George R.R. Martin fans may have thought they had a long wait from book to television, but Diana Gabaldon fans can tell you: they’ve waited longer. After twenty-three years, the Outlander series finally came to television on Stars. Adapted by Battlestar Galactica‘s Ronald D. Moore, Outlander has had a rocky start. While fans of the book and many critics think that the first installment was fantastic, others were not so enthused. Even as someone who read the book, I’ll admit the first episode ambled much like the Scottish Highlands where the show is set. However, I think that there is more greatness to come.
For those who have not read the books, Outlander begins on the backdrop of 1940s Scotland, just after World War II. Frank Randal and his wife, Claire, are rekindling their marriage after being separated during the war. While on their trip, Claire is gathering plants when she touches a standing stone transporting her back to 18th century, Jacobite era, Scotland.
Bewildered, Claire finds herself amidst a skirmish between English Dragoons and the local MacKenzie clan. She also finds herself at the mercy of a certain Black Jack Randall. After being saved by a local Scotsman, Claire finds herself deeper in trouble; this time being accused as being an English spy. In typical Claire fashion, she uses her nursing skills to help reset a young man’s shoulder, Jamie, endearing her to the group. (You can see the first episode for free on Starz.com as of August 1st.)
Outlander is not a traditional fantasy in the sense of magic everywhere. It asks you to believe in the old lore that still thrives today in Scotland. It asks you for just a moment to suspend your beliefs, and wonder if the old henges really do have power. I digress; the “slowness” that some critics complain about is very much necessary to the story.
The show takes a bard-approach to storytelling. It weaves the different levels of Claire’s past together with her future, to understand her character. The first episode winds through fragments of World War II and Claire’s childhood, while Claire and Frank roam the Scottish countryside in search of themselves. Along with the traditional Gaelic music and rolling Scottish countryside, there is something ethereal about the whole first episode, culminating with the druid’s dance.
Above all else, I have to have praises for the cast. Caitriona Balfe is Claire. She really brought Claire’s inner strength to life masked with just enough brusqueness to make a highlander blush. Tobias Menzies does an exception job playing both Frank and Frank’s ancestor, Black Jack Randall, while giving them both very different personalities. The rest of the cast is wonderfully picked as well with many unknown actors amongst the ranks. Though, it seems many are still upset about Jamie’s, not so red, red hair.
I would not skip the show, because you have not read the series. It is very easy to catch on to what is happening and the cast is very small, so there are very few surprise actors. The Gaelic spoken is translated well through actions and does not hinder the plot. If you are not drawn in by the plot, stay for the history. The show is set two years before the Second Jacobite Rebellion and three years before the Battle of Culloden; both of which were the final bouts of Scottish rebellion against the British throne. It is a rare look into this time period.
In the end, the show is really made for book fans, diverging very little from the series so far. It has a bit of a Downton Abbey or BBC feel, where you are peaking into the lives of these people. Perhaps that is the moral of Outlander; you are the Sassenach. Take it for what it is: a historical romance. Enjoy!
The first full episode is free on Starz.com. Watch it here.