Outcasts: Series 1 [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Warner Home Video
Review written by and copyright: Ethan Stevenson (17th September 2011).
The Show

In the Making-of included on this Blu-ray, series creator/writer Ben Richards recalls a BBC executive once told him “Outcasts” was genretastic. Richards seems pretty happy with that assessment. I think it’s an apt description too. But, I think we disagree on sentiment behind the use of that word. Whereas Richards sees the dubbing of his series as a veritable melting pot of typical genre tropes as a good thing, I see it as more of a backhanded compliment, implying that “Outcasts” reheated ideas were already better explored elsewhere, which really cuts to the core of my main problem with this series. In my mind, genretastic is synonymous with derivative. Or even cliché. And “Outcasts” certainly is both things – to a fault. Very little about the stylish, but ultimately poorly written, sci-fi drama feels fresh and exciting and, throughout most of the series, sci-fi fans will most likely just be baffled by the routine banality of it all.

The year is 2060 and Earth can no longer support human life. A group of courageous pioneers – all who remain of Earth’s once flourishing population – have found a new home on a so-called “goldilocks planet” in a faraway star system. The planet is called Carpathia, named after the steamer ship that rescued the passengers of the RMS Titanic. And on its surface, in a township dubbed Forthaven, President Richard Tate (Liam Cunningham) oversees the day-to-day governance of some 70,000 people. Some of these survivors – like Dr. Stella Isen (Hermione Morris), the head of the Protection and Security Force – won their seats aboard the evacuation ships because they represented the brightest, smartest, minds of the time. Others, like Julius Berger (Eric Mabius), used their influence and power to find their salvation. And plenty seem to have simply been chosen by lottery, with an understanding that on Carpathia they must actively work with others at building a functioning society: whatever that means.

Stella’s right-hand men – or, man and woman – are Cass Cromwell (Daniel Mays), a pudgy policeman, and his prickly partner, Fleur Morgan (Amy Manson) – both members of the PAS Force. Meanwhile, Jack Holt (Ashley Walters) works his days as an Expeditionary, or XP. The XPs are essentially mercenaries, charged with exploring the alien world beyond the walls of Forthaven, armed to the gills with machine guns and smoke grenades. Tipper Malone (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0499323/>Michael Legge) is an anti-establishment disc jockey. He runs Radio-free Carpathia, keeping the population on edge with theories of mass conspiracies between his blocks of reggae and classic rock. Tipper’s crazy stories about genetically modified supermen, and strange alien plagues that prey on children and the weak, have more truth to them than Tate would care to admit. The planet isn’t quite the utopia that the propaganda machine would make you believe. And Berger, a scary religious leader who manipulates adoring audiences with sermons about the great universal spirit, takes delight in that fact. He’s passive aggressive towards Tate in open forums, lying in wait until the perfect moment strikes when he’ll be able to turn the laymen against the presidency, hoping to seize power for himself.

The supermen in Tipper’s stories are very real. They’re called Advanced Cultivars, or AC's, and the artificially created race of humans was specifically bred for the assumed hostile conditions of their alien world. The AC's can run faster, jump farther and higher, hit harder, and have other near supernatural abilities that make them more machine than man. An unseen conflict between the human and superhuman groups forced the ACs into the wilderness, where for years they were at war with Tate (although that war has long laid dormant.) The frightening plague isn’t quite fiction either, perhaps connected to the mysterious remnants of a long extinct human-like culture that fossil evidence suggests once walked the surface of Carpathia eons ago. The planet – a seemingly picturesque tropical paradise – hides many secrets and dangers. And the mysteries of this place are perhaps more sinister than the surface level superficialities show.

Richards’ series borrows heavily from established science-fiction films and television shows, and pulls in elements from other genres and works just as readily. In style, various Westerns and frontier tales, with its texturing of pioneer lore, creep into frame whenever the chance presents itself, notably influencing “Outcasts” in a good way. But perhaps the biggest cash crop of ideas that Richards farmed from is a little-known, short-lived series called “Earth 2” (1994-1995), and that’s bad. It’s bad, not because “Earth 2” wasn’t something with ideas and concepts worth exploring, but because Richards and his other writers took so many of those ideas already explored and simply copy-pasted them into the BBC series. What does “Outcasts” take from that “Earth 2”? Basically… everything. The ruined Earth and resettlement plot, the evil virus, hostile native beings, and a whole mess of other ideas – including subtle cues to an alien Gaia Theory –clearly come from “Earth 2”.

The next, perhaps more obvious, influence on the series is “Lost” (2004-2010). From the white-sanded, beachy location that seems to purposefully recall the green mountain-backed imagery of The Island, to the increasingly complex web of mystery plots, and the storm of secrets which surround each character’s past on Earth, “Outcasts” is borderline plagiaristic on a base concept level (the only thing missing are flashbacks and the accompanying sound effect). The dynamic between Tate and Berger – a sort of man of science, man of faith dichotomy – appears borrowed from that series too. The AC's simply are The Others: from their costumes, to their predilection for child-napping, their creation is obviously founded upon the baddies thought up by Damon Lindeloff and Carlton Cuse. Hints at the planets past humanoid inhabitants present themselves in a very Dharma-like fashion – slowly, mysteriously, strangely, and as it turns out, largely irrelevant to the main storyline. The women of Forthaven have become sterile in their time on the island—er, planet. That mystery too will have shades of familiarity for the informed audience member. And a strange alien presence – the real threat to out protagonists – manifests in the form of ghost-like doppelgangers: Black Smoke Monster and the Man in Black most definitely come to mind.

The AC's, and their storied conflict with the humans, also mirrors, rather bluntly, that of the Cylon vs. Mankind battle in “Battlestar Galactica” (2004-2009). And an eerily comparable subplot involving an AC newborn – the Cultivars were designed without the ability to procreate – carrying undertones of the Hera storyline from Ron Moore’s better series slash any hope for originality in yet another area of the show. A late-in-the-series twist, revealing one of Forthaven’s own as a rare type of AC called an Omega, digs deeper into the ditch of deplorable derivativeness by shamelessly borrowing the Sharon/Boomer (et al) plot too.

Wasted-Earth futures, technologically advanced humanoids, ghostly apparitions that cause characters to question their sanity, and even the sweeping metaphors about people not only alone (or lost) on the fringes of the map, but also internally on an emotional and sociological level, are not unique to any one series. Neither are grand mystery plots, man-against-man conflicts over opposing ideologies, or the exploration of the general weirdness that comes from being in a new, unfamiliar, place. They are the basic tenants of (science) fiction and drama, and I could easily forgive “Outcasts” and Richards for taking said ideas from other, better, series. After all, “Lost” borrowed heavily from “The Prisoner” (1967), and I don’t fault it for that one bit. But I’m less willing to overlook the clichés and reheated plots simply because they’re so plentiful and so blatant, and even admitting that “Outcasts” has things about it that are great, I still take issue with the series’ existence, simply because it does, basically, nothing else than poorly imitate.

The cast and acting, the photography, production values, design, and the stunning South African locations are all very appealing. But, none of that really matters when the basic building blocks, the writing of dialogue and creation of character, fall flat because of the stale stench of unoriginality. Cunningham, Norris and even Mabius – adeptly playing a scarily believable two-faced holy man villain – give exceptional performances. But their character arcs are dull. And they’re often pushed aside, especially in the early episodes, for other characters played by less interesting actors. That’s a failing in the worst way. The mystery plot unravels at a glacial pace – so slow, even four episodes in nothing has happened – and its revelations are hardly ever shocking, because most of the plot twists and core concepts have been done before. Boring and bland are words that immediately sprung to mind while watching. The series, with its convoluted structure and mish-mash of ideas from other shows, is just dull, slow and uninteresting.

I’ll agree that episode five is quite strong, marking a slight change, and the series generally begins to pick up in the latter episodes, as the plot hones in on Stella, Tate and Berger and the political and ethic implications of their actions. But, perhaps the biggest failing of all appears in that final arc, if only because of the complete lack of resolution. “Outcasts” was cancelled by the BBC due to low ratings and high cost, leaving the series open ended and without any sort of satisfying conclusion. The final minutes of episode eight lead up to a massive cliffhanger. Admittedly, that cliffhanger would have likely led to more interesting plot threads – one’s not completely stolen from other shows – in the second series. But there won’t ever be a second series, and so there’s even less of a reason to seek out “Outcasts”. It’s repletion without the expected ending, or, really, any ending at all.

This two disc set features all eight episodes, four on each disc, they are:

- "Episode 1" - CT-9, the last transport ship from Earth, has entered orbit around Carpathia, but its re-entry heat shield is compromised. Tate and Stella anxiously await the arrival of the ships precious passengers, including Stella’s daughter Lilly (Jeanne Kietzmann). Meanwhile, Mitchell Hoban (Jamie Bamber), head of the Expeditionaries, displays increasingly erratic behavior. And buddy-cop duo Cromwell and Morgan investigate the attempted murder of one of their own.

- "Episode 2" - The escape pods have landed and Julius Berger seems to have saved his life at a high price. He acclimates to life within Forthaven quickly, finding a flock of loyal listeners more easily than expected. Meanwhile, the AC's have taken one of the pod passengers hostage and want the colonists to cure their seriously sick baby in return for her life and freedom.

- "Episode 3" - While a huge whiteout (a ferocious dust storm caused by Carpathia's twin moons) is threatening Forthaven, two technicians are sent to secure the Earth beacon. Meanwhile, Fleur sets out to make friends with the AC's and Cass follows her, on a rescue mission that no one believes he will survive.

- "Episode 4" - Elijah (Nonso Anozie), a troubled AC, enters Forthaven and attacks a citizen. Fleur wants to return him to his people and seeks the help of Cass and Rudi (Langley Kirkwood). Elsewhere, the XPs make a stunning discovery.

- "Episode 5" - Pak (Gary Lewis), one of the original XPs from the very first landing party on Carpathia, leads Cass and Fleur around radioactive areas to a diamond-scattered beach, where they find skeletons of a hominid-like family in the foreshore. Meanwhile, Julius secretly contacts spaceship CT-10.

- "Episode 6" - Three XPs disappear while on a mission, but nobody seems to know why they were outside the walls of Forthaven in the first place. One XP returns but the mystery of the missing men only gets weirder. Meanwhile, the ACs hatch a revenge plot against Tate, and Stella make a choice between the life of a mother and that of her baby.

- "Episode 7" - Cass finds a note threatening to expose his secret, while Stella and Tate must face the prospect of another, superior, hostile life form on Carpathia. Julius Berger begins forming an alliance with the more disgruntled members of Tate’s cabinet and the unhappy XPs.

- "Episode 8" - A deadly virus descends upon Forthaven and many people, including Tipper, are infected. Berger sets about bringing down Tate's government. A disturbing secret about Fleur is revealed. And the arrival of CT-10 shocks everyone as the mysterious crew of the secret transport prepares to land.

Video

Like most other recent BBC releases, Richards’ sci-fi series comes to Blu-ray with a shockingly inconsistent 1080i AVC MPEG-4 high definition transfer accompanying each one of the eight episodes. That’s “i”, and yes that means the video is interlaced (and encoded at 60Hz) – despite the fact the series was shot digitally in 1080p with the Arri D-21. But that “i” is the least of its problems. Sure, the 60Hz refresh rate and alternating fields, and interlaced delivery occasionally cause some annoying shimmer and a mild stutter in slow pans (a fault brought about by adapting the 50Hz broadcast masters to 60Hz via post-conversion pull-down). And the series’ issue with faint aliasing is no doubt at least somewhat worsened by that little vowel giving way to infrequent combing errors; a problem that wouldn’t have been as severe with a consonant at the end of the resolution specs. But the more serious problems with "Outcasts" on Blu-ray stem from the encoding and mastering of this disc on a basic level, and not the mere fact that 1080 is followed by an “i” instead of a “p”.

“Outcasts” looks perfectly fine and is downright amazingly detailed in certain scenes, but it also looks really awful during more moments than I wish to count. The sunny exteriors (actually anything shot from dawn to dusk) are gorgeous, providing rich texture and color in rocks and grasses, and offering stunning vistas that look like they’re straight out of a BBC nature documentary. But those picturesque moments only account for about a third of the series. Most everything else takes place either under the darkness of night – both naturally so and horribly tinted that way with ugly blue filters, which flatten the image – or in the stylistically under lit confines of CT-1 (the grim central hub of Forthaven and the government). The alien landscapes – really just South Africa – are stunning, aside from the occasional bit of aliasing. The night scenes on the other hand suffer from harsh noise and constant bursts of artifacts, random scenes that appear soft and almost out of focus, and a weak black level with poor shadow delineation and dull, flat contrast. Plainly, the darker scenes just don’t look any good at all. In episode seven, around 55:12, the image completely breaks up under those lighting conditions, and is reduced to a blocky, noise-ridden, flicker of mosquito noise. There are few moments that look as bad at that short burst in episode seven, but plenty other moments have their own problems.

Perhaps most damming of all isn’t the poorly presented night scenes, or the sprinkling of aliasing, artifacts, shimmer, and inconsistent levels of detail staggered throughout the series, but actually the improper – or less ideal – 1.78:1 aspect ratio. “Outcasts” broke new ground as the first television series to ever be shot and post-produced completely in 2.40:1 widescreen. Hoping to capture a seventies sci-fi vibe, with massive lens flares and cool-looking barrel distortion, series cinematographer Adam Suschitzky lensed “Outcasts” in the more expansive 2.40:1 shape with actual anamorphics. He purposefully used the D-21 camera system for its unique MScope feature – something the people at Arri cooked up, which allows filmmakers to use retro lenses from companies like Panavision with modern tech without issue. Suschitzky framed his compositions deliberately to maximize the impact of the wider, more immersive, shape. It’s true that he also protected for 1.78:1 widescreen, quite literally only because the BBC made him for broadcast, and so all of the pertinent information and characters are always in frame even in the cropped picture. But edges seem cramped and many of the awesome barrel effects seen in the wide shots are not nearly as impressive as they should be – which isn’t surprising as the trim down from 2.40:1 to 1.78:1 leaves somewhere near a third of the image chopped off on the sides. Some likely won’t take issue with the aspect ratio – in fact, I doubt that many really care, as 1.78:1 is still the proper, but imperfect, broadcast shape. But I do take issue with it, as these Blu-rays don’t offer the full, intended, aspect ratio like they really should. On principle alone I find the cropping detestable. To make matters worse the little “next time” teasers, which play at the end of an episode, frame the series in its full 2.40:1 ratio – and it looks so much better!

Audio

Characters constantly exchange gunfire, there are a couple of huge explosions, and a wind storm nearly blows Forthaven off the planet surface over the course of the eight-episode series. And absolutely none of those things sounded as good as they could’ve. “Outcasts” is another BBC series that would absolutely benefit from the increased fidelity, depth and detail that comes with lossless surround. But, once again, just like “Zen” (2011), these discs only offer a stripped down English Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix and that’s just pitiful. Sure, dialogue is understandable and probably wouldn’t have improved significantly in a different format, but so many scenes, the sandstorms in particular, seem tailor-made for 5.1 and most certainly would’ve seen a boost in DTS-HD. I concede there are very few spots that actually sound horrible – in fact, I only noted one anomaly; a dropout in episode 2 at about 42:25 – but lossy stereo on a band new sci-fi series is just the absolute epitome of laziness. Optional subtitles are available in English.

Extras

Two featurettes and a handful of bonus trailers await those interested in learning more about “Outcasts”. Unfortunately, both featurettes are presented in standard definition.

DISC ONE:

“Reach Out to the Stars” (1.78:1 anamorphic 480p, 30 minutes 1 second) is the set’s main making-of featurette. The bland but not entirely boring piece includes interviews from actors Liam Cunningham, Hermione Morris, Eric Mabius, Daniel Mays, Amy Manson, Ashley Waters, Michael Legge and Jeanne Kietzmann, director of episodes 1 and 2 Bharat Nalluri, series creator and writer Ben Richards, production designer Edward Thomas, and finally head of visual effects Alan Marques. Talk of filming on the dark continent, the series’ cinematography, set design, and effects are mixed in with plenty of behind-the-scenes material, and an unfortunate amount of plot recap, explanations of character, and clips.

The first disc has two pre-menu bonus trailers: a DVD and Blu-ray spot for “Doctor Who: Series Five” on DVD and Blu-ray (1080i, 1 minute) and a BBC America promo (1080i, 1 minute 17 seconds).

DISC TWO:

“Fort Haven Set Tour” (1.78:1 anamorphic 480p, 4 minutes 57 seconds) is a featurette with production designer Edward Thomas, where he talks about turning the South African location into the series’ otherworldly home base. Signage, set construction, and some nifty tricks with forced perspective get most of the attention.

Disc two also kicks off with a pre-menu bonus trailer for “Sherlock” (1080i, 1 minute 54 seconds).

Packaging

“Outcasts” comes to Blu-ray in a two-disc set, packaged inside an Elite keepcase, from BBC/Warner in conjunction with 2 entertain. Both dual layer BD-50 discs are region free.

Overall

Too little, too late, “Outcasts” is a frustratingly slow, derivative, often nonsensical, and sometimes just flat out boring show. Yes, it looks good and has a fine cast, and I’ll admit it improves in the second half, but the cancelled series ends on too big of a cliffhanger to really justify the time spent watching, and for that reason I suggest this be left to a rental at best. BBC/Warner’s Blu-ray has flawed, cropped, video, lame two-channel audio, and weak extras. “Outcasts” is a real disappointment all around.

The Show: C- Video: C Audio: C Extras: D Overall: C-

 


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