With a reputation for gratuitous flesh and boning, Starz is the last place you’d expect to find a mature love story. But the pleasantly surprising Outlander gives us a romance between adults that feels adult, that’s sexy and smart and stirring. The drama — adapted from Diana Gabaldon’s book series — comes from Ronald D. Moore, who commanded Syfy’s reboot of Battlestar Galactica. He and his team conjure up 18th-century Scotland with equally impressive verisimilitude. Outlander may not be the next great sci-fi opus that Moore’s fanboys crave — this is not a tony TV reinvention of Highlander — but it is transporting thanks to his commitment to emotional resonance and world-building.
In a way, Moore is telling the same story he did in Battlestar: Outlander is about a tortured, transformative search for home. It begins after World War II, with married Brits Claire (Caitriona Balfe), a former army nurse, and Frank (Tobias Menzies), an ex-intelligence officer, trying to rebuild their relationship during a trip to the Scottish Highlands. While investigating a Stonehenge-like arrangement of rocks, Claire is whisked back to 1743, a pivot point in the history of Highlander culture. She’s held captive by Clan MacKenzie, led by the charismatic bowlegged Colum (Gary Lewis) and his gruff bro Dougal (Graham McTavish) — and becomes captivated by Jamie (Sam Heughan), a hunky outlier, scarred physically and emotionally. She also runs afoul of Frank’s redcoat ancestor Black Jack Randall (also played by Menzies), a war-warped sadist. Their confrontation in episode 6 is terrifically suspenseful and terrifying.
Moore draws you into Claire’s ordeal with extensive use of narration — a dramatic cheat but effective — and deliberate pacing. The premiere doesn’t rush to her mystical departure; instead it dotes on Claire and Frank, making you feel their love. It’s an investment that pays off: When the narrative ditches Frank, his presence lingers powerfully. Similarly, Outlander doesn’t hustle the Claire-Jamie romance but cultivates a rapport rooted in empathy. By the time their relationship escalates, it’s been earned. It helps that the cast is uniformly strong and that Balfe delivers a star-making turn.
Though technically a time-travel tale, Outlander eschews the typical tropes. It’s more Peggy Sue Got Married poignant than Back to the Future geeky. There’s a subtly played allegorical aspect to Claire’s adventure, too. You could read her time-space odyssey as a Narnia-esque dream-fantasy, a way to process her war trauma and fluxy identity. There’s also a feminist interpretation: Claire — strong, intelligent, and sophisticated; married to a man who regards her as an equal — has gone down a rabbit hole into a misogynistic, patriarchal society. Outlander is good enough to inspire such overthinking. What makes it just plain good is the escapist fun of a romance told uncommonly well. A-
Diana Gabaldon's genre-bending time-travel novels come to life in the Starz series.