The bold and vibrant career of Ronald D Moore has largely been built upon television shows originally devised by others, as a staff writer on Star Trek The Next Generation, a supervising producer on Star Trek Deep Space Nine then executive producer on Daniel Knauf’s Carnivàle before developing the new version of Battlestar Galactica from Glen A Larson’s original vision. It is regrettable that the two original shows which Moore created, Virtuality and 17th Precinct never moved past pilot stage, but recently he has acted as executive producer on Cameron Porsandeh’s Helix, and once again developing a show based on the premise of another, with Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander it seems he may have yet another cross-genre hit on his hands.
First published in 1991, Outlander (released as Cross Stitch in the UK), like the Pern novels, where genetically modified fire lizards protect a lost Earth colony from extra-terrestrial threat, the premise of the opening episode of Outlander, Sassenach (the word used by those who come from the Highlands of Scotland to refer not only to the English but also those who live in the south of Scotland, the lowlands) is also a science fiction concept, time travel, but in both the net result is the same, whether it be dragons and their riders flying into battle or a woman torn out of time and thrown into the arms of a man from another century: primarily, these stories give the appearance of fantasy.
Reunited with her husband Frank (Game of Thrones‘ Tobias Menzies) after their enforced separation during the Second World War, he working in intelligence and she a field nurse, with only ten days together in five years, Claire Randall (Super 8‘s Caitriona Balfe) is looking upon their trip to Inverness as a second honeymoon. Almost strangers to each other, they hope to rediscover each other in the tranquillity of Scotland, Frank taking the opportunity to explore his family history during their stay. A far cry from the battlefield, her boots drenched in blood, her life is just about to start anew when it happens.
As dawn breaks after the mystical night of Samhain, Claire and Frank witness a Druid ceremony at dawn at a stone circle near the town; returning later that day, Claire approaches one of the stones but blacks out, waking to find herself in a very different conflict between rebel Highlanders and English Redcoats led by a man whom she recognises as her husband but who claims to be Captain Jonathan Randall, a name she knows from Frank’s research, events from two hundred years before.
With both sides assuming she is a spy for the other, she is rescued from Captain Randall but taken captive by Dougal MacKenzie (The Wicker Tree’s Graham McTavish) and his men and taken to their encampment in an old farmhouse where they have left their injured comrade Jamie Fraser (Scottish theatre actor Sam Heughan) where she must choose the course of action which is most likely to keep her alive.
While it is the first time Ronald D Moore has successfully produced a show based on a novel series, it is not his first attempt to bring books to the screen, having fought hard to realise Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern for Warner Brothers Network, only days away from beginning principal photography when it became apparent that requested changes would fundamentally compromise what he wished to achieve, leading both sides to abandon the project.
Moore has always favoured strong female characters: his Lessa of Benden Weyr may not have reached the screen but he has written for Kira Nerys and Jadzia Dax on Star Trek Deep Space Nine, Sofie Bojakshiya, Libby and Rita Sue Dreifuss and Ruthie on Carnivàle, Kara Thrace, Laura Roslin, Ellen Tigh and the numerous Sixes on Battlestar Galactica, and Claire Randall may appear a softly spoken lady of the gentry but she is rational and fast thinking, at her best in a crisis where she knows exactly what to do.
Thrown out of time, her logical first thought is that she has walked onto a film set but dismisses that when she realises the ammunition is live. Despite the shock of her displacement she keeps her wits about her and uses what knowledge she has of the area and its history to demonstrate first that she is not an enemy and later steps in with practical medical skills to prove not only that she is an asset but that she takes no nonsense from the men who automatically assume themselves to be superior to her.
With extensive location filming, the natural beauty of Scotland is showcased extensively and the period detail is warm and genuine, complementing the mundane detail Claire recounts when she looks back on that last Tuesday afternoon, looking at a vase in a shop window, the sort of ridiculous thing which sticks in the mind when all is changing and can never be returned. While pilot director John Dahl has not been called upon to set so defined a visual template as was Michael Rymer on Battlestar Galactica, as a veteran of Hannibal, Person of Interest, Arrow, Dexter and True Blood his credentials cannot be doubted.
Moore has done period work before with Carnivàle, though even before reading the tea leaves Outlander couldn’t be aimed at a more different audience than are normally associated with hard science fiction, but his long time associates Ira Stephen Behr and Toni Graphia have joined him in the writing room and the reliable Bear McCreary is supplying the soundtrack, though the parochial inclusion of bagpipes in the main theme and during the chase is gratingly obvious but perhaps unavoidable.
Certainly tamer than Spartacus, also commissioned by the Starz channel, the opening scenes are paced slowly, almost languid, but as neither the audience nor Claire are ever likely to see her own time again it is necessary to know her connection to it and understand the life which she is losing, and it is in the final scenes where Claire finally meets Jamie that the show comes alive, the first sparks of the relationship which will drive the narrative. While success will require more than just Balfe and Heughan they are the key assets on which the rest is dependent, but with a second season drawn from Gabaldon’s novel Dragonfly in Amber already confirmed that strong foundation has already been granted a future in which to blossom.