by Lucie Horáková
When the interwebs announced that there is to be a new TV series called Outlander, taking place in 18th century Scotland, there seemed to be no reason whatsoever to pay it any closer attention. The series, produced by American cable network Starz, promised nothing out of ordinary. Based on a bestseller by Diana Gabaldon, it tells the story of Claire Beauchamp Randall, a nurse serving in WWII, who meets her husband in Inverness for their second honeymoon after five-year separation caused by the war. On the eve of Samhain some magic gets to work and Claire is transported back in time to the period of the Jacobite risings. Immediately after the unearthly experience, Claire is almost raped by a rough English soldier and saved by a handsome highlander who then makes use of her nursing skills.
The beginning of the story sounds cliché enough to resemble a random Mills and Boons novel and some of the narrative techniques only further this impression – for example the unnecessary voiceovers stating the obvious trains of thought of the heroine. Also the storyline contains many of the classic clichés of the Harlequine-type romances – a few attempted rapes, some abductions, imprisonment, a forced marriage, secret love, male and female abstract foils, . . . And yet – Outlander made quite a stir and managed to gain lots of praise. Let’s have a closer look at the reasons why it is so and why Outlander might be worth your while, too.
The first reason why Outlander should not escape your attention is their depiction of female body and sexuality. Even though there was a sexual revolution back in the 60s, still there are many taboos connected with human sexuality as such and female sexuality in particular. These taboos are being enforced by screen depiction – women in films and TV series are often being objectified and used as tools for male pleasure only. Outlander confidently breaks this pattern at the beginning of the very first episode, where the heroine receives the pleasure of oral sex. Claire is portrayed as a sexual being, who find sex both natural and pleasant. Unlike in the traditional romance formula, she does not have to suffer first to find sexual pleasure in the arms of the highly masculine hero. She is admittedly sexually active from the start and she is completely non-apologetic about it. The biggest breakthrough in the show then comes with the “Wedding episode”, where Claire is forced to re-marry and then consummate the new marriage with a virgin. There is no slut-shaming present and the unusual pattern of experienced female and inexperienced male is treated as something completely normal – which it is in reality, but not so much in the traditional sex-related discourse. The sexual act itself is then carefully portrayed in a very natural way, showing not only that it is equally pleasurable for both characters, but revealing its emotional impact on them too. The naked human body is not scandalised but normalised, not only in the sex-scenes, but also in the depiction of ordinary tasks, such as washing or dressing up.
The second reason for giving Outlander a chance is its mastery with visuals. Given the story location – the majestic area of Highlands around Fort William and Inverness – it is clear that the visual part of the show shall be extremely important. Not only are the outdoor scenes shot with great care, underlining the natural beauty of the landscape, but the indoor scenes do not lack behind. Each still from the show has the artistic qualities of a painting. The indoor settings – dimly lit castle halls, stables, smithies or peasant cottages – are shot with the same care and precision as the outdoor scenes and they are the result of highly elaborated work with light. Shadows and candlelight play on the walls and enforce the viewer’s immersion in the show.
The last reason of Outlander’s success is its elaborate PR. The Starz PR team has been unusually active, promoting the show on Facebook and providing the fans with countless extras. There were weekly Q&A sessions on Twitter, where the fans could ask the stars of the on the show question on the show’s webpage., the creators shared extra photos and also used the popular format of internet memes to record some memorable quotes from the show, and sometimes to give it a new, sassy twist.
They also came with the hashtag #Sassynach, which is a word play on the Gaelic nickname of the heroine and which reflects her outspokenness, self-assurance and use of irony. Another interesting step of the creators was dividing the show in two halves – the first was aired in August and September, the other is to be aired in April. The first half of the show ended with a cliff-hanger, obviously, and the PR team is very active in promoting the show in the hiatus period. Even though Outlander is by no means the only show with such a concept and active PR, it seems that it works extremely well for the TV series.
In the end, Outlander might end up being just another unexceptional TV show. The story is not very innovative and it uses many clichés from the romance formula. But given what values the creators seem to be promoting and what tools they have up their sleeves, it will be very interesting to see what else the show might bring when it returns in April.