"Come What May": Outlander, Time Travel, History, Medicine, and Love.

Warning: The following article contains some spoiler alerts and disturbing content.

Time travel! That deep, old inexplicable conundrum that has puzzled people throughout human history! Could it ever be done? It’s difficult to answer yes, but, then again, people said the same thing about the automobile, the telephone, the airplane, and the internet. All those innovations seemed impossible for the longest stretch of time. Nothing short of magic could bring them into fruition, and yet here they are today! On the other hand, there’s something unique about time-travel. All the other technologies obey the laws of reality. Time travel appears to violate those laws. Sure, we can “look back in time” by gazing up at the starry night sky, or we can “travel into the past” by remembering something. But physically commuting to a previous or future era is another story.

Still, it’s fun to read about it and see it on the big/small screen! Sometimes our favorite characters (like Doc Brown and Marty McFly) go back or forward a few decades by driving a DeLorean. Sometimes they do so by entering a telephone booth (i.e., Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure), or, in the case of today’s article (the TV show Outlander), they travel back in time by “passing through the stones.”

Time Travel

The show’s premise: It’s the end of World War II. Claire Randall nee Beauchamp (Caitriona Balfe), a British battlefield nurse, finally receives word that the war has ended. Ecstatic, she and her husband, Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies), an MI6 officer and historian, go on a second honeymoon in Scotland. They travel to the remote city of Inverness and begin sightseeing. Frank looks up his family’s history, and the two then witness a Druidic dance atop the hill of Craigh na Dun. At the top of the hill is a circle of tall, sacred stones.

One afternoon, while her husband is away, Claire touches one of the stones, falls asleep, hears a cacophony of noises, and experiences indescribable terror. She then wakes up to see several English Redcoats/Dragoons charging down the hill in front of her. At first, she thinks people are just shooting a film, but then she realizes that those are real bullets. Claire has traveled back in time to 1743.

Claire encounters “Blackjack” Randall (also Tobias Menzies), Frank’s distant ancestor (whom she initially mistakes for her husband). A group of Scottish highlanders rescue her from him and take her back to Castle Leoch. Colum MacKenzie (Gary Lewis) is the laird of the castle, and his brother Dougal (Graham McTavish) is one of the highlanders who rescues Claire. When she arrives, Claire meets various residents and nearby townspeople, including Geillis Duncan (Lotte Verbeek), Mrs. Fitzgibbons (Annette Badland), and Mrs. Fitzgibbons granddaughter, Laoghaire (Nell Hudson).

Claire also meets Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), the dashing, wounded young warrior with whom she shared a horseback ride to Castle Leoch. Claire and Jamie eventually get married and fall in love. The primary arc of the series is their romantic relationship. Claire is already married, and she’s from the future. Will she return to the present-day or stay in the past? Where will her heart lead her? The series explores those questions.

Outlander premiered on Starz. Ronald D. Moore developed the show. Its other executive producers include Jim Kohlberg, Andy Harries, Maril Davis, Ira Steven Behr, Toni Graphia, Anne Kenney, Matthew B. Roberts, and Marigo Kehoe. David Higgs, Neville Kidd, Denis Crossan, Martin Fuhrer, Stephen McNutt, Alasdair Walker, Michael Swan, Stijn van der Veken, and Michael Coulter provide principal photography. Its editors include Michael O’Halloran, Liza Cardinale, Melissa Lawson Cheung, Stewart Schill, Fabienne Bouville, Miklos Wright, Nathan D. Gunn, Micky Blythe, Gena Bleier, Tammis Chandler, and Alanah Jones. Sony Pictures Television, Left Bank Pictures, Story Mining and Supply Company, and Tall Ship Productions are its production companies. The show is based on a series of novels by Diana Gabaldon.

Outlander is a hodgepodge of different narrative motifs. The show is primarily a fantastical series- incorporating elements of magic, religion, and time travel. It is also a historical drama covering the 18th century western world (Scotland, England, France, the Caribbean, and the United States). It’s a saga about medicine and technology. And, finally, it is a romantic story.

Let’s start with the latter (we’ll work backwards today). Imagine Beauty and the Beast but more risqué. Claire Randall is Belle, and Jamie is the “beast” (so to speak). In other words, the protagonist is a shrewd, intelligent, and beautiful young woman who tames a wild and dangerous, but good-hearted man. Tale as old as time…

Many of Outlander’s episodes are jam-packed with “love” scenes. A quick reminder, though, these protracted “love” scenes aren’t mild! They leave nothing to the imagination (we’ll put it that way). Outlander takes the female perspective. It adheres more to the chest-heaving, “bodice-ripping” type of romance than its more “macho” counterexamples. The following passage should give you a sense of the show’s type of “sexy atmosphere”:

The young, unmarried, corseted woman reads a poetic letter by candlelight [Her suitor is probably a big brawny warrior, pirate, or vampire.] The wax drips. The lady perspires. Her facial cheeks flush red. Her breathing intensifies. Every one of her suitor’s words jumps off the page, capturing her heart, body, mind, and soul and wholly seducing her. She’s never felt such an intense stirring of emotions!

I just made that up, but, yes, it’s the “Harlequin Romance” type story. Claire is caught in a trans-temporal love triangle that weighs deeply on her heart and soul. Later, Claire’s daughter, Brianna (Sophie Skelton), will join her family across the centuries and experience her own “trans-temporal” romance (unlike Jamie, though, Brianna’s love interest is from the present day).

As an aside, I caught up on Outlander during that topsy-turvy period we call the 2020-2021 Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. I temporarily resided with my parents for a few months, and we all watched a single episode each night. Yes…. yes…I know what you’re thinking…very awkward indeed! Every time Claire and Jamie locked eyes and the violins faded in, my father (who possesses a rather conservative temperament), scooped up his newspapers and excused himself. “Let me know when they’re finished” he’d request.

Outlander relishes in all its steamy, sexy, soft-core romance. But the show does transcend the run-of-the-mill erotica novel you may find at your local Walgreens. It places a very intense focus on the reality of women’s lives in the past. The show gives topics like the dangers/difficulties of menstruation, child-rearing, pregnancy, and natural birth a stronger spotlight. Families used to have nine or ten children because at least eight of them would likely die before reaching the age of 5 (and this was even the case for very wealthy families). Mothers died in childbirth far more frequently than they do today, and, given the “supernatural,” pre-scientific atmosphere that pervaded most of human history, people regarded women with far more contempt and/or superstition.

Claire is ferociously independent, practical, competent, compassionate, and emotionally outspoken. However, she is also vulnerable. The people she encounters in the 18th-century don’t appreciate her intelligence or forthrightness. Claire was a courageous, World War II battlefield nurse. She was there, with the boys, facing the bombs and bullets and blood. When she travels in time back several centuries, though, she experiences more of the classic paradigm that has characterized world history. People expect her to remain in the kitchen, sewing, mending socks, popping out children, and fainting at the sight of blood. They write off her “hysterical” outbursts as “typical female stuff” (so to speak). Remember that “hysterical” is derived from the Greek word “hysterikos” (literally: “of the womb”).

Claire also faces a more serious threat that persists (in real life) even to this day- sexual assault. Various rapacious predators- including “Blackjack” Randall- try to sexually assault her (as well as numerous other characters). Several major characters are victimized, but this is where the show takes something of a left turn. Not only is one of the victims/survivors the person you’d least expect, but (unlike some other TV programs) the showrunners place more of their attention on the victims/survivors (and their trauma and recovery) instead of the perpetrators.

When she isn’t dealing with conflicts of the heart or her sex, though, Claire is exercising her medicinal and caregiving skills.

Claire was born in October of 1918. She was baptized Catholic. When she was only five years old, her parents died in a car accident. Her uncle- an archaeologist and historian- adopted her and ferried her around the world. Claire visited various places, including Persia, Egypt, and South America, as a child. She learned many rudimentary skills- including how to make a fire and how to distinguish edible plants, berries, and fruits from poisonous ones. During World War II, she studied at Pembroke Hospital and became a senior nurse (supervising junior nurses and orderlies).

When she travels back in time, she brings all her practical skills and experiences with her. She then puts her modern knowledge to good use (hoping her skills will win over the people). In one incident, Mrs. Fitzgibbon’s grandson consumes “lily of the valley,” and he falls ill. The priest and townspeople believe that the boy is possessed and try to exorcise him. Claire, however, recognizes his symptoms and gives him belladonna to lower his blood pressure and restart his heart. Her impressive knowledge fascinates people, and so they keep her around as a useful “miracle healer.”

Claire uses garlic, witch hazel, comfrey, and cherry bark to treat Jamie’s painful shoulder wound. She knows that garlic is a powerful antiseptic, thyme can clean wounds, willow bark is a painkiller that contains salicylic acid, Carrageen Irish Moss can sooth an upset stomach, and St. John’s Wort can treat depression. Claire is deeply familiar with vaccinations, penicillin, and the germ theory of disease. In later seasons, she officially becomes a doctor. Then, when she travels back in time again, she becomes a “medical czar” of sorts. People turn to her when various outbreaks of smallpox, typhoid, and measles occur. Claire performs lifesaving, impromptu surgery on a theater attendee who suffers appendicitis, and she assists a group of nuns at a hospital in 18th-century Paris. When they reach the colonies, she establishes herself commercially as a Revolutionary War-era medicinal healer.

The world Claire travels to is unfamiliar with Edward Jenner’s 1796 invention of the vaccine.

While the various 18th-century characters appreciate Claire’s seemingly-superhuman medicinal skills, they also fear her. She elicits wariness in them. “Who is this Sassenach (“foreigner”)?” they think. “Is she a spy? Is she a witch?” Claire’s present-day (World War II-era) world is violent, tribalistic, and cruel, but on a much greater scale. The world she transports to is just as violent and cruel, but far more provincial and ignorant. Religion and superstition reign supreme. Claire is shocked at many of the practices she encounters (e.g., a priest nails a young boy’s ear to a pillory as punishment, a person leaves their baby alone in the woods when they think it’s a changeling, and witchcraft accusations crop up when women don’t “toe the line”).

An English officer whips a major character within an inch of his life, an indigenous group of people burns a man at the stake, and a ship’s captain pushes a young (allegedly typhoid-ridden) girl into the ocean. War is common. Slavery is common. Disease is common. Claire, Brianna, and Brianna’s eventual husband, Roger MacKenzie (Roy Burns), all must quickly adapt. The highways, automobiles, photographic cameras, telephones, and TV sets they were used to are no longer present.

Outlander’s history is one of its most compelling aspects. Despite its trans-continental narrative, the show primarily focuses on Scottish culture. The men wear kilts. The people form clans…fierce, territorial clans! People are very hardworking and frugal. The landscape is rocky, and the weather is extreme. Children are “bairns,” and beautiful people are “bonny.” When Jamie, Claire, and other members travel to North America, they settle in North Carolina, build a home on “Fraser’s Ridge,” and become involved in the American Revolution. Scottish emigrants primarily settled on the eastern coast of the American colonies (especially the interior, Appalachian regions).

Scotland

Outlander’s major historical flashpoint, though, is the Jacobite Uprising and Battle of Culloden of 1745. The Battle of Culloden was the last ever pitched battle fought on British soil—taking place on April 16, 17461. The Duke of Cumberland (son of King George II) led a well-supplied Hanoverian Government army against Charles Edward Stewart (the “Young Pretender”) and his forces1. This final confrontation was part of the Jacobite Uprising (an attempt to overthrow the House of Hanover and restore the House of Stuart)1. Charles marched his forces (6,000+ men) north and established a base at Inverness1. He ignored advice to launch a guerilla campaign and staged a defensive action instead (confronting the enemy at nearby Drummossie Moor)1.

Charles also ignored warnings about the rain-soaked terrain1. Cumberland’s artillery battered the Jacobite lines for the battle’s first half-hour (round-shots, then grape-shots)1. Charles and his men then charged the enemy1. The ground was still boggy1. By the time the Scottish Highlanders reached the Government lines, bloody hand-to-hand combat ensued1. The Redcoats bayoneted the men’s exposed sides, and the Highlanders finally broke and fled (the whole battle lasted less than an hour)1. The Government forces tracked, hunted down, and killed the Jacobites who escaped (Charles managed to evade capture long enough to reach France)1.

Finally, we return to the fantastical motif that governs Outlander- time travel. Time travel in this universe doesn’t occur because of technological innovations. The characters don’t decipher some Einsteinian equation or create a wormhole. Time travel in the world of Outlander is magical. It’s inexplicable and non-computational. There are no panels or calibration devices. The characters pass through the stones with no reassurance that they’ll ever return. Gabaldon was undoubtedly creating a strong thematic link between time travel and love when she wrote her novels. Like time travel in the world of Outlander, true love is a “leap of faith” that transcends time and space, and its source isn’t science or technology but magic!

SOURCES

[1] The Battle of Culloden, 1746 (historic-uk.com)

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