“I Smell the Vapors of Hell on You…”

Picture 7There’s a new joint British-US TV series airing over here, “Outlander,” in which a WWII English nurse finds herself mysteriously taken backward in time, from the mid-1940s to the fiercely independent Scottish highlands two hundred years earlier. (That the independence vote takes place today in Scotland makes this series airing now kind of curious.)

From the point of view of the academic study of religion, the relationship between the science of the lead character and, at least in episode three, the religion of the locals, is predictably antagonistic — in fact, we could go so far as to call the latter mere superstition, at least from the viewpoint of our modern, empirically-based nurse. That these old tropes are still so useful in fiction is, I’d suggest, the curious thing.

For example, a young boy dies and his friend falls deathly ill, having both ventured into dangerously haunted ruins (to prove their manhood, we later learn). The local priest, Friar Bain, tackles the problem as best he knows — an ineffective exorcism with lots of sprinkled holy water and stern looks as he recites Latin, with the boy’s family cowering nearby — as does Claire, our displaced protagonist — suspecting, instead, a poison, going to the site itself looking for the culprit, and then concocting a primitive but effective herbal antidote, administered only once the boy’s aunt stands up to Bain.

outlanderSo, on the one hand, we have authoritarian male religion while, on the other, we have compassionate female science. While the specifically gendered nature of each may strike some as somewhat novel — after all, often there seems to be a presumption that science is somehow masculine whereas religion is feminine — the stand-off between the two (evidenced by the good Friar telling Claire of those vapors he smells as he passes by her, having lost on this particular occasion), is anything but novel. That the domestic authority of women trumps the church on this occasion is interesting (the aunt saying something to the effect of “While we’re under this roof I say what goes”) but, again, the gendered distinction between domestic and public authority isn’t something we haven’t seen before either.

But given the genre — is it romance fiction with a heaping dose of scifi? — maybe that’s all we ought to expect from such a tale — after all, its success is likely premised on repackaging what we already knew, making much mass media a form of gratifying comfort food. For, come to think of it, throwing a curve at the audience — like we see in those darned foreign films that don’t have car chases or closure — is likely not the best way to make advertisers happy.

Side note: that Claire is actually a time traveler and thus an outlander of the most extreme and, yes, bizarre, even dangerous, sort, makes Bain’s olfactory senses surprisingly accurate. For there is indeed some brimstone about her. But, stern as he may look, I’ve got trouble taking him seriously, given that he’s played by Tim McInnerny, the person who brought us the lovably clumsy Max in “Notting Hill” (1999). For, being such a bad cook, there was also an air of brimstone about him (and his dishes) too.

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