Review: Starz's 'Outlander' transports viewers to a magical place

Caitriona Balfe in Starz’s new show ‘Outlander’.
Caitriona Balfe in Starz’s new show ‘Outlander’.
Published Aug. 7, 2014

Starz's new series Outlander isn't merely a feminist Game of Thrones. In fact, it's refreshingly hard to pin down, a vibrant concoction of rollicking adventure, passionate romance and strikingly beautiful history lesson. Throw in a bit of sci-fi and the show becomes its own captivating genre.

Like Diana Gabaldon's popular series of novels on which the show is based, Outlander follows a married WWII nurse named Claire Randall who gets transported back to Scotland in 1743, smack dab in the middle of civil war and the arms of a hunky Scottish warrior.

For Starz, a cable outlet that's been producing original content (most of it short-lived) for years, Outlander could be one of its biggest shows ever, both in scope and popularity. More than 25 million people have bought Gabaldon's books. (The series began in 1991; the eighth installment came out in June.) And with a reported budget of more than $75 million and months filming on location in Scotland, the series has an epic, cinematic feel.

Most of that can be traced to executive producer and writer Ronald D. Moore, who's made a career out of bringing foreign worlds to life, whether aboard the Battlestar Galactica (he helmed the 2004 reboot) or in the Depression era of HBO's ill-fated period piece Carnivale.

That world-building expertise is on full, luscious display in Outlander.

First and foremost, the show is absolutely striking. Both time periods have an irresistible aesthetic, an authenticity that fills every frame. The location imbues each scene with an ethereal, majestic vibe. "There's no place on Earth with more magic and superstition mixed into its daily life than the Scottish Highlands," Claire's husband says shortly after they arrive for their second honeymoon. He's right.

(The music by composer Bear McCreary, who also did the score for Battlestar Galactica, is exquisite and used with care.)

But Outlander's biggest asset is its heroine, Claire, played by Caitriona Balfe with equal parts hardened wit and femininity. Balfe has a real old-movie star vibe; think Vivien Leigh or Ingrid Bergman. Her pale skin and dark hair pop against the lush forests of the highlands. And don't let her waifish appearance fool you: Claire is a strong, independent lady, someone who doesn't need a man even though she's got two — a husband back in 1943 (Tobias Menzies) and that Scottish warrior (Sam Heughan, who has palpable steamy chemistry with Balfe) — in the palm of her hand.

The most exciting parts of Outlander make good use of Claire's place in both worlds as a woman. Take the introductory 18th century scenes, when the brutish MacKenzie clan comes across Claire and has absolutely no idea what to do with her, a woman smart enough to save a man's life (or at least a few limbs) and brazen enough to insist they let her.

Oh, and the other thing you should know about Outlander? It's quite explicit. There's apparently a lot of sex in Gabaldon's books, and the show doesn't shy away from any of it.

I haven't read a word of the Outlander books, but in the first three episodes of this season (8 of 16 episodes will air this year), the show is compelling on its own. So it's a shame that the writing tends to depend too much on a voiceover by Claire. Used to good effect in the beginning to set the stage, it goes on far too long past the premiere. Still, it's hard to resist the poetry of lines like: "I wanted it to be a dream, but I knew it wasn't. If nothing else, my erstwhile savior reeked of odors too foul to be part of any dream I was likely to conjure up."

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There's a memorable scene in Outlander's first episode in which Claire is perched in the woods, behind a tree, watching a group of women perform an ancient ritual in the middle of the night. They swirl around in gauzy outfits, spinning lit torches in circles until the fire starts to blur.

"They should have been ridiculous, and perhaps they were, parading in circles on top of a hill, but the hairs on the back of my neck prickled at the site," Claire says.

That's how it can feel watching Outlander, like a peek into a wondrous world.