Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Review: Starz's OUTLANDER - loch to the future

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Beyond producing a handful of projects since his Battlestar Galactica remake ended, writer Ronald D. Moore has been struggling to develop another big hit. Things look set to change in the near-future, following a development deal with Sony Pictures TV and creation of his Tall Ship Production company. RDM has a stack of projects in active development; from remakes of The Wild Wild West and A Knight's Tale, to western Hangman and seafaring drama The McCulloch. But first comes OUTLANDER; a historical romance from cable upstart Starz, adapting Diana Gabaldon's popular novels.

This hour-long premiere, "Sassenach" (Gaelic for "outlander"), sets up the premise in an engaging and absorbing way, mainly thanks to a romanticised view of Scotland as a country steeped in myth and legend, told at a pleasingly unhurried pace. Shortly after the end of WWII, Army nurse Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) is whisked to the picturesque Highlands by her historian husband Frank (Tobias Menzies), to rekindle their love after years spent apart during wartime.

While enjoying their time getting reacquainted just outside Inverness—visiting castles, admiring scenery—Claire later finds herself transported back through time to 1743 A.D, after touching a standing stone that forms part of an ancient circle on the hill of Craigh na Dun. Understandably gobsmacked by the timeslip, it's not long before Claire's captured by a group of bewhiskered Scotsmen, earning their trust by using her medical skills to tend to a handsome warrior called Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) with a dislocated shoulder.

Outlander feels like a good old-fashioned romp, that potentially offers something for everyone: action, adventure and romance, woven through Claire's quest to get back to 1945. It does feel inevitable she'll come to prefer the company of these savage Scots (especially handsome Jamie), over her know-all spouse, but having never read the books I wouldn't like to presume. That said, Diana Gabaldon's saga stretches to eight tomes (the latest released this very summer), so it's perhaps safe to assume Claire opts to stay in the past. If this show proves a hit with audiences, Starz will be glad they have source material to fuel eight seasons, or more...

There wasn't much about Outlander I took exception to, beyond how storyline was rarely able to surprise me. We've seen too many variations on this time-jump idea, stretching back to Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. However, there are comparatively few female time-travellers in fiction, and they tend to always depart from our present. Making the hero a woman already from what's already "the past", did enough to make the show feel fresher than it might have done.

I also liked how the script had the Scottish natives speaking in a Gaelic tongue, sans subtitles, and only switching to English because they know it's Claire's language. Indeed, while intended to be a heightened reality in both eras (the bagpipes, the bagpipes!), the production did a commendable job making everything look and feel authentic. The key benefit of filming in the real Scotland, as Outlander's is a co-production with British production company Left Bank Pictures (Wallander, Strike Back).

The performances were decent from everyone, although Irish model-turned-actress Balfe perhaps lacked some confidence at times, and her dual identities (postwar nurse, fish-out-of-water waif) were a little dull on the surface. It's too early to judge her co-star Sam Heughan, who's only introduced in the final third (although he looks suitably dashing in a kilt); and there's a fun supporting cast of actors that includes Graham McTavish (The Hobbit) as leader Dougal MacKenzie.

Lasting success or failure is going to rest on the quality of the overarching story, the strength of characterisations, and depth of the central romance. This premiere succeeded in establishing the world and concept, drizzled in a bewitching atmosphere, but if Claire's journey doesn't amount to much it won't matter. Considering the fact Gabaldon's written eight novels in this long-running series, one suspects there's enough good material to draw from—but for all I know Outlander's literary quality nosedived years ago and the fans are a minority deeply attached to the central relationship, ready to defend this oeuvre forever. Does anyone who's actually read the Outlander books care to comment on their artistic merit?

It's always awkward to review TV dramas based on novels that have been on shelves for years (as some questions and early misgivings can be dealt with), but purely as a new show to watch this summer... Outlander has definite potential and managed a very enjoyable debut. I don't know how I'll be feeling by mid-season, or hypothetical seasons to come, but I'll be back for episode two...


  • You've never heard of Outlander? Do you live in the UK? The book saga's published under the name Cross Stitch here, see. Still not ringing a bell? You need to visit a bookshop.
  • There's a mini-BSG reunion here, as Bear McCreary is composing the show's music. I loved the opening titles theme, with lyrics paraphrasing Robert Louis Stevenson's poem Sing Me a Song of a Lad That is Gone with "lad" changed to "lass".
  • Considering this is a Starz offering (a cable network known for its gratuitous violence and nudity), I was pleased the network didn't insist RDM crank up the blood and boobs.
  • I think we're supposed to feel sad that Claire winds up in the 18th-century, away from her loving husband... but there's something about Tobias Menzies that always unnerves me, so I just didn't feel that way. He's always been a more natural villain, so perfect to play his own nasty ancestor.
  • If you want to comment on Outlander below, please limit yourself to what was presented in this hour of television. NO SPOILERS based on book knowledge, please!
written by Ronald D. Moore | directed by John Dahl | 9 August 2014 | Starz