The Allure of Long Ago: Outlander

MAY / JUNE 2015: BY RACHEL SEXTON

outlander

The concept of time travel may be one that still eludes scientists, and may always do so, but that hasn’t stopped writers and filmmakers from using the idea for stories across literature, film, and television. It appears in genres as diverse as action (the Terminator franchise) and comedy (Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure), and in projects both small-scale (Looper) and big-budget (Back to the Future). The inherent drama of this plot device can show itself in many ways, but for the use of time travel in a story to truly be effective, the time the character travels to must be fully realized. Historical accuracy is very important when a well-documented period of the past is visited. Recently, one project admirably accomplished just that. The television adaptation of Outlander achieves a gorgeous sense of place and atmosphere to enrich the romantic, thrilling narrative.

Outlander is based on the best-selling book series by Diana Gabaldon, which began in 1991. It continued through to the seventh book in the series, Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, which was published in 2014. The story centers around Claire Randall, an English nurse during World War 2, who visits Scotland while on a trip with her husband and finds herself transported to the 17th century after touching one of the standing stones at Craigh na Dun. Claire tries to adjust to the unfamiliar time while not revealing the truth and avoiding the trouble being English can cause in 1743 Scotland. She meets and slowly falls in love with Jamie Fraser and they both face the threat of a villainous British military commander named Black Jack Randall, an ancestor of Claire’s 20th century husband.

Starz cable network adapted it for television. Ronald Moore developed the series and retained a lot of creative input from author Gabaldon over the 16 episodes of the first season, the finale of which is set to air in the United States on May 30, 2015. The series is renewed for a second season, based on the second book, Dragonfly in Amber. Actress Caitriona (pronounced “Katrina”) Balfe plays Claire and Sam Heughan is Jamie Fraser. Other main cast members include Tobias Menzies, Graham McTavish, Laura Donnelly, and Bill Paterson. One of the hallmarks of this series is its mature tone. The book series can be classified as part of the romance genre, as it contains quite a few scenes of a sexual nature. The interpersonal drama and political intrigue of the plot more than balance this out, however, and the show runners of this series have wisely aimed to embrace all the aspects of the story. Because Starz is a pay cable network, they are granted the leeway to do so. Viewers should be prepared for nudity, sexual content, and violence. Even if you are uncomfortable with this content at first, though, the plot is so compelling that you will keep watching.

The most obvious and conspicuous element that assists the creators of this series in building an effective sense of place is the locations. Outlander films much of the time on location in Scotland. They take full advantage of the unparalleled Highland scenery as often as possible, starting with the unforgettable and narrative-important standing stones at Craigh na Dun. Different beautiful locations stand in for Castle Leoch, the home base of the MacKenzie clan who are related to Jamie, and Lallybroch, the home of Jamie’s Fraser family. The story features a lot of traveling around, and the filmmakers behind this series seem unable to find a place that isn’t green and rocky, accomplishing the task of appealing to the eye while immediately conveying to the audience that this is Scotland. Outlander has surely boosted Scottish tourism since it premiered.

Another method Outlander uses for evoking the setting is music. Bear McCreary is the composer, and every bit of the score for every episode has a sound unmistakably Scottish. One striking and memorable addition is the theme song that accompanies the opening credits. It is a poem by Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, “Sing Me a Song of a Lad that is Gone,” set to the tune of a Scottish folk song called “The Sky Boat Song.” It is a perfect choice. The score is full of the kind of music that will feel like Scotland to the audience, featuring drums and bagpipes. It telegraphs both drama and wistfulness, which is appropriate for this material.

Costuming is invaluable in this series as a way to create authenticity for the period. There are kilts, corseted gowns and Redcoat uniforms, but the costume designer, Terry Dresbach, also got to bring the fashion of the 1940’s to life in the pilot. He provided many thoughtful details to Claire’s costumes that stand out. She often wears a knitted cowl as a scarf along with knit sleeves paired with her gowns that serve the function of warmth but are also stylish. I won’t be surprised if the fashion industry soon takes notice. (There are already some similar homemade versions for sale on Etsy!)

Due to impressive production values, Outlander creates an evocative atmosphere and sensuous setting. Given that the story features the concept of time travel, setting is a significant element that needs to be done right. The writers and directors faithfully and effectively adapt the plot and the actors turn in wonderful performances as well, so Outlander becomes a time-travel romance that is unique on television. With a second season on the way and a book series that hasn’t ended yet, viewers can easily enjoy a long journey into the past. ◦

mayjune2015

Rachel Sexton is from Ohio and has a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Arts. She loves her parents and her dog Lily. But what you really need to know is that she has to have acting, film, reading, and dance in her life and her favorite fandoms are Star Wars, Harry Potter, Jane Austen, and Once Upon a Time. Plus, she is most described as quiet and her biggest vice is cupcakes. Her main hobby is editing fan videos.

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