Perhaps television science fiction is too easy a target. Perhaps the demands of television drama are incompatible with the demands of good science fiction. Good prime-time television drama, that is: a television series that doesn’t want to appeal solely to fans of television science fiction.
I am, of course, speaking of Outcasts, BBC1’s new science fiction drama. It’s currently being shown at prime-time on Monday and Tuesday nights, but in March will be moved to late night Sunday. I have so far watched the first four episodes, and I can’t decide which is worst: the plotting, or the world-building.
To be fair, the programme looks good and is mostly well-acted. And those television series which have clearly spent a lot of time and effort on world-building have ended up with (relatively) small but loyal fanbases among media sf fans – Battlestar Galactica, for example; or Firefly. But perhaps such an investment was thought too much for an eight-episode drama aimed at general television viewers, and which just happened to be science fiction.
But, you know, the world-building is important. It’s one of the pillars holding up suspension of disbelief. And without suspension of disbelief, you have a television drama that’ll shed viewers and end up being moved to a graveyard slot. You don’t need to create an entire world’s worth of back-history, you don’t need to invent new swearwords. But you do need to apply a little common sense to the world you’ve created for the story. No giant starships, for example, which are plainly not built to make planetary landings, but do anyway – despite previous attempts by other giant starships often proving catastrophic. Or re-introducing slavery, which is morally abhorrent no matter how you try to justify it, and simply wouldn’t happen in a story set no more than handful of decades from now. Or possessing sophisticated technology, but ignoring the way it is used in the real world – for communications, for instance; or GPS.
Granted, these may be considerations which are only going to exercise the minds of science fiction fans; perhaps general viewers, unused to, or unconcerned with, the demands of genre television, will ignore them. A lack of them won’t spoil their viewing experience. But is that any reason not to take the trouble to get it right? Their inclusion can only improve the story, and they’re unlikely to turn off non-sf viewers. There’s no need to turn Outcasts into Battlestar Galactica, with an entire universe invented from scratch, but throwing in a little rigour will surely make the programme better viewing for all.
Because when you skimp on the world-building, the plot stops making sense. Since many of those dramatically-tense scenes wouldn’t exist if you’d used a bit of common sense. So, for example, you have lots of sophisticated comms gear on your colony world, but people go off into the outback without any means of being contacted, so no one knows when they encounter trouble. It’s dramatic; but it’s also pretty dumb. And when you abandon common sense in world-building, you end up with idiot-plotting, a story that can only progress if the characters make pretty dumb decisions.
Battlestar Galactica proved that science fiction television can tackle grown-up themes in a grown-up fashion. It doesn’t always have to be juvenile. Outcasts could have demonstrated that rigorous intelligent science fiction doesn’t only appeal to fans of media sf. Instead, it seems Outcasts‘ writers ran from that particular fight. A shame.