Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan in a scene from the TV series Outlander
Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan in a scene from the TV series Outlander Nick Briggs

What's the secret to Outlander's success?

WHAT exactly is the appeal of cult TV show Outlander?

In the US the first season, adapted by Battlestar Galactica creator Ronald D Moore from a series of best-selling novels by Diana Gabaldon, was praised for its "lively, rich and emotionally satisfying" plotlines and hailed as "the feminist answer to Game of Thrones".

In reality, Outlander owes its success to something altogether more primal: as Orange is the New Black's Taystee memorably announced when pushing the book on her friend Poussey last season: "Yo, it's hot".

Essentially, Outlander is the tale of Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), a nurse in the recently-ended Second World War who travels to Scotland for her honeymoon and, thanks to an encounter with a set of ancient standing stones, ends up travelling back in time to 1743 - two years before the second Jacobite rising. Adventure, trauma and a grand love affair ensue.

So far, so ludicrous, but Outlander exerts a mysterious pull, both in book and television form.

From left, Graham McTavish, Bill Paterson, Caitriona Balfe, Duncan Lacroix and Sam Heughan in Outlander.
From left, Graham McTavish, Bill Paterson, Caitriona Balfe, Duncan Lacroix and Sam Heughan in Outlander. Neil Davidson

In part that's because it's so unapologetic about the nature of lust. It's clear from the start that Claire is more experienced than Jamie, her young Highland beau; this upends conventions, giving us a relationship in which the heroine openly ogles the hero. (As does the audience - it won't be long before Sam Heughan's bum has its own Tumblr.)

Yet while this very frank and very female gaze is undeniably fun, Outlander is more than a bit of Highland slap and tickle.

Gabaldon's books are incredibly well-researched and Moore has ensured that he hews close to them (Gabaldon was also a consultant on the show); thus viewers are instantly pitched into a vividly realised world full of believable, well-drawn characters.

Moore also has enough patience to take time setting out his story, recognising that if the emotional payouts later are to have any heft, then viewers must be fully immersed in the world in which they happen.

It helps too that Claire is no passive plaything, but a frank, funny woman with a keen sense of survival and a sharp mind.

Meanwhile, Jamie might be a respected warrior but he is also solicitous, largely ego-free and in touch with his emotional side. It's a neat switch in which the hero is a virgin, often in danger, while the more experienced leading lady hitches up her skirts and rides to the rescue.

Caitriona Balfe and Sam Hueghan in a scene from Outlander
Caitriona Balfe and Sam Hueghan in a scene from Outlander Ed Miller

Most importantly, Outlander doesn't shy away from the darker elements of Gabaldon's tale. Claire might be riding around Scotland with a bunch of hot Highlanders, but the show makes it clear that this is not an easy place for anyone to survive, particularly a woman.

Even the things that work in Claire's favour, such as her knowledge of medicine, can be used against her - why, queries one clan member, does she have this knowledge? The unspoken threat of accusations of witchcraft hangs heavy in the air.

And that ultimately is the key to Outlander's success: yes, it's a time-travelling, wish-fulfilment fantasy but it's done with such flair and attention to detail that it's impossible not to hop on board for the ride.

Outlander's mid-season return airs tomorrow at 7.30pm on SoHo.


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