At first glance, Starz' series Outlander looks like breezy historical romance. Its protagonist, Claire Beauchamp, stands in a dramatic landscape wearing 18th century clothing, her hair blowing in a Scottish wind. The series’ leading man, Jamie Fraser, sports long curling red hair and a kilt that somehow manages to suggest both pragmatic durability and convenient access.
Those first impressions are not wrong, precisely. Most of Outlander is set in 18th-century Scotland (and France in the upcoming second season). Claire is increasingly interested in taking advantage of Jamie Fraser’s accommodating kilt. But Outlander isn't just a great, detailed, and persuasive historical romance. It's also the first hit series from Ron Moore since Battlestar Galactica.
Though it may seem like a departure, Moore has woven sci-fi into the fabric of the series, a time travel story whose setting in the 18th century Scottish highlands offers an intriguing alternate history twist. That initial impression of a historical romance is actually just one facet of a series that is, like the Diana Gabaldon series of books it’s based on, a crazy and appealing genre mashup. Outlander somehow brings together time travel and alternate history with romance, psychological suspense, and political drama.
Claire steps through an ancient stone circle in post-World War II Scotland, her native time, and wakes up in 1743, unsure of what's happened or how to get back. The first season gradually develops its criss-crossing timestream mysteries, which get even more intriguing when we learn that Claire is not the only woman to have traveled through time. At the same time, Claire becomes embroiled in Scottish politics, an impenetrable web of conflicting Highlander clan loyalties that bump up against a deep, pervasive suspicion of the English.
The second season, which premieres April 9, will feature even more of this dizzying double-historical perspective. Claire and Jamie begin actively working to change the course of the Jacobite Rising, which nearly wipes out Highlander culture in 1745.
The most useful genre TV yardstick for Outlander isn’t Pride and Prejudice or The Tudors, or even Moore’s own Battlestar Galactica—it’s Game of Thrones.
There are no dragons and white walkers in Claire’s 18th century, however. Outlander is committed to a much smaller scale of storytelling, interested primarily in the life and perspective of one woman rather than in a sweeping pseudo-historical fantasy epic. But even for its smaller size and its comparative realism, Outlander is just as brutal as anything that appears on Game of Thrones. Tobias Menzies’ villainous Captain Jack Randall is easily as terrifying and damaged as Joffrey, but he swaps that character’s childish hysteria for a far scarier, controlled adult relentlessness.
Like Game of Thrones, Outlander does not shy away from depictions of violence. But its images of gore and pain are on a different scale than Game of Thrones’ operatic blood bath. They tend to be intimate and ordinary, less focused on horrific magical plagues than on, say, a single man’s viciously crushed hand. One plot arc toward the end of the first season featured some of the most stomach-churning portrayals of sexual and physical violence I’ve ever seen on television, and the scene is remarkably (horrifyingly) personal. Game of Thrones' has so many subplots that audiences often witness violence and quickly move on to another set of characters; Outlander's eye is sustained and unflinching.
Where Game of Thrones borrows and copies and adapts historical references to build its many cultures, Outlander dives deep into a few small areas of one brief historical period, making its setting feel real in a tactile, physical, arresting way. Game of Thrones unfurls across dozens of characters, and Outlander spins its many complicated stories around one woman. But much of the fundamental DNA is the same—the magic, the politics, the dangerous and engrossing world.
As Outlander progresses, its time travel elements play a larger and larger role in the series, and Claire’s position in time becomes more complicated and emotionally fraught. But even before some of those stories kick in, Outlander’s most appealing fantasy premise is Claire’s first jump back 200 years in the past.
What makes Outlander such a delicious narrative are all the bits in between the dizzying time-hopping trips through stone circles and startling historical twists. Claire walks through 18th-century Scotland with the same alien outlook that we feel when we read a great fantasy series or watch well-drawn dystopian TV series. Her new world is familiar in some ways but also utterly new to her.
The political intrigues of the Scottish Highlanders are opaque—Claire can’t speak Gaelic, and untangling the complicated web of familial relationships and loyalties is endlessly challenging. More disorienting still, Claire quickly realizes that Scottish culture doesn’t even see the physical world the way she does. Ghosts, witches, and fairies are alive and well, if not as an actual physical presence, then certainly in the minds of all of her new acquaintances. A belief in magic is woven through everyday life in 1743 Scotland. Infants who get sick are abandoned because parents believe they've been swapped with changeling babies (a situation that infuriates Claire); bad spirits cause people to grow ill and die; women who have too much power are accused of being witches. And who is Claire, accidental time traveler, to deny that magic is real?
Alternate histories and time travel stories aren't just fun games of “what if?” (What if the Nazis had won? What if I stopped my parents from ever meeting?) At their core, they’re narratives about characters moving through alien worlds, about exploration and disorientation and a vision of human life that is unknown. Some of Outlander’s best moments are when Claire has to grapple with cultural differences that have nothing to do with fairies and witches, just simple human interactions. Sure, Jamie and his culture are still human, and Claire has the advantage of knowing—at least in theory—what 18th-century life is like. In practice, though, she is just as adrift as Paul among the Fremen or Daenerys among the Dothraki.
Outlander is a very different series than Moore’s Battlestar, and while its closest comparison may be something like Game of Thrones, it is quite distinctly its own, original thing. Part of that originality comes out of its multilayered genre identity. The show weaves fantasy elements, adventure stories, and political maneuvering into its historical romance. It's also a gorgeous viewing experience, full of expansive landscapes and arresting details.
But its most compelling magic comes out of the central fairy-tale-like quartet at the heart of the series—Claire, her Scottish lover Jamie, her husband Frank back in the 20th century, and Frank's villainous 18th century ancestor/doppelganger, Black Jack Randall. They, and especially Claire, are the knot that ties the series together. These characters transform Outlander from what could be a cliched show into something distinctive and unique. There are not many stories that could pull from so many familiar tropes and yet manage to feel new—Outlander does it.