Outlander: “Sassenach”

When Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and her husband Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies) head to the Scottish Highlands in 1945, the plan is to kickstart their stalled marriage. World War II split the newlyweds apart for nearly 6 years, and the Inverness getaway is supposed to bring them closer together. Instead, Claire stumbles upon a magic-infused stone circle and suddenly finds herself 200 years in the past being shot at by Redcoats, held captive by Scottish clansmen, and nearly raped by her husband’s scoundrel of an ancestor who also happens to look almost identical to Frank. Her captors are nice enough, especially the dashing Jamie (Sam Heughan), but she’s still a prisoner, in more ways than one.

Claire is a rarity for television: a strong female character who isn’t a Strong Female Character. TV Claire is just as free-spirited and determined as book Claire. Romance and sex are part of her story and her personality, but they aren’t the defining aspects of it. Balfe gets this so completely, and the way she plays Claire is a revelation: “Her sexuality is part of who she is… She is a very passionate woman, with such a zest for life, and her sexuality is very integral to that. She controls that; she has desires. Quelle horreur, women have desires, oh my god!” Balfe balances Claire’s head-strongness and agitation beautifully, and she and Heughan’s Jamie are perfect complements.

Claire has every reason to be afraid in her brave new world, but she doesn’t let that hold her back. She relies on her intelligence to get her through the worst of it. Rape is an ever present danger in 18th century Scotland. Most of the time, writers use rape to give a man a reason for revenge or to punish an independent woman. Outlander (both the show and book) use it as historical accuracy rather than a plot device.

Tobias Menzies doesn’t get much to do as Black Jack in the premiere, nor does the relationship between Frank and Claire get enough fleshing out. In the book, it’s easy to see why Claire’s attracted to Frank. She picked a man like her surrogate father, the one man she respected and admired the most, although it’s clear she would’ve been bored silly being an Oxfordshire housewife. TV Frank is a bit too stiff, a bit too distant, and their marriage seems more like it’s continuing because of residual attraction and mild affection rather than they can’t live without each other.

The only real issues in the premiere are the pacing and Claire’s voice over narration. The 1945 portion drags on and on and on, and while it’s all very interesting it’s also too reliant on infodumps. In the book it works, mostly because Gabaldon has several hundred pages worth of territory to cover. On screen, not so much. Claire’s narration of every little thing is heavy-handed and over-bearing. Hopefully they’ll tone it down a notch in future episodes. Fortunately, the spectacular scenery and Bear McCreary’s entrancing score more than make up for the duller bits. McCreary’s score is consistently haunting and soaring, and is easily one of the best parts of the show. Well, next to Balfe, that is. Where has she been all my life?

It’s easy for fans to feel protective of a work they love, but we have to remember that crossing mediums will always mean a new translation. The show makes a few key changes from Diana Gabaldon’s text, some expected or at least understandable, others less so. Lines get swapped from one character to another (usually lines from book Mr. Randall to other television characters), mostly for expository purposes. Roger Wakefield, Mr. Crook, and the cottar woman are all missing from the premiere, but the loss isn’t much felt.

Scenes not in the book pop up in the premiere, and Claire makes a few minor choices on TV that she doesn’t in the book. But the show only has 64 minutes to do a lot of heavy lifting. I’m not entirely sure why they felt the need to move the season from Beltane (spring) to Samhain (fall), but I trust Moore enough to go with it. The multiple sex scenes are the most noticeable insertion (pun intended). In the book, Gabaldon takes her sweet time to get to the explicit sexy bits, but Randall goes down on Claire within the first 20 minutes. Although, according to reviewers who’ve seen the first 6 episodes, that’s more or less all the sex we’ll get in the show for quite some time.

One of the bigger hurdles Gabaldon’s books had to overcome was the romance label. Certainly, romance is a big part of the story, but the books are about so much more. Ronald D. Moore was vocal about wanting to create a show appealing to both men and women, but the early previews made it look like a sappy Lifetime movie, and the premise in and of itself is a hurdle. Frankly, that some men will be turned off primarily because the story centers on a woman doesn’t bother me. As a woman, I watch countless shows with men at the helm, so it’s time for men to watch someone else for a change.

Moore’s other big-name remake, Battlestar Galactica, wonderfully balanced male and female characters, PoC, and gay characters, giving everyone intriguing personalities. He has 8 books worth of material to work with, although the Starz synopsis indicates they might be moving some things around in some crucial ways that I’m a little concerned about. (Granted, I’ve only read halfway through Part 3 of the first book, a series I only started after watching the premiere last week, so I could be talking total nonsense.) Nevertheless, I trust Moore enough to not worry too much over some of the potential issues.

There’s a lot of mystery and magic to the show, but the premiere suffers from too much to do and not enough time in which to do it, as most pilots do. There’s more than enough to keep me coming back for more, a feeling I had even before picking up the books. The show has a lot of potential, and while some of its first steps are shaky and its path unclear, I think it’ll be just fine. It may never be the epic historical drama Starz wants it to be, but as long as it stays out of the Downton Abbey weeds, I’ll be pleased.

Final Thoughts

  • The theme song is an altered version of the poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, “Sing me a Song of a Lad that is Gone.”
  • Having now seen the premiere 3 times, I can honestly say it gets both better and worse with each viewing.
  • One of the best years of my life was my study abroad year in Scotland. Hadn’t realized how much I miss that place until Outlander. I could totally go for a pint and some haggis in a Highlands pub right about now.

Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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