Outlander has changed my opinion about romance writing, the same way George RR Martin changed my opinion about fantasy writing (with a little help from Steve Stirling and Peter V Brett). Diana Gabaldon's time travelling thriller has plenty of action, lots of blood, villains of the darkest heart, a kick-arse female protagonist, and a surprising amount of sex. Surprising to me, anyway. As I said, this TV series has changed my opinion about romance writing. Apparently it's a lot raunchier these days.
The second series is airing in the US, but the first has recently dropped on Netflix here. Were it not for that, and an enthusiastic write-up in Esquire, I probably wouldn't have caught it. And that would have been a shame, because Outlander marks the return to the small screen of Battlestar Galactica's Ronald D Moore. He's also Star Trek's Ronald D Moore, but Galactica is what he is known for these days. On the evidence of the first couple of eps of Outlander, his latest series is better than BSG. There. I said it.
The premise is engaging in and of itself. Clair Beauchamp (pronounced 'Beachum' in the English fashion) is in Scotland to reconnect with her husband after the Second World War. She served as a nurse on the front lines, which will soon become important. He worked behind a desk in military intelligence. They didn't see each other for many years. They visit the Scottish Highlands for a second honeymoon, never really having had a first one. Their careful, slightly awkward attempts to get to know each other again are well handled and strangely compelling – at least for me. I don't normally dig on emotionally driven narrative, but this shit is mesmerising.
Moore, who wrote and directed the first episode takes the time to make us care about Gabaldon's characters. And then he tears them apart, throwing Claire back 200 years via some druidic jiggery pokery. She lands in the middle of a small but violent battle between Redcoats and Jacobin insurgents. Oops.
Her physical and emotional dislocation is totally believable, and all of the time spent building her backstory pays off when she applies the lessons learned surviving massive, industrial scale slaughter in World War II, to the equally challenging threats of a much earlier period in history. I'm only three episodes in, but I'm already hooked. Claire is not my usual sort of female hero. She doesn't even know kung fu. But she does know enough history and medicine to keep herself alive in the implacably hostile way-back-when and Gabaldon's twists and turns of plot are perfectly suited to long form television.
The period detail is rich and dense. You can feel her abject misery at being dropped into the real life squalor of a 17th century castle which she had recently experienced only as a quaint ruin. Every scene is so layered with this detail that it's tempting at times to hit pause simply to enjoy picking apart the set dressing.
The violence, befitting the preindustrial era, is intimate. Brutal, too. There is no squeamishness here. Bones break, flesh rends, blood flows freely. The characters whether central or bit player, are beautifully drawn, the actors having some excellent scripts to sink their teeth into.
If you've put off watching because Gabaldon is sold as a romance writer, get over it. This is the best time travel yarn I've seen in ages.