February 2012

Arts & Letters

'Outland' by Kevin Carlin

By Benjamin Law

On paper, the premise of the new ABC1 sitcom Outland seems too self-consciously quirky for its own good. Homosexuals and sci-fi nerds? While we’re at it, why not make a series about, say, Indigenous lesbians with physical disabilities? (Too slow: Outland gets to that punchline first. Christine Anu plays an Indigenous lesbian in a wheelchair.)

In any case, speculative fiction has always been a distinctly queer domain. From the subliminal lesbian fantasies in Xena: Warrior Princess to the overtly gay storylines in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the genre has always granted its writers more flexibility to embrace alternative sexualities.

British writer Russell T Davies – creator of Queer as Folk and last decade’s beloved Doctor Who reboot – once described his Torchwood protagonist Captain Jack as a “bisexual space pirate, swaggering in with guns and attitude and cheek and humour”. Davies said you couldn’t represent sexuality like that in any other television genre. He’s right: sexuality becomes less of an issue when you’re operating in another universe, where being queer just isn’t a big deal.

No wonder sci-fi has such a strong queer following. It’s not just the plotlines. Sci-fi, fantasy and superhero adventures often attract such mocking derision from the mainstream, it only cements a sense of solidarity among fan communities. If you’re gay, that’s a familiar dynamic.

Outland isn’t a sci-fi series itself, but focuses on five hardcore gay sci-fi (mainly Doctor Who) geeks who rotate their homes for regular meetings, always when the host is inconveniently dealing with a personal crisis. The pilot episode is plodding and heavy on exposition, but the genuinely funny moments come in later episodes, mostly courtesy of big, languid, flopsy Fab. “They’re lesbians; they don’t have sex,” he says. “They do each other’s hair and argue about Maya Angelou.” (It’s no coincidence Fab gets the best lines. He’s played by Outland co-creator Adam Richard.)

In Australian television there is such a poverty of gay characters that queer viewers will be excited Outland exists, while still wishing it was somehow different. I wished its humour was more risqué and feral, while other viewers will bemoan the characters as too camp or stereotypical. (To them, I’d say nuance has little place in a half-hour sitcom.)

The characters don’t extend far beyond caricature – pigeon-toed everyman; soft-bellied bitch; angry lesbian on wheels; S&M–loving muscle head; preppy-haired poonce – but who cares? Outland shouldn’t have to shoulder the pressure of pleasing or representing all gays. With five distinct queer characters and the occasional roaring laugh, it breaks ground gently, throwing a modest and much-needed glitter bomb into a stultifyingly straight viewing schedule.

Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law is the author of The Family Law and the Quarterly Essay Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal. He also co-hosts Stop Everything on ABC RN.

@mrbenjaminlaw

'Outland' by Kevin Carlin (director), ABC1, 6-part series, from 8 February
February 2012

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