Ever since Battlestar Galactica went off the air, we’ve been waiting to see what series creator Ron Moore would do next. After a few false starts, he finally claimed a new series as his own: Outlander, a fantasy romance that on its surface couldn’t be more unlike Battlestar. But the two shows have a lot in common.
Though the weird and lackluster conclusion to Battlestar left a lot of Moore fans outraged, it’s undeniable that the show at its best was one of the greatest space operas ever made. The pacing could be intense; the characters were complicated and memorable; and the worldbuilding was fascinating. It had political intrigue and space battles with cyborgs. People who had never watched science fiction before became obsessed with Battlestar. So we had good reason to look forward to whatever Moore would do next.
But Outlander? Why would a guy who loves outer space suddenly go deep inside the world of a time traveling nurse who falls through an enchanted time portal into early-eighteenth century Scotland ... only to fall in love with a Highlander? I’ll tell you why. It plays to all his strengths as a creator. Plus, it’s based on a series of beloved, bestselling novels by Diana Gabaldon. So hopefully we don’t have to worry about Moore leading us to a bizarro conclusion to the series, since the novels have already mapped out a plot arc that is pretty satisfying.
The Cylons and the Redcoats
The political backdrop to both Battlestar and Outlander share a lot of things in common. Both are set in a world ravaged by war, and both involve hardscrabble survivors trying to mount a resistance against a powerful, implacable enemy. In Outlander, our hero Claire finds herself transported back to the Scottish highlands in the midst of ongoing tensions between the British occupying army of Redcoats and the Catholic highlander clans. The highlanders support the Jacobites fighting to restore the Stuarts to the British throne.
But there is a complicated backstory, because at one time the highlanders were supported by the British throne. It’s only when the Brits went Protestant again, on top of continuing to colonize Ireland and Scotland, that fighting began in earnest.
In Battlestar, the humans are fighting the cylons — a group that was once enslaved and now is most decidedly at the top of the intelligent monkey food chain. I’m not saying that there’s a simple cylons=Redcoats equation here, because there isn’t. But what’s clear is that Moore enjoys working with a rich political background to his stories, which allows his characters to be torn apart by conflicting loyalties.
One of the most enjoyable parts of Outlander is deciphering the political motivations of all our characters. The story really heats up as soon as politics enter the picture. Especially because our main characters are a part of a small, besieged group whose whole way of life is being destroyed. In Battlestar, we watched the humans try to cling to their humanity; in Outlander we watch the highlanders try to maintain the traditional clan way of life.
The “Opera” Part of the Space Opera
Battlestar Galactica was a space opera, which usually summons to mind vast battles with loads of ships shooting at each other. But the “opera” part, full of tragic romance and family melodrama, is just as important. Battlestar was riveting because the Adama family was flawed and real. Colonel Tigh was a drunk. Starbuck was a crack pilot and a war hero, but she was also emotionally broken. Even the cylons yearned for true love.
I think one of the boldest moves that Moore made in choosing Outlander is that there’s no hiding that one of the main pleasures in the story is Claire’s love life. She’s torn between her husband Frank, searching desperately for her in the 1940s, and her new love Jamie, the highlander who marries her to protect her from the Redcoats. Claire tells us explicitly how both men are fantastic in bed (and we are spared no detail of this, in several steamy scenes). What pulls us through the story is her romantic conflict, tinged always by the wars that have shaped her life, both in World War II and now in the past.
It was easy, watching Battlestar, to say you were in it for the war story. But the show never shied away from foregrounding characters’ emotional connections to each other. The seriously disturbing hate-fuck relationship between Baltar and Six was threaded through the whole show — not to mention the drama between Starbuck and Adama, and between Eight and Helo. Battlestar was romantic melodrama set in a science fictional universe.
Outlander is a romance that’s full of competence porn, a trope beloved of science fiction fans. Claire is hyper-competent, always using her medical knowledge to do things like cure diseases with plants and put her enemies to sleep with soporifics. She’s basically your classic science fiction hero, always figuring things out using logic, even when all hope seems lost.
Ultimately, both shows resist easy genre classification. That’s a recipe that made Battlestar break out of the Syfy Channel ghetto. The question with Outlander is whether it will attract non-romance audiences the way Battlestar attracted non-science fiction ones.
The Sumptuous, Crazy-Detailed Worldbuilding
Here is a classic moment from Outlander. Claire and Jaime have had their wedding, and the celebration is over. To establish the mood, we get a shot of the abandoned feast tables, full of discarded plates, overturned scotch glasses, and gnawed bones. A cat is on the table, chewing on the leftovers. But it’s not just a cat. Somebody actually moussed this kitty’s fur to make it look mangy and dirty, like a real castle cat in the 1740s. Same goes for our characters — nobody is ever spotlessly clean with perfect hair (well, except Claire, but more on that in a minute). Even at Claire and Jaime’s wedding, people’s clothing looks dirty and worn, their hair stringy with grease.
Similarly, Battlestar Galactica was always impeccably, obsessive-compulsively designed. Everything from the shape of the crew’s notepads, to their uniforms and ships, felt like it came from another world. And the political worldbuilding was just as detailed. There is no unified “human culture” vs. a unified “cylon menace.” There are many human groups, many at odds with one another, whose socio-economic conflicts are as threatening as any cylon sleeper agent. And the cylons are also in conflict over how to deal with the humans.
This isn’t Star Wars, with its simple “us vs. the dark side” politics. It’s gritty and ambiguous, just like real war. Similarly, Outlander never lets us forget that the conflict between Scot and Brit in the show is a tangled mess. Claire herself has a moment of cognitive dissonance when she realizes the British Army, long her allies in World War II, are her enemies in 1743. (Making things even weirder is the fact that Frank’s sadistic ancestor Black Jack leads the local Redcoats, and is played by the same actor.)
That said, both shows also deliver a lot of cosplay eyecandy for its own sake. The cylons in Battlestar were basically fetishes for every kind of outfit junkie, whether you prefer teeny red dresses or tomboy coveralls. And don’t even get me started on the tartan fetish situation that’s developing on Outlander. Claire is always wearing a ridiculously awesome dress, complete with obligatory tartan bits and wool shrugs and fingerless gloves and all kinds of period goodies. And the guys in kilts? Totally there for you to ogle.
Moore loves his costumes, and is willing to bend the rules of worldbuilding to make sure you are having spicy dreams about the Highlands (or the planet Caprica) tonight. Still, Outlander does make a nod to the fact that Claire’s cleanliness stands out. At one point, her servant remarks that her skin is shockingly free of pockmarks. Having grown up with twentieth century medicine, Claire has the most beautiful skin anyone has ever seen.
All these ingredients — the intense characters, the detailed worldbuilding, and the fascinating political backstory — make Battlestar and Outlander incredibly addictive shows. It’s not just that you want to know what will happen next. It’s that you want to be re-immersed in the intricate worlds that Moore has created in both.
Maybe this is why Moore is often toying with themes related to virtual reality in his work. He’s trying for a completely immersive experience in these series, by giving our imaginations a world to play in that feels incredibly real. That’s the secret of what makes these shows so addictive. It’s why Portlandia did that parody of the couple who can’t stop watching Battlestar, and why we’re all feeling homesick for Claire’s adventures in the Highlands while we wait for Outlander to resume in April.
Outlander may be a different genre than Battlestar, but I’d argue that it’s a very similar experience. Dive in and find out.