Outlander: Season 1 — a review

OutlanderS1

It was a confluence of forces that made watching the series Outlander my destiny.

There’s the Ronald D. Moore connection. Of course.

It’s the world’s worst-kept secret that I am a diehard Trekkie. Ronald D. Moore was responsible for almost everything we associate with Klingon culture. For TNG, he wrote the episodes “Sins of the Father,” “Reunion,” “Redemption, Parts 1 & 2,” “Ethics,” and “Rightful Heir,” among over twenty other episodes. With Brannon Braga as co-writer, he was responsible for the TNG finale “All Good Things . . .” as well as the two Trek movies Star Trek Generations and Star Trek First Contact. Okay, so he had me at Worf backstory. But, then, Mr. Moore doubled down by working on Deep Space 9 and, for a short time, on Voyager.

Perhaps this would have been enough to make me a fan. Then, Mr. Moore reimagined the Battlestar Galactica franchise and positively blew my mind with Edward James Olmos as Commander Adama and Tricia Helfer as Cylon model Number Six. He also inspired a funny episode of the series Portlandia, an episode he actually appeared in as an actor not playing himself.

When I heard that Ronald D. Moore was adapting Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series of novels for Starz, I was intrigued. Roswell, Helix and Carnivale are all on my to-be-watched-one-day list because of the Moore connection as well. This series would have joined the list, except for the other forces I’ve alluded to.

One of these forces was the Storywonk podcasts. I’ve discussed the influence of Lani Diane Rich and Alastair Stephens on me before, when they were still married and producing some of the best podcasts I’ve personally listened to. Stephens was a Scot (I suppose it would be more correct to say “is”). Together, the two created a podcast called The Scot and the Sassenach, which I believe were about the Gabaldon novels. I write “I believe” because I never listened to those particular podcasts. Maybe they were about the series as well. I don’t really know. What I do know is that the topic of the Outlander books (and maybe the TV series) came up on many different occasions. It sounded suspiciously like one of those Harlequin romance books to me (still does), but I am a lover of story, so I filed the information away for future use. As I do.

Then Netflix offered up the first two seasons of the series to me, as if on a plate, pleasantly garnished and inviting.

I’m a stubborn man. I have Scots ancestry as well, and I think that’s a genetic trait, like hip dysplasia in German Shepherds. But, when all of these techno-arcane forces conspired against me, what else could I have done? I had to watch Outlander.

And, I’m glad I have.

I admit that I had written this series off as a historical romance. And it is that. But, that’s not all it is. There’s the time-travel element, of course, with its mystical component, which made my SF & F senses tingle. While it has a real historical backdrop, it is definitely a fantasy as well, a post-gunpowder one so not exactly sword-&-sorcery, though it has elements of that fantasy subgenre.

Although I referred to Harlequin romance novels earlier, I can’t really make that comparison. I’ve never read a Harlequin book. I’m basing my comments on the book covers alone, which popularized the expression “bodice-ripper,” usually showing a long-haired muscular male—Fabio or one of his clones—in a clench with a buxom female heroine in period dress. This describes some of the promotional materials for this series to a T. The romantic bond between Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) is, in fact, a crucial component of the overall story arc, but it builds in a measured, organic way, not becoming a true “love story” until the seventh episode (out of sixteen), “The Wedding.”

I can’t even compare the series to the fiction it’s based on. I had—-again, wrongly—assumed that author Diana Gabaldon would turn out to be a Brit, based on the subject matter. Nope. American. From Flagstaff, Arizona, the daughter of a state senator. (One would assume she’s no “Arizona trash bag,” like The Good Place‘s Eleanor Shellstrop.) I have never read any of the novels in Ms. Gabaldon’s Outlander series, which consists of eight books so far. I’m not saying, unequivocally, that I never will, though. If the story’s good enough for Ron Moore, it’s good enough for me.

If I’m being honest, however, I’d say I’m more likely to read the epic fantasy novels written by Gabaldon’s son, Sam Sykes, before I’d start Outlander. I just discovered his existence, and his stories seem interesting.

On more than one occasion, while watching the series, I was reminded of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which also involved a time-traveling protagonist. Claire Randall was a WWII combat nurse and, after the war’s end, she and her husband Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies) go on a second honeymoon to Scotland. So this is 1945 or ’46. Claire was raised by her archaeologist/historian uncle, which explains some of her later knowledge. Also, her husband Frank is a history professor who knows a lot of highlander and Jacobite history and can trace his lineage back to Black Jack Randall. Claire travels through time at the standing stones of Craigh na Dun, arriving in 1743 Scotland. She is armed with the knowledge of everything that’s going to happen to the Jacobite rebels.

Tobias Menzies also plays the role of Frank’s ancestor, Black Jack Randall. You’re unlikely to find a more disturbing villain in a television series. Black Jack is a sadistic brute who plays with his victims the way a cat plays with a mouse. The finale episode features a vicious prison rape and torture scene that seems to last most of the episode. I think it’s the most uncomfortable scene I’ve watched since Jodie Foster’s famous pool hall rape scene in The Accused.

While Claire was very much in love with her 20th century husband, she finds herself falling for Jamie Fraser as well. She becomes a bigamist when she marries Jamie. Or does she? Her marriage to Jamie actually predates her marriage to Frank by nearly 200 years. It’s complicated.

Outlander presses a lot of the same pleasure-center buttons for me that Vikings once did. It has much of the same epic feel and richly-drawn, complicated characterizations. Balfe is undoubtedly the star of the series, appearing in nearly every scene. That she is a beautiful actress is a given, of course. But, she’s no passive Gothic heroine counting on a man to solve all of her problems. Balfe plays the role as a strong-willed and competent 20th-century woman who can be fierce when the situation warrants it. She is a combat veteran who doesn’t faint at the sight of blood.

The story is as much Jamie Fraser’s as it is Claire’s. He is a man falsely accused of a crime who is hiding out from the Redcoats. Jamie wants to clear his good name and reclaim his rightful position as the “laird” of Lallybroch, the ancestral Fraser home. He has run afoul of Black Jack Randall on more than one occasion, and the two remain enemies throughout the season.

All of the acting on the series is top-notch. Jenny Fraser (Laura Donnelly) is Jamie’s equally headstrong sister, and she’s a delight, as is Geillis Duncan (Lotte Verbeek) who seems very witch-like up to the point she reveals herself to be, like Claire, a time-traveler. Dougal Mackenzie, the brother to the laird of Castle Leoch and a major player in the Jacobite cause, is played by none other than Graham McTavish, an actor I’ve become familiar with only recently. He played the Saint of Killers on Preacher, and a renegade priest on Lucifer. He’s making the rounds in the genre television I seem drawn to.

The factual historical content is a part of the worldbuilding on this series, as much set dressing as the costumes and the Bear McCreary musical score. This is an adventure tale, as well as a romance. The initial story goal seems to be about Claire’s desire to return to her future-husband, but that changes midway through the season. Claire’s life in the past becomes more real and more important to her the longer she’s there.

As an adventure, we get a lot of episodes ending with cliffhangers. I think they’re handled well, but I can understand why some viewers might consider them tiresome, especially since we’re all pretty confident that Claire and Jamie will emerge from every scrape pretty much okay. Claire has to be saved sometimes. Jamie has to be saved other times. We realize, from a storytelling standpoint, every quiet, contemplative moment is going to be followed by an unpleasant surprise.

One word of warning: this is a show designed with adults in mind. I wouldn’t personally recommend it for children or overly-sensitive grownups. The violence is often graphic and shocking, with torture and rape just the tip of the iceberg. The occasional consensual sex scenes are intended for mature audiences as well. While I am certainly no prude, I think some of the limited full-frontal nudity—both male and female—is gratuitous. I’m not sure if that will continue over into the second season. Game of Thrones went through that phase as well, as I recall.

I’m trying very hard not to blurt out every spoiler from this first season. I will say that I liked the way the series built the conflict to the season’s huge climax, and I was very satisfied with where the characters ended up during the finale. All sixteen episodes seemed to go in a quick blur, which is always a sign that I’m deeply interested in a show.

I will, of course, continue to watch this series. It’s good television.

Firewater’s Uisge-Beatha-is-Gaelic-for-”Whisky” Report Card: A

A

You might come for the romance, but you’ll stay for the sex and violence.

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