August 9, 2014

THE SKED Series Premiere Review: “Outlander”


OUTLANDER:  Saturday 9PM on Starz – If Nothing Else Is On…

After an uncharacteristic stop in the urban milieu of Power, Starz returns to its comfort zone of historical drama with OUTLANDER, based on the bestselling series of books by Diana Gabaldon.  The TV version retains a distinctly romance novel tone (with a pay-cable level of sexuality, of course), which is something of a surprise from series creator Ronald D. Moore, best known for his brilliant, hugely ambitious updating of Battlestar Galactica.  Based on the initial hour, written by Moore and directed by John Dahl, BSG fans will find little that’s recognizable as Moore’s in this new work.

The present-day of Outlander is 1945, when former British Army nurse Claire Randall (Caltriona Balfe) and her somewhat stolid, history-minded ex-Intelligence officer husband Frank (Tobias Menzies) travel to Scotland on a vacation to reacquaint themselves with each other after having been separated during most of World War II.  Before long, though, Claire finds herself flipping to a life in 1743 (although she retains her modern consciousness), where she’s abducted/taken in by a band of rebels against the British crown that includes hunky Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughen).  The Brits of the era, for their part, are led by Frank’s nasty ancestor Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall (also played by Menzies).  Claire is understandably disconcerted to find herself in the 18th century, but she quickly adapts, her knowledge of nursing and medicinal herbs making her instantly valuable to the rebels.

Outlander is in no great hurry to get its story underway; Claire doesn’t take her first trip to the past until the last 20 minutes of the opening hour, and the only characters introduced with any real detail are the leads.  Instead, Moore and Dahl (and cinematographer David Higgs) provide a great deal of very pretty landscape as Claire drifts toward her twin destinies, with a great deal of expository narration to lay things out.  Balfe is likably feisty in the way of an old-movie heroine, while the two men are set up as the opposite ends of the dependability vs excitement conundrum that’s consumed many a chick flick protagonist.  If there’s going to be any complication to the appeal of the love interests in Claire’s life (or lives), it’s been saved for future episodes.

Watching the richly photographed scenery go by and the good-looking people interact is a pleasant enough way to spend an hour, but there’s nothing very compelling about Outlander‘s start, either as time travel fantasy or historical drama.  There’s no denying the appeal of the source material–Gabaldon has published 8 books in the series, and Starz says that over 900,000 people have already sampled the opening episode online or on VOD.  For those of us exposed to the material for the first time, however, there’s something generic about the saga in both of its time-frames; Claire seems like she’s going to do just fine in whichever era she inhabits.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."