Still not springing for Starz: my vacation interlude with an Outlandish old flame

More about summer reading, and my vacation interlude with Jamie & Claire

I watched one episode of the new Outlander television series while vacationing on Cape Cod last week. Originally, I had hoped to watch the first episode (which Starz has made available to stream for free anywhere you can get online) together with my local Outlander posse – a small band of IRL reader friends and wicked smart ladies I met first in a fan forum – but we couldn’t make the timing work. Truthfully, I was more inclined to engage with this whole thing as a group activity, given the weird ambivalence I’ve been experiencing (and posting about), in having the object of such an intense personal reading and fan experience (nearly a decade ago now) become such a mainstream pop culture phenomenon.

I don’t pay for premium cable channels and I wasn’t going to change that policy, even for Outlander. I usually wait for a whole season of something good (Game of Thrones, or Boardwalk Empire) to become available some other way, and felt prepared to do this for Outlander, even though it means putting blinders on for 4 months of weekly new episode buzz and reactions taking over my tweetstream.

photo (96)And – it was late August on the Cape in a wonderful rambling beach house with rooms to spare and comfy reading furniture, rope swings, and a cranberry bog down the lane. It was the classic unplugged vacation. No tv, and no wi fi in the house. I didn’t tell the girls I had season 1 of Black Sails (Arrrggh, perfect for vacationing in a historic area known as “the sea captain’s town”) on my laptop, nor that when I ran out of those episodes (watched late at night after they were asleep – it was OK, mostly because maniacal Toby Stephens is kind of fun) I would on a whim decide to use my 3G iPhone to stream the free Outlander premiere.

But this was the extent of my tv watching, and mostly I read, as did they. All of us reading together, for hours and hours, between walks on the flats in the Bay, flying kites, crafty tie dye projects and bike rides to the general store. The weather was gorgeous – like early fall, dry and mild, not even hot enough to make us want to swim all that much, and other than a gigantic bee sting that made my leg swell up, gout-like, it was idyllic and relaxing. The first such sojourn in a long time that evoked family vacations during my own adolescence, where my novel reading consumed huge chunks of the day, without comment or consequence.

So –  one of the hefty books I read was the newest installment in Diana Gabaldon’s epic Outlander series, WRITTEN IN MY OWN HEART’S BLOOD, dubbed “MOBY” in the Gabaldon fan canon for some inexplicable reason that also evokes a seafaring New England industry and accompanying literary tradition. More about my take on the new book in a future post, I hope. I think if not for the chance to read this new Jamie and Claire material over a fairly condensed and uninterrupted 4-5 day period, I might not have re-connected with the Frasers and Mackenzies sufficient to compel me to watch one episode of the show as a standalone. But I’ll admit, when I finished MOBY, I experienced a faint echo of the old “I need more!” that so intensely colored my original reading experience of the first 6 books, back in 2004-05. Where to turn? Starz.com of course.

Outlander S1E1: Sassenach  @RomanceProf asked me what I liked and didn’t like about the one hour of Outlander that I watched. And I realize now that while it feels like I liked it, overall, when I try to articulate anything specific, there are more things I didn’t like. So here’s my impressionistic summary – of both, likes and dislikes. Just one longtime Outlander reader, well past the first blush of intense obsession, possibly also past the unfortunate tipping point towards cynicism, but fairly well steeped in The Books, reacting to the first episode.

outlander-premiere-caitriona-balfe-vases-scene-starzOn Claire: Liked I loved the sequence with Claire and the vase in the shop window, with the voiceover exposition about her peripatetic, rootless childhood.  I don’t remember the bit about the vase from the book, but it was used effectively here, and I kept flashing forward in the story, to the numerous times she is displaced and forced to take up housekeeping again from scratch. Her comments about the vase reminded me of how I always felt about owning an ironing board. Once you did, you must be a settled grown-up.

Didn’t Like If only I didn’t feel like Caitriona Balfe as 1940’s Claire was playing the role as if playing Cate-Blanchett-Playing-Claire-Randall. There was a studied quality to her manner and movements that didn’t seem authentic. I’ve heard it gets better when she’s 1740’s Claire. As many have noted, she may have ClaireHair, but her physical presence is far more vintage Hollywood than ‘fine wide arse’.

On Sex and the Combat Nurse:  Liked I agree with early reviewers who commended the show for presenting an epic fantasy drama with a central female protagonist, where the sex is about female gratification and not yet another boobalicious vehicle for pleasuring the male gaze.

Outlander-Frank-Claire-Castle-Leoch

outlander-claire-frank-flashbacks-starzDidn’t Like But did there really have to be three un-sexy Claire/Frank sex scenes in the first 25 minutes?? Truth is, while the unique and compelling bawdiness of the books is definitely a Gabaldon hallmark, and perhaps the most immediately marketable element in translating to a cable series, I honestly don’t remember feeling like the sex was center stage all the time in the novel. I can’t decide whether the ick factor for me with watching Balfe and Tobias Menzies is just residual Jamie obsession annihilating any chance for the show to make Frank seem sexy, or if the show itself is (over)using these painfully awkward interludes to deflect/cushion the blow of Claire’s time traveling “adultery” for viewers new to the story.

On Swashbucklers and Genre:  Liked Again, I am 100% in favor of presenting a swashbuckling adventure drama that’s lusty and violent and heroic, as told via a feminine POV. Of course I wish it wasn’t so unusual as to require calling attention. But I find myself oddly gratified every time I read a positive or optimistic review of the series, especially those from “external” perspectives – anyone with little or no experience of the books. It’s not that I need or care about having my affinity for the books validated by new fans or (especially) highbrow and/or male critics and/or viewers, but the show does need to be considered on its own merits as mainstream entertainment, and I’m surprised to find it satisfying when someone expresses interest or admiration for it. I know I should probably be annoyed that people keep alluding to the book’s “bodice-ripper” elements, or praising the show when they clearly would never have considered reading the book which, for those outside the cultlike Outlander following has for so long been dismissed as romance even as it defies conventional genre categorization. I could and should probably unpack this odd mix of emotional/intellectual responses, but that will take more time and words than I have right now.

Didn’t Like Compared to the kickass title sequences of a show like Game of Thrones, HBO’s Rome (best titles ever, IMO) or even something completely different like Homeland (which also has a female protagonist), the opening titles are a total snooze – it was a great opportunity to do something visually powerful with strong, memorable graphics, and it just felt like a cheesy travel ministry video for Scotland blended with History Channel re-enactments of swordly battles and chick flick misty fairytale romantic images of the central couple, castles, and horses.  The music is too wistful. The whole thing just needed  to be BOLDER, and should have been more creative, to live up to Claire and Jamie as a badass power couple at the center of an epic drama about history, identity, war, loss, family, fealty, and community.

On Book-to-Screen Issues:  Liked The casting of many secondary characters is spot on, from James Fleet’s affable Reverend Wakefield to Tracey Wilkinson as Mrs. Graham the druid housekeeper, with furrowed brow over Claire’s palm revealing bifurcated love and marriage lines. And I know with only one short episode under my belt, there will be many more fun and revelatory “Aha!” moments where a casting choice clicks into place for me. The beauty of screen adaptations of beloved novels lies in such moments where the actors and surrounding visuals somehow inhabit and amplify the characters we’ve been carrying in our hearts and heads, supporting and expanding whatever alchemical connection has happened between individual reader and text. Like so many Outlander fans, I experienced at least passing worry that the casting of Jamie and/or Claire could somehow “ruin” or contaminate my inner view of them, or indeed of the whole narrative and my reading experience. Fortunately, as it turns out I’m already a decade past that first obsessive reading experience and at this distance the intensity of the connection is much diminished. I like Heughan and Balfe fine for the roles, and thoroughly enjoyed watching them together.

Outlander_Cast_Dougal_420x560_v2 Graham-McTavish-headshotDidn’t Like But ooohhh nooooooo, what have they done to Dougal??!? I really hate to find myself experiencing that odd, impotent fan outrage over a screen version of a fictional character. Who can take seriously the sort of whinging along the lines of  “but in the books he’s supposed to be…” that makes people poke fun at Outlander or Westeros fan communities? I must just go on the record with my personal view that Dougal would have looked younger, and that in the books he came alive as a pretty sexy, intense, if morally ambiguous, dude (GerryButler. Just saying.). And I’m not seeing that here. He only needs to be about 20 years older than Jamie, right?

Gabaldon has said, I think, that when she first began to write Outlander she thought the hero would be the leader of the clan’s war band — she gave him the name Dougal, for her husband Doug. But then the wounded young warrior in the corner, fiercely tended by Claire (apart from my issue with the casting — or maybe it’s just the fussy styling? — of Graham MacTavish, this scene was fantastic), took over the story, apparently. Still, I don’t think the show needed to make Dougal such a graybeard — MacTavish could certainly play a younger, sexier badass. In the novel, Dougal’s complexity and deep-rooted ambivalence about Jamie as a potential challenger is one of the real strengths, and it includes a significant dose of sexual magnetism and interest in Claire. I understand a choice to streamline the narrative, but Dougal’s ambiguous magnetism is a loss, in my view, at least in terms of how the dynamics appear in this first episode. And yes, I fully recognize that not everything can fit in the first hour and subsequent episodes may hold promise of more…but for me he just doesn’t feel right for the way I read Dougal and his story.

screen-shot-2014-08-05-at-8-50-08-pmOn Jamie:  Liked  The much-vaunted chemistry between Balfe and Sam Heughan was indeed satisfying, and I loved the scene where he holds her at swordpoint and prevents her escape. This follows a scene in which the villain, British officer Black Jack Randall, assaults Claire with a sword to the neck and near rape. In contrast, Heughan carries off his sword-wielding pursuit with the perfect blend of charm and force, ensuring that Jamie’s gentlemanly yet powerful use of the blade reads as heroic and hot — and of course by now the viewer also understands that in preventing her “escape” he is also rescuing Claire from falling into the clutches of Jack Randall again. The scene worked beautifully to establish the beginnings of his physical awareness of her (“ye don’t appear to weigh too much, I’ll throw ye over my shoulder…”), along with his Red Jamie urge to protect and possess. Also I really liked Claire’s mad face in this scene; their mutual respect and wariness was crystal clear.

Didn’t Like I keep tripping up on the question of whether I’d continue watching this show if I’d come to it as an Outlander virgin. It was sort of measured and dull, lots of exposition (which is the bane of any premiere episode) to set up the characters and plot, and I can’t help thinking that it didn’t do enough to hook someone who hasn’t already been bitten by the Jamie/Claire bug in some way. Some of the scenes with Frank lurking around the ruins and the stones, researching his ancestors, watching the local pagans on Samhain at Craigh na Dun, while loaded with portent if you know what to listen for, just came across as tedious and the stunning visuals of the sunrise ceremony were overplayed. Heughan and Balfe are compelling together but was there enough intriguing detail about who Jamie is and why he and Dougal et al are so bloody desperate?

Yes, the final scene, meant to draw us in and bring us back for episode 2, has the fugitives arriving at forbidding Castle Leoch, which Claire and Frank had explored in its ruined 1945 state. But as a cliffhanger ending it was more than a little flat, and without already knowing all that’s to come (there was minimal explanation yet given for why they are on the run from the British troops, other than the general offense of riding around the Highlands while Scottish), I’m not sure it would give me the fire in the belly to make sure I “tune in next week.”  What was missing was the complexity and challenge of the situation in the Highlands in 1743, which I have no doubt is already coming into much clearer focus as the weeks go by.

Bottom Line From what I’ve been hearing since I returned to the twitterverse and started catching up on all kinds of news, things really get going with the show in the second and third episodes, and I’m glad to hear it. Still, since I do already know what happens, I’m not rushing to pay Verizon to add Starz to my cable lineup.  It’ll be too late to be part of the Fall 2014 Outlander bandwagon, but I’ll probably end up binge watching the whole season on my next summer vacation.

 

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9 thoughts on “Still not springing for Starz: my vacation interlude with an Outlandish old flame

  1. Jane Greaney says:

    I have also not purchased Starz…I would have had to pay for a whole package of premium channels, channels I don’t watch and have no interest in paying for, just one show…just no time to watch..too much going on. I will ask for the series on DVD as a gift at some point to watch at my leisure once it is available. I did enjoy the free episode and the chemistry between Jamie and Claire..but the Frank/Black Jack characters didn’t do a thing for me..in the books Frank was at least sexy and Jack had a sexy dangerous side I liked. I tried to re-read Outlander over the summer to get my enthusiasm up for the show and just couldn’t get into it. Since I was once addicted to rereads, I suspect it is more what is going on in my life, and not the book I once loved. Thanks for the review!

    • pamela1740 says:

      So great to hear from you! It’s interesting that you’re also feeling more detached from the Outlander fervor, and it sounds like we shared the impulse to watch the first episode (sort of getting grounded for all the fresh buzz) but wait for the right time to acquire/consume the whole season. I never was much of a one for rereads, but I did really enjoy my immersive vacation read of MOBY. Have you read it? Are you planning to? Also – off topic, but when I was watching Black Sails I was dying to know if you’d seen it and if so, what you thought?

  2. Dr. M says:

    Beautiful review, and most of it matches my reaction. I was, however, fond of Dougal right off the bat, but I agree that he is a presence that cannot be dismissed no matter what scene he’s in. In these early episodes, he’s more alpha than Jamie, and in the last episode, his gentler side came through as well. He’s intriguing, whereas Jamie still seems more like an adorable puppy.

    I’m not sure how the series wants to play Dougal as well as the sexier and more sympathetic Frank, other than to make Claire’s struggle to return to the stones more pronounced than it is in the book. My hunch is that Ron D. Moore wanted audiences to fully grasp the enormity of Claire’s choice between Jamie and the 18thC and Frank and the hot baths of the 20th. I don’t think the book depicts this as powerfully as it could have been.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Yes, Dougal came across as more interesting than Jamie in the early parts of the book, and for me, this wasn’t captured by MacTavish onscreen — but it was only one hour, and it makes sense that Frank got more screen time than any of Claire’s other men, for this one episode. I also agree with Kaetrin that these first sections of the book were slow too, so in that way it’s not a big surprise and I admire Moore for allowing the series time for the slow build. I just don’t see this Dougal leaping off the page the way the Dougal I read does, and he just plainly looks too grandfatherly – which was clearly a styling choice, not the casting.

      I thought Heughan’s Jamie was more interesting than a puppy, but somehow there wasn’t enough context for either of them, or for the urgency of their escapades (were they already raising money for the Jacobite cause? or just cattle rustling?) or the deeper reasons for their forced march flight from justice.

      Menzies as Frank seemed sexy enough in a hat and tie 1940s way but the lack of chemistry just made me rue how much time was devoted to his semi-distracted pleasuring of Claire. I do remember the repetitive quality of Claire’s numerous attempts to “escape” back to the stones in the book, and I guess I’ll have to wait for when I watch more of it to see how Claire’s options and choices stack up in Moore’s vision of the story.

      • kaetrin says:

        That’s interesting Pamela because I never found Dougall that compelling on the page. He’s a lot sexier to me in the TV show actually! LOL. (But, really, I’m all about Jamie – I’m quite the hopeless case!).

  3. chpa says:

    Funnily enough, I was reading your post when you messaged me. Not sure I agree with everything; I have a particular fondness for Bear McCreary, who does title music for a lotta TV shows. But I will agree that, knowing where the story will go, I think the imagery and the music will have to transmogrify.

    I do agree about Claire/Frank sexytime, though. I mean, it was fine, and whatever, but I read Diana G’s books as they came out, and what I found interesting was the lack of let’s put the story on the shelf and just make like rabbits for 4-14 pages. I get that Ronald D. Moore wants to establish the connection between Claire/Frank in a way that makes her a feminist, but him putting his head between her legs almost makes it seem like when men portray scissoring; a leetle lazy in depiction.

    That being said, I really like what they are doing with the series and do look forward to subsequent eps. I do trust Ron’s vision and was VERY happy when I found out he was in control a year or so ago.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Ha! I so agree with you about the irony of Gabaldon’s books being known for the frank and/or graphic sex when I think they actually have a lesser proportion of regular interval on-page sexy times, spelling out the mechanics, soaring climaxes, etc, than many more traditional “steamy” historicals. Her sex scenes for the most part (MOBY excepted, perhaps) have an economy of language about them, and they occur at irregular intervals and usually feel organic to the story, rather than, as you say, interrupting the flow of the story in order to deliver a sex scene for the delectation of the reader or to make a point about one of the characters. I felt like the show went a little bit in the direction of the latter in serving up three scenes of Claire’s sexual “demands” of Frank (and were we also supposed to draw conclusions about their incompatibility as compared to what will no doubt be carefully choreographed very different bedroom and bedroll scenes of Claire with Jamie?).

      All this said, I still did enjoy it, and you know of course that I will be watching. And I agree about Moore being a good choice.

  4. kaetrin says:

    Over here at least, you can buy an Outlander season pass on iTunes or Quickflix so I think there are other ways to get the series quickly without a cable subscription. *hint* 😀

    MOBY is MOBY because the title is too long for Twitter. It was MOhB (My Own Heart’s Blood) which was “Moh-Bee” phonetically and then it made DG think of the singer MOBY and etc… Basically, it’s MOBY because the title is too darn long.

    I agree that episode 1 was slow and kind of boring but I thought that about the book as well so it fit. So far I have liked every episode better than the previous one. I get to watch episode 4 on Thursday.

    I have a bet going with someone as to whether Claire will go an entire episode without being naked. I think my money is safe.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Thank you for the MOBY derivation! I think you may have explained it for me before and I don’t know why I can’t remember that, except that for me the Moby/Melville reference is much stronger than the MOBY singer reference. And anything is better for a book nickname than ABOSAA which I what I think people used for book 6 for a while, at least in one of the forums.

      That’s a good hint about the season pass. I’m pretty sure I can do that here too. Just talking about it with you all here is giving me more of an urge to see another episode, just to see if maybe I’ll come around to Moore’s vision of Dougal, perhaps!

      That sounds like a good bet you’ve got on there.

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