If you’ve never heard of Outlander, I'd be surprised. It's a hugely successful series of eight epic, time-travel novels (well, eight so far) by the endlessly talented author, Diana Gabaldon. I discovered Outlander in 1997 — the year the fourth book was released — and they remain my favourite books in what I think many would consider a pretty well-read life. So when I heard that a television series was being produced, I was both apprehensive and elated. The show has the potential to bring my favourite story to life, but it also threatens to negatively colour something that means a great deal to me. I love these characters, I can't get enough of this story, and I don't want to see it turned to crap!My friends at The Little Red Umbrella have kindly agreed to give me this opportunity to exercise some of my demons and rant a bit. I hope to be able to discuss some of the themes of the show, the development of characters, and yes, make some general comparisons to the source material. However, I promise to try my damndest not to include spoilers from the books! (Notice, I said I’ll try...)
So, on to Episode One: "Sassenach".
As the story begins, the basic premise is this: It's 1946 and Claire Randall is a former combat nurse on holidays with her husband Frank in the Scottish Highlands. For the last five years, they've been separated by World War II; now they're trying to re-connect by exploring Frank's family history in the area — while making a concerted effort to start a family of their own. But as Claire pokes around an ancient circle of standing stones, she vanishes and finds herself in 1743. There, she immediately bumps into Frank's ancestor, "Black" Jack Randall, who sexually assaults her. She is rescued by some Highlanders (one is an injured young man named Jamie), who take her (forcibly) to Castle Leoch, home to clan MacKenzie.
The crux of this story, the point around which everything else revolves, is Claire. It's her story, she is our narrator, and we see everything from her perspective — that of an Outsider, or Sassenach. So the biggest challenge for this episode, indeed the rest of the series, is to introduce us to Claire. Before she was cast to play the role, I had never heard of Caitriona Balfe, and I wasn’t sure she had the right look for the part (though I try not to get too invested in actors looking the way I had pictured the character). However, with only one episode to judge by, I believe Balfe has captured much of what I love in Claire.
Claire curses like a sailor (very shocking to her 18th century captors), she enjoys liquor, she's brave and confident in the face of danger, she's intelligent and adaptable, and she doesn't shrink from blood. In fact, she's drawn to it. She has an instinctual need to heal, to help, to lay hands on a problem and solve it physically, even when it may not be the most logical thing to do. I believe this is paralleled with her sexual desires, as the first episode quite clearly established that she enjoys sex and sees it as a bridge between herself and Frank: a physical way to heal their emotional distance.
Frank Randall (played by Tobias Menzies from Game of Thrones) also has an important role to play in this first episode, as he is left behind when Claire travels back in time. He is her anchor, her link to her own time, and while [spoiler!] he isn’t going to be her main love interest, we must understand what it is she is trying to get back to. Frank must be at least reasonably likeable — we must understand that they love each other, despite their problems or differences — but he can't be so likeable that we get hung up on him. [spoiler over]
Frank is a spy and a scholar, a man of words and intrigue (what was he doing during the war? How did his covert operations change him?), and Claire seems to tolerate this about him, at best. She is only half-listening as he prattles on about his family history, and any time he tries to discuss their relationship, she interrupts him with sex. He wants to tell her how he feels, but she chooses to show her feelings, instead. I think Claire is afraid to see the changes in him, and perhaps her own; instead she takes refuge in sex, trying to find her way to the life she thinks she wants.
Speaking of sex, there is no way around the fact that this is, at its heart, a romance novel. There were three pretty graphic sex scenes in the first episode, promising much more to come, and leaving many reviewers to speculate that this is a show for "chicks". However, they also said gendered things about Game of Thrones — that it was too violent to draw a female audience — and we know how that turned out. Without spoiling anything, let me say that if the television series is anything like the books, there will be sex, but also humor, romance, violence and adventure. The creator/producer of the show is Ron Moore, who brought us two of the best Star Trek series, as well as the Battlestar Galactica reboot. I can only assume he will bring out the violent sci-fi aspects of the story to everyone's satisfaction.
I have so much more I want to talk about, but let's leave it for next week. Outlander airs on Saturdays on the Stars Network. There will be 16 episodes in the first season, and it was picked up for a 13-episode second season less than a week after the premiere. I hope you’ll watch it with me!