Both Battlestar Galactica and Outlander, the long-awaited follow-up series from BSG showrunner Ronald D. Moore, derive tension from a sense of displacement. In BSG, the survivors of the Twelve Colonies were forced to adapt to life on a spaceship while also pining for a new home on Earth, while Outlander introduces its heroine, Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), a wartime nurse, contemplating the fact that she’s never lived in one place long enough to justify purchasing a flower vase. Picking up in the weeks after V-E Day, Claire is reunited with her MI6-officer-cum-history-professor husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies), and the two decide to share a vacation in the Scottish Highlands before finally getting back to the life that they put on hold during the war.
The first episode demonstrates a worrisome predilection for the romantic, demonstrated by Claire’s overwrought narration of the events and a bagpipe-enhanced score that shouts “Scotland!” so loudly that it may as well have been ripped from Brigadoon. These opening scenes might seem like an odd fit for Moore, whose experience is primarily in science fiction, but the series displays its genre bona fides when Claire is transported back to the 18th century by some unexplained druid magic. She wakes up amid a scuffle between Scotsmen and English “red-coat” soldiers, initially thinking it might be a film production, but eventually she’s using her 20th-century medical knowledge to fix her Scottish rescuers’ wounds.
It wants to use feudal highland politics as a place to comment on contemporary issues, but so far the series only hints at this potential.
In comparison to Katee Sackhoff’s uniquely individualistic performance as Starbuck on BSG, Balfe fails to leave much of an impression, switching from the bland role of a devoted wife to the just-as-uninteresting role of a damsel in distress. Furthermore, the plot itself, in which a person from modern times is jettisoned to some point past, is at least as old as Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and it’s been employed so often that it should probably be put to rest until someone figures out how to do something novel with it. Claire’s use of modern medical knowledge recalls nothing so much as Bruce Campbell wielding his “boom stick” in Army of Darkness, but without the self-awareness. Much as the show’s plot feels tired and well-trodden, it’s nothing short of a gimmick when Tobias Menzies, the actor who plays Claire’s husband, later appears as the malicious English captain Jack Randall, the husband’s ancestor.
In one lone promising scene, Claire watches a town meeting in which the handsome Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) accepts a beating meant for a young woman accused of “loose behavior.” The punishment doled out by the laird (Gary Lewis) complicates the moral status of Claire’s Scottish hosts; they cast themselves as victims of English persecution, but, like the leaders of the Battlestar, they also exhibit conflicting beliefs within their own ranks. The scene hints at the complexity that Moore brought to BSG’s political conflicts. With that series, Moore took a forgotten Star Wars rip-off and created his own beast from it, a fully realized space drama that used allegory as a storytelling tool rather than an instrument for getting a message across. It may be possible to do something similar with Outlander, using feudal highland politics as a place to comment on contemporary issues, but so far the series only hints at this potential, leaving plenty of room for it to embrace its worst traits instead.