At first glance the Starz series Foreigner resembles light-hearted historical romance. The protagonist, Claire Beauchamp, stands in a dramatic landscape in 18th century dress and her hair fluttering in a Scottish breeze. The protagonist of the series, Jamie Fraser, has long curly red hair and a kilt that somehow suggests both pragmatic permanence and easy access.
Those first impressions aren’t bad, exactly. The most of Foreigner is set in 18th century Scotland (and France in the upcoming second season). Claire is increasingly interested in taking advantage of Jamie Fraser’s compliant kilt. But Foreigner is not just a great, detailed and compelling historical romance. It is also Ron Moore’s first hit series since then Battlestar Galactica.
While it may seem like a departure point, Moore has weaved science fiction into the series, a time travel story whose setting in the 18th century Scottish highlands offers an intriguing alternate history. That first impression of a historical romance is really just one facet of a series that, like the Diana Gabaldon book series it’s based on, is a wacky and appealing genre mashup. Foreigner somehow brings together time travel and alternate history with romance, psychological suspense and political drama.
Claire steps through an ancient stone circle in post-World War II Scotland, the time of her birth, and wakes up in 1743, unsure of what happened or how to get back. The first season gradually develops its criss-crossing time-bound mysteries, which become even more intriguing when we discover that Claire isn’t the only woman who has traveled through time. At the same time, Claire becomes embroiled in Scottish politics, an impenetrable web of conflicting loyalties of the Highlander clan colliding with a deep, pervasive mistrust of the English.
The second season, which premieres April 9, will feature even more of this dizzying double-historical perspective. Claire and Jamie begin to actively work to change the course of the Jacobite Rising, which nearly wiped out Highlander culture in 1745.
The handiest genre TV benchmark for Foreigner not Pride and prejudice or The Tudorsor even Moore’s Battlestar Galactica –to be Game of Thrones.
However, there are no dragons and white walkers in Claire’s 18th century. Foreigner is committed to a much smaller scale storytelling, interested primarily in the life and perspective of one woman rather than an overwhelming pseudo-historical fantasy epic. But even for its smaller size and its relative realism, Foreigner is as cruel as anything that appears on it Game of Thrones. Tobias Menzies’ villainous Captain Jack Randall is just as terrifying and damaged as Joffrey, but he trades that character’s childish hysteria for a much creepier, controlled adult ruthlessness.
Like it Game of Thrones, Outlander does not shy away from violent images. But the images of blood and pain are on a different scale than Game of Thronesopera carnage. They tend to be intimate and ordinary, focused less on gruesome magical plagues than on, say, a single man’s viciously crushed hand. A plot arc towards the end of the first season featured some of the most gut-wrenching depictions of sexual and physical violence I’ve ever seen on television, and the scene is remarkably (horribly) personal. Game of Thrones’ has so many subplots that audiences often witness violence and quickly move on to another set of characters; Foreigner‘s eye is persistent and undaunted.
Where Game of Thrones borrows, copies and adapts historical references to build its many cultures, Foreigner delves deep into a few small areas of a short historical period, making the environment feel real in a tactile, physical, engaging way. Game of Thrones unfolds over dozens of characters, and Foreigner revolves his many complicated stories around one woman. But much of the basic DNA is the same: the magic, the politics, the dangerous and compelling world.
As Foreigner progresses, the time travel elements play an increasingly important role in the series, and Claire’s position in time becomes more complicated and emotionally charged. But even before some of those stories begin, ForeignerClaire’s most compelling fantasy premise is Claire’s first leap 200 years into the past.
Alternate histories and alien worlds
What makes Foreigner such a delightful story are all the bits between the dizzying time-hopping journeys through stone circles and surprising historical twists. Claire wanders 18th century Scotland with the same otherworldly look we feel when we read a great fantasy series or watch well-drawn dystopian TV series. Her new world is familiar in some ways, but also completely new to her.
The political intrigues of the Scottish Highlanders are opaque – Claire doesn’t speak Gaelic, and unraveling the complicated web of family relationships and loyalties is an endless challenge. Even more disorienting, Claire soon realizes that Scottish culture doesn’t even see the physical world the way it does. Ghosts, witches and fairies are alive and well, if not as a physical presence, then certainly in the minds of all her new acquaintances. In 1743 Scotland, belief in magic is woven into everyday life. Babies who get sick are abandoned because parents think they’ve been switched with switch babies (a situation that infuriates Claire); evil spirits cause people to get sick and die; women who have too much power are accused of being witches. And who is Claire, casual time traveler, to deny that magic is real?
Alternate histories and time travel stories aren’t just fun games of “what if?” (What if the Nazis had won? What if I stopped my parents from ever meeting?) At their core, they are stories about characters moving through alien worlds, about exploration and disorientation, and a vision of human life that is unknown . Some of ForeignerClaire’s best moments are when Claire has to grapple with cultural differences that have nothing to do with fairies and witches, just simple human interactions. Sure, Jamie and his culture are still human, and Claire has the advantage of knowing – at least in theory – what life in the 18th century is like. In practice, however, she is as hot-tempered as Paul among the Freemen or Daenerys among the Dothraki.
Foreigner is a very different series from Moore’s Warriorand while the best comparison might be something like Game of Thrones, it’s very clearly its own, original thing. Part of that originality stems from the multi-layered genre identity. The show interweaves fantasy elements, adventure stories, and political maneuvering into its historical romance. It’s also a beautiful viewing experience, full of expansive landscapes and gripping details.
But the most compelling magic comes from the central fairytale quartet at the heart of the series: Claire, her Scottish lover Jamie, her 20th century husband Frank, and Frank’s villainous 18th century ancestor/double, Black Jack. Randall. She, and especially Claire, form the knot that ties the series together. These characters transform Foreigner from what could be a cliché to something distinctive and unique. There aren’t many stories that can draw on so many familiar tropes and still feel new –Foreigner Do it.