catching up: manhattan and the honourable woman
throw me for a loop: sleater-kinney, august 7, 1998

outlander, series premiere

Ronald D. Moore knows what it means to excel in a genre format. His reworking of Battlestar Galactica was one of the finest series of its time, massively ambitious (really, should ambition ever be anything other than massive?) in a way that guaranteed a level of erraticism but also promised that the peaks would be higher than most. It was beloved of critics, it won a Peabody Award … and it won only four Emmys during its run, two for visual effects, one for sound editing, and one for a “featurette”. There were always going to be people who rejected the very idea of watching Battlestar Galactica, either because it was “sci-fi” or because it was based on “that cheesy 70s series” or because it was on the Sci-Fi Channel.

Moore had a number of attempted projects in the years after BSG, but for the most part, they crapped out before actually making it to the screen. But more recently, he’s starting to show up once again. First was Helix, another show on the renamed Syfy … Moore was involved in the creation of the series, but Steven Maeda is the showrunner. Helix is a decent show, worth a second season at the least, but I admit I was drawn to it initially because of Moore’s involvement, and I was disappointed when I realized it wasn’t really “his” series. I talked about this a lot when my wife and I watched Helix, but she smartly tunes out when I go on a droning rant, plus she’s not the sort who notices things like the name of the showrunner … when I mentioned this to her a couple of days ago, Joss Whedon was the only such person she could name, although she did mention Steven Bochco (even there, I think she might have meant Stephen J. Cannell, or maybe I’m misremembering the whole thing). The point is, she knows I loved Battlestar Galactica, knows the extent of the obsession, but doesn’t know the name Ronald D. Moore.

For quite a while now, at least since Helix debuted, I mentioned my excitement about the upcoming Outlander. I was coming at it from the Ron Moore angle … my wife, meanwhile, was looking forward to it because she had read the books. Clearly, this was going to be one of “our” shows, not a “wife show” or a “husband show”.

Imagine my surprise when I went downstairs a few days ago and found her watching the Outlander pilot. Without me. She had gotten a message from a friend who had tipped her off to the presence of the pilot On Demand before its actual premiere on Starz. Hey, I said, what the heck? Why are you watching without me? She was as surprised as I was, for it never occurred to her that I’d want to watch a show like Outlander. It was clearly a “wife show” … based on a series of romance/historical/fantasy novels by Diana Gabaldon. In retrospect, it makes sense … even if she’d heard my various comments in prior months, Ron Moore didn’t mean anything to her, and she didn’t think of this as a Ron Moore series but rather as a series based on those Outlander books.

I tell this long story because I wonder if the same problem that happened with BSG will occur again with this new series. It’s hard to pin down the genre … the first novel won a Best Romance award, but Gabaldon works within multiple genres. As she notes on her website, “I’ve seen it (and the rest of the series) sold—with evident success—as <deep breath> Literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Historical NON-fiction (really. Well, they are very accurate), Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery, Romance, Military History (no, honest), Gay and Lesbian Fiction, and…Horror.” But there will be people who reject the idea of watching a romance, just as they would avoid sci-fi, just as they would avoid fantasy … let’s just say there are a lot of genres to avoid when it comes to Outlander. In theory, this should give added depth to the stories … in reality, I’m guessing it scares some people off.

Which still leaves the big fan base for the books. Hey, it worked for Game of Thrones. But there is an added dimension, represented by people like me: Fans of Ron Moore. I’m looking forward to the series, and looking forward to the critical and fan reaction to the show. But I’m expecting it to get about as much mainstream attention as, say, Orphan Black, by which I mean, little attention at all.

Whatever … I know it doesn’t really matter. But all of the above was in my mind as I finally sat down to watch the pilot episode (alone). What I found was an intriguing story, gorgeous cinematography, great work by fave composer Bear McCreary, and a strong performance from unknown-to-me Caitriona Balfe as the leading character. (Balfe is the Tricia Helfer of the show, a tall former model whose acting chops surprise those of us who forget that models can act.) Balfe, and her character, Claire, are so important to the show, there’s no sense in calling it an ensemble cast. There is some good acting going on, of course, but unlike Game of Thrones, where every character falls into the category of Supporting Actor, Outlander is Balfe’s for better or worse. So far, it’s all for the better.

I don’t know anything about the books. (My wife made reference to something that happens in the fifth or sixth book and I accused her of spoiling the show.) I am very happy to have a series with a woman at the center. There is so much great TV right now that I’ve abandoned perfectly fine shows just because there isn’t time for them. I’m pretty sure we’ll find time for Outlander.