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Caitriona Balfe stars as an Englishwoman who is inexplicably hurled back in time to 1743 in the new series Outlander. (2014 Sony Pictures Television)
Caitriona Balfe stars as an Englishwoman who is inexplicably hurled back in time to 1743 in the new series Outlander. (2014 Sony Pictures Television)

Outlander: A fantastical journey into the past Add to ...

It began with a man in a kilt.

In 1988, Diana Gabaldon, a research professor at Arizona State University, decided it was time to try writing a novel. Then she stumbled on an old episode of the BBC series Dr. Who, in which the time-travelling titular character finds a young Scotsman from the 1740s. The image stuck. “So that’s where I began,” Gabaldon says, “knowing nothing about Scotland or the 18th century, having no plot, no characters, nothing beyond the notion of a man in a kilt.”

Three years later, Outlander was published. Today, the book Gabaldon wrote “for practice” is a sprawling eight-book series (and counting) that’s sold 25 million copies and is available in 34 languages. Now, the series opens a new chapter as the Starz original program Outlander, with Battlestar Galactica creator Ronald Moore as executive producer.

Initially set just after the Second World War, Outlander tells the story of Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), an Englishwoman who is inexplicably hurled back in time to 1743 while vacationing in the Scottish Highlands with her husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies). She’s quickly taken in by a Highland clan that includes the dashing Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) and must adjust to life in the 18th century.

Like Orange Is the New Black’s Piper Chapman, Claire is a kind of “Trojan horse” – a proxy character for the audience. Claire may be a generation or two removed from viewers today, but she’s a progressive woman considering her time period and her middle-class British standing. In one of Outlander’s first scenes, we see Claire working as a nurse during the Second World War; when another nurse tells her of the war’s end and thrusts a bottle of Champagne into her hand, she takes a long, deep swig from the bottle.

Balfe, a former Victoria’s Secret model, is Irish, and she worked to make Claire sound like a modern woman. “I wanted [her accent] to be a little bit less formal because I think Claire has to be the everywoman,” Balfe says. “She sort of represents the audience .”

Her English accent also marks her as an outsider immediately upon arrival in the past – a past torn apart by vicious combat between Highland clansmen and members of the British army. In the 1740s, Menzies portrays one of Frank’s redcoat ancestors, “Black Jack” Randall, just one example of the ways in which Outlander is interested in the history we inherit and the reasons we call a place “home.” Balfe was the last of the three leads to be cast, and she suspects the hurried process was deliberately disorienting. “I kind of found out I got cast and was in Scotland three days later. I think they did it on purpose.”

If Outlander were a Venn diagram, it would fit snugly in the overlap between fantasy and history. But the show leans heavily on its historical aspect, placing emphasis on the turbulence of life in 18th-century Scotland. The show’s sets, costumes and weaponry are as period appropriate as Moore could make them. He even had a special tartan made just for the show – not in the stereotypical reds and yellows that we often associate with Scottish plaid, but a dusty grey more common in the 1700s.

Outlander’s foray into a bloody, patriarchal past – not to mention its source material – has drawn comparisons to HBO’s juggernaut fantasy series Game of Thrones. (The author of the books that inspired that series, George R.R. Martin, is a close friend of Gabaldon’s.) “They have a different aesthetic and visual style than we do,” Moore notes of Game of Thrones. “It’s a little more glossy. I wanted [Outlander] to be a little grittier, a little more reality-based, primarily because I believe that if you’re going to take the audience on a fantastical journey – if you’re going to ask them to buy into something crazy, like a spaceship or aliens or time travel – the more grounded and more real it looks, the more apt the audience is to go along with the characters and invest themselves in the drama.”

Of course, like Game of Thrones, Outlander has a built-in audience in the books’ fans. At a screening of the premiere episode in New York in July, the spectators, whooped and hollered like kids at a Kanye show. When Moore came onstage in a grey-and-brown kilt to introduce the show, he was treated to a standing ovation.

The reaction was appropriate, considering that the genesis of the Outlander series is the simple fact that the author thought a man looked foxy in a kilt. A crossbreed of fantasy, historical fiction, romance and adventure, Outlander is plainly a female-centric action series – Claire is not only the show’s lead but also its narrator.

But, despite the fact that Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe look like they belong on the cover of a Nora Roberts novel, Moore and Gabaldon insist Outlander is not a romance. Gabaldon refused to use the series’ official poster – a dreamy shot of Claire and Jamie against a mountainous backdrop – for the book’s tie-in cover, explaining, “I spent 20 years forcing people to take my books out of the romance section. If you say, ‘It’s a romance,’ people shut down and say, ‘Oh, I don’t read that kind of book.’”

“When I was doing Battlestar,” Moore says of the sci-fi drama that ran from 2004 to 2009, “we faced the opposite problem. It was called Battlestar Galactica, on the SyFy channel. It was sort of like, all right, are there any women who will look at this thing, ever?” Still, he’s not worried about a lack of male viewers. Nor, apparently, should he be – 45 per cent of viewers who watched the U.S. premiere on Aug. 9 were men.

At the New York screening, the predominantly female and middle-aged crowd was full of nervous chatter before the episode began. (“I have goosebumps,” one woman whispered.) In one early scene, before Claire travels back in time, she and Frank visit a ruined Scottish castle. In a secluded, dungeon-like room, she hops on a table and gestures for Frank to come over. As Frank performed oral sex on a fully clothed Claire, the audience went berserk. It was the biggest cheer of the night.

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