Ben Richards (‘Outcasts’) interview

Set on a recently-discovered life-sustaining planet, new space drama Outcasts begins tonight at 9pm on BBC One.

The eight-part series, from the makers of Spooks, Hustle and Life On Mars, tells of the dilemmas, loves and lives of the surviving population from Earth as they set up a new world.

> Order the Series 1 DVD on Amazon.

Watch the trailer…

Outcasts is written and created by Ben Richards (Spooks), who also created The Fixer and Party Animals. CultBox caught up with Ben to find out more…

Are you pleased with the pre-transmission reaction to Outcasts or have you been avoiding reviews?

“It’s a difficult one for any show creator to brace himself for people who won’t like it. Doing the first episode of a genre show is really difficult. Doing it as a British genre show, where there’s a tendency for critics to go in hard, makes it even more difficult. But I’m quite interested in reviews that are critical, in a way – unless they’re “I hate it, I hate it, I hate it!”. So I’ve found even the negative comments really interesting.

“People are seeming to be really patient though. We’re playing a risky game – I mean, if we get to Episode 3 and we’re down to 3 million then it’s a problem!

“I found the CultBox review really interesting. There’s problems with using humour… I mean I love writing humour; we originally had tons of jokes in it. But they can also feel a little bit luxurious, when you’re trying to get the show going and the issues set up.

“We did a version where the pig scene, at the beginning, was quite cut back – Daniel Mays asked us to put it back in and he was quite right. Sometimes you see a joke so many times that you’re sick of it too, so you cut it, which can be quite dangerous.”

“I wouldn’t dare compare the show to Battlestar Galactica – their fans are quite fanatical – but it’s very rare that somebody says they’re absolutely gripped by Episode 1 of a show. I think with sci-fi, you have to allow a bit of time to get to know the characters. I appreciate that people have said there are problems with the opening, but on the whole, that’s a long-winded way I’m happy with the reaction so far. Transmission is a nightmare though!”

The production company, Kudos, have done an amazing job with the production design on Outcasts – does it all look how you imagined in your head when you wrote the script?

“I don’t come from a sci-fi background particularly, so I’m not a hugely visual writer in that sense. So I didn’t have a blueprint in my head – I had more the characters than the location. At the beginning, I tended to think of quite lazy sci-fi clichés, like gleaming white bases in mountains, and the director changed a lot of that for the better I think.

“They gave it a much shabbier feel, which initially I was quite surprised by. But these people have been here 10 years, building out of whatever they scan scratch together. So while it’s not a really high-concept design, it’s much truer and grittier.”

It’s quite unique for a sci-fi show to be commissioned for primetime on BBC One – was it a difficult pitching Outcasts?

“They were really enthusiastic, we were really lucky with the executive in charge. It was quite a long time in development, but all of them were incredibly supportive and great to work with. To start with, I hadn’t originally thought about doing it as a sci-fi piece actually, I just wanted to do Deadwood-type a piece about pioneers. The BBC were obviously aware that genre is really hard, but they were very supportive, yes.”

As the series progresses, do we see any flashbacks to the character’s lives on Earth?

“There aren’t proper flashbacks, but their lives on Earth and why they came to Carpathia are really important. For instance, with Daniel Mays’ character, why he’s there is very important.

“I did toy with the idea of flashbacks. I think the worry was that… well, for instance, the guy who does the music discussed whether we should have music from Earth, but any reference to Earth started to feel odd. But Fleur has a massive back-story which comes out much later in the series.”

Do you have any plans for what would happen in Series 2 if the show is recommissioned?

“Definitely. Crossed fingers, and we’re fully aware that we might not get a Series 2, but we’ve got a lot of bigger stories to tell.

“The first thing I hope is that people will get through the first episodes and get into the show, because it is a complex show. As I said, I can’t think of many shows where I’ve watched the first episode and immediately thought “this is brilliant”. Even with shows like The Wire and Mad Men – and Friday Night Lights, which I think is my favourite show ever!

“The ideas we’ve been talking about for Series 2 are really going into the core of the show: what happens if you start a new world and fuck it up? You might want to word that differently!

“Also, a really important idea for me, which sadly wasn’t as big in Series 1 as I would’ve liked, is how we treat other species. Humans have been calamitously cruel, it’s a huge moral failing. Also, there’s the idea of how we as a species would have a chance to design ourselves for the first time. Moving into space is really the last time that could happen.”

Does Series 1 end on a cliffhanger?

“Yep! It’s always a scary thing doing cliffhanger endings, in case you don’t get a second series and you’re completely humiliated. But it does end on a massive cliffhanger, so we’ll have to see what happens!”

When a show like Outcasts is edited for international broadcast and cut down to allow time for adverts, do you have any input as a writer into which scenes are taken out?

“I used to write a lot of Spooks, although I don’t anymore, and they would re-cut episodes for the US market and I never knew how they did it and never wanted to know! I always felt bad for the US viewers, because it was hard enough to follow a story that was so plot-driven and complex even in an hour! Take quarter of an hour out and people must be completely baffled.

Outcasts will be showing on BBC America at some point though, but I think they’ll be showing the whole thing hopefully.”

When you wrote the character of Stella, did you always have Hermione Norris in mind?

“Not at the beginning, because when I wrote Stella she was still in Spooks. But when it became clear that she was going to leave Spooks, she came into my mind more.”

You wrote the Spooks Series 8 finale episode, where Ros Myers is killed in an explosion. Was there any temptation to set up the possibility that she may have escaped and could return one day?

“There’s always huge debate about this with Spooks and it was discussed and it was discussed and it was discussed. There are some characters where the door is left open, but part of the reputation that Spooks has is to kill people off. This is partly because it’s dramatically better to just get on with it and go for it.

“Sometimes people come back – the door was left open for Nicola Walker, who plays Ruth, and she returned which is brilliant. With Ros, there were discussions about it, but audiences have a problem with too much ambiguity, so we decided to just blow her to smithereens.”

Will you be writing any more Spooks in future?

“I’ve no idea what’s going to happen actually. I didn’t write for the last series. Series 10 is about to go into production now I think, but it all depends on what happens with the show after that, which isn’t decided yet. I’d never say never to Spooks – it was the show I learnt to write on and I love it. I really do miss it. I’ve slightly lost touch with the characters now so to get back into that would be great.

“Actually, Spooks was completely hammered when it first came out and I think it’s now really defined British television across the past decade. It’s one of the best representations of what British television can do.”

Is there any chance that The Fixer will return for a third series?

“No, none whatsoever! I really loved doing The Fixer, but I think it was always a hard premise to sustain as a returning series. It was hard to generate a story of the week. I think ideally it might have worked dramatically better a four-part series of a hitman with a proper pay-off.”