A man and a woman break into an abandoned castle. They run down into the basement. She perches on the table. He leans in to kiss her. She stops him – and pushes his head down towards her legs.
It’s a striking moment in the opening episode of Outlander. Up until that point, the scene could have been from any historical fantasy series. But Outlander is no Game of Thrones, with its male gaze and frequently naked women. Based on the books by Diana Gabaldon, this is a female-led show, with a fully-fledged woman out in front.
The programme, which premieres on Amazon Prime Instant Video on Thursday 26th March, follows Claire (Caitriona Balfe), who finds herself transported from the 1940s back to 18th century Scotland. We join her as she reunites with her husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies), after being separated by World War II. They go on a jaunt to Scotland, where she hopes to reconnect – and he hopes to geek out over the area’s history.
It’s a slow start to the show, but only because it takes the time to get to know our heroine before events kick off. “The war had taught me to cherish the present because tomorrow might not ever come to pass,” she tells us in a pensive voice over, as she gazes longingly at a blue vase in a shop window. “What I didn’t know at the time was that tomorrow would prove less important than yesterday.”
Caitriona Balfe is fantastic as Claire, steely and stubborn but also sexual and sensitive. Flashbacks show us her childhood, when she tinkered as a sidekick to her Indiana Jones-esque uncle, and her adulthood, when she soldiered as a nurse in the trenches. As the conflict ends, the blood-splattered medic grabs a bottle off a nearby trooper and takes a huge swig.
It’s the kind of tough-skinned attitude that puts her in good stead for her journey back hundreds of years, but Outlander is in no hurry to get there. The script quietly sows seeds of the past underneath the quaint countryside present, from the traditions and superstitions of Samhain to Frank’s investigations into his ancestor, the nasty army captain “Black” Jack Randall. It’s only after an enchantingly shot druid ritual that we finally make our jump – a final act turn that makes sure that characters drive the plot, not magic.
Here, Claire meets Scottish rebel Jamie (Sam Heughan), a hunk of pure ginger who’s been wounded in a fight. Before the camera can start swooning over the injured hottie, though, Claire steps in to offer medical help. The men are shocked, raising hairy eyebrows and grunting in Gaelic. It’s in these little moments that Outlander really impresses: the touches that let Claire dictate the action. Regardless of the period or the social convention, she’s in control. Even the sex scenes – of which there are several – are instigated on her terms.
At a time when manly sword-swinging makes for the biggest show on TV, the result is a satisfying rallying cry for heroes in skirts – and not just kilts. It’s perhaps no surprise that the showrunner should be Ronald D. Moore, who gave us the gender-swapped Starbuck in his revival of Battlestar Galactica (played by the excellent Katee Sackhoff). Any ogling that does happen is targeted firmly at Heughan, who smoulders through his charged exchanges with Claire.
“If you won’t walk, I shall pick you up and throw you over my shoulder,” he informs her, as they travel through the woods, staring her right in the eye. “Do you want me to do that?”
His delayed introduction means that we can be invested in one relationship and curious about the other. More moments of intrigue are also peppered throughout, hinting at what’s to come. A spooky man watches Claire from the town square at night, while Randall makes an appearance (played by Menzies in a smart piece of double casting) and is swiftly positioned as a rival to Jamie. But for all the romantic tension, exciting battle sequences and stunning Scottish landscapes begging to be explored, the excitement of Outlander Episode 1 stems from seeing this woman out of time. From the opening theme (by Bear McCreary, who, between this and Black Sails, is one of the more enjoyable TV composers in the business) to what otherwise could have been a cliched voice over, the focus is firmly on her journey to get home – and to do it on her own. In a sea of male-driven epics, Outlander is a series with a uniquely female gaze. It leaves you wanting to see more.
Season 1 of Outlander is out now on DVD and available to own from iTunes, Amazon Instant Video and Google Play. You can also watch it online on Amazon Prime Instant Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription – or, if you would also like unlimited UK delivery and 350,000 eBooks available to borrow, as part of a £79 annual Amazon Prime membership.
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