strong emphasis on Australian-soap style interpersonal crises and overwrought emotional trauma then drove away the remaining male science-tech audience.

Finally, despite a strong cast featuring  Liam Cunningham (President Tate), Hermione Norris (Stella), Daniel Mays (Cass)  and Amy Manson (Fleur),  the central character was dramatically miscast. Cass is meant to be the flawed action-hero, the romantic lead who can win the heart of young, feisty, idealistic Fleur.  However, he comes across as quite repugnant: a chubby, stupid and devious buffoon. Not surprisingly, there is zero chemistry between Daniel Mays and Amy Manson.

The BBC has tried to defend itself by talking about the scriptwriter’s “nerve and confidence to create their own original world and serve it up to an audience,” as if the audience wasn’t keeping up with the BBC’s own edginess. The truth however is that the series seems terminally confused about its SF setting. The characters are tentative where they should be enthusiastic, they don’t “get” things which should be obvious to them while the SF elements to-date seem mere disposable decorations. 

Update: The final episode aired on Sunday March 13th 2011 to an audience of only 1.56 million (11.6% share). The BBC confirmed that the proposed second series has been axed.