Sunday, August 10, 2014

Old Country: Starz' Outlander

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.

I've never read any of Gabaldon's novels, but following on the heels of Games of Thrones and (the early seasons of) True Blood, writer/producer Ron Moore (Battlestar Galactica) seems intent on genuinely translating the novel's voice to the small screen – giving a lot of weight, for example, to the book's first-person narrative in the form of a recurring voiceover by Claire. I'm rarely a fan of voiceovers, even when used sparingly. (The USA Network's otherwise entertaining In Plain Sight was regularly marred by its lead's closing homilies, which were more often than not pedantic and entirely out of character for any possible version of Mary Shannon's inner voice.) But, at least in this introductory episode, it works rather nicely, and gives the series an almost radio drama feel: providing a lot of crucial exposition, while powerfully reinforcing the deliberately classical tone of the story.The post-war melancholia of the 1945 scenes further adds to the deliberateness of the telling. Watching this first hour of Outlander often felt like slipping into a warm bath, in sharp contrast to some other cable efforts which are more like a icy cold and biting shower. (In that way – and likely in only that way – Outlander has a lot in common with HBO's similarly literary True Detective.)

Caitriona Balfe and Tobias Menzies in Outlander.
"Outlander" is the literal translation of the Scottish Gaelic word sassenach, a pejorative for an English-person – which Claire is in at least two crucial ways once she finds herself in 1743 Scotland, smack dab in the middle of another kind of war (this time with the British facing off against a ragtag Jacobite rebellion), where she would have been out of place even if she hadn't been born centuries in the future. All this is made even more compelling, and fascinating, knowing that the initial run of the series – which received partial funding from the Scottish government – leads us practically to the day of the historic Scottish referendum on independence, set to take place this mid-September.

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.
There is one dark possibility, suggested in this episode, that would be genuinely upsetting. Her husband – intellectual, dry, introverted, but sincerely devoted and loving – is given a dark doppelgänger in the form of his ancestor, Jonathan "Black Jack" Randall (also played by Tobias Menzies). In this first episode, his interaction with Claire amounts to basically a "how do you do" and an abortive attempted rape. Certainly his character will deepen and be enriched across the season, but Claire has already demonstrated an initially understandable fascination with the man – Jack is also the leader of the British troops hunting her new Scottish "friends" so that interest is perhaps well earned – but hopefully nothing beyond that natural curiosity lies in the show's future. Her devotion to her husband could well survive a romantic tryst with her roguish Scot Jamie (especially considering that the script had already provided her with a painfully telegraphed scene of pre-absolution, from her husband, for wartime transgressions earlier), but it would be difficult not to experience even any sexual tension with Black Jack as a deep betrayal, not only of her husband but of herself.

Nonetheless, it remains all too clear that it is Jamie who will be Claire's love interest, and the monochromatic evil of the man wearing her husband's face could make that romantic storyline a bit too pat. Still, the erotic charge of the series has already dominated much of the press, and perhaps rightly so. After four years of Game of Thrones, it is refreshing to see sex on screen with some actual trust and intimacy. In the first half hour alone, the series somehow delivers three genuinely hot sex scenes, all without a hint of violence or unequal power relations. (Who knew TV writers could still do that?) And, in decided contrast to the generally restrained tone of the narrative, Outlander is firmly set in a world where violence and sex are explicit and, more importantly, pointedly distinct (this, it should be noted, is true of both the 19- and 1740’s). Just as the camera refused to cut away from the opening scenes of battlefield medicine, so the sex happens on-screen, with no coy cutaways and suggestive shadows – as the otherwise old school tone of the series might have implied.

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 clichĂ©s, 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.

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on August 10, 2014. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.