Review: ‘Outlander’ skips through time to a Highlands’ high point
In “Outlander,” which premieres Saturday on Starz, executive producer Ronald D. Moore adapts a series of books by Diana Gabaldon, to whose international success I have not contributed at all. The first — the story the debut season tells — was published in 1991; the eighth and latest, “Written in My Own Heart’s Blood,” this June.
It’s just after the end of WWII. Englishwoman Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) has spent five years patching the wounded and seeing to the dying on the front lines. Now she is on a get-reacquainted trip to the Scottish Highlands with her husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies, currently also seen on Sundance Channel in “The Honorable Woman”), a British intelligence veteran about to begin teaching history at Oxford.
FOR THE RECORD:
Outlander’: In a review of the cable drama “Outlander” in the Aug. 9 Calendar section, the latest title in the Diana Gabaldon book series that inspired the show was referred to as “Written in My Own Blood.” The book’s title is “Written in My Own Heart’s Blood.”
“There’s no place on Earth with more magic and superstition mixed into its daily life than the Scottish Highlands,” Frank tells Claire, and, as if to prove his point for him, she touches an ancient standing stone and opens her eyes in 1743. Somehow she does not go completely, instantly, permanently mad, despite immediately encountering the look-alike ancestor of her loving husband, an officer of bad reputation and no better person.
But she is a tough cookie, accustomed to chaos and no pushover. “So far I’d been assaulted, threatened, kidnapped and nearly raped,” she says in a voice-over of her introduction to the 18th century. (The Scottish Enlightenment, well underway in Edinburgh, had not reached the clan-conscious Highlands.) Her new hosts, for their part, are not sure whether she is a friend they should keep close or an enemy they should keep closer, so they make her an honored prisoner, with a couple of guards for comic relief.
With her experience of battlefield surgery and her botany degree, she sets herself up quickly as a kind of Dr. Claire, Medicine Woman, and with the history and spycraft she picked up from her husband added to her considerable native smarts, she manages to navigate life in the castle, which, among stirrings of revolution — we are on the eve of the Second Jacobite Rebellion — also has a she-likes-him-but-he-likes-her component. (Claire is also capable of getting everything wrong, but, fair enough — you go back in time 200 years and see how you do.)
Complicating things emotionally — and yet somehow making them … easier — is Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), a strong-jawed, big-shouldered, thick-haired fellow whose sculpted pectorals we meet by adoring firelight and whose whip-scarred back and fugitive-from-British-justice status only make him more attractive. He’s also, as he has cause to tell Claire, “an educated man” who knows “Latin and Greek and such.” (I’m nevertheless rooting for Frank of the future, though it’s a cause as quixotic as the idea that Bonnie Prince Charlie Stuart could be set upon the English throne. But that’s the kind of romantic I am.)
The series is slow, which is not a pejorative; nowadays, indeed, it is a sign of quality television, and Moore has been allowed a generous 16 episodes to tell his tale — six more than a season of “Game of Thrones,” with only a single story line to follow. (We are never off Claire.) There are passages of action and some big set pieces, but most every scene takes its time and then takes a little more. But the pace also gives the show a weight and elegance that dignify its daffiness, much as Moore’s “Battlestar Galactica” reboot turned an ephemeral franchise into something deep and philosophical, even as it grew, let’s face it, pretty fracking weird.
Indeed, though it is not something that, on paper, I would expect much to care for, as made flesh by Moore and his exceedingly talented company, I like “Outlander” very much. It looks beautiful (Scotland, take a bow), the writing is smart — the dialogue supports the longer scenes — and the performances first-rate. A mostly unfamiliar main cast is abetted by faces well known to regular watchers of British imports: John Sessions, Tim McInnerny, the great Bill Paterson — Glasgow, represent! — and Annette Badland, whom you, of course, remember as Blon Fel-Fotch Passameer-Day Slitheen from “Doctor Who.” And as Claire, Balfe makes a fine heroine, fit to fight the patriarchy and the power but also able to rock those 18th century fashions. It’s delightful, all in all.
When: 9 and 10:10 p.m. Saturday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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