'Outlander': TV Review
Saturdays at 9 p.m. on Starz, beginning Aug. 9 (first episode currently available online for free)
Caitriona Balfe, Sam Heughan, Tobias Menzies, Gary Lewis, Graham McTavish
Ronald D. Moore
A quality, immersive tale of time-travel brings the popular books to TV, but the telling of the story is languid.
It will be interesting to see if the fans of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander books will tune in to the Starz series that premieres Saturday night. If they do, the pay cable channel may have quite a hit on its hands. If they don't, Outlander might just be another interesting shot in the dark for a channel looking to stand out.
Outlander is an interesting concept and is well-executed, too — a series from Battlestar Galactica creator Ronald D. Moore that (according to Gabaldon, at least) successfully translates her sprawling romantic storylines to the small screen.
The series focuses on World War II nurse Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), who is on a postwar Scottish vacation with husband Frank (Tobias Menzies), a British intelligence officer turned scholar, as the two try to start their married life afresh after the horrors of war.
But while in Scotland, with Frank using his love of history to guide them along, the couple stumbles into a small town and, nearing the finish of the first episode, Claire visits a mysterious set of stones. Upon touching one, she falls back in time to 1743. Still in Scotland, Claire is set upon by Black Jack Randall (Menzies), a sadistic captain in the British army currently occupying the Highlands and trying to tamp down a Scottish insurrection.
One interesting aspect of the Outlander premise is that Moore doesn't really fuss over the time-travel element. There's no magic to it other than Claire falling through time — no tricks or special effects — and just waking up 202 years earlier. You might expect this conceit to be integral to the series, but Outlander doesn't seem in a real hurry to get Claire back to 1945, even though that's her stated goal (as it probably would be for anyone who finds out that someone named Black Jack Randall looks exactly like her husband, the more modern version of whom is infinitely nicer).
The Outlander books (which I haven't read) are romance-laden, and so it's no surprise that once Claire lands back in time, she's saved by Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), a strapping Scots clan member who is also dramatically more pleasant than the rougher members of Clan MacKenzie, which he serves. If we are to perceive Claire as a modern woman (for 1945, at least) struggling to navigate this odd transformation in her life — and Claire is very much the heroine here — it's sometimes difficult to see her as completely independent, trapped as she is within the confines of a romance novel structure (she very much loves the dry and fussy Frank, yet being transported back in time allows her to be quite taken by Jamie, especially since the visage of Frank is now the evil Black Jack Randall; it's all conveniently escapist).
There are two ways to view Outlander's pacing. On the one hand, it's probably the most novelistic series currently on the air; watching it feels in many ways like reading a book, as the series' (visually delightful) universe languidly unfolds. On the other hand, to state the obvious for people who haven't read the book and are otherwise debating whether to add yet another show to their overstuffed DVR: Outlander is really, really slow.
There is very little urgency in the storytelling — layers of voiceover bits don't help, even — and therefore Outlander can hardly be described as compelling. In many ways, this is a story well and thoroughly told but with almost none of the smart pacing of similarly dense fictions like Game of Thrones.
And yet the world created in Outlander is not without interest. Claire being a "guest" or possibly a captive of Clan MacKenzie (they think, as anyone would, that this British woman found roaming the Highlands is a spy) brings her in contact with all sorts of intriguing types. Colum MacKenzie (Gary Lewis) is laird of the MacKenzie clan, holding it together even though he suffers from a rare disease that shrivels and disjoints his legs. He must leave the enforcing powers to his brother, Dougal MacKenzie (the riveting Graham McTavish), war chieftain of the MacKenzie Clan. Together, they are striving to get the occupying Brits off their land.
Claire partly survives her time in this new world because of her medical background; she can help the MacKenzies and their supporters heal up from battle. But she feeds into their suspicions of her by constantly wanting to flee back to the stones that brought her here through some wrinkle in time.
Getting back to those stones may be Claire's motivation, but Outlander is in no hurry to get her there. I watched all six episodes sent by Starz (the 16-episode first season will be split, unfortunately, into two eight-episode installments) and all lacked a sense of urgency to move Claire from B back to A.
And that presents another problem for people who haven't read the books: knowing how important the time-travel element is to Outlander's plot. It seems the show would be significantly more fun if Claire could get back to 1945, spend some time there, assess what she likes and what she misses, then sneak back to the stones and back in time. Does this happen? I have no idea. Claire would have to get back to the aforementioned stones first and, after six hours, they're not exactly a stone's throw from her present location.
Again, that may be the charm some viewers are looking for. Outlander taking its own sweet time is, in some ways, an antidote to other story-chewing fare and lingering on character development is not a bad thing. That novelistic sense of plot unfolding probably would be less of an issue if all 16 episodes were going to be shown in a row, rather than split and separated — almost like Claire herself — by a vast chunk of time (the other eight will air sometime in 2015).
But Outlander's lack of forward momentum is impossible to ignore. After the first hour, the series slows noticeably and maddeningly. Although there's a "wait until the sixth episode" enticement surrounding the show (and that episode does pick up the pace and partly change the direction), it's not like Outlander suddenly turns into 24 or something. Basically, the pace you get is the pace you get.
Luckily, Balfe is reason enough to watch; she's a confident actress who brings various shades to her character. And McTavish is more magnetic in his menace/cunning than Heughan, though that probably wasn't the plan. (That said, Heughan is perfectly cast as the hunky gentleman warrior, with a frame that the camera loves). The template-setting pilot is directed by John Dahl, and it's no surprise that the lush Scottish countryside and Highlands are beautiful and inherently part of the series, like a looming character that never leaves a scene.
The first episode has already been made available online, as Starz looks to give nonsubscribers a taste of Outlander (no doubt whatever Gabaldon fans who haven't already subscribed will do so). The real test may be keeping others hooked, with the competition being vast and "bookish" vs. "compelling" being an X-factor very much in play.