Outlander, Season One (STARZ)

“Oh, aye, Sassenach. I am your master . . . and you're mine.

Seems I canna possess your soul without losing my own.” 

I read the first book in the Outlander series a few years ago, and enjoyed it at the time. I didn’t continue with the series because the books are epic in length (800+ pages) and it seemed like a large time investment; I’ve got too many other books on my to-read list to devote months (or even years) to one series. But I did find it exciting and fascinating. So here I am, a few years late in joining the fandom for the STARZ TV adaptation—but better late than never.

So! Let me get a quick summary out of the way: a 20th century British nurse (Claire Randall, in the 1940s) finds herself thrown backwards through time into revolutionary 18th century Scotland (1743). A man who is the spitting image (and distant relative) of her loving husband turns out to be a cruel British Captain (“Black Jack” Randall, played by the same actor). When she finds herself in his clutches, a handsome young Scotsman (Jamie Fraser) comes to Claire’s rescue. Sex and violence ensue. Got all that?

This book and show are based on an amazing genre mash-up, which includes sci/fi time travel, historical fiction, action/adventure and steamy hot romance. And yes, it works. It reminded me of Kathleen Flynn’s novel The Jane Austen Project, a novel I loved that effortlessly combined genres to excellent creative effect. I find it truly breathtaking when an author can successfully pull off such a feat. So bravo to author Diane Gabaldon, giving credit where credit is due.

So how did the production team do in its’ interpretation of the book? The setting of the Scottish countryside is gorgeous. I can imagine the director just told the cinematographer to turn on the camera, and let the lens linger on this beautiful vista or that ancient castle, and viola! Beauty! Of course, it could not have been that easy, and the location scouts did their jobs well. The same care was taken with the costumes, props and Scottish language/dialect coaching. Everything feels accurate; clearly they had the budget and know-how to get the details right (or, at least, make them believable).

Now for the problematic elements. The book and show depict sex and violence with such frequency it seems a bit off-the-wall sometimes. #MeToo has happened since Season One, and the fact that there are multiple rape or attempted rape scenes across several episodes (and sometimes within the same one hour episode) can make that plot choice seem a bit piled on.

The quote at the top of this review captures another problematic element. Claire is definitely a feminist, yet must comply to a subservient role once fate has her marry Jamie (for plot reasons…and also for love reasons). Historical accuracy is one thing, but of course this is a story with sci/fi elements, so let’s not pretend there weren’t other options than having Jamie beat Claire for disobeying his orders. I think it was actually intended to be humor. Whether it’s funny or not may depend on your perspective. The husband as the dominating master and wife as servant also seems to hint at an erotic element, yet the Claire/Jamie sex scenes come across as a joining of equals (with both the man and woman getting similar screen time and attention), so I’m not completely sure what the author and director intended there.

So does Outlander need to be re-assessed in the wake of #MeToo? It doesn’t seem to bother the fans of the book and show, who still feel passionately about the characters and their story. Perhaps future books (or in my case, TV seasons) will take the story in new directions.

The show is bit melodramatic at times, but you’d expect a time-traveling historical romance to be so, wouldn’t you? I don’t find fault with that. The show has enough action and twists to satisfy most audiences.

OUTLANDER (STARZ)

Grade: A-

Genre: Mash-up of sci-fi, historical fiction, romance, and action/adventure

Why watch? Beautiful cinematography, swashbuckling action, sweeping heroic elements, romance that spans from “true love that lasts through the ages” to bawdy and racy. Very entertaining TV viewing.

Concerns? As stated above, the show is overly reliant on rape as a plot point. Also, the otherwise strong feminist elements are at times overshadowed by depictions of domestic violence as okay because “that’s how it was at the time”.