Starz does this thing where they usually put the first episode of their new shows online in advance for free. I’ve taken advantage of this a few times (The White Queen, Black Sails) and thought the shows were entertaining, if flawed, but had the potential to be good. After that initial episode though, the episodes are only available if you have a Starz subscription (I don’t), or pay (I’m guessing) $2-3 per episode. Per episode. Hulu Plus or Netflix are less than $10 each for a whole month. So I’ve always dropped Starz shows, because why pay for shows I’m not sure will realize their potential to be quality when there are countless excellent shows available for a more reasonable price? Perhaps that seems harsh, but we’re in a golden age of television. A pilot needs to wow people, especially if it’s a subscription based service, or else audiences find something else to watch. Outlander breaks my stingy Starz trend. I will happily pay to continue watching it.
Outlander is a historical, romantic fantasy. The first episode featured two different historical time periods. Two. Rejoice, history nerds. The main character, Claire is a nurse from the 1940’s, but due to Druid magic, ends up in the 18th century Scottish Highlands. It takes more than half of the episode for Claire to be sent back in time. The episode focuses instead a lot on building Claire’s relationship with her husband, Frank, which is important to establish, because as Claire tries to get home in future episodes (as I assume she will), it will remind us why. Especially since Claire meets the ruggedly handsome Jamie in the 18th century. The first 2/3 of the episode shows that while not perfect, Claire and Frank have a loving and healthy relationship. Frank is a good husband, so we want Claire to get back him. Without Frank, Claire, who seems to have few other roots in the 1940’s, might as well stay in the 18th century. It doesn’t have electricity or modern medicine, but it’s not like post-WWII Britain was an especially great time period anyway, and look how charming Jamie is.
Claire adjusts to her predicament remarkably well, considering she’s assaulted by a British officer (and ancestor of her husband-awkward) and kidnapped by Scottish soldiers within minutes of arriving. Instead of babbling that she’s from the future, or spending a lot of time in denial, she keeps her mouth shut, observes her surroundings and reaches the conclusion in a logical manner that she must somehow be in the past. Other protagonists of time-travelling stories, take note. That’s how you handle unexpectedly being sent back in time. After using her medicinal knowledge gained from being a nurse in of WWII (did I mention how awesome Claire is?), and using historical knowledge to warn of an ambush, she is begrudgingly accepted by some of her Scottish captors.
Looking back, the episode was mostly about establishing the two worlds and its protagonist. Claire is a fantastic lead to follow, so while the other characters aren’t as well defined yet, that’s okay. It’s Claire’s story, and the pilot makes sure we’re invested in her. Similarly, the 18th century isn’t as well-explored as the 20th century, but that’s also okay. As Claire acclimates to her new world and the new people occupying that world, we will too. The pacing of Outlander is excellent, so even though there are a lot of questions floating around, they aren’t distracting. Instead, the show sweeps you up in the story. Exactly how or why Claire is stuck in the past almost doesn’t matter; what matters are the interesting people inhabiting both centuries. If the show never gets around to explaining the mechanics of the time travel, it wouldn’t detract from its entertainment or narrative value.
Having said that, I haven’t read the book series the show is based on. Maybe the hows and whys are the best and most important part of the entire series. But for now, it’s more than enough to watch a fascinating leading lady navigate her strange, historical time-travelling adventure.