If the wet, wild landscape of 18th-century Scotland feels like an unexpected pivot from the man who rebooted space opera Battlestar Galactica, Ronald D Moore sees things a little differently. “I like doing period pieces,” says Outlander’s affable showrunner. “It’s just that some of them happen to be set in the future.” The decision to swap Cylons for claymores appears to have worked out. When it debuted in the US on Starz last summer, Outlander – based on a series of bestselling novels – became one of the most successful shows in the cable network’s history; its dense, detailed mash-up of sex, swordplay and vengeful sassenachs winning impressive ratings and admiring reviews. Now, after an unusually long deferment in this age of simulcasts, Moore’s self-confessed “love letter to Scotland” is going to take a belated bow in the country where it was actually filmed.
Tartan trumps any sci-fi trappings in Outlander, but there is a whiff of the fantastical in the plot. Claire Randall (Irish actor Caitriona Balfe) is a second world war nurse who, after an encounter with some mysterious standing stones near Inverness, finds herself inexplicably transported back to 1743. With the stirrings of the Jacobite rebellion, the 18th-century Highlands are a dangerous place to be a wandering Englishwoman. Although married to the loyal Frank (Tobias Menzies) in the 1940s, in 1743 she finds herself drawn to Jamie (Sam Heughan), a strapping Scot who is all muck and muscle. This time-slipped love triangle threatens to become a quadrilateral when Claire is relentlessly pursued by her husband’s brutal ancestor “Black Jack” Randall (Menzies, again).
Claire has been a beloved character for millions of fans ever since Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels were first published almost 25 years ago. “I’d say she’s got gumption,” says Balfe, when asked what qualities mark out Claire as such a singular heroine. “There’s a misconception that women were much weaker in those times but when you get down to it, even if they weren’t out fighting on the battlefield, they were definitely running the show behind the scenes – and I think that’s true to this day. Women provide the strength at the core of family units, and in most endeavours you’ll find a strong woman in there somewhere.”
The last of the main characters to be cast, Balfe found herself parachuted into a production already operating at full tilt to create Outlander’s crammed 18th-century world. She had to scramble to keep up, an experience she likens to her character’s predicament: “When Claire gets thrown back, she’s completely clueless and it’s all brand new for her, so luckily I was just able to discover things as I went along.”
A strong, resourceful woman at the centre of a masculine world is still a rarity in TV, and while at first glance it might seem as if Outlander has a touch of the Mills & Boons, it’s far from being some picturesque bodice-ripper. Claire speaks her mind, charms local chieftains, copes with battlefield amputations and certainly enjoys a drink. Then factor in that this drama is set during what was essentially a war of insurgents against occupiers, which might sound familiar to fans of Battlestar Galactica’s season three. In Moore’s deft hands, there’s an immediacy and volatility to Outlander that makes nominally similar fare such as The Musketeers feel a bit panto in comparison.
Parts of Outlander are deliberately old-fashioned – the sumptuous costumes, a narration from Claire that echoes her voice in the novels, the rather languid pace of the opening episodes – but other elements feel almost ahead of their time. The episode devoted to Claire and Jamie’s first proper Highland fling has already become a minor cause célèbre thanks to its rare acknowledgment of the female gaze. Unusually, the camera lingers over Jamie’s naked body as much as Claire’s. It’s a progressive depiction of sex on screen: a relishable but relatable mixture of nerves, desire and animal passion.
“No one was interested in doing those typical cable TV scenes where the sex is unnecessary,” says Balfe. “So to get that positive reaction was a relief. People were clearly wanting this, they hadn’t found a show that was giving them it before. So it was great that we were able to give them something new.”
“My marching orders for the cast and director of that episode were: ‘Let’s make it truthful,’” adds Moore. “None of us actually have TV sex, it never looks like that. So it’s not about titillating the audience or seeing how much flesh we can get away with showing; it’s about continuing the story of the characters.”
From a production base in the Scottish town of Cumbernauld – previously the setting for another popular period romance, Bill Forsyth’s 1981 classic Gregory’s Girl – Outlander repurposed existing castles and shot extensively on location to create its dappled, fecund vision of the Highlands. After starring in both Rome and Game Of Thrones, Tobias Menzies is familiar with this sort of lavish production. If his Edmure Tully was a goofy bystander at GOT’s notorious Red Wedding, his dual roles in Outlander feel more akin to his security expert in The Honourable Woman: loyal, potentially lethal professionals. Playing two characters separated by two centuries is a rather theatrical gesture for a TV show, but Menzies is enjoying it. “There are some piquant, slightly chilling moments of seeing flashes of Frank in Jack and vice versa,” he says. “We’re having some fun with this unusual situation of them both having the same face.”
Black Jack is the character that gives Outlander its more transgressive charge. He’s obsessed with the central couple, especially after administering a grisly public “scourging” during which Jamie refuses to cry out even as his back is reduced to bloody strips. “With Jamie, this young man’s body stands for all that is good and honourable about Scotland,” says Menzies. “Jack’s central drive is to colonise, so when he encounters a body that is able to endure more pain than he has ever administered before, it’s the perfect foil for his particular proclivities. At times you could say it tips over into eroticism. Jack is a study in sadism.”
Since the TV adaptation was first announced, Outlander has been constantly compared to Game Of Thrones, another large-scale quasi-historical epic with lashings of sex and violence. Is it simply jumping on the Mother of Dragons bandwagon? “I think Game Of Thrones certainly helped open the door for us but our worlds are really very different,” says Balfe. “It exists in a fantasy world while Outlander is more of a historical drama.”
Menzies, of course, is well qualified to compare the two. “Where there is a parallel is with a readership’s relationship to a set of books and their passion for the show that comes out of it,” he says. “George RR Martin and Diana Gabaldon are actually friends in real life, and we are similarly blessed with a very loyal following.” It’s true: Outlander fans on social media amuse themselves by boning up on Gaelic, snapping selfies with mini cardboard cutouts of Jamie, and when the show is off air, using the hashtag #droughtlander.
After lagging behind the rest of the world for six months, UK fans will shortly be able to binge themselves up to speed. The first eight episodes land on Amazon Instant Video this week, with the rest of season one synchronised with its US transmission. Watching blocks of Outlander actually suits the unusual rhythms of the show. “The story is always moving forward,” says Moore. “It’s serialised so there are no standalone episodes.” But for anyone planning to try to do all eight in one day, Moore suggests “a comfortable chair, and a lot of whisky”.
[Season 2 spoilers]With a second season already in pre-production, and seven further novels to adapt, the Outlander universe will continue to expand. How would Moore tease the future of his show set in the past? “We’re following the shape of the books, so in season two suddenly the action moves to Paris in the 18th century. We’ll have a completely different look and tone,” he says. “It kinda becomes a war story; we get more involved in the Jacobite rebellion and Bonnie Prince Charlie turns up.”
For US audiences, the most famous person to hail from Cumbernauld is former late-night chatshow host Craig Ferguson, about to be superseded by James Corden. Could Ferguson be a potential Charlie? Moore considers it, but only for a second: “I suppose he might have some spare time coming up … but let’s just say we have definitely not yet cast that role.”