Outlander does, in its first six episodes, exactly what it intends to. That kind of self-assuredness is surprising for a new show, but this one comes to television with a strong pedigree: The showrunner is Ronald D. Moore, the man who rebooted Battlestar Galactica into a modern classic. And the source material for the show is Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling Outlander series. (Gabaldon is also a consultant on the show.) But many shows come to television with a recipe for success, and still proceed to crash and burn. Outlander succeeds admirably, and partly that’s because it follows the bent of both of its creators: It refuses to sit comfortably in any genre. The book Outlander is a romance novel, a fantasy novel, and historical fiction all at the same time; Battlestar Galactica is character drama in space, while also a political procedural, a soap opera, and a science-fiction saga.
Outlander the television show is a prestige drama made of elements that compose no other prestige drama. It’s wish-fulfillment fantasy from the point of view of a woman—but undercut with the cold horror of taking the conceit seriously. The bygone era of tartan dresses and skirling bagpipes look and sound lovely—but what if someone from the modern era was actually transported to that time period? What would she do? How would she survive? And what, in God’s name, would she wear?
Claire Randall, played by Caitriona Balfe, is the protagonist presented to answer these questions. She’s a spirited war nurse in 1945 who stumbles into some kind of magic while on holiday in Scotland that sends her back to 1743. She doesn’t really know how she got there, she doesn’t know how to get back, and being a mysterious Englishwoman roaming around the highlands in nothing but a wispy white dress is sure to make the locals suspicious.
The attention shown to that dress is an indication of how well-wrought Outlander is. In 1945, Claire woke up that morning and wore a pristine white dress before kissing her husband Frank goodbye and taking a walk up to the standing stones. Over the course of the next hour of runtime, her dress is stained, torn, and eventually discarded—a transformation that takes place entirely on-screen, the masterwork of a dedicated costumer. It’s an attention to detail that notices the music, the setting, the accents, the history, and the feeling of this place. It’s also attention to the story of transformation—of repurposing the old for the new, of making do with what you’ve got.
In fact, Outlander is Scotland’s (and Starz’s) response to Downton Abbey, with a little bit of Game Of Thrones thrown in for good measure. (Claire brings her nursing skills to 1743, and the consequent gruesome scenes of amputation and flogging would send Lord and Lady Grantham into a dead faint.) PBS’ acquisition of Downton Abbey gives it an inherently wider audience, so it’s unlikely Outlander will reach the same level of cultural prominence. But much of the stuff that makes Downton compulsively watchable is what makes Outlander irresistible. Both focus on the perils of womanhood—even in the most privileged classes—and both are equal parts feminine fantasy and feminist critique.
Having read the books helps with the show, but it’s not necessary—and given the leisurely pace at which it’s proceeding, it’s going to take Moore years to get through the eight books that make up the whole series. Moore is a confident enough storyteller that the tale unfolds naturally. Only the first episode is a touch slower than it ought to be.
It should be said that Outlander is, on some level, purely entertainment. While that could sound dismissive, it’s actually one of the show’s greatest strengths. Moore and Gabaldon both dispense with the idea of trying to make A Point and instead focus on the task at hand: telling the story. Indeed, its interest in plotting is so careful it marks the show with the traces of genre fiction that its creators are so familiar with. In that sense, it’s following in the footsteps established by Game Of Thrones—establishing an alien landscape, then focusing on the character stories within it.
The supporting characters around Claire are nothing if not wish-fulfilling—in the sense that they manifest the hopes and fears straight women have about men. Aside from the Scots who take her in and show her the ropes, she’s immediately as caught between two men as she is between two worlds. One is her husband, Frank, in 1945, who brought her to Scotland to investigate his heritage. The other is Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), a redheaded hunk of a man a decade younger than Claire who ends up being an ally, friend, and exchanger-of-longing-looks-across-the-laird’s-hall. Jamie has a price on his head for crossing one English soldier too many, and his mortal enemy is none other than the ruthless and sadistic Captain Jack Randall, Claire’s husband’s great-something-grandfather, who bears such an eerie resemblance to her own husband that they’re played by the same actor (Tobias Menzies). Jack Randall is so horrible, in fact, that as soon as Claire pops into 1743, he tries to rape her.
A vision of your own husband, turned into a monster—contrasted with a Scot so unconscionably handsome and virtuous that flirting with him seems both highly necessary and vaguely criminal? This is feminine fantasy, indeed. But after dozens upon dozens of male fantasies on the small and big screens, Outlander is a welcome relief.