What Is ‘Outlander?’ A Brief Explainer

Outlander has become a surprise summer hit. The first episode racked up 3.7 million viewers across all platforms and shocked a lot of people by having a 45% male audience. So, what’s the appeal, and should you be interested?

Ugh, isn’t this based on a romance novel?

Not really. The novel series, by Diana Gabaldon, is actually a multi-genre mix. There’s some time travel/Druid magic, a lot of historical fiction mostly centered around eighteenth-century wars, and yeah, boning dudes in kilts. The romance novel thing tends to spring from how the novels is shelved (and how Starz marketed the show for some reason), but it’s more interested in how wars are won than how pork swords are thrust, and the plot is centered around preventing the Battle of Culloden, where the Scots got their asses handed to them by the British to the tune of about forty dead Scots to every one dead British soldier.

In short: It’s about stabbing people most of the time, which makes it a bit unexpected. Anyway, they’re engaging enough that Ronald D. Moore got involved.

Wait, wait, wait. Ron Moore? The man who made Battlestar Galactica something other than incredibly lame?

None other. Moore actually wrote the first three episodes and brought in John Dahl to direct. So there’s a considerable talent investment here.

OK, I’m interested. What’s the plot?

Combat nurse and advocate of going commando Claire Randall touches a magic stone in 1946 Scotland with her troubled husband and promptly wakes up in 1743 Scotland where there’s a guy who is decidedly not her husband. Also, there’s her husband’s ancestor, who’s a vicious monster. It turns out that Claire knowing about two hundred years’ worth of basic medical knowledge the Highlanders don’t is a tactical advantage, and we’re off to the races: Claire just wants to get back to her own time, but as you might have guessed, that’s harder than it might sound.

Was the pilot any good?

Actually? Yeah, it was, and not in a “good for cable” way. Much of the pilot is actually concerned with explaining why Claire would want to go back to 1946; most shows would have us rooting against her husband and for the dashing guy from the past she’ll wind up boning from frame one. Here, he’s a relatable guy trying to get back in touch with his wife after World War II screwed them both up but good. The spark is still there: They have hot sex on the Highlands fairly early on. But they’re trying to get back to themselves, and it’s hard for both of them.

Secondly, it dodges a lot of the annoying cliches of time travel stories. Claire never tells anyone she’s from the future, is quickly disabused of her belief she’s among actors by people getting killed, and nobody in the time she’s in gives much of a crap about her or thinks she’s a Messiah. As far as they’re concerned, she’s just some English chick with some weird clothes.

Finally, it’s funny, even if you’ll see some jokes coming a mile away. No points for guessing the one kind of medicine 18th-century Scots have lying around.

Is it worth watching beyond the pilot, which you can see online?

I’d say so. Judge for yourself, obviously, but as you may have guessed, it’s not what it looks like on paper, and it might shape up to be one of the better shows on the air. But suffice to say, as long as they keep up the violence, it’s watchable.