Marty McFly makes wisecracks and shows off his contemporary guitar-playing skills. Austin Powers utters "yeah baby" and demonstrates out-dated attitudes. That’s not the only behaviour that defines these two well-known characters taken out of their own times; however there's no mistaking that neither fit into their new surroundings. Many male protagonists marooned in another period stand out, somewhat proudly so. They're outsiders, even when they do make a cursory effort to assimilate — and not simply because of any necessity not to interfere timelines or change history.
In contrast, in the space of only two episodes, Outlander’s Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) couldn’t be more immersed in her new year of 1743.
More than two centuries before her own time, she’s a woman whisked away and yet still forging ties, making connections, offering assistance, caring for those who need it, and becoming increasingly invested in everyone around her. As she continues to tend to Jamie Fraser’s (Sam Heughan) injury, and even raise a wry smile out of the village’s helpful Mrs Fitz (Annette Badland), who reads her interest in her patient as romantic, she becomes more and more entrenched in a life far, far away from all that she previously knew as a combat nurse just free of the horrors of World War II. Of course, Mrs Fitz isn’t far off the mark given the show they’re all in is lusty time-travel fantasy; however it’s one with real emotions and a relatable heroine at play, albeit heightened for on-screen drama.
This is the world that Outlander depicts, and it matters. It’s a world seen through eyes rarely thrust to the fore in time travel efforts, and that matters. Here, for Claire, her unexpected jaunt back to the past isn’t a means to an end or a different kind of tourism, and suddenly dropping into other people’s lives isn’t a detached act that can be ignored. It soon becomes everyday living, even as she holds out hope of leaving within days. Her predicament highlights a gendered divide, of course: men in the same scenario typically remaining aloof, cultivating few attachments, getting their tasks done and moving on; women nurturing, forming bonds, looking after others. And Outlander might’ve remained as simplistic as that if it wasn’t for the show’s determination to not only send someone of the fairer sex back two hundred years, away from her struggling marriage, and possibly into the arms of another man, but to unpack the emotional fallout.
Of crucial importance is the strength of Claire’s character, and how that shapes her responses. Happy to play the bystander to her husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies), back in 1944 era, she’s definitely not. After spending the bulk of the war apart other than a handful of days, they may be working on their relationship, but her needs and desires remain just as important as his. Established as much more than an onlooker or supportive wife from the start of the series, the fact that she’s the one spying British Redcoats coming her way when a walk in the Highlands’ woods takes an odd turn shouldn’t surprise anyone watching.
Nor should her reaction once she begins to grasp just what has happened, as incredulous as it seems within the realm of Outlander. The first episode introduced a woman aware of the shortfalls in her marriage, committed to working on it and yearning for a different kind of future, while making it clear that the three weren’t mutually exclusive. Claire is complicated, but also cognisant of this fact, and capable of finding a way forward in difficult situations. So, that’s just what she does when Frank’s ancestor Captain Jonathan "Black Jack" Randall crosses her path, and then again when rebel Scotsmen liberate her from his lecherous grasp.
Immediately, she adapts, thinks quickly and comes up with an explanation. Immediately, she assists when Jamie is injured in an altercation. When the group later arrives at nearby Castle Leoch where they’ll be staying, she does the same — while trying to keep her story straight, to be certain, but also showing genuine interest and finding a way to put her nursing skills to work as a healer. Whether she’s explaining Jamie’s need for a certain type of treatment, moderating her medical language to suit the period or winning Mrs Fitz over with her assistance, again and again the ever-practical Claire shows that she could never simply be a time traveller’s wife. And, more than that, the program she’s in would never want her to be.
She’s the headstrong, enterprising hero in her own story, coping with the strange turn her life has taken in her own way — but, in many other hands and many other screen versions of time travel narratives, she’d more likely be a supporting player. Just like Marty McFly and company stand out in other time periods because they’re unlike anyone around them, Claire stands out because there’s so few female time travellers in cinemas or on TV, let alone placed front and centre as protagonists in their own narratives. Doctor Who has offered more than a few, and The Terminator’s Sarah Connor remains a stalwart across several decades and actresses; however their tales aren’t theirs alone. And though Claire seeks love as well as survival, that’s a reflection of reality.
It’s refreshing to see an intelligent, enterprising woman carve her own path in two time periods, and all the while recognising that both romance and resourcefulness have a place in her life.
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Outlander airs every Thursday night on SBS at 9:30pm. Catch up with the show on SBS On Demand: