Tag Archives: outcasts

Interview with Outcasts’ creator, Ben Richards

Further to all the discussion that happened on this blog on BBC’s Outcasts, show creator Ben Richards kindly agreed to take some questions from me (and various fans who submitted them online). He’s had various commitments holding him up and sends apologies for the delay, but below we have his views on the cancellation, the way the BBC handled it, the audience reaction, sci-fi and its fanbase, the show scheduling and more. Hope you find it enlightening – was v. interesting reading for me.

The “big news” is that Ben’s in discussions with Kudos on a way to resolve the series in a different format! More below.

If you want a quick recap of all the discussion that’s happened here, you can read my other posts on Outcasts here to understand where I came from with most of the questions:

New Sci-Fi – Outcasts
Outcasts – mid-season view
Will there be an Outcasts series 2
How to protest the Outcasts cancellation

…and more generally on the Beeb:
Why do ratings matter for the BBC?
Is the BBC good value for money?

Now, to the interview!

The show was written for a “mainstream” audience but didn’t get mainstream ratings. What would these have looked like and how far off were you?
We would probably have been OK if the unofficial overnights had stayed between 4 and 5 m but there is no hard and fast rule. Once we dropped into the low 3s though I knew we were in trouble.

Given the scheduling issues, why weren’t the iPlayer ratings taken into consideration when evaluating the show for renewal (or did it not make a difference?) – the show was cancelled before the show was taken off iPlayer and if the traffic and comments on my blog were any reflection people were watching long after the finale aired.
Don’t know the answer to this as I don’t know how they calculate iPlayer.

Given the BBC funding/license fee issues, and the length of production cycles, was the writing on the wall for a big budget series like this before you even went on the air?
I think the problems were more to do with the fact that it was an expensive show that could only find a niche audience and was therefore not right for 9pm BBC1. In many ways I wonder whether any serious sci-fi show can survive in that kind of primetime slot on a mainstream channel. Certainly, many of the big sci-fi shows have very low audiences but they are also expensive. In general though there are many lessons from Outcasts for ambitious dramas that seek to try something new and challenging. Some of these lessons may be a little scary and I really hope that the experience doesn’t discourage people from trying. Although I would add that very few series of this type will ever “catch” in their first episode and if I had one plea as a result of this it is for a little more patience, especially from those who bemoan the presence of too much procedural drama on TV. Sci-fi in particular often takes a little time to establish its place, bed in its characters, develop its themes etc. Many sci-fi shows really get into their stride in Series 2 or even 3. I genuinely believe that a second series of Outcasts would have made it a seminal TV show. I really do believe that and it saddens me that certain people were so anxious to take a gleeful hammer to it as soon as it took its first steps. But I’m also glad there were also many critics and internet sites who saw that and spoke out in its defence. For example, critics like Ian Wylie and sites like Den of Geek and Outpost Skaro were a massive support to us and I’ll always be thankful to them for it.

What was the show’s budget? (Appreciate this one might not be public domain)
Genuinely don’t know. It involved a lot of co-production.

When you conceived the series, did you plan it as a multi-season show (it feels like you were planning 2-3 series ahead)? How did the writing planning/structure work?
Yes it was supposed to be a slow-burner with stories that would span series. We had much more time to plan Series 2 and had some great character and story developments. And while I didn’t especially agree with some of the criticisms of the show with regard to pacing we had obviously learned some lessons from Series 1 and would have addressed certain issues. We followed a conventional British structure of story conferences involving all the writers and producers rather than the American writers room. This was mainly due to time issues.

How has the fan pressure affected the discussions with the BBC about resolving the plotlines from Outcasts? How many complaints have been received, what has it caused the Beeb to consider? Can I publish that you’re in discussion about some kind of web resolution for the series?
The BBC are certainly aware of the fan disappointment at cancellation but I’m also going to step in and defend the Beeb here because they are under a lot of conflicting pressures and we received a lot of support from them. They wanted the show to work and our BBC execs on the show were nothing but sympathetic and good to work with. They were as disappointed as us that the show hadn’t got a bigger audience although as I say I am beginning to think – especially given the number of people who started watching the show from its first minute – that this low figure was perhaps inevitable.

There were a lot of audience complaints at cancellation – not sure of the exact number but it was very satisfying to me that enough people cared enough to take that trouble. You can certainly publish that we are looking for ways to deal with the unanswered questions in other forms. I have a meeting next week about it and we’re really excited to be carrying it forward.

Was the show promoted enough by the Beeb?
Well I loved the trails and I don’t think more promotion would have changed much. The number who actually started watching the show was around 4.5 million. That’s a very low opening for a mainstream show and I suspect has more to do with the genre than the promotion. What it means though is that you can’t afford to lose any viewers (which almost all shows do) and therefore we knew pretty early on that it would struggle in that slot. We then had the misfortune the second night to be up against the extraordinary juggernaut that was Gypsy Weddings and once we had lost a million viewers on a second outing it was clear that things would be very difficult. Having said that, I was extremely pleased with the way the figures held when our slot was moved to late on Sunday night. To be getting around 1.5 million (which doesn’t include catch-up and i-player) in such a late slot on that day of the week was a testimony to the fact that there was a hardcore of viewers and that the show HAD found an audience (albeit a smaller one than we or the BBC would have liked). And – as we have seen from the response after the end of the show – a passionate one. There has to be a place for shows like Outcasts but I don’t know the answer and it is tricky in today’s climate as you have suggested above.

Who thought the show needed to be 8 1hr episodes (beeb vs kudos vs you vs…)? Had it been 13 43 minute episodes (virtually the same amount of television), do you think it would have helped with the pacing issues, and helped with International syndication/sales? Would that have supported renewal?
Yes I definitely think in retrospect the show would have benefited from shorter episodes. A full hour is standard for BBC1 though. Still, I never thought the pacing would be a big issue as I thought there would be enough interest in the themes we were developing and the emotional stories. Episode 5 was possibly the slowest paced but remains one of my favourite episodes because I think it is lyrical and elegiac and moving. But it could have stood being 45 minutes long as could most of the episodes. Eps 1 and 2 might also have worked better as a 90 minute pilot. I’ve said this before in other interviews but I was the lead writer on Spooks for three series and I know a thing or two about how to pace an episode for action and tension. But this was a different type of show and I do find it interesting that some critics will be incredibly tolerant of different pacing but only when the show in question is American.

What have you learnt about sci-fi / sci-fi fans since working on the show? I read somewhere that you conceived it as a pioneer show and the sci-fi was more or less incidental – yet the fan comments I’ve read kind of make me think that the character of your fans here is probably typical – passionate, absorbed, (somewhat) cerebral people…?
I think that’s a really interesting point. It was conceived as a pioneer show and I didn’t have a big sci-fi background. Even as a viewer I was not a great sci-fi addict although I would always put Bladerunner in my top five favourite films. We’ll put aside whether this was a good or bad thing but I never started with the idea of making a sci-fi series but of making a show about humans trying to start again. Another planet just seemed the best way of doing this and was in line with Hawking’s quote about the only way humanity might survive is in “reaching for the stars”.

When we started there were obviously some sci-fi fans who hated Outcasts because it didn’t have lasers and buggies and uniforms and battles in space etc. This is not to disparage that kind of show but it certainly wasn’t my particular preference or inspiration in any way. But as time went on it was also the sci-fi fraternity who swung most eloquently to our defence because obviously what we were doing was a particular type of sci-fi with a long tradition and I think people started to see that. We were exploring questions of morality and human identity and the possibilities of second chances. There were those who didn’t have the patience to see this though and that’s their right of course, people watch TV for different reasons, and I understand that it wasn’t going to please everybody. But I was glad that those who stuck with it saw what we were trying to do and responded well to it. Many sci-fi oriented internet sites gave us our most positive, thoughtful and considered criticism. And even when they weren’t always praising everything, they at least had the courtesy and respect to engage properly with the show rather than just giving a dismissive sneer or flip putdown. If anything fills me with a kind of existential angst it is that kind of carelessly self-satisfied negativity. I hate it even when it is not directed at me and in any field. I just think it is a form of semi-neurotic bullying and I despise those who choose it as their tone. But I came out of this with a real respect for those sci-fi fans – often derided as geeks and obsessives – who took the trouble to give a balanced and honest appraisal of the show and who appreciated it.

We made choices with Outcasts. We chose not to camp it up, we chose to take our subject seriously. That may have lost us some support I guess but I’m really glad that we did that. I’m a writer who likes humour as well and that perhaps got lost a little along the way but I’m still glad we didn’t go down the road of pastiche and irony and sending up our world. And there’s a significant sector of sci-fi fans who responded very well to that.

Any hints/spoilers as to the nature of the aliens / the fate of Earth you want to share??
I can’t give too much away because we are planning to do something with regards to this. But as I’ve already said the new transporter contains further details from earth and their fate will be linked to that of the host force. The big theme for a Series 2 in whatever form it takes is that of transhumanism – an attempt to create a new species from the Carpathian human stock and the battles to control this process.

With ref to the fan questions, I have answered these mostly but will just add a few general points. The response of those who loved the show has been so brilliant for me and I really want to thank all of those who took the trouble to write and express their views and to campaign for the show. In spite of the difficult first weeks, the growing support for the show – especially on line – was such a relief and has really helped with our plans to answer some of the questions you have in one form or another.

In general the ratings tell us that shows like this will probably never get high enough figures to survive in a primetime position; sci-fi in general struggle with this. Even the most iconic shows tend to have low viewing figures and rely on the passion of their viewers to get them through. Sadly we lost that battle but I’m still intensely proud of what we achieved and grateful to the passionate and eloquent viewers who stayed with us to have their questions only partially answered in Epsiode 8!!! I hope we’ll be able to answer more of them further down the line.

Many thanks Ben for taking the time!

How to protest the Outcasts cancellation

Some insight from readers, some my own digging in response to the upset around Outcasts non-renewal/cancellation (is there a difference?)… I’m really not sure that doing any of this will make any difference, but it’ll give you an opportunity to vent. Thanks to everyone for their suggestions in the comments.

1. Use the complaints form from the BBC – found here. Not sure this’ll get you anywhere as they now apparently have a stock response:

Thanks for contacting us regarding ‘Outcasts’ on BBC One.

I understand you’re unhappy with the cancellation of the series.

We regularly have to make difficult decisions and unfortunately sometimes they will prove to be unpopular with some viewers. In spite of a great cast and production team, ‘Outcasts’ did not find its audience in the way that we had hoped. We remain proud of it but it will not be returning for another series. We can only apologise for any disappointment caused by our decision.

2. Join the Facebook protest. I don’t know if this is being monitored or actively campaigned with but there’s 1,500 people on there at the moment so at the least you’ll find like-minded people.

3. Write to the commissioning editors (all their assistants’ contact details are on the web) or Kudos. Not sure anyone at Kudos can do anything or if you’ll get a response. My brother knows the CEO of Kudos and received a brief email from him expressing some sadness at the cancellation, so not sure they’re in a position to do much (my bro flagged the comments here to Kudos, so they at least have read them if not the BBC folk…)

4. Set up an online petition, get loads of support, and then do (3) above.

5. Suggest that Sky take it up by submitting it as an idea. Not sure how complex the rights issues are.

6. Get in touch with Ben Richards and ask him to write a book to finish the story. He’s on Twitter, but not sure if that would work unless you also happen to be a publisher who wants to offer him a lucrative deal to do the job.

Me? Well, I’m going to finish watching the series (I know, how can I be taking so long? Well, being a dad is time-consuming!) and if I feel suitably inspired I’ll post my suggestions for how the series would resolve here to help assuage the frustration of being left high and dry with the season finale. After all, my dream is still to be a SFF author someday!

Right, normal blogging service will resume now. More on soup, gardening, dadhood, technology, and the like, less on Outcasts… Please keep discussing in the comments and I’ll chip in if I discover/find out anything!

Why do ratings matter for the BBC?

A lot of the protest around the Outcasts cancellation I’ve read in the comments has been around the ratings question. As a public service broadcaster, why do ratings matter?

Put simply, ratings are a way of the BBC verifying that it is spending the license fee in the viewers’ interests. If it is committing a large spend to a TV programme, it needs to be sure that it is proportionate to the interest in the show. Bearing in mind that an hour of even a simple soap opera can cost in excess of £100k, and these, rightly or wrongly, receive millions and millions of viewers, the higher cost of creating a Sci-Fi drama series presumably proportionate support (although obviously it’s not as simple as “as many viewers as Eastenders” or it’d never get made). In addition, although this is a secondary concern, a highly rated programme can be a source of revenue for the BBC via BBC Worldwide (which made £1bn last year, pittance against the operating costs of the BBC but not too shabby).

There’s more on this question on Quora for interested people.

However, I think the BBC has ignored the long tail a bit with Outcasts. If you look at my exchange with an independent TV producer on Quora here you’ll see that iPlayer ratings do indeed count – independent production companies are remunerated in part on performance there – but it looks like the decision to cancel Outcasts was taken before iPlayer data came into play. This is presumably because the viewer numbers were far too low for a mid-week prime-time programme, irrespective of iPlayer views, but without access to the iPlayer viewer numbers its difficult to know if they’ve been properly thoughtful about this.

Incidentally, I wrote to both the BBC and show producers Kudos TV to put some commenter questions to them. Sadly, the BBC has ignored me (presumably because I am not a journalist) and Kudos sent me an ironic individual reply saying they wouldn’t reply to emails individually.

Will there be an Outcasts series 2?

Update 3: The interview with Ben Richards is live here! Read it for updates on season 2, thoughts on the cancellation and the down-low on the ratings.

Update 2: I’ve emailed a bunch of questions (including some reader submitted ones) to Ben Richards, who has promised a response but evidently not had a chance to do it yet. He mentioned being in discussions with the BBC about some kind of resolution to the show, although series 2 didn’t sound likely from our brief Twitter exchange. Will share more when I have it.

Update: The BBC doesn’t seem to be continuing to track for buzz about Outcasts so my more recent posts haven’t been flagged on the official Outcasts page. Fans visiting this page might be interested in my follow up posts: Why do ratings matter for the BBC? and How to protest the Outcasts cancellation. You might also be tangentially interested in this comparative cost of TV license fee chart, across Europe.

In addition, show creator Ben Richards has agreed to talk to me about the Outcasts cancellation. Please submit any questions you would like me to put to him here.

Original post follows…

No, sadly not. Here’s the confirmation via the BBC Outcasts Facebook page, and here’s an interview where the show creator/writer Ben Richards talks about why he thinks it all went down the way it did (not without bitterness.) It sounds, broadly speaking, like it was felt that the show missed its mark in terms of hitting a mainstream audience, didn’t get the ratings it needed (no idea if iPlayer ratings came into play) and misjudged its pacing. The episode length issue is discussed – an hour slot was tough to write for.

I still haven’t finished catching up on the show and will do so in the next couple of weeks and share my thoughts. Will also probably do a final “best of comments” as I’ve had an overwhelming number on here thanks to the trackbacks from the BBC website and there have been some fantastic comments about the show – positive and negative – some of which are worth highlighting! Thanks all for your contributions.

A cynical part of me is a little melancholic if the BBC One controller, Danny Cohen, is going to drive all his television making decisions based on ratings in quite this way (as indicated by this), but I guess if the show was designed for a mainstream audience and had a mainstream budget then its a fair enough decision. Although as per the comments, and as a fan of shows with complex and long-running story-arcs (Joss Whedon fans out there?), it can take a while for these things to build…

As a partial aside, whilst we’ve both been watching Outcasts, Amanda and her brother and mum have been watching a niche piece of BBC4 television, Danish crime drama The Killing. I guess as a BBC4 programme specifically designed for a niche audience the criteria are different (and the critical feedback has been much more consistently positive than Outcasts’), but I can’t help but wish/hope that the kinds of decisions that spur the funding of programmes like that would support things like Outcasts too. Why is all BBC SciFi/Fantasy output ‘mainstream’ (Dr Who, Torchwood, Merlin etc) – isn’t there room for some niche sci-fi from the Beeb?

Outcasts–mid season view

Given the massive response to my earlier post, here’s a bit of an update as we continue to watch our way through the series.

Four episodes in (we’re catching up), I’m definitely growing in fondness for Outcasts. It’s pretty sophisticated writing, with layer upon layer of plotline piling dark edges on top of each other to create a really satisfying universe with characters you don’t quite know how to place and baddies you aren’t entirely sure are baddies – with the exception of the supremely creepy Eric Mabius as Julius Berger.

I’m hoping they continue to leave points of conflict open – from the romantic plotline between Fleur/Jack/Cass to the darker political one with Julius/Tate to the psychological ones with Tipper/Tate and beyond… but that’s only if they are given time to complete the story arcs as (apparently) intended. My concern, with only four episodes to go, is that there isn’t anything like enough time to round out all these stories properly. I’m hoping they avoid Deus Ex Machina where they can – my screenplay writing training with Robert McKee a few years ago drilled a strong distaste for that into me.

Quick plot check four episodes in (spoilers herein, avoid if you’re not at this point):

  • The past plotline – jawbone et al
  • The Fleur/Jack/Cass romantic plotline
  • The Isen girls plotline
  • The Tipper Malone plotline
  • The future of the ACs plotline
  • The Julius Berger / sexual assault plotline
  • The Julius Berger / Tate political plotline
  • The Tate/kids plotline
  • The kid from the pilot’s plotline (will he return?)
  • The role of the XPs plotline
  • The planet plotline (white-outs et al)
  • The Earth plotline (what’s happened etc)

That’s a lot to resolve in 4 hours of television – have I missed any? I’ll be impressed if they get through it all.

As to the future of the show, who can say? There’s certainly been an outpouring of support in the comments here but 2,800 odd fans on Facebook will not a renewal make, not for this man from the sound of things. Although what’s interesting for me from the ratings (increasingly worse, hence the rescheduling) and the comments (most people watching on iPlayer, and its in the ‘most popular’ TV on iPlayer section) is how little traditional ratings might mean for this show. It’s sci-fi, which means a passionate core audience. And it’s the BBC, so iPlayer might be the way to swing it.

Fingers crossed.

New sci-fi–Outcasts

Update: Further thoughts on Outcasts here.

I’ve only seen the pilot of Outcasts but am loving the ambition of the show. Bold, crazy, post-apocalyptic universe, Jamie Bamber making an appearance with his native British accent*, big budget BBC drama, Roz from Spooks, staggeringly striking sets in South Africa… so many good ingredients.

It saddens me that there have already been negative mutterings about its ratings and its been shifted to a graveyard slot – probably with a doubtful future. Why set these shows up on a pedestal? It’s sci-fi! For some reason, with rare exceptions, these shows always attract what the BBC controller describes as a “loyal, core audience” and rarely hit the mass-market mainstream – so why expect otherwise? I guess SFX budgets still don’t come in cheap, and everyone’s hoping they write a BatGal or a Star Trek.

Still – even if it doesn’t do great here, the BBC didn’t do much for its chances to do much better overseas with its weird series formats. 8 episodes? What is that?? An American half-season is 13 episodes – a length which gives you more time to get into a story or a universe, and which gives time for things to evolve to a point of genuine goodness.

Sigh. Well, if it gets cancelled, I’ll hope that it gets worse by episode three and I won’t regret its demise. But I’m not hopeful – I enjoyed the pilot. Check out the trailer here:


*I swear I thought he was American, he must be a good actor because I thought his English accent in Outcasts was unconvincing after seeing him on BatGal for years!