TV REVIEW: OUTLANDER
Premiere episode, "Sassenach"
POSTED 12:57pm | 03 NOVEMBER 2014
1945 England: Claire Randall reunites with her husband after five years of war. A second honeymoon goes awry when she falls back through time to 1740s Scotland (IMDb).
Outlander is a new series for Starz, the US cable channel responsible for shows such as Spartacus and Da Vinvi's Demons, based on the series of fantasy romance novels of the same name by Diana Gabaldon. It stars relative unknown Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall, an English nurse who accidentally falls through time, while travelling through Scotland with her husband in the months following the end of the Second World War, and ends up in 1740s Scotland.
This television adaptation was developed by Ronald D. Moore, of Battlestar Galactica fame, who also takes the chief writing credit, and the opportunity to step sideways away from his regular science-fiction gigs seems to work in his favour based on this first episode, though I dare say the primary reason for this is the strong source material.
The first episode begins with Claire and her history professor husband Frank Randall (a surprisingly charming Tobias Menzies, almost playing against type) taking a "second honeymoon" to the Scottish highlands after being separated during the war. A secondary reason for their trip is so that Frank can research some of his family history, tracing back an ancestor that served with the English army fighting Scottish rebels, and to quietly foreshadow events and introduce places that will be important once Claire falls back to the 1740s.
There are several things that strike the viewer during the expository scenes in this first episode. The first is the beautiful Scottish highlands scenery captured by cinematographer David Higgs. The camera lingers long enough on some wonderfully framed vistas and old Scottish buildings, and Higgs doesn't distract from the natural beauty with weird angles or sweeping pans, rather he allows the imagery to speak for itself, and this approach really heightens the atmosphere of the first episode.
The second is the wonderful use of Bear McReary's (who broke through with his stunning score for Battlestar Galactica) music. The opening theme is possibly one of the finest opening themes of all time, brilliantly evocotaive of the setting, characters, atmosphere, and romance of the series (or at least of this episode), and during the episode music is used sparingly, with many scenes playing out without music, allowing space in the mix for character to shine through in the dialogue. The score never overpowers the scene when it does fade in and instead nicely supports the emotions of each moment.
The third is the pleasantly gentle pace of the episode. The first 35 minutes are completely devoted to building the relationship between Claire and Frank, letting the viewer enjoy their company and tag along for their holiday in a very casual and unobtrusive way. Even the sex scenes (and there are a few - this is Starz, after all) are handled without the voyeuristic camera typical of these scenes on television. The introduction of any potential fantasy element doesn't happen until a key foreshadowing scene after the first 20 minutes, when Claire has her fortune read via tea leaves by a local, and even this is delicately handled by director John Dahl, who lets the scene play out naturally without resorting to any lighting and sounds cues.
This very deliberate pacing and space afforded to the story, the characters, and the setting, really draws the viewer into the world and allows them time to invest in what is treated as a very real relationship, with some strong character work by Balfe and Menzies. This set-up could have been done in 5 minutes as the usual throwaway motivation for the main character, but instead it's a beautiful invitation into a world that I suspect the viewer won't get to spend much more time in, because after that first 35 minutes Claire falls through time and finds herself 200 years in the past. It is not slow, though. At no point is it boring, or do you feel that the story is not progressing, but the natural pace is a welcome change and provides the series a somewhat unique feel.
The second half of this first episode becomes concerned with action. In fact, this episode is almost exactly split down the middle of its running time: about 35 minutes in 1945 and 30 minutes in 1743. Claire's first experience, while disorientated, is being shot at by English redcoats and running into Frank's earlier mentioned ancestor Captain Jack Randall (also played by Tobias Menzies, in a performance much closer to type as the smarmy, rapey bastard). It's here that McReary's score starts to pick up and Higgs' camera switches to a more intimate and handheld one. This subtle technical change is handled very well by Dahl's direction and drives home the difference between the two worlds without being obvious.
Claire is rescued/captured by a small band of Scottish rebels and temporarily wins their trust when she uses her 1940s medical knowledge to reset the dislocated shoulder of Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan, who I believe is the romantic lead for Claire in the 1740s). Then, travelling with the rebels, she warns them to a possible English ambush (saving their lives) that she remembered from one of Frank's historical stories earlier in the episode. This impresses the leader of the rebels, Dougal MacKenzie (a wonderful Graham McTavish), who is intrigued enough to not harm Claire for now.
The second half does fall away a little once the action sets in. The dialogue of the rebels is more concerned with establishing archetypes that will no doubt be challenged in later episodes and establishing Claire as a dashing heroine. The subtlety of the first half is thrown out the window in an attempt to show how "out of time" Claire is, spouting anachronisms and acting very unlike a lady should in 1743. But this doesn't detract from the episode overall. It's quite a wonderful introduction to a story that is quite a weird mix of ideas and genres.
I would say that that is the big draw for a series like Outlander. It has a very distinct personality that sets it apart from all the other fantasy series on television at the moment. I am definitely hooked after this first episode to stick around for a few more and see how things play out, and I would strongly recommend others do the same, especially if you want something fresh that doesn't overwhelm you with world building and characters or that isn't intent on being overly grim and depressing. It's a bit of a mix between Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, and Braveheart. If you wished Downton Abbey was a bit more interesting, Game of Thrones wasn't quite so bleak, and Braveheart had less Mel Gibson, then I suggest you check out Outlander.
Watch list: At least the first eight episodes (half season)