Gabaldon's popular 'Outlander' books become new series on Starz

San Francisco ChronicleAugust 7, 2014 

TV Outlander

Claire (Caitriona Balfe) touches a stone and then is transported back in time.

ED MILLER — AP

  • On TV

    'Outlander'

    Premieres 9 p.m. Aug. 9 on Starz

At first glance, it might seem easy to adapt fantasy fiction for television. After all, it's made up anyway, so it should be no biggie beyond the cost of special effects, right?

Not at all. Making fantasy fiction credible is more of a challenge than adapting realistic fiction because you need to work harder to get viewers to suspend disbelief.

It takes a while for us to let go of our skepticism when it comes to a young bride on her honeymoon in post-World War II Scotland who is suddenly transported two centuries back in time and wakes up with full consciousness of her 20th-century life.

That's the premise for the new Starz drama Outlander, based on the hugely successful series of bodice-rippers penned since 1991 by Diana Gabaldon.

Fans of the books won't need any help suspending disbelief when the first of 16 initial episodes airs Saturday, but others might. That said, once they buy into the richly charactered story, it'll be an even bigger challenge to let go.

World War II has ended, and Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe, Super 8), who worked as a battlefield nurse, is reunited with her husband, Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies, Rome). Their reunion is awkward at first, but both hope a delayed honeymoon in Inverness will rekindle the intimacy they've had to put on hold.

While on a hike, the couple come across an ancient circular arrangement of vertical stones, Claire is drawn to the tallest of the stones, places both hands on its surface and is hurled back to 1743.

British Red Coats are thundering through the underbrush chasing kilted Scots. Claire tries to get away and is suddenly face to face with ... her husband? Except it's his sadistic ancestor, Black Jack Randall. He's about to have his way with her until the dashing and hunky Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan, Emulsion), intervenes.

In short order, Claire is taken prisoner by the MacKenzie clan. As an Englishwoman, she's suspected of being a spy, but once she begins using her 20th-century nursing skills, she is seen as a healer and the MacKenzies let their guard down, just a bit.

Claire adapts rather well to life at the castle — perhaps too well, at first. It is understandable that writer-producer Ronald D. Moore wants to get us into Claire's new life quickly, but realistically, if you were to suddenly awaken 200 years in the past, you might be a little more than just mildly perplexed. Not Claire.

But even the most cynical viewer might find him- or herself caught up in the drama because of the appeal of the characters, convincing performances and a careful attention to detail in costumes, sets and production design. Balfe, Heughan and, in one of his two roles, Menzies form a vibrant trans-century love triangle.

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