Blakespotting: Outcasts and William Blake’s “The Tyger”

I have just been catching up with a new BBC series, Outcasts, which has attracted mixed attention in press reviews and caught my eye after friends began telling me that the first series made use of William Blake’s poem, “The Tyger”, first published as one of his Songs of Experience in 1794. While I shall try to avoid plot spoilers as much as possible, that’s not entirely possible in the brief analysis that follows.

Outcasts, which began filming in 2007, is currently being shown on BBC One and is on the second episode out of eight. Set on another planet Carpathia (so named after the ship that rescued some of the survivors from the Titanic) in a not-too-distant future, it depicts the struggles of a group of pioneers attempting to establish a better future following nuclear devastation on Earth. Personally, I find it at best of middling interest as a drama: much of the dialog is somewhat stilted, many cast members are rather flat or unintentionally comic in their delivery, and the action scenes are occasionally risible thus failing to create any real tension – none of which is helped by an intrusive musical score. Undoubtedly the producers have attempted to exploit the interest roused by the re-imagined version of Battlestar Galactica, and if that was not their deliberate intention then it is not helped by the presence of Jamie Bamber (playing Mitchell Hoban here, a role very different to that of Apollo in BG).

Despite these criticisms, however, it is clear that some potentially interesting moral dilemmas are being played out, even if the handling of those dilemmas is somewhat clumsy. The reference to Blake is very explicit – and sustained – throughout the first episode, “The Independents”. The very first dialogue that we hear is the first two lines of “The Tyger”, and parts of the first stanza are repeated twice more. Linus Hoban, the child who delivers those lines (in a fashion, I’m afraid, that does very little credit to Blake’s verse), by failing to articulate the words “fearful symmetry” halfway through the programme draws attention to the significance of this phrase. In a manner similar to Alan Moore’s use of the famous phrase in Chapter 5 of Watchmen, “fearful symmetry” is meant to indicate to the viewer the contraries and opposites in operation throughout the episode: as Hoban is killed, his wife dies at the same moment, dying from his assault just as one of her friends kills him. Similarly, Hoban is clearly intended to stand in rebellious opposition to Richard Tate, and the struggle between Hoban and his wife over their sun reminded me to a degree of Blake’s famous print of the struggle of the good and evil angels over a child.

That such readings are not entirely supposition is indicated by the (finally) rather dramatic exposition of the first verse of “The Tyger” by Linus as he watches a spaceship exploding in the sky overhead. As he recites the opening lines, reiterating once again that phrase “fearful symmetry”, so any viewer with a knowledge of the poem will almost certainly call to mind the penultimate stanza as they watch meteoric fragments streaking in flame through the air:

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

As soon as Linus speaks, the camera cuts to a vision of the exploding craft which has jettisoned its escape pods, inside which is an ominous figure, Julius Berger, who had overseen the original evacuation from Earth. His face red lit from the emergency lights, he is (extremely unsubtly) cast as a diabolic figure. The unspoken part of Blake’s poem, of course, refers to the war in heaven as depicted in Milton’s Paradise Lost, and when Berger assumes his full role in episode two of Outcasts there is something politically satanic about him: like Milton’s adversary, he has fallen from heaven to a bleak world and is clearly to be established as the primary antagonist of the series.

Berger’s satanic figure also brings with it Blakean references, particularly the character of Satan in Milton a Poem. Like Blake’s Satan, he appears to others as though motivated by religion and pity. Palamabron’s remarks on Satan in Milton are also applicable to Berger:

You know Satans mildness and his self-imposition,
Seeming a brother, being a tyrant, even thinking himself a brother
While he is murdering the just[.]

Other Blakean allusions may take in the related poems from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, “The Little Boy Lost” and “A Little Girl Lost”, as Linus is taken into the wilderness by his father and Lily Isen is captured by clones after her escape pod lands in the desert. While this particular echo may be a particular misprision on my part, Hoban’s eulogies to liberty throughout episode 1, and the paternal authority of President Tate, certainly brings to mind the struggles of Orc and Urizen – and there may also be a subtle reference to Bladerunner, another film about cloned slaves which has a famous (mis)citation of Blake’s America by the replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer).

Fiery the angels fell; deep thunder rolled around their shores; burning with the fires of Orc. (My emphasis)

Outcasts does not come close to Bladerunner – nor the new Battlestar Galactica: it is frequently portentous (and somewhat pretentious) rather than profound. It is not entirely without merit, however, and while a few commentators have been irritated by the Blakean quotation it is fascinating to me as another example of “The Tyger” as part of what Simon During called “the global popular”. Not every viewer, I am sure, will read as deeply as I do into these few, repeated lines, but on a personal level I find it heartening that, according to writer Ben Richards, when citizens of 2040 need to frame their own sense of the fearful sublime it will be to Blake that they turn.

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