by Jonathan Alexander
ONE OF THE PLEASURES of TV these days is the Netflixable delight of watching entire seasons in a weekend. You might have to wait till the series is done to binge properly, but the bingeing is sometimes worth the wait. And the complexity of the long TV narrative is better appreciated, in many cases, by viewing seasons in large chunks, allowing you to trace more finely the development of story and character arcs. Battlestar Galactica makes more sense, for instance, if you see it in toto. Sort of. In some cases, with shows cancelled after only one or two seasons, you have the opportunity to catch some pretty decent television, complete albeit truncated, in only a couple of evenings — or evening, if you’re ambitious, as we tend to be in my household.
While Sherryl is away this week, she offered me the chance to share some thoughts on SF TV, and I couldn’t resist writing about two of my favorite “one season wonders,” shows cut off after just one season. Both are currently available on Netflix, and they can hold you over while you wait for next week’s episode of whatnot. Curiously, the shows — Fox’s Terra Nova and the BBC’s Outcasts, both from 2011 — are surprisingly similar. They are largely about attempts to establish human colonies that will survive post-apocalyptic earth. And both are also lessons in the pleasures of narrative cut off before resolution.
Outcasts is a BBC One show that aired in the US on BBC America and ran for eight episodes. A “president” (played by Liam Cunningham), his chief of security (Hermoine Norris), and his hired gun (Daniel Mays) lead a group of colonists on Carpathia, an earth-like planet previously scouted out for human habitation as folks flee an Earth devastated (in a hazy backstory) by nuclear fallout and ecological disaster. Outcasts is ambitious in its mixing of numerous SF tropes, pulling deliriously from the “mega-text” of science fiction. We have an adventure story of gun-toting settlers on an alien planet; characters’ pasts periodically erupt to complicate the plot; political subterfuge (often with none of the subtlety suggested by subterfuge) threatens internal security; the humans themselves are divided into two groups, the born humans and the genetically engineered “advanced cultivators” (ACs) designed to explore environments potentially hostile to people and somehow outcast from the normal humans’ settlement; and the threat of alien life lurks constantly in the background, finally coming to the fore in the final episodes. Indeed, one of the more interesting elements of Outcasts is the Stansilaw Lem-like alien race, hinted at and never really fully seen but sometimes manifesting as images from the settlers’ past lives. Very Solaris.
SF TV geeks will appreciate the appearance of Jamie Bamber in the first episode. (Spoiler alert: he doesn’t survive that first episode.) And in a neat twist on the old US SF trope of making the bad guys sound British, the main villain is played by an American, a slick character with an American accent who rabble rouses the settlers with rhetorics of religious ideology and the need to protect Forthaven’s “soil.” Very American indeed.
Critics generally panned the series, and my husband frequently shouted at the television, mocking characters’ stupidity; there are some pretty obnoxious plot inconsistencies. But I must admit being pulled into the show’s moodiness. To be sure, Outcasts is a heady mix of lots of SF stuff, and it takes itself pretty seriously. But it’s well acted, if slow, and the mysterious aliens tease us all along, particularly when the settlers find a cache of hominid-like bones, buried in what looks like a family unit. Pretty cool, if heterosexist. And it’s fun as an American to watch a British TV show about the perils of colonization vilify the politics of colonization through an American actor and character. What a funhouse of crazy mirrors.
If you’re feeling really ambitious in one weekend, you might spend one day watching Outcasts (it’s only eight hours of viewing) and then compare it to the 13 episodes of Terra Nova, which, at 44 minutes each is a little more, but TN is faster paced. Producers Steven Spielberg and Brannon Braga, among others, had high hopes for this Fox series and poured a lot of money into it, nearly four million dollars per episode (at least according to Wikipedia). Critics were kinder to Terra Nova than to Outcasts, but TN proved perhaps a bit too expensive; InsideTV called it one of the “nine highest-rated cancelled shows“ of its season.
Like Outcasts, the story revolves around a colony fleeing environmental devastation, a future Earth choked by pollution spewing from corporate greed. Instead of looking for the exit strategy offered by terrestrial planets, our adventurers have been specially selected to travel back in time, starting over 75 million years in the past. The result is at times very Edgar Rice Burroughs as the colonists defend themselves against dinosaurs and super toxic plants, an earlier Earth become eerily alien.
We spend most of our viewing time with the Shannon family, a mixed-race (nice touch) unit consisting of a doctor wife (played by Shelley Conn), police husband (Jason O’Mara), and adolescent kids grappling with their assorted problems. The show, perhaps to catch the attention of adolescent audiences, makes time for a little teen romance with some super hot young folks. And as with Outcasts, there’s a splinter group that lives in the wilds, the “Sixers,” who seem to be in bed with corporate interests who hope to plunder the riches of prehistoric Earth for future profit. Note for comparison: the British series is all about the dangers of colonization; the American one about corporatization.
Again, SF fans will appreciate seeing some favorite actors reappear, this time Stephen Lang of Avatar fame, who (spoiler alert) survives the whole season as a main character, though not without some seriously close calls. This time, Lang plays a good if still military character, Nathaniel Taylor, the leader of the colony. We see a lot of him — which is good as Lang plays the role to the hilt, even with the annoying plotline of the estranged son.
Special effects? For both shows, pretty decent. Especially the sets. Not a lot of space shots, but keep in mind that these are both, in a sense, domestic dramas, often focused on family dynamics as people try to survive the toxic environment and their toxic relationships. Indeed, what’s particularly intriguing to me about both series is their love of ordinary objects, in particular their romance of household items and interior décor. Urban loft living rooms and kitchens are transported in space and time, with place settings, cutlery, and knick-knacks by Pottery Barn. I kept wondering to myself, how did that couch get there? And where can I get that knife set?
Housewares aren’t the only carryovers from the here and now. Both series focus a lot of dramatic attention on the leaders of the colonies, Richard Tate and Nathaniel Taylor. Note the everyman-sounding names — or at least “everyman” as embodied by the white Western most likely straight but homosocially patriarchal masculinity that we are called upon to identify with, admire, or obey. These are our heroes. To be fair, though, both characters are compromised, having to make “tough choices.” And you question their choices, just as they do. Was that killing necessary? Do those lies need to be told? Helping them with such questions, or at least carrying out their orders, the boss’s right-hand police agents take up a lot of airtime as well. nd it’s ultimately hard not to read into these 2011 dramas a projection — both into the past and the future — of some concern with the police state, and with its seeming necessity in times of danger. After all, Tate and Taylor, despite their rhetorics of democracy, are really dictators, with whom we are asked to sympathize. After all, desperate times call for extraordinary measures, right?
I won’t give away what happens as the seasons come to a close, but I will say that both end in cliffhangers. And that’s it. If you take a chance on Outcasts and Terra Nova, you’ll have to commit yourself to the pleasure of watching an aborted series. You don’t know what will happen. You’ll never know. And you’ll have to be ok with that. There are a lot of series out there like that, as networks and media companies try their hands at different kinds of shows. The great archives of Netflix, Hulu, and Apple TV allow us the chance to sample their experiments. Perhaps this is a new kind of televisual enjoyment we can cultivate: the inconclusive narration, the unfinished arc, the never-ending cliffhanger.
Such open narratives, forever truncated into precariousness, are satisfying in that they mirror our contemporary situation so well. Such is certainly the case with Outcasts and Terra Nova, shows whose characters are as caught in precarity as the shows were themselves, wondering if they’d survive for a second season. We know the fate of the shows: too expensive, too moody — cancelled. But their characters are caught incomplete, just as we are caught in the middle of our own unfinished stories: whither our own future at a time of economic implosion, ecological disaster, political impasse, and global insecurity? No one seems to know how our story will end, so we tune into the apocalypse and enjoy the ride.
The writers, perhaps knowing the fate of the shows, have their characters offer some comforting platitudes, even if they’re meager or hackneyed. In the final episode of Outcasts, one character, who turns out to be genetically engineered, offers hope in the belief that we can still “design ourselves,” no matter how desperate things become. And in Terra Nova, facing that desperation, the main characters trade mantras: “This is our home.” “We will survive.” “But first let’s kick some ass.”
And they do.