Outlander has been a long time coming and it’s finally arrived–you can watch the first episode online here even if you’re not a Starz subscriber. I thought I’d share my thoughts on this first episode. Whatever its faults, I don’t believe there is one careless frame–even the (eeew) field surgery scenes are beautiful in their way. There’s a whole lot of very effective playing around with light and filters–the present day (immediately after WW2) sequences, for instance have a sepia, historic feel to them–and it all looks amazing.
The camera lingers on Caitriona Balfe’s stunning face. Most often she’s gazing at her husband Frank, who is not looking much at her. In fact I liked the scenes with Frank better than the scenes with the Scotsmen, where she comes over as predominantly sulky and stone faced. Maybe she caught it from Sam Heughan, who plays Jamie with a limited repertoire of expressions–I think I counted about three variants on stoic bearing of pain–although there are a couple of flashes of manly thigh. I wait to be impressed.
There is a huge amount of historical filth and grime–the first appearance of a Scotsman suggests a walking collection of rags in the land of bad haircuts. The countryside is gorgeous. The horses are nice.
So what’s not to love? Well, the pacing is off, off, off. Those of us who’ve read the book(s) know that Claire will be going through the stones. Does she get there in episode 1? Eventually, yes. Compared to the brief, brilliant flashback that shows the young Claire on an excavation (lighting a cigarette for her archaeologist uncle, tsk tsk–what, children smoking???–a nice touch) the setup goes on and on and on. I wonder whether it would have been possible to have Claire going through the stones as the end of episode one.
And when she does go through … well, surely this is the Big Moment. We get a black screen. Good. Then … oh dear, flashback to car wreck which is what Claire compares it to, although not I believe in the book, pulling us right out of the moment (and I rarely meets a flashback I don’t like). Bad. I was really hoping for a sort of Hitchcockian Vertigo moment here, lots of wobbly camera effects and panic. Maybe a Blair Witch moment.
Really, all in all, there’s a lot that happens in this first episode but it doesn’t feel that way on the small screen. It’s both disjointed and repetitive. Claire swears, Scotsmen and/or English officers threaten her, she runs, she gets a bit more dirty, performs first aid, rinse and repeat.
I have the greatest admiration for Diana Gabaldon, whose episodic technique was a revelation to me when I heard her speak about twelve years ago: that you can skip onto a scene that you’re dying to write or even a scene that seems to have no particular place to go (yet). Reading her now, I find myself thinking, this scene is great, but really, what are we doing here? Do we ever meet this character again? Do we have to remember him/her? I suspect the TV series will have too many moments like this as well, and it’s too bad.
But, yes, I’ll be watching. Will you, have you? What did you think?