Unexpected time travel is one of the more fascinating motifs in science fiction. While many time-travel stories have time machines and other mechanisms that allow a person to maneuver through the past or future, the most exciting ones are when the characters have zero control. They either fall into a mysterious holeare born with an erratic genetic abilityor unknowingly come into contact with an ancient time portal.
Falling through time aptly describes the impetus for one of the most famous time-travel stories of the last three decades. First capturing the hearts in 1991, Diana Gabaldon’s sci-fi / fantasy book series gave readers a star-crossed (time-crossed?) Romance for the ages. It would eventually earn an ardent fanbase and get the attention of Hollywood – specifically Battlestar Galactica producer Ronald D. Moore.
Since premiering in 2014 on Starz, Moore’s TV adaptation of Outlander has only increased its fan following. The series has become one of the cable network’s most popular shows ever, partly aided by the fact that Outlander is also available to stream on Netflix. With Season 5 dropping on the streaming giant this week, there’s no better time to catch up on the best time-travel epic on TV.
THE RULES OF TIME TRAVEL is an Inverse special issue exploring the evolution of science fiction’s most imaginative sub-genre. From Marty McFly to Avengers: Endgame.
Outlander begins in 1945, following Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), a former British army nurse, on a belated honeymoon trip to Scotland with her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies). As Claire plays tourist and explores the area, she encounters the standing stones at Craigh na Dun. Hearing them call out to her, she touches one of the stones, and it suddenly thrusts her two centuries into the past.
Now in 1743, Claire immediately finds herself in dangerous territory, with political tensions rising between Scotland and England. She runs into Captain Jack Randall, a British officer identical to her husband di lei (also played by Tobias Menzies) in looks but not demeanor. She is eventually saved from the villainous Jack and taken in by a Scottish clan. That’s how she meets Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), and their love story slowly but surely begins.
While Claire and Jamie’s romance is a significant part of Outlander, the series expands further in scope after its first season. Once Claire tells Jamie that she traveled from the future (and he believes her), the two unite on a path to test the limits of time. With Claire’s knowledge of what’s come in the 1740s – in this case, the Battle of Culloden – the couple try to change the course of history. This is Outlander at its most riveting when it fully leans into the ideas and mysteries of Claire’s time-travel ability.
As the series progresses, the time-travel rules of Outlander become a little clearer but also more complex. As is (and should be) the case with time travel, manipulating time isn’t easy. Time travel in Outlander requires a series of conditions to be in place – which I won’t spoil here – for it to be possible. And even then, it doesn’t always go as planned. It sustains the show’s high narrative stakes, as time travel is less a solution and more of a problem.
But beyond the actual time travel, the series also finds clever and poignant ways to marry Claire’s past and present together. Sometimes, Outlander’s sci-fi concepts get lost amid the show’s growing ensemble of characters and subplots, but then an episode will drop a fantasy sequence where time merges together, and we remember that this isn’t just a richly told historical drama – there’s magic to it, too.
Outlander comes from a nine-book series, with another installment on the way. Considering Season 6 just wrapped on Starz and Season 7 is in production, there is plenty of Claire and Jamie’s story left to tell. And that includes even more time-travel mysteries that will complicate their lives in unexpected ways.
Their journey isn’t always pleasant (expect Season 5 to be a particularly rough one to get through), but the spirit of the show truly lies in how well-developed Claire and Jamie are. As fantastic and gripping as the sci-fi is, it’s the characters who draw you in and make you feel like you, too, have fallen through time.
Outlander Seasons 1 – 4 are streaming on Netflix, with Season 5 arriving on May 10.
Season 6 is available to watch on Starz.