|Caitriona Balfe stars in Outlander on Starz.|
Last night, Starz – the cable network most famous for Spartacus (though in my opinion should still be best known for Party Down) – broadcast the first episode of Outlander, and fans of the network were in for a bit of a surprise. Based on Diane Gabaldon's best-selling book series (the first book was published in 1991 and the most recent, Written in My Own Heart's Blood, came out just this past June), the first hour of Outlander sets the stage for a cross-genre epic: historical drama, time travel/fantasy, with a heady dose of romance. Set primarily in 18th century Scotland (and filmed on location), Outlander has already exhibited something recent ambitious television rarely offers: patient storytelling. Though it may come with some 21st century sensibilities regarding violence and sex, the tone of the show feels like a refreshing trip back in time for the viewer – ethereal music, lush scenery, longer scenes, and a comfortable pace that makes the series novelistic in more than its origins. Set for a sixteen-episode first season (with eight episodes airing now through mid-September and the remainder scheduled for 2015), that sober, languishing pace that is currently its most interesting feature may turn out to be its greatest weakness. Still, its first hour is well worth your time, especially if you are still recovering from Game of Thrones' fourth season.
The story begins in 1945, six months after the end of World War Two. We meet Claire Randall (played with quiet strength by Caitriona Balfe), a battle-hardened British nurse still struggling to reconnect with her bookish, soon-to-be Oxford professor husband Frank (Tobias Menzies, Game of Thrones) after the long war years. Eager for a peacetime adventure of sorts, the two take something of a second honeymoon to the Scottish Highlands, where Frank indulges in some genealogical research into his family history, and Claire explores her new passion for medical herbs and plants in the lush Inverness countryside. Their relationship is strong, if a little wobbly from the long separation, and viewers get time to get to know them as a couple (almost 40 of the episode's 60-odd minutes) before the narrative applies a bit of Druidic magic to divide them by two centuries. Viewers of the BCC's recent Atlantis will perhaps recall that that series gave us a generous 60 seconds of the 21st century before throwing its hero Jason overboard to arrive miraculously in ancient Greece. The result of this makes Atlantis a series that begs viewers to suspend most of their higher cognitive functions as the story progresses and Jason regularly forgets that he may ever have once owned a cell phone. Outlander, in contrast, has a more layered narrative ambition since it is essentially a period drama twice over: with a character from the 1940s experiencing the 1740s, for an audience in the 2010s.
|Caitriona Balfe and Tobias Menzies in Outlander.|
As the Randalls discover in the first half of the episode, Scotland is (and was) a place where magic has a matter-of-fact reality, woven into blood and soil all around them. It is after witnessing an annual Druidic ritual that Claire finds herself taken out of her own time. No doubt the series will delve deeper into the significance of this ritual, as Claire investigates means of returning to her own time, but the almost casual way in which these magical elements are introduced, and the restrained way in which her transportation is effected on screen, is notable. Claire basically tells us that words cannot really describe the experience, and this is replicated by a simple blank screen, opening onto an unblemished 18th century Scotland. She is taken there, and that is all she, and viewers, really need to understand at that juncture.
Cards on the table: I rather love "the person out of time" conceit. In fact, all period dramas are implicitly structured that way (so much of the enjoyment of Mad Men in its early seasons come from its tongue-in-cheek portrayal of 60s mores to a knowing 21st-century audience), and there is something about giving viewers having an on-screen proxy that amps that up significantly. (Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem would regularly include a time-displaced hero in his stories, even when that wasn't really the primary plot.) A distinct subgenre of time travel, time displacement stories are less interested in the mechanics and metaphysics of time travel (distinct from ambitious hard SF shows like Continuum) than the experience of being in another time: the how of time travel is far less important than the why. And whether the effect is purely escapist (see the aforementioned Atlantis), psychologically rich (BBC's Life on Mars), or out of the box camp fun (Sleepy Hollow), it's been a tried-and-true narrative device since Mark Twain and Washington Irving.
Here we react along with Claire to the new world she stumbles into. Mind you, just how much her displaced status will be central to the plot has yet to be seen. So far, her medical know-how has won her temporary allies ("What are germs?" one of the Scottish rebels asks bemusedly) but certainly her knowledge of the future will no doubt be a deficit as well as an asset to her. Will her new Scottish friends begin to suspect she is more than merely a potential British spy? How quickly with Claire recover from the shock of the transition and being the search for a way back to home, and to her husband? Certainly her chances of success seem limited, as that would bring the storyline to a quick and decisive end, but I look hopefully forward to a deepening of the Druid angle, alongside the historical plotlines.
There are some rough moments in the first episode. Claire Randall's current "hobby" of researching medicinal herbs is remarkably convenient if one is going to be stuck in the 18th century; no-one gives that sort of lingering goodbye to a spouse when they are only going out for a short errand, and well… it’s not hard to figure out that the only guy she meets in the 18th century who has no facial hair and an actual haircut – the unkempt but charming in a shrug-off-a-bullet-wound kind of way, Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) – is going to be the primary love interest. But these, to be fair, are passing (albeit amusing) blips in an otherwise sophisticated and measured narrative.
|Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan in Outlander.|
And for all the natural talk of feminism that comes with it, I'm not sure a slightly diminished threat of sexual violence is enough to make a story feminist. But the possibility of sex without power relations certainly makes it more human. There is no question that war puts women in a particularly vulnerable position, and I'm already confident that Outlander won't skirt that dark reality. But when all men are rapey bastards, it significantly limits narrative and character potential. Perhaps some will watch the series and find it all too convenient that the leader of the particular clan of Scottish rebels (played with snarling flourish by Scottish actor Graham McTavish) that Claire falls in with has already expressed his intolerance of rape to his men, and perhaps it is; but a perpetual threat of sexual violence has a noisy, discomfiting way of drowning out everything else.
Sure, Outlander is unabashedly romantic, sometimes in a bodice-ripping kind of way. But if the series does traffic in clichés, they are charmingly surprising ones for the current state of television. After a single hour, Claire has already emerged as a full character (one of admirable fortitude and intelligence), but she is the only one who has – with the possible exception of McTavish's clan leader. Otherwise it has been content to paint with a wide brush (the British are torturing monsters, the Scottish are unwashed, less threatening ruffians), but we still have 15 hours to go, and an entire world of rolling green Highland hills to build.
Outlander airs on Saturday nights at 9 p.m. ET on Starz in the U.S. The first episode aired on August 9, and the second episode airs on August 16.
Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.