The Bold Pretender
Outlander is a time-travelling fantasy show with Jacobite Scots that’s even got the prime minister’s attention
Outlander is the most controversial hit television show you probably haven’t yet seen: a Braveheart-style pro-Scottish independence riff that irritated the prime minister; and, of course, in today’s TV landscape of rips and chisels, a show with enough shirtless male muscle to break through the screen and kick tartan sand in your face.
In America, it’s huge, nominated for Golden Globes, its stars mobbed in the streets. When the show debuted on the US Starz TV network in 2014, its lavishly tooled cabinet of swords, sauciness and sadistic Sassenachs rapidly made it one of the most successful shows in the cable network’s history. In the UK, however, it’s exclusive to Amazon Prime — and the result of that arrangement tells us a lot about the future of television.
First, the Game of Thrones comparison. Both are based on bestselling fantasy novels. Outlander’s source is a series by an Arizona-born former science professor, Diana Gabaldon, first published 25 years ago. Gabaldon was inspired by the 1960s Doctor Who companion Jamie McCrimmon, a piper at the Battle of Culloden, rescued by Patrick Troughton’s Doctor. The story is so preposterous, it should have been an odd little footnote in the history of period romance fiction.
Outlander’s first season begins in 1945, as a military nurse, Claire Randall — played by Caitriona Balfe, a former model who blends perfect features with cool grey-blue eyes — is in Scotland on a dirty weekend with her soldier husband. They have sex in a castle, then she falls asleep against a standing stone and is spirited back to Jacobite Scotland. Not a Tardis to be seen.
On arrival, Claire is almost raped by a redcoat officer — who turns out to be her husband’s ancestor (both are played by Tobias Menzies) — but is rescued by the dashing young Highlander Jamie Fraser (played by a boyishly charming Sam Heughan, who smoulders with such intensity that Scottish peat farmers should be suing him for plagiarism). She fixes his dislocated arm while his chiselled, shirtless torso glows in the firelight, and of course they end up as lovers. There’s slightly less sex than in Game of Thrones, but the two series are linked.
“Thrones was in its first season when we pitched,” explains Outlander’s creator, Ronald D Moore. “They had punched through, so I’d be in a pitch, outline the plot, they’d all look baffled, then we’d say, ‘This is based on a series of eight books that has sold 20-odd million copies worldwide, just like Game of Thrones.’ And they’d suddenly become very focused.”
The reason Outlander works and hasn’t become a footnote lies in the way it places Claire at the heart of the story. Female action-adventure heroes are rare. It is her gaze the camera copies when it drifts across Jamie’s torso or lusts after him during a Highland reel. The show’s take on sensual, erotic and largely violence-free coupling, enhanced by this female gaze, has won slightly agonised nods of approval from the most ardently feminist of reviewers.
This is a new audience for Moore, who cut his teeth on Star Trek before rebooting Battlestar Galactica in the early Noughties. “When we approached the sexual scenes in the show, I said, ‘The important thing is that they’re not like the TV sex we’ve seen a thousand times,’” he explains. “So we were always going for something that was honest and truthful. I guess, if you do something truthful, it’s from the female point of view.”
We’re talking in the grounds of Wilton House, the seat of the Earl of Pembroke, near Salisbury, which doubles as the Palace of Versailles for Outlander’s second season. Fans of Gabaldon’s books will understand why; for the rest of us, season two adds another bucket of preposterousness to the time-travel mayhem, as Claire curiously responds to Jamie’s harrowing rape at the hands of the vicious redcoat Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall, who previously attacked her, by fleeing to France.
With her warrior shamed, Claire attempts to cure Jamie by saving the Highlanders from their certain fate. As Balfe rests between takes, in a flamboyant boned dress that is effectively a 4ft x 2ft cage in which it’s impossible to sit down, she explains that the couple travel to France to stop Bonnie Prince Charlie raising funds to hire an army, thus preventing the disastrous Battle of Culloden. “They go there to stop history — it’s something of a gamble.” She shoots a wry grin. “But it’s a rare story with a central female character of this kind, a fully formed, feisty, passionate and free woman.”
In these febrile political times, of course, history is either ignored or weaponised — even if delivered as an improbable time-travelling romance. In April 2015, WikiLeaks revealed an email from the Sony hack that showed David Cameron had a meeting with the film company to discuss the UK release date of the show, with its Jacobite hero and English imperial attitudes to Scotland. The series debuted on Amazon after the referendum, something Heughan, a Scotsman, is cautious about.
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“We were there filming during the vote,” he says carefully. “It was a really exciting time to be in Scotland — it’s something we’ve been talking about for many years, and probably will for many years to come. It’s history repeating itself. I think that’s probably why Outlander is such a fascinating story.”
Given the show’s limited reach in the UK — Amazon does not release download figures, but Heughan and Balfe can wander around Glasgow during breaks between studio scenes and cause barely a flicker, while in America fans stop them in the street — it’s surprising there was so much concern. For a devoted, small but growing band, however, Outlander is as vital as a Night Manager/Broadchurch mash-up.
Early last month, the show’s producers discovered this for themselves. When they realised their two stars would be in London in a few days’ time, they booked, almost hopelessly, a screening room, found a three-minute trailer and hit the fan forums, fairly certain they would be talking to an empty room. Come the day, the place was rammed. People had flown in from across Europe, dropping everything just to look at Balfe and Heughan.
The crowd was predominantly female, as reverential, enthusiastic and knowledgeable as any fanboy at a Star Trek convention. In the screening room in Soho, they asked Heughan and Balfe for hints of spoilers and character insights. “SoCal...” the room murmured reverentially when Heughan mentioned a group of fans outside the Golden Globes, cheering the cast as they hit the red carpet and drowning out all others. And you realise they all talk online, and already know almost everything that’s said in the room today.
This is, perhaps, an indicator of how our viewing future is shaping up. Fans are becoming the commissioners and schedulers: Amazon shows pilots to users and commissions in part based on their reviews. Successful books, old TV shows, favourite films: anything loved by a dedicated band is valuable in this infinity of choice.
To date, those die-hard fans have been nerdy boys. Outlander — along with shows such as The Night Manager and Poldark — demonstrate that it’s not just the chaps who give their all to a favourite show. Heughan gets squeals of adulation and shouts of laughter from the women in the room, but Balfe gets sympathetic nods and little cheers of approval.
As the event comes to an end, they are discussing Claire’s war-damaged 1940s husband in contrast to the brutalised 18th-century one, and a woman points out: “Both her husbands are damaged men, and she’s always having to repair them.” Balfe laughs and, in her Irish lilt, says: “It’s the story of every woman’s life.” And the room erupts with laughter, as if she represents each one of them.
Outlander season two is on Amazon Prime from next Sunday