There’s a point early on in Oasis, one of the contenders in Amazon’s new pilot season, which grounds the episode perfectly: Peter Leigh, a recently widowed priest with some serious concerns about his future in the church, has been functionally drafted onto the next mission to Oasis, the first interstellar colony. He has nothing left on Earth, so he agrees to go.
The technology that propels him into orbit is very clearly slightly modified Russian boosters. There’s the same tapered design, the same steppe-based launch facility and the same sense of Peter riding into orbit on the top of a very large, intensely combustible object that someone has only just finished soldering together. It feels real, and clunky, and untidy.
That realism is carried through to Oasis itself. When Peter arrives, he finds in short order that Oasis is not the lush One Percenter paradise it’s portrayed as back on Earth. The first thing that happens after he lands is that his descent capsule is immediately cut apart to use in building the colony. The second is that he’s told his ticket home will be available at the end of his contract. Still dazed, he finds himself in the midst of a colony that either doesn’t want him or is terrified that it may need him…because, as it turns out, founder Peter Morgan has disappeared and everyone is frightened to sleep. When they do, they see things: the worst things they’ve done in their past, transposed to the arid blank canvas of Oasis and desperate for attention…
The conflict between the real and the imagined, the rational and the supernatural, is embodied in both Peter and Oasis itself. Peter, played by Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden, is a bit like every priest I’ve ever known—he’s a quiet, funny man whose compassion is tempered by the sure knowledge that absolutely nothing he does will ever solve anything above a small-scale problem.
Then he takes his shirt off and as he showers, we see the gang tattoos that cover his skin.
Peter, and the show is smart enough to never quite say this directly, is a lost soul. His faith and his wife gave him a compass. Deprived of them both, he’s adrift, wandering across a new map with nothing but the perceptions others have of him to guide him. It’s a complex role—kind and angry, frustrated and increasingly curious—and Madden brings every element of it into the light. It would have been so easy to make Peter a weak or one-dimensional man; instead, he presents like a priest, and a real person. Funny and cautious. Kind and reticent.
That ambiguity meshes with Oasis’ own. The pilot offers no answers but implies a lot about what’s really going on there. It does so in a supremely clever way, too, setting up viewer expectations then revealing the veteran colonists as very different to how they first appear. Security Officer Sara Keller (played by Antje Traue) is revealed to be far more aware and open to what may be happening that she lets on. Chief Executive Vikram Danesh (played by Anil Kapoor) may be conflating the events unfolding in the colony with a career advancement opportunity. Michael James Shaw, who was ludicrously charming in the much-missed Limitless, plays B.G. the engineer as a blue-collar voice of reason (and possible drug dealer but, again, there’s far more going on then we see at first glance). The show trusts you to pick up clues and drops you into the middle of this angry, frightened not-quite family the same way it does Peter: suddenly, and with no apology.
That’s a brave, and necessary, move for a mystery-driven show like this, and it pays off. Of course, the sheer quality of the cast itself adds another level of enjoyment, with Madden, Shaw, Kapoor, and Traue joined by Haley Joel Osment as a sweet-natured botanist and Mark Addy as Paul Halloran, a drill engineer, to name just a few of the standouts. Addy in particular is great, and the scene he shares with Madden is a joy on several levels.
It’s always nice to see members of the old Game of Thrones crew reunite, and Madden and Addy are effortlessly adept, charismatic performers, but what really works is how familiar it feels, both for them and us. On an alien world, where something religious, supernatural, or alien is happening, two frightened, confused English guys have a conversation they can both understand. One of them is confessing. The other is an (at least nominal) priest. You can see both of them visibly relax, and the moment works for us the same way. It’s a simple, honest, untidy, human moment that, like that glimpse of the Russian booster, reminds us that this is not a perfect, streamlined, shining future. One of these two men is mourning the loss of his wife and, he’s pretty sure, his faith. The other is crippled with guilt over something he did decades ago. We can leave our world. Our problems always come with us.
That level of subtlety is present everywhere in Oasis. The cast are uniformly excellent, the music is great, and the direction is outstanding. Kevin Macdonald, director of The Last King of Scotland and Touching The Void, uses drone cameras both to give us a sense of the world’s sheer scale and, cleverly, as background. It’s established early on that drones monitor every location in the colony, so any time you see a drone in the background of a shot you just accept it, even when—as seems likely—it’s shooting second unit footage as we watch. It’s clever, elegant direction for a show that demands both those qualities.
Oasis is adapted from Michel Faber’s The Book Of Strange New Things. I can’t speak to how faithful the adaptation is because I haven’t read the book, but I can say that the show has moved it to the top of my TBR pile. This is subtle, literate science fiction that talks about huge ideas with humanity and grace. This is absolutely the sort of science fiction there deserves to be more of. And, with Amazon’s pilot season allowing public voting, you have the chance to help that happen. Check out Oasis, and if you like it, here’s the link.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.