Outcasts (US - BD RA)
Jonathan checks out the sci-fi BBC series starring Liam Cunningham..
After Earth is hit by catastrophe, humans become refugees on their own planet, a place now fraught with extreme danger… until a group of courageous pioneers were given a unique opportunity: the chance to create a new and better future on a distant planet called Carpathia. The city they built, Forthaven, is now the only refuge for those able to escape a doomed Earth. President Tate, his core team of Stella, Cass and Felur, and the expeditionaries Mitchell and Jack, have faced personal tragedy and conflict to develop the now thriving city. But as the last transporter from Earth approaches – with Tate’s rival Julius Berger and Stella’s daughter among the passengers – the fragile peace that was forged is about to be rocked to its core. With loyalties tested and secrets uncovered, Carpathia’s humans struggle to cope with the planet’s volatile whiteouts, mysterious life forms and the presence of a hostile exiled group. Under such tensions, can they really avoid making the mistakes of Earth and build a better world on Carpathia? (From the BBC synopsis).
Low-budget sci-fi shows have never exactly been my cup of tea. Aside from Firefly and early seasons of Battlestar Galactica, none have really grabbed my interest and kept it. Upon finishing the first episode of Outcasts, I was almost sure it would follow suit. Lucky for me, the show grows much more interesting and compelling as it goes along. This is mostly because the characters and story take the foreground. The world of Carpathia is believable thanks to the complex characters with varying motives that inhabit it. You have your leader in President Tate (played brilliantly by veteran actor Liam Cunningham), who has the colony’s best interest in mind but also possesses dark secrets. There’s a religious nut whose motive is anything but clear. There are officers who work as Forthaven’s security, expeditionaries who explore the surrounding area, and a myserious group of rebels living outside the colony called “the AC’s”. These organized groups and their relationships to one another create a living, intriguing world. Cass and Felur (played by Daniel Mays and Amy Manson) are two of the show’s main characters. They are immensely likable as the audience surrogates, and seem to be the only characters that aren’t hiding behind dark secrets.
The show looks great. The CGI isn’t very good, as one usually expects in these types of shows, but it is hardly ever used in grand situations and most of the time it’s just used to enhance the sky or distant views of the Forthaven colony. The outdoor environments in the show look awesome. Often enhanced by colour filters, they have an appropriately bleak look. Grey skies wash over mountains of impossibly jagged rock formations. The photography in these scenes is one of the show’s strongest features. The cold barren landscapes are haunting, and sometimes evoke the work of Andrei Tarkovsky. Interior scenes in Forthaven are less inspired and look more like your usual sci-fi show. There is some obvious borrowing of that J.J. Abrams lens flare which throws itself at you in every frame of his Star Trek film. It’s an easy way to give a normal looking set a futuristic sheen, but it does grow tiresome. So does the vignette effect, where the corners of the screen are darkened to create a more picturesque effect and focus on the center of the shot. It draws attention to the edges of the framing and looks out of place in the series. The action scenes are clunky and their editing lacks finesse, but the makers of the show seem to know their strengths and avoid these sequences when they aren’t necessary.
“Inconsistent” is the first word that comes to mind when I examine this 1080i/60 (MPEG-4/AVC) video transfer. The show was filmed in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, but this release is the cropped 1.78:1 version that was broadcasted. Curiously the episode previews and recaps use the original aspect ratio. Early on in the show it’s easy to see that there are some synchronization issues between the audio and the video. Occasionally words will not match up with the actor’s mouths. It doesn’t happen frequently, but when it does it is very distracting. This could very well be a fault of the interlaced video. Aside from audio timing problems, this is a fairly solid video transfer whose shortcomings are mostly the result of the filming techniques used. Some wide angle shots have an especially blurry look to them, and the photographers occasionally use weird, slightly fish-eyed lenses that distort the image and sacrifice some level of detail. Colours are less saturated than normal, so none of them really pop out, but this is entirely a stylistic choice. Many scenes have a blue and yellow colour palette. There’s a good amount of digital noise visible in darker scenes. It gives the image a filmic quality that is never distracting on its own, but often does not merge well with the clean CGI effects used. On the plus side, there are no major compression artefacts. It’s a good looking series and the transfer does well by it when the words match up with their mouths.
BBC leaves Outcasts stranded with an uninspired Dolby Digital 2.0 track. At 192kbps, this is a fairly flat audio presentation that does its job and nothing more. The lack of a proper LFE channel disappoints when ships are crashing or explosions are on screen, and I can’t recall any distinct stereo effects to split up the sound. Dialogue levels are appropriate and never get too drowned out by other audio or environmental effects, but sharing the sound channels with ambient noises and the soundtrack keeps the voices from sounding as crisp and well-defined as they could be. The music in the show isn’t very memorable, but the quality doesn’t seem to suffer from the lower bit rate. If you are just using the stock speakers on your HDTV, I’m sure this track will sound fine, but those who have invested in a nice surround sound system may find themselves yearning for more spatial effects in the mix and a boost in overall clarity.
Reach Out to the Stars (30:01, SD) is your typical behind-the-scenes look at the series. Footage from episodes is cut with cast and filmmaker interviews. The actors talk about their characters, and the filmmakers talk about their feelings on the series. They also talk about the wide angle shots and flaring lights that I mentioned in the review. They seem quite proud of the stale effect. Fans will likely find this piece informative and likable, but if the series didn’t grab you then this isn’t likely to change your mind about any of it.
Forthaven Set Tour (04:57, SD): is a brief segment where a production designer escorts a cameraman around the Forthaven and talks about the buildings. I wasn’t crazy about the Forthaven design in the show, so this didn’t do much for me.
Outcasts grew on me tremendously after it’s sluggish start, but it never quite reaches greatness. Fans of sci-fi miniseries should give it a rent, and at least make it through two episodes before deciding to finish it. The interlaced video transfer on this Blu-ray disc is flawed, and the audio track just gets by without meeting the standards of the format. Extras are scarce and generally unsatisfying, but fans may find something to like in them.
* Note: The below images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
Release Date: 16th August 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Subtitles: English SDH
Extras: Outcasts - Reach Out to the Stars, Hear From the Creator Producer Director and Cast of the Series, Forthaven - Set Tour
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ben Richards
Cast: Hermione Norris, Daniel Mays, Amy Manson, Ashley Walters, Eric Mabius, Michael Legge, Liam Cunningham
Genre: Drama and Sci-Fi
Length: 470 minutes
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