Outlander is a difficult show to categorise because it borrows elements from multiple genres, including adventure, fantasy, romance, historical fiction and non-fiction. This genre-blending allows it to pay homage to other shows while remaining fresh. At its most simple, Outlander is a time travel romance which crosses countries, cultures and time periods.
Beginning in Inverness in 1946, the story follows ex-combat nurse Claire Beauchamp Randall (Caitriona Balfe) who is travelling with her ex-soldier husband Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies).
Claire’s adventure, or misadventure, begins with a visit to some Stonehenge-like standing stones. After visiting them, she is transported back to 1743, in the middle of a battle between English Red Coats and Scottish Rebels.
A deeply-mistrustful band of Highlanders takes her under their protection. To ensure her safety, and advance their own interests, they marry her to wanted man Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). Thus, sparking a tale of two lives, two times, and two husbands.
The fantasy elements in the show are limited to time travel. The actual process of time travel isn’t shown on screen, which also differs from similar shows. Only certain people can time travel at certain times of the year. These limitations help the show avoid the usual challenges and complexities that time travel tropes bring in terms of conflicting and changing timelines. By including limitations, it allows Outlander to focus more on its historical setting by creating a sense of historical realism.
Following in the footsteps of period dramas like Downton Abbey and Victoria, Outlander places great emphasis on its high production values and historical settings.
At times the show is gory. It doesn’t try to disguise the gruesome realities of living through war, no matter which century it occurs in. An early scene sees Claire attempting to save a soldier who is bleeding to death as the end of the war is being announced. Outlander tackles big issues which are problems both historically and currently. These include poverty, disease, death, violence, crime, and war.
Like Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings, setting is very important in Outlander. Showcasing the Scottish Highlands in all their beauty and brutality, the setting becomes a character. It either helps or hinders the characters on their journeys. Claire and Jamie often seek refuge in the Highlands, sometimes it protects them and sometimes it threatens them.
Serving as a virtual tour of Scotland, the series uses the many castles and country houses which pepper the Scottish countryside. These buildings, which appear timeless, transport the viewer into the past. Places like Glencoe, Rannoch Moor, and Tulloch Ghru provide a historical backdrop which enhances the realness of the scenes.
Bear McCreary’s sweeping score captures the feeling of being in the Scottish Highlands. With an emphasis on bagpipes, fiddles, and pennywhistles, McCreary creates an authentic sound using instruments which are usually overlooked.
Alterations to the opening song – The Skye Boat Song – foreshadow the major events and settings of each season. Season two includes the baroque viola da gamba and French lyrics while season four includes banjos to reflect its American setting.
As with all good shows, the characters develop as the series progresses. They are complex and multi-dimensional. Everything is done for a reason, either good or bad. Claire is a modern woman who is attempting to balance her modern knowledge and ideals with the realities of the past. Jamie is a strong but sensitive man who is attempting to escape the traumas of his past. Each has their flaws and strengths.
A story is only ever as good as its supporting characters. Outlander is a very character driven show, which relies on the dynamics created between people with vastly different personalities and purposes. There is passionate war-chieftain Dougal Mackenzie (Supa-Star Graham McTavish), intelligent laird Colum Mackenzie (Gary Lewis), and fiery patriot Geillis Duncan (Lotte Verbeek) to name a few.
Outlander is a show that defies expectations and keeps you guessing. You never know exactly where or when the characters will appear next.
Graham McTavish will appear at Supanova Comic Con & Gaming Melbourne (6-7 April) and Gold Coast (13-14 April).
Lead image: Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser and Graham McTavish as Dougal Mackenzie.