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Outlander: A Bold, Richly Imagined Adaptation

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Here’s the thing about the novel, at least the first one in Diana Gabaldon’s series (and I say this understanding the instant hatred I will earn): it’s tripe. The bare-bones plot of Gabaldon’s series is fantastic – a fiery 1950’s nurse who time-travels back to 18th century Scotland, is plunged into the conflict there, and falls in love with a Scottish warrior? You’ve got romance, time-travel, a fantasy element, war, and not one but two wildly disparate time periods to draw on. It’s literary gold.

Which made it all the more disappointing that Gabaldon buried what could have been a genuinely gripping saga in over-ripe prose that relied largely on long, rambling descriptions of nature occasionally interspersed with actual events. The romantic dialogue, while passable, certainly didn’t leap off the page, and I was genuinely mystified after reading the first novel as to why so many people loved it.

The Starz series, however, eliminates these problems handily –  instead of telling us about the Scottish countryside, the series shows it to us in sweeping panoramas of lush, green, mountainous beauty, and the strong acting by leads Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan more than makes up for occasional weaknesses in dialogue. Writer Ronald D. Moore, who adapted the series for television, is widely known and respected for series such as Battlestar Galatica and Roswell, and skillfully implements an occasional voice-over from Claire in the pilot, just enough to give essential background without weighing the story down.

The series has also clearly spared no expense budget-wise: 21st century and 18th century Scotland are rendered in vivid, convincing detail as far as costumes and set-pieces, and the series was filmed on location in Scotland, giving the landscapes added authenticity. I can think of only Game of Thrones to rival the beauty and camera-work on display here; it’s a feast for the eyes.

The series opens on a beautifully moody note, as Claire gazes into a shop window at a vase and recognizes, perhaps for the first time in her life, a deep longing for a home and stability. World War II has just ended and Claire reunites with her husband, Frank Randall, a history teacher who acted as an intelligence operative during the war. The two were able to see each other only a handful of times in 5 years, and while their love for each other is still strong, they’ve come back to find each other relative strangers. Frank suggests a trip to Scotland as a sort of second honeymoon, and the two gladly set off to Inverness, managing to reconnect and fall quickly back in love as they climb through old ruins and Frank researches his ancestors.

One morning before dawn, Claire and Frank slip out to secretly watch an ancient ritual take place at an circle of stones at Craigh na Dun, a druidic celebration for the upcoming Samhain (what we know as Halloween). Claire returns later that day to pick a rare plant that she saw; she hears a buzzing, touches one of the stones, and is promptly thrown back in time. This development, which could easily have come across as ludicrous or cheesy, is handled well in that there’s no sense of stars turning or of her going down a tunnel; instead everything is blackness for a moment and then she finds herself lying on her shawl as if for a nap – in 1740’s Scotland. She’s immediately caught in conflict between English soldiers and native Scotsmen.

Caitriona Balfe (Claire) has the same sort of magnetic presence and innate onscreen grace as Rachel Nichols of Continuum (oddly, also a series about a woman who gets cast back in time) – a blend of obvious strength and quick humor that is very appealing.  Sam Heughan (Jamie) is thankfully Scottish (every little bit of authenticity helps) and has a strong natural chemistry with her.

All told, this promises to be a series with something for everyone – plenty of battles, bloodshed, and plot twists to draw in those who dismissed this as a corset-ripper, and plenty of humor and romance to keep everyone else hooked. At 16 episodes, this is poised to be a smash hit.


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