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By yon bonnie banks, and by yon bonnie braes: Starz’s daring OUTLANDER

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First of all, I must admit that I have never read any of the books in the Diana Gabaldon Outlander series, so any reviews I write will be based strictly on the Starz adaptation, and no comparison with the books will be attempted. There are always fans of the books who don’t like the series and vice versa, as HBO’s TrueBlood, adapted from Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse Southern Vampire novels demonstrate. I watched that series without ever reading the books, and given that the first novel in the Outlander series weighs in at a hefty 800+ pages, I don’t think I’ll be able to finish it before the series continues. From the first episode, however, I have to say that Starz is taking an incredibly bold and daring step for a premium channel: making a series that seems devoted primarily, if not entirely, to female viewers.

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I have to say that I find the entire concept of Outlander interesting, especially since I wasn’t aware until recently that so many Romance novels included time-travel (would that be fantasy or science fiction?) in their themes. Since I’m familiar with the tremendously well written and interesting Lesson series by Jennifer Connors, I was happy to give Outlander a hearty go.

In the Connors’ series, the romance-mocking heroine time-travels at the end of each novel — once she and the hero of the book in question have fallen in love and married or otherwise joined their lives together — only to find herself in a completely different time period facing yet another hero which requires her wit and adaptability, and tests her courage, independence, and modern 21st century feminism. From the photos released by Starz, it looks like Outlander will only be set in two periods: post-war 1945 and 1740s, but both locales seem to be the same, the Scottish Highlands.

Still, given that Claire is a nurse during the war with recognized skills, and given her droll sense of humor whenever she seemingly playfully mocks her husband Frank’s interest in his own geneology, Claire seemed the right kind of heroine to make a time-travel romance fascinating, especially since the novel is sometimes listed as an historical drama, and I like history.

The premise is simple enough, and the voice-over of the opening of the first episode was compelling:

People disappear all the time. Ask any policeman. Better yet, ask a journalist. Disappearances are bread-and-butter to journalists. Young girls run away from home. Young children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives reach the end of their tether and take the grocery money and a taxi to the station. International financiers change their names and vanish into the smoke of imported cigars. Many of the lost will be found eventually, dead or alive. Disappearances, after all, have explanations. Usually.

(This is from the Starz Tie-in version of the novel, and may have been added since the original book doesn’t appear to have this “prologue”.)

Claire and her husband Frank, separated for at least five years because of the War, have gone on a “second honeymoon” to the Scottish Highlands to “reconnect” (and so Frank can research his direct ancestor John “Black Jack” Randall, a politically protected British military leader who attempted to quell Scottish uprisings: Tobias Menzies plays both Frank, in 1945, and Black Jack, in the 1740s).

Both readers and reviewers have commented on the “hot sex” in Outlander. Not having read the books, I cannot speak to their content, but I’m afraid I saw no “hot sex” in the opening episode, though Claire constantly claims that “Sex was our bridge back to one another… As long as we had that, I had faith that everything would work out.” Though there was the obligatory complete nudity for Caitriona Balfe but not for any of the males, I didn’t find the bedroom scenes between Frank and Claire even mildly erotic. And Claire’s voice-over made them seem forced. One shouldn’t have to tell viewers they’re watching an erotic scene: they should know that.

In fact, the scene when the couple visits the ancient, abandoned castle and Claire sits on a table, spreading her legs slightly with a “come hither” look to her husband Frank was more erotic than any of the full-nudity-for-her/shirt-off-for-him scenes. When Tobias Menzies, who has a very sexy voice, by the way, as Frank, put his hand up his wife’s dress, between her legs, and matter-of-factly commented, “Why, Mrs. Randall, you seem to have left your undergarments at home,” before kneeling before her… that was erotic.

But it disturbs me that Claire doesn’t seem to take Frank’s interests seriously, especially as he investigates his own family history in the Highlands or tells her some of the history of the places they’re visiting. She almost seems to mock him at times — I thought I even caught some eye-rolling on her part — so I began to wonder why exactly they had to “reconnect” after the War. I wondered if the reason they needed to “reconnect” had to do with something other than their only seeing each other 10 days in the past five years.

In any event, I pushed those faint disturbances aside as I continued watching the episode. The scene where Frank and Claire spy on the women re-enacting an ancient Druid rite at a Henge of stones was exotic and lyrical. The choreography and music were haunting and effective. In this scene, as in the opening, Claire’s voice-over also worked well: “I had a feeling I didn’t belong there.”

Unfortunately, it was also at that moment, I knew my boyfriend would never be watching Outlander with me. The Henge dance was basically a lovely and haunting Celtic ballet, and as much as I liked it and found it moving, I knew that had he been there to see it, that’s the time he would’ve picked up a book and started reading. (Like the Emperor Franz Josef in Milos Forman’s Amadeus, who “doesn’t like ballet in his opera,” my boyfriend doesn’t like “ballet” in anything, but especially not in historical dramas, which he loves.)

Yes, Starz is being very daring, attempting to make a series for a predominantly female audience. But I’m female, and I find that kind of gender-specific genre drama rather dull. Still, I have my fingers crossed. The series is based on a set of best-selling novels, and how could more than “25 million readers” be wrong?

When Claire returns to the Henge, ostensibly to gather a flower, and touches the center stone, she is inexplicably transported back in time to the same place, circa 1740s. When she regains consciousness, she is in the past, confronting both Black Jack, whom she first mistakes for her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies in a dual role), and a small group of Scottish Highlanders, among them Jamie (Sam Heughan). As the prettiest person in the series, the only male in the past with relatively short hair and virtually no beard, I quickly gathered that he will become Claire’s love interest and/or conflict in the past.

In fact, virtually all the images available for Outlander involve Claire and Jamie, or Claire and the 1740s Scots, not even the British Black Jack, so I assume that will be the focus of the show. I’ve heard that it’s historically accurate and well-researched, and I hope that’s true because I love a good historical drama, like Starz’s Spartacus where, though we know little about the major real-life players, a brilliant drama was constructed around the basic facts of their lives.

Caitriona Balfe as Claire & Tobias Menzies as husband Frank (L), Sam Heughan as Jaime and Balfe as transported Claire (R)

Caitriona Balfe as Claire & Tobias Menzies as husband Frank (L), Sam Heughan as Jamie and Balfe as transported Claire (R)

There were many things I liked about the first episode of Outlander. Frank is an interesting, intelligent, smart, complex man. Claire was a nurse, and a competent enough one that, in the War scene, I thought she was a doctor and almost whooped for joy. Still, she knows enough to help the wounded Jamie after she’s time-transported to the past, and she has a nice cursing vocabulary on her: one that astonishes the Scots, who claim they’ve never heard a woman talk like her before. I like that in a woman.

Claire seems also more sensitive to the energy of the Henge — the earth, the Universe, whatever — than her husband Frank. After the dance, he, too, touches the center stone, but then starts jotting notes in his little tablet. (She touches it later, when she returns alone, and is jolted out of her present life into the past.) She’s not afraid to speak her mind, even when surrounded by male strangers who look quite the ruffians. She uses her medical knowledge to gain their trust. When she uses the historical knowledge about British ambushes that she gained from Frank, she earns a bit of trust from the Scots but also makes them wary. They suspect she may be a spy. She quickly learns when to be “seen and not heard.”

The foreshadowing in the series is subtle but effective. Frank tells her he kept drawing the lines of her palm during the War — he doesn’t know why — then the Reverend’s wife or housekeeper reads Claire’s palm and comments that the lines are unusual, connecting the two scenes. I hope the lines of her palm, which are repeatedly described as unusual or memorable, will have something to do with her survival in the past as well as with her return to the present. Or at least with the Henge stones and why she was transported when she touched them, but Frank wasn’t when he did. I’ll just have to wait and see, as will anyone who’s not read the novels.

Claire’s not the typical romance novel heroine in terms of her looks, and I admire that. These days, it seems almost obligatory that the heroine have raven hair, green eyes, and a buxom figure, no matter where or when the novel’s set, and it’s refreshing to have a dark-haired, dark-eyed actress, with a sometimes pout but an otherwise ordinary face, and quite a thin body (too thin, in my humble opinion) playing the lead role. Caitriona’s Claire is tall, feisty, and pouty. I like those qualities so far. She’s smart and takes command whenever there’s a situation that requires her knowledge or skills to save someone or to prevent slaughter. I like that, too. Most of the men, including her husband Frank, seem taciturn so far, while she’s the articulate one. I really like that, and just hope it doesn’t become a cliché — with all the men being sort of brutish, brainless hulks with only nice bodies and good fighting skills.

The Scots are protective of her — they prevent her being raped by Black Jack, and the clan leader won’t condone “rape” when the men suggest “testing” to see if she’s a whore; then the man who saved her from Black Jack ventures his opinion that she’s “no whore.” Even though, curiously, the Scots don’t question her anachronistic hairstyle, dress, shoes, jewelry, or (slight) makeup; and even though they fear she may be a British spy, they still defend her honor and her body. And they instantly obey her whenever she goes into her “Nurse” role, so they accept, without question, that she has more knowledge of some things than they, simply from the tone of her voice. That makes me like the male characters so far.

Alas, however, I won’t be able to share Outlander with my boyfriend. Despite the fact that rifles and pistols, swords and knives, running and chasing, shooting and potential violence abounds, he’s declined to watch any of the repeat showings. He said he “read what it was about” in the description. That is not a good sign. I attempted to tell him some of the things that happened in the premiere episode. He looked blank and more than mildly bored. It doesn’t look like he’ll even give Outlander a chance. He wouldn’t even watch the Outlander trailer.

That’s quite a risk for Starz, doing a show that seems aimed primarily at a female audience, because many females, like me and all my educated, career-women friends, don’t necessarily like gender-specific fiction. I like all kinds of fiction, as do they. I like history. And I wouldn’t like to see Outlander degenerate into a formulaic romance where a woman who, for some unspecified reason, has fallen out of love with her husband, whom I found to be the most intellectually and physically attractive man in the show, to fall in love with a man from the past just because he’s pretty and brawny and rides a horse and has a Scottish accent and speaks Gaelic.

If you missed the first episode last Saturday, and haven’t caught any of the reruns, Starz has it available on its website free of charge: you don’t have to be a Starz subscriber to watch the premiere episode of Outlander. It airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET.

Meanwhile, I’m keeping my fingers crossed, and hoping Outlander, despite some of my misgivings from the first episode, becomes more of a Starz Spartacus historical drama than a Lifetime femme-in-jep movie of the week.

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What if Shakespeare Had a Sister Who’d Written His Plays?

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250px-Shakespeare

“Excuse me?” I said. “Could you say that again?”

The seventeen-year-old high-school-senior son of my best friend sighed.

Loudly.

“What would have happened if Hamlet had killed his Uncle Claudius after the Ghost of Hamlet’s father told Hamlet that Claudius had killed Hamlet’s father and married his mother?” said Andrew.

“Your English teacher gave you that as an essay exam?”

“Right, and I just don’t understand how I’m supposed to answer that question,” he said.

“You see why I told him to call you?” said my best friend Rebecca, on the extension. “You’re the Shakespeare expert, not me.”

“That’s your essay-exam question?” I said.

“Right,” said her son. “And it doesn’t make any sense to me.”

“Did you read the play?”

“We read it, discussed it, and saw the movie.”

“Then you know Hamlet doesn’t kill his Uncle Claudius in Act 1, Scene 1.”

“Of course, I know that,” said Andrew. “He doesn’t kill him till the end of the play.”

“Then your answer is, ‘If Hamlet had killed his Uncle Claudius after the Ghost of Hamlet’s father told Hamlet that Claudius had killed Hamlet’s father, we’d have no play’.”

Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet ©

On the extension, my friend started laughing. She said she was going to leave the remainder of the conversation to us and hung up.

Her son was not laughing.

He was sincerely distressed.

“I can’t write, ‘there’d be no play’,” he said. “I’ll get an F.”

“You can write whatever you want,” I said, “because it’s such a stupid question that even people who’ve never read the play can answer it any way they want to and still get an A. Because there will be no wrong answers.”

There was silence on the other end of the phone.

Hamlet is interesting because we want to know why Hamlet doesn’t kill his Uncle after the ghost of his father tells him that his Uncle Claudius murdered him and married Hamlet’s mother to become King himself,” I told my friend’s son. “We want to know why Hamlet doesn’t kill Claudius after he acts guilty seeing a re-enactment of the actual murder in a play written by Hamlet to ‘catch the conscience of the King’. Why Hamlet doesn’t kill Claudius after he catches his Uncle alone at his prayers. Why Hamlet doesn’t kill Claudius after he finds a letter on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern instructing the King of England to kill Hamlet for Claudius so that Hamlet, who is the heir-apparent, cannot ever become King of Denmark. Why, in fact, Hamlet doesn’t kill Claudius until the very last act of the play and then only after Claudius accidentally kills Hamlet’s mother when she drinks the poison intended for Hamlet, and Laertes, who’s challenged Hamlet to a sword-fight, tells Hamlet that he’s been poisoned with the tip of Laertes’ sword by Claudius’ order.”

“So, I was right,” said Andrew, “it is a stupid question.”

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet ©

It’s more than a stupid question for a literature class.

It’s the typical inane “What-If School of Life” question.

What if the dog hadn’t stopped to take a nap while he was racing the hare? What if Julius Caesar hadn’t been killed by the Senators? What if Cleopatra hadn’t deserted Marc Antony and he’d won the last of the Roman Civil Wars? What if the British had won the Revolutionary War? What if the South had won our own Civil War? What if Kennedy had not been assassinated? What if Helen Keller had not caught the disease that made her deaf, dumb, and blind?

All of these questions are totally pointless. Because, as we know, these things did happen, and it is more important to understand why they did happen than to discuss some alternative history or fantasy story that did not occur.

Still, it amazes me the number of people who constantly do this. Not just literature teachers who don’t know anything about analyzing literature, or students who haven’t read the assigned literature but want to talk a lot so they’ll get a good grade. Not just historians or supposed history buffs, either.

Reporters and talk-show hosts do it: What if country singer Dolly Parton hadn’t grown up poor? What if serial killer Ted Bundy hadn’t escaped twice and had been caught sooner? What if FEMA had sent money and trailers to the victims of Hurricane Katrina sooner? What if SuperStorm Sandy had missed New Jersey completely?

Sports announcers do it: What if the receiver had caught the quarterback’s pass? What if the quarterback’s pass hadn’t been intercepted? What if the basketball player had made that last-minute 3-point-basket and won the game? What if the game hadn’t gone into overtime? What if professional cyclist Lance Armstrong’s teammates had never revealed that he illegally doped while winning all those Tour de France races?

In fact, virtually everyone who has nothing important to say about what did, indeed, happen, does it. Sometimes, I think they do it just to hear themselves talk. The problem is, they’re not saying anything interesting.

Mainly because, whether in literature or history or another event in life, those things did happen. So why do they want to discuss fantasy topics when the actual events are so much more pertinent?

I honestly do not know.

My friend Rebecca and I were once teaching Literature for a Saturday Classics Program at a well known and respected University where adult students who had dropped out of college when they were younger did intensive coursework all day long every Saturday for two-three years to finish their college degrees. The literature component was designed so that professors from different fields taught the same work each week from their own perspectives and backgrounds. An anthropology professor discussed the work during the first class of the day, a sociology professor during the next class, a psychology professor during the third class, Rebecca and I during the fourth and fifth classes – as the literature professors.

We thought it was an intriguing approach, though Rebecca and I combined our 2 two-hour sessions into 1 four-hour afternoon session since we were both literature professors and wanted the students to lead the discussions themselves. It’s the only way we had ever thought of to ensure that students would actually read the work: make the students themselves lead the discussion for the entire period at least once during the quarter, and grade the rest of the class on their participation in the discussion every single time.

No essays. Just discussion. On the assigned topic. We did it with our college students at our respective universities, who were only 18-22-years-old. We could certainly do the same thing with adult students who, being more mature and having more life experience, would, theoretically, bring even more insight into the literature.

We thought the entire approach to the Classics Program was unique, and it worked well.

Until we got to King Lear.

Geoffrey Rush as Lear, 2016 ©

The first question the student Discussion Leaders asked when they got to our literary analysis component of the program that week was this one: “What if King Lear hadn’t divided his kingdom in Act 1 Scene 1 and told his three daughters that he’d give the largest part of the kingdom to the daughter who said she loved him the most?”

Rebecca, with wide eyes, glanced over at me just a moment before I interrupted the Leaders.

“And what if Shakespeare had a sister who’d actually written the plays?” I said.

The students stared at me, obviously confused.

“That’s an example of how irrelevant your question is because King Lear does divide his kingdom,” I said. “Go on to your next question.”

The Leaders huddled together, whispering, shuffling their papers, flipping through the pages of the play. The rest of the class moved restlessly.

“Go on to your next question,” I said. “Any question. From any part of the play. You don’t have to start with the beginning.”

After several more minutes of whispering and hesitation, one of the Discussion Leaders finally spoke up.

“What if King Lear’s daughter Cordelia hadn’t died?”

“She does die,” I said. “Go on to a legitimate question.”

“What if Cordelia had said she loved her father the way he wanted her to?” said the other leader.

“She doesn’t,” I said. “What are you guys doing? You’ve already been discussing King Lear all day. Talk about anything that hasn’t been answered to your satisfaction so far.”

Derek Jacobi, as Lear and Pippa Bennett-Warner as Cordelia ©

Everyone in the class suddenly became obsessed with their copies of the play, turning pages, apparently taking notes, silent. Silent. Silent. Rebecca and I looked at each other. We both instantly and intuitively knew what was wrong.

“How many of you have not read King Lear ?” I said, and, to our dismay and horror, every hand in the class eventually went up.

“What have you been discussing for the last six hours today?” said Rebecca.

“In Don’s [the anthropologist’s] class, we spent the first hour going around the room telling how our week went…”

“Just today?”

“No, we do that every week.”

“And the second hour of Don’s class?”

“We talk about how our classes are going.”

“What about in Lowell’s [the sociology professor’s] class?” said Rebecca.

“We talk about current events.”

“But this is the Classics Program,” I said. “You’re supposed to be discussing the assigned literature from different perspectives.”

Silence.

“What do you discuss in Allen’s [the psychology professor’s] class?” said Rebecca.

“How we feel about school,” said one of the students. “As adults.”

“And how we felt about college when we were younger and why we never completed our degrees…”

You get the picture.

Pete Postlethwaite as Lear ©

I told them to start reading King Lear. I didn’t raise my voice, but my displeasure was clear. While they read, Rebecca and I redid the syllabus for our part of the Classics Program, for the remainder of the quarter. They would be discussing King Lear next week. The week following that, we would divide the class period in half, with two hours about one work, and two hours about the other, so that they would remain on schedule with the other teachers and the assigned literature in the program. When we passed out the revised syllabus, the students looked glum.

As soon as we dismissed class that day, all the students went straight to Don, Lowell, and Allen: To complain that we were “forcing” them to read King Lear.

Don, who had originally designed the program, called me and Rebecca in, protesting our approach. We politely but firmly protested his “What-If” approach as unprofessional, un-academic, and unacceptable. Don insisted that we let the students discuss whatever they wanted to discuss.

We offered our immediate resignations.

Don, Lowell, and Allen were all horrified. They wanted us to let the students discuss anything they wanted — except the literature, apparently, but they didn’t want us to resign. Rebecca and I insisted that they could teach the literature themselves since they were going to permit the students to discuss everything but the literature in question. That was when we learned that none of the other three professors had read the literature. Any of it. All quarter long.

And that, plain and simple, was the reason they constantly asked the students “What-If” questions that didn’t have anything to do with what had occurred in the literature, or asked them about things that had to do with their personal lives or with world events every week.

Don Warrington as Lear ©

Though the students had protested when Rebecca and I changed the syllabus, they discovered that they liked King Lear after they read it. They wanted to discuss the play itself and the characters’ motivations. Same thing happened when we got to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The rest of the quarter, the students began insisting that Don, Lowell, and Allen discuss the literature from the anthropological, sociological, and psychological perspectives — as the Classics Program had been designed. Don, Lowell, and Allen were very unhappy.

The students, however, thrived. They became excited about the works they were reading. They understood why the Classics had interested people for so many centuries. They liked literature, many of them for the first time in their lives. Quite a few of them even switched their majors. To Literature.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet ©

And what happened to Rebecca’s son Andrew with his essay-exam question about Hamlet ?

He wrote an essay on his interpretation of why Hamlet did not kill his Uncle Claudius after the Ghost of Hamlet’s father informed Hamlet of Claudius’ murder in order to become King.

Andrew’s teacher was so impressed that she read his essay aloud to the rest of the class, gave him an A+/100%, and re-assigned it to the rest of the class, asking them to come up with their own interpretations — supported by the play, of course — about why Hamlet did not kill his Uncle upon learning the truth of his father’s murder.

Andrew was happy and proud. The teacher never gave that kind of assignment again. The students were annoyed at first: they had to write a second essay, and some of them, no doubt, had not read the play – only watched the film. But Andrew reported that the same thing happened in his class that had occurred in the Classics Program: the students began to like the literature, to discuss it heatedly and in an informed manner, and to continue their discussions during lunch and after school.

Now that’s the kind of intellectual discussions that I find fascinating.

No matter the topic.

Not the What-If-This-Had-Never-Happened kind of discussion.

Why talk about those things when the “why did this, in fact, happen, and what were the consequences of its happening?” talks are more intriguing?

As the narrator says in the film version of Jane Austen’s classic Mansfield Park, “It could have all turned out differently, I suppose, but it didn’t.”

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updated August 2017

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