Outlander Season 1 Vol. 1 (Spoilers)

  • Series Title: Outlander
  • Season: 1 (DVD set is Vol. 1)
  • Episodes:  8
  • Discs:  2
  • Network:  Starz/BBC
  • Cast:  Caitriona Balfe, Sam Heughan, Tobias Menzies, Bill Paterson, Graham McTavish, Gary Lewis, Annette Badland
  • DVD: Widescreen DVD (R1, NTSC)

I read the book Outlander in the late 80s/early 90s sometime, and although I liked it – I didn’t love it. So much so, that, though I had gotten the first three or four books as a set from a book club (I don’t remember which one – it was either Book of the Month Club, Ladies Literary Guild, or the SF & Fantasy Bookclub). Anyway, I read the first book but not the rest in the set.  Diana Gabaldon’s book series has now swelled to eight books.

Claire Randall is a World War II combat nurse who returns home after VE Day to her husband, Frank, who had worked for the OSS during the War, and thus stayed home in London. They head for Scotland for their second honeymoon – and Claire disappears. Claire has been transported by the standing stone ring back to Scotland in 1743.  In Scotland, Claire has to use her wits as well as her knowledge of herbal medicine and botany to survive.

When Claire first arrives in 18th-century Scotland she is attacked and nearly raped by an English Redcoat, named Capt. John Randall – known as Black Jack. He looks exactly like her husband, Frank, and Claire knows he’s one of Frank’s ancestors. However, he’s also a sadistic bastard, basically. His attempts to capture and rape Claire become a re-occurring theme in the first eight episodes.

Claire is rescued by a Highlander named, Jamie, who takes her to the MacKenzie castle. Claire uses her skills as a nurse, and knowledge of botany and herbal medicines to become the clan’s new healer. She hopes to escape and return to the standing stones and return to her own time and husband. But in the meantime she becomes involved in the Jacobite (supporters of the Catholic Stuart King of England – the one who lost) intrigue, castle life, and feels a connection to Jamie, though, at first, there is very little romance.

After the first four episodes, which set up the basic plot and setting, Claire is taken by Dougal to help collect the rents on MacKenzie lands. She meets Ned Gowen, a lawyer, who keeps the books and writes receipts for the taxes. She witnesses the Scottish people paying not just in coin but in kind (chickens, grain, goats, pigs, etc – all live). She also witnesses Dougal raising additional “unofficial” cash, using Jaime’s horribly-scarred back to shock the locals into giving. Jaime had been flogged, twice, by Black Jack Randall. Initially, Claire is outraged – thinking Dougal is lining his own pockets. She eventually learns they are raising money in support of the Stuart king and Jacobite rebellion. Once she learns this, Claire tries to convince Dougal his cause is doomed. He takes that to mean she’s a loyal British spy.

Claire is then captured, interrogated, and nearly raped (again) by British Redcoats, and Black Jack. Since she keeps her mouth shut about what she knows, the MacKenzies trust her more. To protect her from the British, Dougal decides to “make her Scottish” and has her marry Jamie – who reveals his last name is Fraser. (We’d known from the beginning that “MacTavish” was a nom de guerre that he was using because he was a wanted man.) Shortly thereafter, Black Jack Randall kidnaps her again (just as she had approached the standing stones) – she manages to do all right in her interrogation, until Jack brings up “the Duchess” – which is a mistake, as the Duke was never married (she’d correctly guessed, from her husband’s Frank Randall’s discussion of his work and research, that a certain Duke protected Black Jack), then he’s attacking her, again, rips her dress off, again, and attempts to rape her. Claire’s situation seems dire – when Jamie appears in the window.

Outlander looks gorgeous! Scotland is beautiful. The costumes are wonderful, yet very realistic. I liked that Claire is not a Hollywood-styled beauty either. She’s somewhat plain-looking. Not unattractive, but very normal. I also really liked that Outlander doesn’t portray history in black-and-white. Both the Scots and the English do horrible things to each other. Claire is suitably appalled at the brutality of the time. She’s also drawn to Jamie, but in volume 1 she also wants to return to her husband in 1945. And Claire is something of a historical artifact herself. One gets the feeling that if she stepped through her standing stones and arrived in 2015 – she’d feel just as confused and out of place as she does in 1743. Even her nursing skills would be out of date.

Outlander is, in many ways, built like a bodice-ripping romance novel. However, rather than having a character from 1743 acting and thinking like a modern woman, Claire Randall (Beauchamp) Fraser is a modern woman who accidentally wanders in to the past. Also, the past isn’t romanticised (that much), and the author treats history as something that is full of grey, not a simple “we’re right/they’re wrong” duality. In Outlander, it’s people who are good, bad, or in between – not the sides of the battlefield they represent.

This series started a bit slow, but, like a good “page-turner” novel, the pacing picks up more and more – and I watched the last four episodes over a weekend. It definitely has the feel of a novel for the screen. I highly recommended it, and I definitely plan on buying Volume 2.

Trivia:  Yes, Diana Gabaldon based her Scottish Highlander, Jaime, on the Second Doctor’s Companion, Jaime, on Doctor Who. She even mentions it in the behind-the-scenes extra feature on disc 1.

Additional Trivia:  Annette Badland and Bill Paterson both appeared in Doctor Who – in Boom Town and Victory of the Daleks, respectively. Bill Paterson also appeared in Law and Order: UK as a Crown Prosecutor (lawyer).