“My dear, there is no place on Earth with more superstition and magic mixed into it’s daily life than the Scottish Highlands.”
The reason I myself didn’t read the Outlander series until recently was everyone telling me it’s a romance novel. While yes, that is how it’s marketed, the series is so much more than that. It’s historical fiction, it’s a war tome, it even fits into science fiction/fantasy. The fan base is pretty evenly split between men and women, also. Occasionally, it’s the husbands/boyfriends/brothers who suggest the series to the ladies in their life, making Diana Gabaldon‘s novel a worldwide phenomenon for almost 15 years. With all that said, I’m really glad I dove in, because the series is a wonderful read and the characters seem like dear friends now.
Starz network has been controlling the cable market in awesome historical dramas for the last two years (Da Vinci’s Demons, White Queen, Black Sails), and when it was announced that they with show runner Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek: TNG/DS9, Helix) were developing the series, I was already planning my tasting menus for the premiere night.
My first viewing of the pilot titled “Sassenach” (which is a Scottish word usually used to denote English outsiders or ‘Outlanders’ that main character Jamie Fraser calls other main character Claire as a loving term of endearment) was in my hotel room at Comic Con. I have to also say that each morning at SDCC, I was pleasantly awoken to the sound of bagpipes and drums parading around the Gaslamp area. I even tweeted to the Outlander account, and they responded. Which I have to say, is STILL one of the best ways to wake up. I was also lucky enough to attend the world premiere extravaganza and small concert Starz put on at an offsite theater during SDCC.
Let’s talk about the music, shall we? Emmy winning composer Bear McCreary is doing the score for the series, and that of course means bagpipes and drums, and haunting vocals. Here is the opening title sequence, with the official theme song.
Yes, it’s traditional as it gets, and beautifully done. It’s lovely and the visuals take you to the general state of mind of the series, BUT, as a fan of the books, the composer, AND the vocalist, I wish they would have contrived something with three vocalists for the theme, ideally one female voice (Raya Yarbrough is who you hear in the piece), and two male voices. Why? Because that triangle is the basis of everything the first book is built on. I just think it would have been a fantastic way to pull the television series theme and the book series ‘theme’ together.
“Sassenach” begins with a voiceover from Caitriona Balfe, in a brilliant way to fill in the first person narrative the books are written in. Normally, narrations like this wouldn’t necessarily work for a TV series, but the amount of observations and backstory filled in by character Claire’s thoughts are perfectly meshed with this method of conveyance. The first few minutes are spent introducing us to WWII nurse Claire Randall in one of her normal settings, surrounded by warrior men and covered in blood. Her calm and composure while repairing a massive compound fracture and spurting femoral artery tell you almost everything you need to know about this post-modern woman; strength and grace in the midst of unspeakable violence.
Claire and her husband are reunited after being apart for 5 years during the war, and they go on a second honeymoon to the Scottish countryside before Frank (played by Tobias Menzies who is a DEVILISHLY charming man), a history scholar, assumes a teaching position at Oxford. We are privy to a married couple getting to know the people they’ve become in their time apart, falling back in love after work, war, and travel separated them. Claire even says in part of her voice over that “sex is how they find each other again”, the audience MUST believe the love these two people have, or the motivation for the first season won’t matter at all. We see tenderness, humor, a professional detachment also, and finally the reuniting of this couple happy to be freed from distractions…..until Frank has a historical breakthrough with Reverend Wakefield. But seriously, WHAT IS IT WITH THE MEN IN CLAIRE’S LIFE HAVING AN OBSESSION WITH HER HANDS?
The Randalls explore the castle of Leoch, which Monty Python fans might recognize as the shooting location for several of the castles in The Holy Grail. Ron Moore talked about some of the cast running around the halls with coconuts (which can be purchased in the giftshop). I have to say that I knew, as will most book readers, the room in which Frank and Claire find themselves in will be a main location for her in future episodes. We also get the second love scene of the pilot. “Why Mrs. Randall, I do believe you’ve left your undergarments at home.”
One of my favorite additions is the small scene with Claire’s archaeologist uncle Lamb, who she speaks of often in the book series lending him much credit to her ability to roll with the punches as they swing. And of course, the admission of Frank being part of Military Intelligence during the war, which you don’t find out til much later in the books, but the use of it early on helps the audience understand a bit more of who he is.
Still one of the most highly debated parts of the source materials is the appearance of the ghost below the B & B’s window, watching Claire as she brushes her hair. Frank encounters the spirit on a rainy night when the power is out, and the spectre is never truly explained. “I only got a glimpse of his face, and he was very unhappy about something. When he brushed past my sleeve, I should have felt something, but I didn’t.” The shadowy figure in the show seems to lend itself to the theory that the watcher is indeed Jamie Fraser. (I still think it’s more likely to be later book character Buck.)
I cannot say enough good things about the stone circle sequence in which the Randalls sneak to the closeby standing stones called Craigh na Dun in order to watch the local coven of Druidic ladies welcome in Beltain. I was worried about how it would be scored and presented, the possibility of the ridiculousness of American Horror Story and their over the top rituals fresh in my mind. But as usual, Moore didn’t let me down. The start of the chant is soft and slow, bringing the observer into this stolen scene with grace. Claire’s voice over says exactly how I feel with it, even thinking about the scene now, I get goosebumps. The perfect melding of the music and visuals (although MAN that sun rises quickly) gave me, as a fan of the books, a perfect moment of adaptation to the screen.
As any ill advised main character in a horror film, Claire returns to the stones alone the next day to pick wild flowers. Once there, she is aurally assaulted by the cacophonous uproar described in the book as screaming, gun fire, rumbling, the sound of a battle. She of course HAS to move towards whatever the sound’s source is, which happens to be (in the book a large fissure between two stones) the largest stone in the middle of the circle. Upon touching the stone, she is knocked flat on the ground for an indefinite span of time. When she wakes, it’s to rush towards her awaiting car, which is no longer where she parked it earlier because now it’s 1743.
There was a lovely moment during the SDCC screening when the first black powder musket fires, and the audience jerked and jumped in response. The musical cue that follows this is an upbeat piece of bagpipes and drums, ushering a fleeing Claire into the countryside as a soldier chases her. Three ladies who kicked off the premiere event in kilted bagpipe awesomeness were sitting in a private box across the theater from me, and when the chase music started, all three started rocking in time and tapping their feet, largely unaware they were doing it. I’d say that’s a damn good compliment to the piece’s appeal. She runs until she comes across a man in full Dragoon red-coated splendor she encounters at the river’s edge, who is the damn near spitting image of Frank. In a twist of time, it’s NOT her husband Frank, but his ancestor, Captain Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall.
And he does what MANY men in the series do, tries to get a real answer from Claire as to who she is and how she came to be where she is, but with a sword to her throat and some serious insults to her virtue. Thankfully, MacKenzie clansman Murtagh (who is one of my three favorite characters in the series) is near at hand and rescues the damsel in distress from the unwanted advances of Randall, and knocks her unconscious in order to more easily move her to where his awaiting companions were sheltering from the Highland rain.
I have to say again, how happy I am with the casting choices of the characters in this show. I am still dubious as to why they didn’t opt to give Caitriona contacts so she’d have Claire’s “whisky colored eyes”, and I’m not sure how her athletic build compares with Claire’s “ample posterior”, but she inhabits the character extremely well. The war chieftain of Clan McKenzie Dougal is played by Scotsman Graham McTavish (Red Dwarf, The Hobbit, 24) who within three seconds of being on screen in his kilt and speaking Gaelic had me completely sold. Dougal interrogates Claire the best he can in the circumstances, still positively convinced she was hiding any number of secrets, which we as the audience know she is.
Behind him, we see a shirtless form before the fire, obviously in some measure of discomfort. This is Jamie Fraser, nursing a dislocated shoulder from the earlier skirmish with the English. Sam Heughan is a fantastic choice for the role, after sitting next to him during the SDCC pressroom interviews, I was astounded by how warm and thoughtful he was. His deep timber accented voice, red hair, and BLUE blue eyes lend themselves well for this. Claire, her healer’s instinct keen, stops the wet woolen highlanders from trying to force Jamie’s arm back into joint the wrong way. Steeling himself with the magic fortifying liquid of the area (a big ol’ swig of whisky), Jamie grits his teeth and Claire is able to slip his shoulder back into place with minimal trouble.
Dougal musters the troops, and they remount on horses (Claire riding with Jamie, wrapped partially in his plaid) and head towards the seat of the MacKenzie. While on route, they encounter yet ANOTHER ambush of British troops, and in the chaos, Jamie is shot, which he doesn’t reveal until he falls from his horse, and Claire has to administer side-of-the-road in the dark care. This moment is important for book readers because in later chapters, this is the exact second Jamie says he falls in love with her. There is such an interesting look on his face, hardly showing the pain he must be feeling from the bullet wound, and it conveys what it needs to for the audience to understand that in this moment, something happens. Claire patches him up, and they manage to make it to Castle Leoch, the same from Claire and Frank’s visit in the future, without further incident, thus ending the first episode of the season.
I actually wasn’t intending to write so much about it, but it kind of comes with the territory of an adapted book-to-tv review. I mean I’ll also have my cast interviews up at some point, I think getting to see these people together outside the set and their costumes has given me a different insight into why I think the casting really works. I highly suggest fans of historical dramas and good character driven television in general should watch this show, it’ll only get more interesting from here on out. I’ll post episode two review before next weekend, and in the meantime, Je suis prest.