Scotland THE Brace
As Outlander returns to the screen, Tara Bennett finds out what makes this most unusual of genre shows tick
Last year’s fall TV season saw a heap of hype for new genre shows featuring comic book characters, superheroes and the undead. But there was another series that debuted last August that didn’t fit any traditional genre categories, mashing together time travel with an epic romance wrapped in a historical period
piece. Outlander, the big- budget adaptation of novelist Diana Gabaldon’s book series of the same name, crept in under the radar and managed to gain the kind of critical approval and mainstream buzz most genre shows can only dream about.
Executive produced by Battlestar Galactica’s Ron D Moore, the series aired eight episodes that laid out the unlikely plight of Claire Randall ( Caitriona Balfe), a former combat nurse celebrating the end of WW2 with her husband, Frank ( Tobias Menzies), in Inverness, Scotland. On a trip to visit some local standing stones, Claire is freakishly transported back in time to 1743 where she has to use her wits and skills to survive suspicious clansmen, a masochistic English soldier who is the ancestor of her husband and a forced marriage to Jamie Fraser ( Sam Heughan), a loyal young clansman who takes her under his protection.
While Gabaldon’s books have sold millions, some dismissively assumed only women, or fans of the novels, would bother showing up for the series. But when Outlander debuted in the US on Starz more than five million men and women tuned in for the premiere episode, with the numbers climbing until it went on its winter break. That’s no surprise to Moore, who knew
Outlander could, and hopefully would, cross over. “It was all there,” the kilted showrunner says over a cup of tea in Los Angeles. “It’s the same challenge that Diana had with the books. She talks about how she struggled with booksellers who were constantly stocking it in the romance section and she hated that because guys never go down that aisle. If they ever read the books, it’s not just a romance. I call it an adventure and I knew if we were able to just do what was there it wasn’t going to be ‘ just’ a romance. It was always going to be this bigger, more interesting piece.”
Clearly audiences agreed, only to discover the second half of the season would return six long months later in April 2015. A savvy marketing decision and an opportunity for the show to get production for its second season underway with some precious lead time, Moore says he’s excited there’s so much anticipation for what’s to come.
With the narrative left on the precarious cliffhanger of Claire about to be assaulted by soldier Black Jack Randall ( Menzies in a dual role) and Jamie arriving with a raised pistol, Moore says the series comes back with changes. The encore episode, for instance, will be told outside of Claire’s point of view. “As we got into the stories, we wanted to restart the show and I didn’t want to just pick up the cliffhanger in real time,” Moore explains. “It was an opportunity to pivot and now include [ Jamie’s point of view] because as the series goes on, it’s really about the two of them. This was an opportunity to bring him into the point of view and gives you permission to cut to his stories separate from hers and open up the show.”
The back half of the season will also explore the strange circumstances that allowed Claire to travel through time. “It was nice,” Moore says of their choice to focus first on character rather than cosmic answers. “We stayed away from the science fiction aspect and it was important to me that it didn’t become a time travel show. I wanted to keep it on a low boil and remind the audience enough that she’s from the 20th century and that she’s trying to return to it. But I didn’t want to talk about timelines and changing the timeline because that becomes another show.”
Now with Claire and Jamie’s bond of trust strengthening, Moore teases an imminent moment of confession from Claire to her new husband regarding where she is really from. Just how you convince anyone that time travel exists, and you’re the product of it, is a tricky one in any era, but Moore says he loves the way Jamie processes the revelation.
“After thinking about why [ Jamie] would believe her and how would he challenge it, we started to realise he is a man of this time and place,” Moore explains. “The key lines came out of ‘ The Way Out’, when the boy was sick and Jamie and Claire have this conversation about superstition. [ Jamie] is a man of the 1700s who on a certain level is educated about the world but does live in a world of superstition that still believes in witches. So the idea of somebody travelling through time, in a weird way, is less crazy to him, and them, than it would be to us. That’s the angle we took on it and he might have trouble believing it on some level but he doesn’t think she would lie to him. If she clearly believes it, he’s going to go with it so it’s a leap of the heart. “
Outside of that, Claire’s mysterious healer friend, Geillis Duncan ( Lotte Verbeek), will also play a part in uncovering more answers about the stones. “Geillis is a memorable character in the book,” Moore shares, “so we
“we feel a little more confident going into the second season”
wanted to bring her forward a little more to put more attention on her because she is going to play such an important role as we go forward.”
weaving it together
In a short lull before production starts back up this spring, Moore says he’s got a much better hold on how to manage such an ambitious series now. “We’ve learned a lot of lessons and have a better sense of the scale of the show and what it takes to produce it. We can plan ahead a little better and plan our prep period smarter because we can address the challenges.
“Laying out the story was relatively straightforward,” he continues. “It broke down into 16 pieces fairly easily. There were challenges in doing an adaptation which is different muscles than doing something original and that was a learning curve. But the physical production was very difficult,” he emphasises. “It was a big production with two time periods. We were shooting on location in Scotland and flying to the UK. There was post production in Los Angeles. The fact that it’s a travelling story means there weren’t any standing sets per se, which created enormous logistical challenges.
“And now,” he pauses, “I get to add Paris which is going to be tricky. But we feel a little more confident going into the second season even though it will be more complicated in the sense of story.”
Basing the next run of adventures on Gabaldon’s novel A Dragonfly In Amber, Moore is looking forward to crafting a narrative that will please both diehard readers and the unspoiled viewers of just the TV series. “We will play with the structure of the book a little bit,” he teases, “but we are still doing the story which is set in the 20th century and in the 1700s. I think it works because it’s unexpected. It’s not what the audience, who doesn’t know the book, thinks is going to happen next and that’s great. I want to preserve that.”
Outlander comes to Amazon Prime this spring.
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