Stephen Hawking's really to blame for the dying Earth of Outcasts

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Dec 14, 2012, 4:51 PM EST

When the idea for BBC America's upcoming series Outcasts first popped up in creator Ben Richards' head, it didn't have anything to do with science fiction. "What's really weird about this, it wasn't originally conceived as a sci-fi project," said Richards in an exclusive interview.

So the very sci-fi series, which premieres this Saturday, about a human colony on the planet of Carpathia who are forging a new life after escaping a dying Earth, didn't start out as sci-fi?

"My TV writing and my novel writing wasn't based in sci-fi," said Richards. "I was always very interested in settlements in places like Australia and Virginia, and we wanted to tell a similar story. Then we read the Stephen Hawking quote 'Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain inward-looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.' And that was what really provided the launch pad for the idea. It was being pioneers in space, which is probably the only place now you can be a pioneer."

Outcasts takes place in the year 2040 and begins years after the first humans have settled on Carpathia and created the settlement of Forthaven. It's been years since they've heard anything from Earth, when a transporter pops into orbit. With this new group of evacuees is Julius Berger (Eric Mabius), who challenges the existing president of Forthaven, Richard Tate (Liam Cunningham). The story focuses on Tate and Berger's battle, the core members of the Protection and Security (PAS) team and the expeditionaries, who explore the planet in search of resources. The series also stars Hermione Norris, Amy Manson, Daniel Mays, Jamie Bamber and Ashley Walters.

When it comes to the colonists, "they're not particularly high-tech. ... Times are tough for them. There's more of the sci-fi element, or mystery element, as the show progresses. But I would say that it's less aliens with strange voices and funny heads. It's more speculating on the idea of what kind of life forms there might be on this planet, and that's a big strand in the story," he said.

According to Richards, Carpathia is "very much a character in itself. What really fascinated me was we are the dominant species on Earth. And as such we made quite a mess of it. So what really fascinated me was the idea of being somewhere that perhaps we weren't the most powerful force. And that is slowly explored throughout the course of the series," he added.

"Climatic conditions are very difficult for them at times. They have these things called 'whiteouts,' so they face challenges from the actual weather on Carpathia, where sometimes there are these terrible storms." The whiteouts are dust storms caused by lunar cycles.

In order to get realistic-looking sets, much of the filming took place in South Africa.

But for Richards, the driving story is all about the human element. In the first episode, "we see quite clearly that things are going to change and be put under pressure by the arrival of Berger in Forthaven. One of the big overarching serial stories is a battle between himself and the existing president, President Tate, and their struggle for the heart and soul of Forthaven. Because both of the men have very different visions of how this new society should be," said Richards.

There's also a dirty little secret "at the heart of the society" that poses a threat to the settlement, he said. As a byproduct of the original landing, "they brought with them sort of modified human beings to help with survivability. And for reasons which you'll see through the course of the series [the modified humans] were at one point driven out of Forthaven and they've existed on the margins of society. They come back in a big way in episode two of the series."

One of the things "that really interests me is the big philosophical questions about whether we can ever make things work as a society, or whether conflict ... not crime, but whether conflict and disorder are also an essential part of the human condition. And that's very much a theme in the series, is whether a second chance will actually work. These people represent the last hope of humanity to survive as a species. And the question is what kind of future will they build for humanity? And we're seeing the very early stage of that project. Consequently we have people who are more optimistic or less optimistic about the prospects, and they also have different visions about what the future of humanity should be," said Richards.

Here's a trailer:

Outcasts premieres on BBC America on Saturday at 9 p.m. ET. The series consists of the eight-episode first season, and has not been picked up by BBC for a second season.