I’ve decided to review Season 1 episodes of Outlander, a new series on Starz. The first episode, entitled “Sassanach”, was made available this past weekend for free online for anyone to view on the Starz website or via OnDemand for their cable subscribers. The true premiere is set for this Saturday, August 9th for Starz subscribers only.
I started reading these books by Diane Gabaldon almost 20 years ago and have been waiting all this time for someone to attempt to put the story on screen–any screen. So I’m thrilled to have this opportunity at last. Since I’ve read the books, there will be book spoilers in my reviews. So be forewarned!
Outlander is the story of an Englishwoman, named Claire who is on her second honeymoon with her husband Frank in the Scottish Highlands just after WWII. She accidentally travels through time and ends up in the 1740’s where she meets a young Highlander by the name of Jamie and adventure, naturally, unfolds. If this story sounds trite and silly, it isn’t. It’s just very difficult to describe a book that is historical fiction, action, science fiction and romance all rolled into one very entertaining story. Now imagine the difficulty of bringing that to the screen and you’ll understand why it took 20+ years for someone to adapt it to film.
First things first…I really enjoyed the cinematography. Something about the colors and lighting is so appealing. I’m sure a lot of it has to do with just how beautiful Scotland is. Beyond the beauty of the landscapes, some other things caught my notice. It seemed that the 1940’s scenes were shot differently. The colors are more muted as if they’re using a sepia filter and the clothes and other things have dulled down colors except perahps for the blue in Claire’s coat, the vases in the store window, and the forget-me-nots (ironic that, eh?). The diffuse lighting used in the 1940’s scene makes Claire’s skin virtually glow.
Contrast the muted presentation of the 1940’s to the clear and gritty scenes of the 1700’s. Perhaps they’ve done this on purpose because it helps us to understand from Claire’s perspective how it must feel. What is supposed to be the present seems like a memory of the past and the past comes through so clear, it seems to be more like the present.
Whether you agree with my theory of the difference in how they shot the two time periods, I don’t think anyone would disagree that it is very visually appealing. I knew going in that the network wanted to up their production quality and it shows. So Moore and company have certainly hit the visuals of the show out of the park.
Now to the story. It stays pretty true to the books, which brings me to my first slightly negative comment. The pace of the first episode is not what most American’s are probably used to. First episodes are supposed to grab our interest and hold us. But for non-book readers I’m not sure this premiere episode will do that. I knew it would and should be slow because the beginning of the first book is that way. And it’s necessary because you have to see her relationship with Frank to understand what kind of loss it is and it’s also necessary to establish Claire’s core personality and perspective.
They do a nice job of showing you who Claire, played by Caitriona Balfe, is. The opening sequence illustrates just how tough Claire is and that she is, most likely, traumatized by the War but at the same time, they don’t beat you over the head with it. Too many modern dramas portray the effect of war as some kind of stereotype making the characters seem like nothing more than walking textbook cases of PTSD. Here her war experience it’s just one aspect, albeit an important aspect, of her very multi-dimensional character. They included some other background such as how she was raised by her itinerant archaeologist uncle after her parent’s death. So it’s pretty clear going into the story that Claire knows how to live rough. Later in the series, when she adjusts to life in the 1700’s it will be believable because of this set up.
The other characters are well drawn too. Tobias Menzies does a good job of being Frank and his ancestor, Black Jack. Menzies was deadly boring at a recent appearance for the show at this year’s San Diego Comic Con and I was concerned that his lack of enthusiasm might mean a lack of investment and effort into the roles. But he does very well in Episode 1 to the point that we like Frank and we feel sorry for him when Claire disappears. Jamie, the other main character, played by Sam Heughan, also hasn’t impressed me in interviews. He just didn’t come across as rugged enough. But once you see him kilted up, using that full-on Highland burr, and putting on some attitude, he is perfect as Jamie. And the chemistry between Claire/Caitriona and Jamie/Sam is good…they don’t burst into flames and the show will slow burn it…but you can definitely see the hints that it’s there.
The camera certainly loves Claire…she’s simply beautiful. I wasn’t sure if I’d like her in the role either but this premiere cemented for me that she can portray Claire as fierce, brave, stubborn, smart, and rational but also incredibly sexy, feminine, and vulnerable. Which brings me to another positive….Claire’s sexuality is important because she is a sensuous woman, who is not afraid to express her desires but the show doesn’t exploit that aspect of her. In other words, the show is from her distinctly feminine viewpoint. She isn’t treated as a sex object (i.e., for the male gaze). I’m worried that a female protagonist who isn’t portrayed as a Victoria’s Secret model will not attract many male viewers. I wish that wasn’t the case. This show isn’t tea, crumpets and needlework. One would think the opening sequence with arterial spray and a very visible and badly broken femur would be sufficient to prove to male viewers that there is some serious adventure gonna happen. Maybe, just maybe, the audience will grow over time like the GOT audience has.
The other things that concern me are the fact that they speak Gaelic without any subtitles and that Claire narrates quite a bit. The producer, Rondald D. Moore of Battlestar Galactica fame, says they wanted the audience to experience the dislocation and foreignness the same way Claire does and not understanding what her captors are saying does have that effect. But it remains to be seen how confusing this will make the story over several episodes.
As for the narration, it makes sense because the premiere has so much detail that needs to be communicated. But narration creates a kind of separation–it can pull one out of a story and make the viewer feel a bit disconnected from the characters. And if overused, it’s just lazy storytelling. The object is to show us what is going on in their heads, not tell us. Again, we’ll have to wait and see how much they use it and how it works over time.
Overall, I really enjoyed the first episode in part because it’s been so long in coming. However, it remains to be seen if non-readers will take to it as well.
UPDATE: During a re-read of Outlander I realized that there is a scene where Frank and Claire have sex and it’s at Craig Na Dun just after they’d witnessed the Druid ceremony. In the book Claire also had not worn her underwear and Frank expressed surprise. So Moore, the Executive Producer, decided to do the scene inside the decrepit Castle Leoch instead and I think it was a brilliant idea. It makes her turning up at Leoch and her memories from that place all that much more eerie. The difference other than the location of the scene was that the show had her show more agency by letting her direct the action and showed him pleasuring her. That’s the biggest difference IMHO.
The Cock’s blood ritual to honor St. Oran in the show is slightly different than how it was presented in the books but the meaning is the same. IIRC in the books St. Oran wasn’t even mentioned. Instead it was explained something like this: the blood was to “hallow” the ground for a new house and was supposed to be done when the building was new. However, if the foundation was not blessed when it was new, they rectified it later by smearing Cock’s blood over the lintel of the front door. The author indicated that it wasn’t always an animal that was sacrificed–in the past, they might use a person. And that is one of the stories about St. Oran in Scotland. They say that he volunteered to be buried in the new foundations of the monastery on the island of Iona. In other words, he offered himself up as a sacrifice to hallow the ground. Hence the use of a blood sacrifice in remembrance of the Saint. As Frank notes in the show, it’s really a pagan thing and definitely predates the Catholic Church in Scotland.