I give in! After much nudging from Amazon I have given in and given Outlander a try on Amazon Prime Instant Video.
Adapted from a series of novels by Diana Gabaldon Outlander is a series with an odd premise. The year is 1945 and WWII is over. To try to rekindle their marriage after years of enforced separation combat nurse Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Frank (the always great Tobias Menzies) travel to Scotland for a second honeymoon. Before too long the couple are filled with highland air and the highland air is filled with love. What can possibly go wrong? After a healthy dose of marital holiday bliss Claire travels alone to visit some standing stones and after placing her hands upon the rock she blacks out. When she comes to her car is missing and British red coats are fighting Highlander rebels all around. Oh, and Claire has travels back 202 years to 1743. After almost being raped by one of Frank’s English ancestors Claire finds herself being taken in by a Scottish clan where she finds the dashing Jamie (Sam Heughan) and uses her nursing skills to gain their trust. Can Claire find her way back to the stones and back to 1945!?
There’s the concept. When I first read it I rolled my eyes too. A period drama with a time travel plot taking it to a whole other period, how could I possibly enjoy something like that? I was going to need some convincing and with subtlety, style, and a slow pace Outlander was up to the challenge. My token effort at watching the first episode snowballed into my watching the first three back to back.
What won me over initially was the show’s confidence in taking its time. Rather than rush to get the time travel underway Outlander instead allows us plenty of time in the first episode to spend with the happy couple. Claire and Frank’s post-war vacation feels idyllic, very sweet, and a little sexy as they reconnect after half a decade kept apart by war. With time spent in the life she is to leave behind I actually cared when she was exiled once more, this time with years rather than miles keeping her husband from her. When the time travel does come around we are spared cheesy special effects in favour of a simple fade to black. Even with the obligatory violence and nudity accounted for Outlander is a master of understatement and restraint.
And doesn’t it look gorgeous! Despite the setting there is nothing artificial looking about Outlander; no polystyrene and plywood castle walls to be found. Every actor appears to have dirt under their fingernails and scars beneath their clothes and the cinematography is flawlessly cinematic and distinct. We are a million miles away from Saturday or Sunday night on the BBC here. Visual aesthetic aside where Outlander really excels is in putting characters above plot. The basic storyline is high concept but the show isn’t burning through plot in trying to get Claire home or explain how she managed to travel two centuries into the past. Instead the approach is to take a slower pace and let the characters take priority. It is their interactions, and the performances that serve them so well, that make the show worth coming back to. For all the praise a show like Poldark might garner its characters never feel truly real whereas in Outlander every person is an authentic human in a fantastical situation.
It wasn’t until the first episode had finished and I hadn’t stopped the second from starting automatically that I noticed a familiar name in the opening credits; Ronald D Moore. Moore is best known for reinventing Battlestar Galactica as a piece of modern TV history and has worked his magic again here. Using fine British talent he has created a show of real quality that is almost too easy to dismiss because of its unusual synopsis.
What other show can use bagpipes to score an action scene?
Finally we should focus on the fact that Outlander is a show with a strong female character at its core ably played by Caitriona Balfe. What is particularly satisfying about Claire is that despite a lot of obstacles standing in her way she is a character with agency and a desire to save herself. Lost in a strange land and time she is not waiting for a knight to come and save her but it trying to get back home on her own terms. The series is set in times when women were not afforded equal status with men but with a female lead we can see this imbalance played out and not have all female characters reduced to background decoration as maids and whores.
After scoffing initially I now find myself six episodes in after just four days. Outlander‘s charm has won me over completely and a particularly powerful speech from Tobias Menzies in my latest episode has me hooked.
For those I have convinced the first eight episode of Outlander are available on Amazon Instant Video right now with the rest of this first season arriving weekly from 5th April.