Outcasts is the BBC’s new flagship science fiction drama for the adult audience (I am assuming that Doctor Who remains the flag-bearer for science fiction in general). It follows the various stories of a group of people who are settlers on the planet Carpathia, after some so-far unspecified calamity on Earth made it necessary to evacuate. At the time the series starts the main characters have been there for ten years and the only known surviving transport ship is about to try to land on the surface, bringing with it the last influx of fresh blood the settlers are ever going to see. After this, they are on their own.
Carpathia is an Earth-like planet, named after the ship that came to the rescue after the Titanic disaster. No attempt has been made to make the setting seem alien, other than something called a “white-out”, in which presumably tidal forces from the planet’s moon cause what would appear to be a dust storm on steroids. They say it’s something to do with the moon, anyway. In the two episodes so far we have had bad science (aforementioned white-outs and something called deep brain visualisation, in which the subject sits in a special chair and his memories can be seen on the big screen) and good science (an excellent scene in which the teacher was describing the Goldilocks Zone to a class of children). It is therefore not what I would call hard science fiction, as it is the sort of science fiction I can demolish with two diagrams and a joke. A lack of hard science isn’t necessarily a negative criticism, I like soft science fiction as much (and occasionally more than) the next person. However I dislike science fiction that presents itself as hard and then widdles all over itself with hand-waving and dodgy research, not to mention something I saw done in Until the End of the World.
As far as main characters go, I was delighted to see very strong females in the early sections of the first episode. One of the reasons I like science fiction so much is that it has a track record of strong female characters. One of my earliest introductions to strong women was Dayna from Blake’s 7 — an assertive, competent, highly-skilled warrior who took no nonsense from anyone (and whose attractiveness usually took a back seat to the fact that she kicked arse).
Stella Isen, played with usual competency by Hermione Norris, is the Head of Security. Fleur Morgan (Amy Manson) is one of her officers. Both started out well, but Stella’s role quickly became that of the obsessed mother, while Fleur’s maternal instincts were also called upon before the first episode was halfway done when her best friend’s husband went a bit nuts, beat his police officer wife mostly to death, then took off into the wilderness with his son.
At which point my face did this:
So we’ve passed the Bechdel test early and now we’re going to ignore the whole bucking of the gender-bias trend and relax into the girls like babies and boys like guns model. I see.
By episode two the writer, Ben Richards, has made his premise for the series not only perfectly clear by way of storytelling, but also explicit in the dialogue: can humans truly live together in peace? Outcasts is a social pressure-cooker: the problem with it isn’t that this is a bad idea, but that Richards has come to it with the answer already and has arranged everything so that the story can’t fail to produce that answer.
The divisions of labour between the various sub-groups are artificial, counter-productive, and I can’t for the life of me imagine any settlement group on a distant planet trying to work that way. The method of introduction for the various plot points feels like shoehorning them in to serve the underlying premise, rather than things that might have happened and the consequences that ensued. While I enjoy the fact that there is little in the way of unnecessary exposition, I cannot get past the idea that the structure of the society there is implausible and thus everything that happens is difficult to believe on principle.
This is, in short, one of my pet hates: plot driving character, and in this case it extends to the very nature of the community. The desired conflict will not happen without imposing certain conflicts that come across as terribly unlikely with a few moments of thought about how people would actually behave in such an environment.
It is drama. That it takes place on a different planet is simply a device. Even the use of genetic modification is there to define an us-and-them conflict. They could have done the same by punting the characters a couple of hundred years back in time, sticking them somewhere remote and picking some arbitrary differentiation.
So, yes. The only thing that defines this as science fiction is that there are women doing what is usually thought of as a man’s job. It amuses me immensely that writers still find the inclusion of women who are taking on roles traditionally performed by men to be an easy way of saying “LOOK. THIS AM BE THE FYOOOOOTYOOOOOR! IN SPACE!”
But it’s also somewhat tragic.