STARZ is continuing with its unique and engaging string of original series with Outlander. Based on the series of books by Diana Gabaldon, the show starts off with a major uphill battle ahead as it must face off with legions of adoring fans.
It’s the story of Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), a married combat nurse from 1945. On her honeymoon with Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies), Claire pokes her nose into druidic dancing and magical stones, and suddenly finds herself in 1743. Naturally, the first person she sees is Black Jack Randall (also Tobias Menzies), a British soldier who doesn’t have pleasant intentions toward her, or any of the Scotsmen in the area. Rescued from Randall’s clutches, she is taken to a group of Scottish fighters, and meets Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). Now she has to find a way to survive, and figure out what to do with her growing feelings for Jamie.
In much the way that Game of Thrones defies plot description (because you either know it rather well, don’t want anything given away, or aren’t going to tune in), the intricacies of what develops in the series are probably best left alone. Suffice it to say that Claire finds herself thrown back in time with no idea who to trust, or what to do, and just when you thought Jamie was a right enough chap (and he is), and things wouldn’t be so bad, she’s basically made into the prisoner-doctor of the Scottish Laird.
I’ve had it explained to me that the books are as popular as they are, at least to some degree, because they are only “accidentally sci-fi.” The meaning behind this turn of phrase is apparently something along the lines of suggesting that, sure, there’s sci-fi, but it doesn’t really matter. You just can’t have time travel without going into the sci-fi/fantasy section of the bookstore, but the story is just about the characters, and how they deal with a strange situation. Claire has medical knowledge that no one of the time could, and she knows a thing or two about what is going to happen in what is now her future, but apart from that, it’s just a story, it’s not a “sci-fi story.”
There’s a sense in which this idea translates very clearly to the television adaptation, even in visual style, and general mood alone. It comes across as a mix of Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife, both in the overall look and feel, and the use of certain camera angles and shot construction. Throw in some muskets and Scotsmen with hair everywhere, and there you are.
On the other hand, I lean toward understanding “accidentally sci-fi” as an attempt by the uninitiated at explaining “good sci-fi.” We may focus quite a bit here on the characters, and it may be something that people love because the story so wonderfully fleshes out those characters into believable people and details their reaction to unfamiliar, interesting, or outlandish situations (sometimes referred to as “good fiction”), but the sci-fi is layered in, and the show (I can’t speak for the books) pulls it all off far better than I would have believed possible.
Fans of the novel may disagree, but Balfe strikes me as perfect for the role. Through the first few episodes, the best note is that she manages reactions that seem realistically bewildered, but also those of a woman who has been to war. Moreover, she doesn’t quite get used to the idea over time, not yet anyway, and that’s the sort of thing writers and actors don’t usually bother with. She has a certain irritating charm that is strangely engaging, and she handles the interplay with Heughan, and the complexities of her inability to reveal herself in a way that reminds of a couple of the best actresses that have ever been.
The rest of the cast hold their own, with a lot of the supporting characters delivering beautifully, and even the locations (again, much like Game of Thrones) become characters, but they don’t quite measure up to Balfe, which is both pro and con.
As the show continues, the one thing you know for sure is that it’s going to keep pulling you in as long as Balfe keeps up the portrayal.
That said, the show obviously goes nowhere without good writing, and while there are the occasional scenes that feel a bit stagy (like the attempted rape in the first episode), Outlander thus far has a bizarre ability to hone in on the creation of scenes that make sense to the sci-fi plot, and also feel as though they are in keeping with the time we’ve been thrown into. Let’s face it, I have no idea how accurate they are, but they seem to be accurate.
The show builds a world in a way that is so slow and methodical that it is at times almost torturous (most of the third episode, for example), and to turn that into something that is also captivating, almost pulling you through a sleight-of-hand trick until you suddenly think you’ve been watching this, and these characters, at least twenty episodes longer than you have, is television writing at its best.
Ultimately, the best part of the show is that you find yourself inside Claire’s mind, struggling with the turmoil at play within the timeshift in her mind, that has far more to do with a woman who barely had a chance to “come a long way, baby,” in the ’40s, now having to deal with the 1700s. And, all the while, it’s just a lot of fun.