Interview With Ben Richards and Finale Review
by Eddie McGuigan
It’s no news to Skarosians that I’m a fan of Outcasts. Unfairly critiqued in some quarters, this is an intelligent, uncompromising series which, whilst not perfect in every sense, dared to take science fiction seriously and offered BBC viewers a non patronising and thoughtful series full of potential and fabulous characters.
Writer and creator Ben Richards has a fabulous TV pedigree. Coming from the background of a novelist, he was chief writer on Spooks for the middle part of its run – although now refusing point blank to acknowledge the very existance of Spooks: Code 9 (“What? Sorry? Never heard of it!”) – and has even put words into everyone’s favourite Doctor’s mouth, in the guise of Matt Smith in Party Animals. Ben is sharp, friendly, passionate and intelligent, and clearly loves not just the series Outcasts, but the concept too. Catching up with him, I spoke to him about his career to date, tried to find out what happened to Zaf (sshh, spoilers!) and got his thoughts on Outcasts as the series reaches its end. “We’re heading for Cultdom!” he despaired. Hey, Cultdoms not too bad. There are many good shows there, Caprica, Firefly and Dollshouse to name just three.
So how did you go from writing novels to writing for telly?
I was working as a Housing Officer for many years. Then I went to Chile to do a PhD on housing under Pinochet. When I returned, I was writing up my PhD and started a novel about my experiences as a housing officer (Throwing the House out of the Window) as a kind of distraction from the tedium of data crunching. My first professional commission was a show called Politcos. It never got made but it did lead to me being offered Spooks on Series 2.
So why telly? Is it better than writing novels?
The money’s much better on TV! Novels don’t pay the rent.
And what was your job on Spooks?
I used to be lead writer on Spooks from Series 3-5. Then I would do odd episodes here and there on further series. I didn’t work at all on the last one.
What do you think makes Spooks such an appealing and enduring series?
I think Spooks is so enduring because it has such a strong format and such brilliant characters. We also made the show stronger than the individual characters which allowed us always to bring in new blood.
Is part of the fun finding new tortures for the characters?
For me the main fun on Spooks is weaving the human and political stories through the thriller stuff. Although I have killed off a few characters!
Tell me Sir Harry is safe!
Sir Harry Pearce will never die! (well not on my watch anyway).
Do you have a favourite episode or storyline?
My favourite episode is the one where Danny dies. I love the moment where he defies the terrorists knowing it will lead to his death but perhaps save Fiona. Fuck you, you death-worshipping fascist! A good line to go out on. I also liked the two-parter about the coup and the introduction of Ros Myers.
Talk to us about Party Animals, starring a certain Matt Smit
Party Animals was one of my favourite shows. It also got a mixed reception when it arrived, now people come up to me or write to me and tell me how much they loved it. And of course it launched the careers of some pretty amazing actors. I have always had a strong interest in politics and the BBC at the time wanted a show that reflected the political landscape just as Cameron came on the scene. But we wanted to tell it through the lives of the young researchers and do a non-cynical take on politics because it’s not all about charlatans and liars. Some people didn’t understand that it was a character show, a rather gentle love story about two brother and chose to read it as an attempt at satire which was never ever the intention. I sometimes think that “satire” is the only tolerated approach to British politics – it’s very much a tradition of the dominant class after all who sometimes have an uneasy relationship with democracy.
And having worked with Matt, do you like Doctor Who? Would you like to write for it?
I do like Doctor Who although I don’t always keep up with it. I love Matt Smith and think he is a brilliant actor. It’s a massive show that was so important to me as a kid as well – I don’t think many writers would turn down the opportunity to write for it.
So onto Outcasts, how did that come about?
Outcasts was originally an idea about pioneers and I never thought I was going to make a sci-fi show per se. I certainly never thought: “I know, I’ll make a British version of BSG” which I hadn’t watched at the time I started development on Outcasts. So the original idea was about pioneers and the space idea came from Hawking’s quote that if humanity were to survive it would have to “reach for the stars”.
They’re are many Battlestar Galactica parallels in it, particularly the New Caprica stuff. Was it an influence?
I have to be honest and say that BSG wasn’t really an influence at all – it may just be that in trying to focus on certain aspects of human struggle we are occupying similar terrain. Perhaps a bigger influence for me was Bladerunner – still, I think, a breathtaking, heartbreaking masterpiece which explored issues of human identity, emotion and mortality which were also fundamental ideas in our show.
What was the main thrust of the idea?
The driving force behind Outcasts was that of “second chances” and whether humans were doomed to failure as a species. Pioneers on another planet would be both fragile and susceptible to conflict. Another theme linked to this was my horror at the way we treat other species on earth and my interest in the idea of species and evolution. Specifically, what would happen if we found we were no longer the dominant species and what an “advanced” species might be like. I was interested in a Richard Dawkins idea that sci-fi has been unimaginative in always depicting “aliens” as rather weird looking creatures rather than different types of life-form altogether.
Did it turn out on TV as you had imagined it in your head?
Obviously, there is always a difference between what starts in your head and what ends up on screen but I think that Bharat Nalluri – the director who set it up, and Ed Thomas – the designer (who also designs Doctor Who) did an amazing job as did the CG people.
What are you most proud of about it?
I’m most proud of the fact that we tried to do something different, we were never cynical in our approach and we’ve paid a price for that. People who wanted space-buggies and lasers didn’t get them and those who don’t like sci-fi at all didn’t always get the show either. This meant a niche – albeit passionate – audience in a mainstream channel and we suffered for that. In some ways the schedule change was a relief because it meant our loyal fans who love the show could watch and I could stop worrying a bit! But we could have made a medical drama, or a cop show, and while – when done well – there is nothing wrong with these genres, we had ambitions beyond that. I’m proud of that. I’m proud of the effort people put in: the cast, the crew, the production team, the great and helpful support we received from the BBC etc. I have never once regretted doing it and I still don’t. I have a picture of a smoking survival shuttle from Ep 2 proudly above my desk – it’s an apt image I think and it makes me smile.
What do you think of the reception Outcast has received?
We’ve had some nice things said, some nasty things said and some exceptionally stupid things said. The people for whom I reserve my greatest contempt are those who didn’t give it a chance, who preferred shallow infantilist bullying to any kind of rational critical engagement or understanding of what we were trying to do. It was funny sometimes to read utterly contradictory criticisms especially over the exposition issue. Too much? Not enough? I am quite happy to say I still believe we got the exposition about right and would happily discuss that on a scene by scene basis! A few people attacked the production values or the CG – I think they can be dismissed as simply ignorant of the topic on which they purport to pass comment (although it makes me angry when I think of the intense effort that went into the production.) In most other fields this ignorance would be considered a drawback but it didn’t seem to bother some of the more opinionated “critics”.
More sensible criticism was about starting with too much back story when we didn’t know the world or characters well enough. That to me is a valid and interesting point and it would be a very arrogant writer who didn’t admit to learning from the reception their work receives. Should we have killed Jamie Bamber? Actually, we killed Mitchell Hoban which creatively I think was right as he represented a type of pioneer whose symbolic time had come. I think that debate is also interesting and it divides people, although many of those I have spoken to still think it was the right thing to do. Pacing is another huge issue on which I have strong thoughts (remember I’ve written a lot of Spooks so I do know a thing or two about it) but that would take us all day!!! I do wonder now if these episodes – given their slower place which I personally liked – might have worked better over 45 minutes as one critic (Dan Owen – check out his interesting – and by no means always flattering to us – blog) suggested. It’s a good point even if, overall, his taste in film is a little questionable.
I think the “real” sci fi fans might have “got it” more than more generic critics?
There was also a good side to the reception of course and people who were very supportive. With Outcasts I got real pleasure from the response of those who took the trouble to watch the show including some who had been sceptical at the start. I loved AA Gill’s review in the Sunday Times and I’ve had some slaggings from him on other shows. Many people warmed to Outcasts (surprising for a show that was a series not an episode!!!) as it hit its stride and I have had great fun discussing it with its hardcore fans, with some scientists, and with people like yourselves and Den of Geek. There is a tendency to see the internet as uniformly toxic or the territory of the nerdiest fanatics – in fact we have got some of our greatest understanding and most interesting critiques from that source.
And wat hopes of a second series?
Obviously it is highly doubtful if there will be another series of Outcasts which for me is a great shame as we had some interesting ideas and new characters to come. Sadly, it didn’t find a home on primetime BBC1 although that itself raises very interesting questions about what we watch and where we watch it. How may people watched BSG? Or Mad Men? Where did they watch them? Of all genres though, sci-fi has probably the highest casualty rate and I suspect we might be joining an illustrious list of those who never made it to the next stage – to me a shame as many shows don’t get going until later on.
But I am really proud of Outcasts and I have just seen Episode 8 which I love. Anybody wants to slag that off and I am willing and ready to come out all guns blazing because I think it summarises all that is best in the show – great acting, high emotional tension and a concern for moral issues that is sadly lacking in much drama today. I stand by it 100%.
And what’s in Ben Richards future?
The future? I have some interesting projects in deveopment which are largely single pieces although there is also a series idea with the team that made Party Animals. Another novel definitely. A holiday maybe. Some time with my lovely, patient wife (who also worked on the show) and my kids of two and five who are brilliant and fun and a reminder that telly isn’t everything. I’m currently working on a script which involves the Titanic. So that will give me a respite from on-line controversy I’m sure! Being a writer can be really tough but it is still the only thing I can imagine doing. And I never say never with Spooks!
The final two episodes of Outcasts are very different creatures, but both deal with multiple strands that, it soon becomes obvious, aren’t all going to be tied up in a neat bow by the end of Episode Eight. This isn’t a bad thing. As I have been saying from the start of the series, this is fitting, as real life doesn’t stop and start in eight hour long segments.
Ep 7 deals primarily with Cass, as we find out more about his past and deal with another situation about other, secondary Carpathian residents. A neat twist and some fine acting framework a story with many strands, and there is a definitive gear shift, especially with Stella, which would have been welcomed earlier on. There’s also technobabble! Fabulous. Add to this the confirmation of Aliens on Carpathia and an extinct race, and there are mouthwatering concepts here.
Ep 8 sees the series end with all the cast coming into their own. A startling revelation about Fleur is the catalyst for Berger’s machinations with Jack to come to a head, but Tate and Cass aren’t as stupid as they’d all like to think, and as revelations abound along with a terrifying return of an old nightmare – or two – cranks up the tension. Berger finally makes his move – but are all his pieces in place?
Outcasts doesn’t end in a big spectacular, it’s uncompromising and clever to the end. There is definitely a faster, pacier, intriguing second series to be made, but whether that shows up on tv – or elsewhere – is not known for now. It’s a pity because, in the view of this critic, it’s absolutely worth a punt.
Thanks to Ben for his help in this article.