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The broken heart it kens, nae second spring again: Starz’s OUTLANDER

But the broken heart it kens, nae second spring again
Tho’ the waeful may cease frae their weeping.

(But the broken heart cannot know second spring again
Though the woeful may cease from their weeping.)

Loch Lomond
Traditional Scottish Folksong

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Considering its 8.7/10-star rating on IMDb, I may be one of the very few viewers who’s not deleriously happy with Starz’s new series Outlander, based on the best-selling books by Diana Gabaldon, but I’m throwing my metaphorical hat into the reviewing ring anyway. I’ve never read the books, but the premise of the show is fascinating: a World War II nurse, Claire, goes on a post-War “second honeymoon” to the Scottish Highlands with her husband, Frank, where she touches the tallest rock in a Henge, and is inexplicably transported to the same place 200+ years in the past, in the midst of the wars between the Scottish clans and the British Empire. I’ve watched all 5 episodes of the series so far, waiting for something else to happen beyond the initial premise, and I find that the show has as many weaknesses as it does strengths.

Warning: Spoilers throughout

Weaknesses

  • Instead of the intriguing philosophical Voice-Over that began the series (and which may not have been in the book since the “prologue” where it appears is only in the Starz tie-in version) — “People disappear all the time” — the voice-over has begun narrating what we’re seeing on the screen — “15 paces to the sentry tower” (as Claire is walking there) — or justifying Claire’s behavior — “I was jealous” (which the viewer already knew) — or explaining what the viewer could figure out for himself — “the hunting game was more than a game” (as Claire is continually looking up at the sentry on the watchtower while she’s playing with the children). That makes the Voice-Over a repetition of what we’re seeing onscreen, a redundancy, or simply an insult to the viewer’s intelligence. Whatever it’s meant to be, the Voice-Over isn’t working any longer and is getting tedious.
  • I’ve watched the entire five episodes which open the series — several times — and after Claire (Caitriona Balfe) inexplicably disappears, not once do we get a glimpse of what her poor husband Frank (Tobias Menzies) must be going through in 1945 without his wife, who’s been gone for months. (In an earlier show, while at the castle in the 1740s, Claire mentions that she’s been here for weeks; in last night’s episode, when she accompanies the clan members on a rent-collecting trip, she mentions that the group has been on the road “for weeks.” That now equals months, yet no indication of what Frank is doing or experiencing, and I, for one, am worried about him, although Claire does not seem to be: she’s only been sad, for a few seconds, and specifically mentioned Frank once, though she often, at the end of a show, says she has to get “back to the stones.” )
  • Lots of atmosphere in the setting but no Urgency or forward plot momentum. In short, nothing of note has happened since she ended up in the past.
  • The 1940s music over the 1740s setting is more than a bit disconcerting.
  • The long, untranslated, un-subtitled dialogue and monologues in Scots Gaelic, which I assume are authentic since Starz boasts its Scots Gaelic dialogue coach/expert, are dull in the extreme since I don’t know what’s going on. In episode 5, Claire complains that the group is intentionally speaking in Gaelic to “exclude her” and make her feel like an outsider. Claire, honey, you’re not the only one. At least you didn’t mention being bored during the long Gaelic passages, as I am.
  • The supposed clan conflict with Claire’s supposed love-interest in the past — Jamie — makes no sense to me, though I watched episode 4, where it was convolutedly explained and temporarily solved, three times. Nope. I still don’t get the problem with Jamie and the clan. Maybe you have to read the books to understand it. But that makes it a weakness for the series.
  • I don’t see any chemistry between the actors who play Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan). I keep looking for it, but beyond the fact that he has a nice body, which, in itself, does not guarantee sexual chemistry except between shallow individuals, I don’t see or feel any sparks. I don’t know if it’s the acting, the actors, or the script.
  • No one ever asks Claire who or what “Roosevelt” is in her most frequent curse: “Jesus H Roosevelt Christ.” Now, you may think that’s petty, but in a world where women were severely discriminated against and accused of witchcraft for disobeying their husbands or being different or for looking at someone sideways, I find it odd that no one asks what that means, or, worse, thinks she’s casting a spell on them (especially since one of the characters came and asked Claire for a love potion, so her “supernatural abilities seem to be assumed).

Strengths

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  • The hints that the show’s other “healer,” Gellis Duncan (Lotte Verbeek), may be a time-traveler as well are very intriguing, especially as she seems to have accepted her fate, and makes many pointed comments to Claire that you can make a good life for yourself even if it’s not one you ever imagined.

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  • Good chemistry between Claire and Gellis (actor Lotte Verbeek). Most of that may come from Verbeek, but whatever the reason, she’s a delightful character, and the scenes she’s in with Claire are some of the show’s most interesting, especially when she asks if Claire, who’s hoarding food for her escape, is pregnant and “eating for more than one.”

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  • Beautiful clothes. Look at the fur Claire’s wearing as she accompanies the group on its rent-collecting chores.
  • Since Claire had “naught but her shift” and shoes when the clan members found her, someone in the castle is very generous, lending Claire dresses, furs, and very nice jewelry whenever needed.

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  • Absolutely beautiful countryside (the show was filmed in Scotland).

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  • Claire quotes John Donne’s poetry (albeit only once so far), so she’s well-read.
  • Claire’s managed to heal quite a few people, including a boy everyone assumed was possessed by the devil and who would have died had she not administered the antidote (belladonna, itself a poison) to the poisonous plant (Lily of the Valley) she assumed he’d eaten (he was unconscious).
  • When she can’t heal them, she is able to at least make them feel better, as when she massages the base of clan Laird Colum MacKenzie’s spine rather than his deformed legs (as his former healer used to do).
  • When she can’t save them, she’s honest about it, and helps them die as peacefully as she can (the boy mortally wounded in the boar hunt, which earns her the clan’s respect).
  • Claire’s mostly cool-headed, even if she occasionally does things a 20th century woman would do, like when she teases Jamie — at dinner, in front of others — about his sexual interaction with another woman, and continues to do so despite his warning kick under the table.

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  • Her guards, whom she also refers to as her “shadows,” are amusing. Whether that’s the actors themselves improv-ing or it’s in the script, it works. In episode 5, for example, they and the other members of the rent-collecting group beat up men in another group for calling Claire a “whore” in Gaelic. Afterward, while she’s tending to their minor scrapes and bruises, calling them “big babies” and asking what it was all about, the funniest “shadow,” Angus, tells her, quite matter-of-factly: “They called you a ‘whore’. You’re a guest of The MacKenzie. We can insult you, but God help any other man that does.” That was the first time I laughed aloud at anything in the show.

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  • Dougal’s cool. (On left in photo above. Played by actor Graham McTavish, Dougal’s an uncle to Jaime and brother to clan leader Colum (Gary Lewis), on right in photo.) Dougal’s got just enough bad qualities mixed with good ones to make him a totally awesome character. I like him. Especially in the scene where the young man gored by the boar asks him, “Did ye bed my sister?” and Dougal admits, “Aye. She was a bonnie lass,” leading the dying boy to conclude that Dougal “always could charm the lasses.”

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  • Whatever conflict Jamie has with the MacKenzie clan, who are his kin, it’s intriguing. I admit that I don’t quite understand it, but it’s intriguing nevertheless. That makes Jamie’s nature interesting.

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  • At last, Claire showed a sense of humor. When one of her “shadows” was telling a tall tale about his sexually having two women at the same time, each jealously fighting over him, she responded that she believed his “left hand was jealous of his right,” causing all the men to laugh, and him to say, in astonishment, “I never heard a woman make a joke before.”
  • And finally, in a show where one of the major conflicts is Claire’s arrival in a time when the Scottish Highlanders were about to stage a major rebellion (the last attempt to put a Stuart on the throne of Scotland, which marked the end of the clans) with the British, at the end of episode 5, the British arrived!
Caitriona Balfe as Claire & Tobias Menzies as husband Frank (L), Sam Heughan as Jaime and Balfe as transported Claire (R)

Caitriona Balfe as Claire & Tobias Menzies as husband Frank (L), Sam Heughan as Jamie and Balfe as transported Claire (R)

Do Outlander’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses? I can’t decide yet. But I’m hoping the slow pace of episodes 2-5 will pick up considerably now that the British have arrived and asked Claire, in front of Dougal, whether, as an Englishwoman, she was “voluntarily” with the Scottish clan.

So I’ll keep watching, hoping there’s a good reason for author Gabaldon’s Outlander series to have become a bestseller (besides lots of women just liking to read 800+-page novels), and an even better reason for Starz to have made it into a series, and to have renewed it for a second season before the episode 2 even aired (besides just trying to capitalize on its bestseller status, because I seriously doubt the show’s going to be up for any kind of awards).

Besides, I love the opening theme.

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By yon bonnie banks, and by yon bonnie braes:
Starz’s Daring Outlander

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By yon bonnie banks, and by yon bonnie braes: Starz’s daring OUTLANDER

First of all, I must admit that I have never read any of the books in the Diana Gabaldon Outlander series, so any reviews I write will be based strictly on the Starz adaptation, and no comparison with the books will be attempted. There are always fans of the books who don’t like the series and vice versa, as HBO’s TrueBlood, adapted from Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse Southern Vampire novels demonstrate. I watched that series without ever reading the books, and given that the first novel in the Outlander series weighs in at a hefty 800+ pages, I don’t think I’ll be able to finish it before the series continues. From the first episode, however, I have to say that Starz is taking an incredibly bold and daring step for a premium channel: making a series that seems devoted primarily, if not entirely, to female viewers.

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I have to say that I find the entire concept of Outlander interesting, especially since I wasn’t aware until recently that so many Romance novels included time-travel (would that be fantasy or science fiction?) in their themes. Since I’m familiar with the tremendously well written and interesting Lesson series by Jennifer Connors, I was happy to give Outlander a hearty go.

In the Connors’ series, the romance-mocking heroine time-travels at the end of each novel — once she and the hero of the book in question have fallen in love and married or otherwise joined their lives together — only to find herself in a completely different time period facing yet another hero which requires her wit and adaptability, and tests her courage, independence, and modern 21st century feminism. From the photos released by Starz, it looks like Outlander will only be set in two periods: post-war 1945 and 1740s, but both locales seem to be the same, the Scottish Highlands.

Still, given that Claire is a nurse during the war with recognized skills, and given her droll sense of humor whenever she seemingly playfully mocks her husband Frank’s interest in his own geneology, Claire seemed the right kind of heroine to make a time-travel romance fascinating, especially since the novel is sometimes listed as an historical drama, and I like history.

The premise is simple enough, and the voice-over of the opening of the first episode was compelling:

People disappear all the time. Ask any policeman. Better yet, ask a journalist. Disappearances are bread-and-butter to journalists. Young girls run away from home. Young children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives reach the end of their tether and take the grocery money and a taxi to the station. International financiers change their names and vanish into the smoke of imported cigars. Many of the lost will be found eventually, dead or alive. Disappearances, after all, have explanations. Usually.

(This is from the Starz Tie-in version of the novel, and may have been added since the original book doesn’t appear to have this “prologue”.)

Claire and her husband Frank, separated for at least five years because of the War, have gone on a “second honeymoon” to the Scottish Highlands to “reconnect” (and so Frank can research his direct ancestor John “Black Jack” Randall, a politically protected British military leader who attempted to quell Scottish uprisings: Tobias Menzies plays both Frank, in 1945, and Black Jack, in the 1740s).

Both readers and reviewers have commented on the “hot sex” in Outlander. Not having read the books, I cannot speak to their content, but I’m afraid I saw no “hot sex” in the opening episode, though Claire constantly claims that “Sex was our bridge back to one another… As long as we had that, I had faith that everything would work out.” Though there was the obligatory complete nudity for Caitriona Balfe but not for any of the males, I didn’t find the bedroom scenes between Frank and Claire even mildly erotic. And Claire’s voice-over made them seem forced. One shouldn’t have to tell viewers they’re watching an erotic scene: they should know that.

In fact, the scene when the couple visits the ancient, abandoned castle and Claire sits on a table, spreading her legs slightly with a “come hither” look to her husband Frank was more erotic than any of the full-nudity-for-her/shirt-off-for-him scenes. When Tobias Menzies, who has a very sexy voice, by the way, as Frank, put his hand up his wife’s dress, between her legs, and matter-of-factly commented, “Why, Mrs. Randall, you seem to have left your undergarments at home,” before kneeling before her… that was erotic.

But it disturbs me that Claire doesn’t seem to take Frank’s interests seriously, especially as he investigates his own family history in the Highlands or tells her some of the history of the places they’re visiting. She almost seems to mock him at times — I thought I even caught some eye-rolling on her part — so I began to wonder why exactly they had to “reconnect” after the War. I wondered if the reason they needed to “reconnect” had to do with something other than their only seeing each other 10 days in the past five years.

In any event, I pushed those faint disturbances aside as I continued watching the episode. The scene where Frank and Claire spy on the women re-enacting an ancient Druid rite at a Henge of stones was exotic and lyrical. The choreography and music were haunting and effective. In this scene, as in the opening, Claire’s voice-over also worked well: “I had a feeling I didn’t belong there.”

Unfortunately, it was also at that moment, I knew my boyfriend would never be watching Outlander with me. The Henge dance was basically a lovely and haunting Celtic ballet, and as much as I liked it and found it moving, I knew that had he been there to see it, that’s the time he would’ve picked up a book and started reading. (Like the Emperor Franz Josef in Milos Forman’s Amadeus, who “doesn’t like ballet in his opera,” my boyfriend doesn’t like “ballet” in anything, but especially not in historical dramas, which he loves.)

Yes, Starz is being very daring, attempting to make a series for a predominantly female audience. But I’m female, and I find that kind of gender-specific genre drama rather dull. Still, I have my fingers crossed. The series is based on a set of best-selling novels, and how could more than “25 million readers” be wrong?

When Claire returns to the Henge, ostensibly to gather a flower, and touches the center stone, she is inexplicably transported back in time to the same place, circa 1740s. When she regains consciousness, she is in the past, confronting both Black Jack, whom she first mistakes for her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies in a dual role), and a small group of Scottish Highlanders, among them Jamie (Sam Heughan). As the prettiest person in the series, the only male in the past with relatively short hair and virtually no beard, I quickly gathered that he will become Claire’s love interest and/or conflict in the past.

In fact, virtually all the images available for Outlander involve Claire and Jamie, or Claire and the 1740s Scots, not even the British Black Jack, so I assume that will be the focus of the show. I’ve heard that it’s historically accurate and well-researched, and I hope that’s true because I love a good historical drama, like Starz’s Spartacus where, though we know little about the major real-life players, a brilliant drama was constructed around the basic facts of their lives.

Caitriona Balfe as Claire & Tobias Menzies as husband Frank (L), Sam Heughan as Jaime and Balfe as transported Claire (R)

Caitriona Balfe as Claire & Tobias Menzies as husband Frank (L), Sam Heughan as Jamie and Balfe as transported Claire (R)

There were many things I liked about the first episode of Outlander. Frank is an interesting, intelligent, smart, complex man. Claire was a nurse, and a competent enough one that, in the War scene, I thought she was a doctor and almost whooped for joy. Still, she knows enough to help the wounded Jamie after she’s time-transported to the past, and she has a nice cursing vocabulary on her: one that astonishes the Scots, who claim they’ve never heard a woman talk like her before. I like that in a woman.

Claire seems also more sensitive to the energy of the Henge — the earth, the Universe, whatever — than her husband Frank. After the dance, he, too, touches the center stone, but then starts jotting notes in his little tablet. (She touches it later, when she returns alone, and is jolted out of her present life into the past.) She’s not afraid to speak her mind, even when surrounded by male strangers who look quite the ruffians. She uses her medical knowledge to gain their trust. When she uses the historical knowledge about British ambushes that she gained from Frank, she earns a bit of trust from the Scots but also makes them wary. They suspect she may be a spy. She quickly learns when to be “seen and not heard.”

The foreshadowing in the series is subtle but effective. Frank tells her he kept drawing the lines of her palm during the War — he doesn’t know why — then the Reverend’s wife or housekeeper reads Claire’s palm and comments that the lines are unusual, connecting the two scenes. I hope the lines of her palm, which are repeatedly described as unusual or memorable, will have something to do with her survival in the past as well as with her return to the present. Or at least with the Henge stones and why she was transported when she touched them, but Frank wasn’t when he did. I’ll just have to wait and see, as will anyone who’s not read the novels.

Claire’s not the typical romance novel heroine in terms of her looks, and I admire that. These days, it seems almost obligatory that the heroine have raven hair, green eyes, and a buxom figure, no matter where or when the novel’s set, and it’s refreshing to have a dark-haired, dark-eyed actress, with a sometimes pout but an otherwise ordinary face, and quite a thin body (too thin, in my humble opinion) playing the lead role. Caitriona’s Claire is tall, feisty, and pouty. I like those qualities so far. She’s smart and takes command whenever there’s a situation that requires her knowledge or skills to save someone or to prevent slaughter. I like that, too. Most of the men, including her husband Frank, seem taciturn so far, while she’s the articulate one. I really like that, and just hope it doesn’t become a cliché — with all the men being sort of brutish, brainless hulks with only nice bodies and good fighting skills.

The Scots are protective of her — they prevent her being raped by Black Jack, and the clan leader won’t condone “rape” when the men suggest “testing” to see if she’s a whore; then the man who saved her from Black Jack ventures his opinion that she’s “no whore.” Even though, curiously, the Scots don’t question her anachronistic hairstyle, dress, shoes, jewelry, or (slight) makeup; and even though they fear she may be a British spy, they still defend her honor and her body. And they instantly obey her whenever she goes into her “Nurse” role, so they accept, without question, that she has more knowledge of some things than they, simply from the tone of her voice. That makes me like the male characters so far.

Alas, however, I won’t be able to share Outlander with my boyfriend. Despite the fact that rifles and pistols, swords and knives, running and chasing, shooting and potential violence abounds, he’s declined to watch any of the repeat showings. He said he “read what it was about” in the description. That is not a good sign. I attempted to tell him some of the things that happened in the premiere episode. He looked blank and more than mildly bored. It doesn’t look like he’ll even give Outlander a chance. He wouldn’t even watch the Outlander trailer.

That’s quite a risk for Starz, doing a show that seems aimed primarily at a female audience, because many females, like me and all my educated, career-women friends, don’t necessarily like gender-specific fiction. I like all kinds of fiction, as do they. I like history. And I wouldn’t like to see Outlander degenerate into a formulaic romance where a woman who, for some unspecified reason, has fallen out of love with her husband, whom I found to be the most intellectually and physically attractive man in the show, to fall in love with a man from the past just because he’s pretty and brawny and rides a horse and has a Scottish accent and speaks Gaelic.

If you missed the first episode last Saturday, and haven’t caught any of the reruns, Starz has it available on its website free of charge: you don’t have to be a Starz subscriber to watch the premiere episode of Outlander. It airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET.

Meanwhile, I’m keeping my fingers crossed, and hoping Outlander, despite some of my misgivings from the first episode, becomes more of a Starz Spartacus historical drama than a Lifetime femme-in-jep movie of the week.

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