Last week I wrote about Sneaky Pete, an Amazon Prime original show that had gone through the ‘pilot season’ of being selected for a full ten-part series commission based on viewers’ comments and ratings. Another previously reviewed series, Bosch, also made it to series based on positive fan response compared with tepid critical reaction, and thank goodness it did.
This year, science fiction drama Oasis is one of five new pilots up for consideration. Set in a dystopian 2032, the story centres on Christian chaplain Peter Leigh who receives a request to travel to Oasis, Earth’s first off-world colony. Said to be located on the far side of the galaxy, the method of travel is not explained. When Peter arrives he finds that the person who asked for him to come – the colony’s founder, billionaire David Morgan – is missing, and no one knows why he wanted Peter there in the first place. Meanwhile the workforce is starting to experience hallucinations and an escalating number of serious and even fatal accidents that suggest the new world is rejecting their presence. Eventually Peter discovers a clue as to Morgan’s whereabouts and travels deep into the wilderness, where he makes a bewildering discovery in a cave…
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that this is conspicuously short summary, given that we only have the single episode of Oasis to go on at this point. But it’s also an indication that surprisingly little happens in this first 59 minutes, especially in contrast to most television pilots that become almost neurotically obsessed with laying out all their wares in pursuit of a full-season order from network executives. In this instance, the pace is very slow and the accent is on world-building rather than plot development, with Kevin Macdonald directing with impressive visual flair and Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden making an appealing and believable lead as Peter.
What’s missing is a sense of purpose, or rather a sense of why we should be interested in seeing more of Oasis. The series is nominally based on Michel Faber’s highly-praised novel The Book of Strange New Things (more of which in a minute) and yet it seems to go out of its way to use as little of the source material as possible. Instead, it fills in the gaps with yawningly familiar science-fiction conventions, with the biggest influence being the classic Stanisław Lem story Solaris and its many emulators (such as the more horror-inflected Event Horizon, or the small screen equivalent Lost) while the desert setting evokes a little of Dune. Surprisingly it’s the little-remembered, short-lived BBC series Outcasts from 2011 that Oasis feels most reminiscent of.
I’ve always thought that home-grown programming from streaming services such as Amazon Prime and Netflix were supposed to be a way of bringing original content to the screen that just wouldn’t make it past traditional network executives. That makes it all the stranger to see how everything that might have been interesting or innovative about Oasis has been bled out and replaced with the most generic and uninteresting cooking ingredients to hand. Of course that’s not to say that the production team doesn’t have bigger and more ambitious plans for the show’s future should it be handed a commission, but to be honest it doesn’t really feel like anyone has much belief or interest in that actually happening.
The source novel, The Book of Strange New Things, is an altogether different matter. Since it may constitute spoilers for any future episodes of Oasis should they happen, I’m putting in this warning so that those who don’t want to know more about the book’s narrative can stop reading now.
Still with us? Good. Then let us continue…
The most disappointing aspect of Matt Charman’s script for Oasis is how it fundamentally disregards almost everything of genuine interest in the book, retaining only the central character and the premise of the Oasis settlement itself. Virtually none of the book’s other characters carry over without new names and roles, played by a very decent cast that includes Mark Addy, Haley Joel Osment, Michael James Shaw, Zawe Ashton and Anil Kapoor. Even the basic organisational set-up of the Earth colony itself is completely remastered for the screen to something far more familiar, as in “seen it many times before”.
By contrast, the main themes in Faber’s book are love, communication, compassion and faith. Admittedly these are hard things to translate from a beautifully written manuscript to something that works sufficiently well on any level on screen; but if the adaptation was truly impossible then it is has to be judged as a mistake by the production team to have made the attempt only to be forced into so many uninspired compromises.
The first (and arguably most significant) change centres on Peter’s wife Beatrice. The back cover of my copy of The Book of Strange New Things asks “What could hold two people together, even when they are worlds apart?” and adds that “Faber’s novel asks how love might survive such distance.” And it’s true that that the emotional core of the novel is how the physical separation and the vastly different experiences they are going through cause Peter and Beatrice’s once-perfect relationship to fall apart into acrimony and misunderstanding. The novel may be short on incident and tension, but the level of anxiety and anguish emanating from the deteriorating correspondence between them is truly gripping and affecting.
And in the television version? Beatrice (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) dies in the first scene. Peter’s connection and contact with Earth is severed, and once he arrives on Oasis we hear nothing more of how the world he left behind is fracturing. At a stroke, half the purpose of the novel is ditched.
The second change is that in the book, the Earth colony has already made contact with the indigenous inhabitants of Oasis, They have even formed an ongoing trading relationship with the nearest settlement. There is no mystery here as to why Peter has been asked to come to Oasis: in fact, it’s the Oasans themselves who have requested a pastor to teach them the Word of Jesus Christ whom they originally learned of from Peter’s predecessor. Much of the novel centres on Peter’s ministry and how to bridge the huge gaps of linguistic, societal and cultural understanding between Earthly Christianity and the Oasans’ very different outlook and background. In some ways, this dialogue between Peter and the Oasans echoes aspects of last year’s impressive Arrival, which was a favourite film of mine in 2016.
The television series has none of this. However, unlike the case of Beatrice, at least here we can believe that the writers and producers intend to develop and explore the story in such directions, should they get the chance to in future episodes. But even if that does prove to be the case, withholding this prominent aspect of the book deprives the pilot episode of Oasis of any of the substance or purpose of the source material, and leaves a very tepid result on the screen to be filled with familiar tropes and clichés. It’s almost as though they didn’t want to frighten the audience off too early by getting into any deep discussions about religion, when in fact faith should by rights be at the very core of the story as it is in the novel. In its absence we’re left making routine small talk at the dinner table and avoiding mentioning anything about the elephant in the room; or indeed about anything else much, for that matter, except recalling some good science fiction films we’ve seen in the past.
There are other areas in which the book excels over the television version, such as detailing some of the biology and botany of Oasis. Faber even manages to bring the alien ecosystem to life in a deeply evocative, tactile description of the currents of air and moisture which make it feel so very different from anything we might experience on Earth. Admittedly this sort of sensory detail is impossible to convey to anything like the same extent in a primarily visual medium, but it’s nonetheless disappointing that the small screen Oasis is reduced to a conventional dry dustbowl, little more than a decent production budget’s throw from the same disused quarries that Doctor Who visited every week in the 1970s.
As a result of all this I find it hard to see Oasis getting through Amazon Prime’s pilot season audition process. Nor will it be a great loss to the world if it fails to. But at the same time a part of me hopes that it does, just to see what the production might actually be able to do given the chance to be a bit more bold and creatively ambitious than it shows here. In the meantime I do at least have Oasis to thank for introducing me to Michel Faber (who also wrote Under the Skin) and to The Book of Strange new Things. If it lacks a fully satisfying resolution, it’s nonetheless a remarkable and truly original literary work that will stay in my mind for many months and years to come – in exactly the way that Oasis itself won’t.
Rating (Oasis): ★ ★ 1/2
Rating (The Book of Strange New Things): ★ ★ ★ ★
Oasis is available for streaming on Amazon Prime until April 15. The Book of Strange new Things is available from all bookshops and as an eBook download.