Last Night's TV - Outcasts, BBC1; Out of the Ashes, BBC4
They're on another planet
Tuesday 08 February 2011
Science fiction doesn't float everybody's spaceship, and it has never done much for mine. A couple of years ago, I wrote a book about growing up in front of the telly in the 1970s and a friend berated me for about an hour for not devoting at least a chapter to The Tomorrow People. She took it as a personal affront that the jaunting belt, the contraption they used to travel through time, hadn't meant as much to me in 1975 as it had to her.
No, in those days I much preferred the gripping realism of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and The Persuaders! I only wrote about Star Trek in my book to draw attention to the fact that, contrary to popular misconception, neither Captain Kirk nor anyone else ever said, "Beam me up, Scotty." Nor, for that matter, did Sherlock Holmes in any of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories ever say, "Elementary, my dear Watson". But enough of that, let's get back to the future, and to Outcasts, the BBC's new big-budget drama set on the planet Carpathia, where, after a "titanic disaster" on Earth, surviving human beings have forged a new existence, led by Richard Tate (Liam Cunningham) and Stella Isen (Hermione Norris).
It's been interesting following Norris's career since her big break in Cold Feet of blessed memory. Her female co-stars Helen Baxendale and Fay Ripley seemed more likely to be rocketed into the stratosphere by Cold Feet, and for a while Baxendale was, yet of the three of them it is Norris who now enjoys by far the most successful small-screen career. The last few months alone have seen her bumped off in Spooks, only to resurface as one of the screamingly dysfunctional Manson family in the remake of Bouquet of Barbed Wire, and now here she is again as Stella, Carpathia's head of protection and security, ice-queening it marvellously over her fellow displaced earthlings.
At first, Outcasts rekindled all my old prejudices, and yet gradually, like spacedust into an HS-9433X warp-drive engine, I was sucked in. Maybe that's because the problems of establishing a new society on Carpathia can easily enough be seen as allegorical, in the sense that the purity of any ideology sooner or later gets defiled by human impulses and emotions. Spoiling things for Richard, Stella and their loyalists was a renegade settler called Mitchell (Jamie Bamber), who got bumped off last night, but not without crossly sowing the seeds of revolution. Meanwhile, another spaceship from Earth is trying to land, and it happens to be carrying Stella's long-lost daughter. This we know because Richard managed to Skype the spaceship's captain. Incidentally, jaunting belts were all very well, but I bet they didn't have Skype on The Tomorrow People. That would have stretched credibility too far.
In this evening's second episode (of eight), I suppose we'll find out whether Stella's daughter makes it or not. I wouldn't say I can't wait, but I'm more than mildly interested. Outcasts is well written (by Ben Richards), smartly directed (by Bharat Nalluri), and splendidly acted, although if I wanted to be picky I might wonder why everyone on Carpathia seems able to speak English, albeit with a nice range of accents (RP, northern Irish, south London). Was passage away from a disintegrating Earth not available to the Chinese, for instance? I have a funny feeling that if Armageddon ever comes to pass, it might just be the other way round.
Whatever happens, I don't suppose it will be the benighted Afghans who get out first. Yet Out of the Ashes showed that there is plenty of spirit and hope in a country that in the West has simply become a byword for violence and misery, and it did it through the prism of cricket.
This was a really wonderful documentary, a production I will cite the next time someone grumbles to me that there's nothing on the box worth watching. It told the story of the Afghan cricket team, which was born in refugee camps in Pakistan following the 1979 Soviet invasion, and you didn't have to be remotely interested in bats and balls to find it enthralling and uplifting. Loving cricket, which happily I do, was just a useful bonus.
The great West Indian philosopher C L R James, in his superb book Beyond a Boundary, asked, "What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?" His point was that proper appreciation of the game requires a general worldliness, though he wasn't thinking of the kind of education you pick up as a wretched refugee from your own country. All the same, the old boy would have been delighted to hear Taj Malik, the hero of Out of the Ashes, opining that the solution to all Afghanistan's problems "is ... cricket".
He wasn't being entirely serious, and yet, as Mr Massoud, president of the Afghan Cricket Federation, pointed out: "Sport is a message of peace ... it builds relations between tribes." Admittedly this was said with a guard standing behind him holding a Kalashnikov, but his words were given proper definition by the rapturous joy with which the Afghan cricketers were welcomed back to Kabul after they had played in the Twenty20 World Cup last year.
Two years earlier, the quest for full international recognition had begun in Jersey, of all places, where in their hotel, the Afghan cricketers disbelievingly watched a bunch of pensioners dancing to "(Is This the Way to) Amarillo". If they were wondering how they ended up with the British and Americans as their self-styled saviours, it was hard to blame them.
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