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Outlander premieres on Starz on Saturday

August 8, 2014 - Andrea Johnson
It took "Outlander" to make me subscribe to a cable service for the first time in about 10 years.

"Outlander," which will air on the cable network Starz at 8 p.m. this Saturday, is a TV series based on a time travel historical romance series by Diana Gabaldon. I read the first book in the series when it came out more than 20 years ago. The sprawling saga is now eight books long, with no sign of an end, so there should be plenty of material to draw on for a TV series.

The first book, as well as the first episode of the TV series, tells the story of Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), a World War II combat nurse who goes to the Scottish Highlands with her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies) for a second honeymoon a few months after the end of the war. After she picks flowers in a circle of standing stones one early morning, Claire is inexplicably thrown back in time to 1743 Scotland. There she is accosted by a violent British commander, Jack Randall (also played by Tobias Menzies), who turns out to be her husband's ancestor. He, reasonably enough, thinks she must be a prostitute because she is running around in a short white dress. Women of his time were more decently covered.

She is rescued by a party of Scottish brigands who think she might be an English spy, but impresses them when she does some field doctoring on a handsome lad called Jamie (Sam Heughan). By the end of the first episode, Claire finds herself carried further away from the stones and any hope she had of going back to the 20th century. The 16-episode series on Starz will probably cover the material in the first book, "Outlander." The first episode in the series has been released free online. The Hollywood Reporter is reporting that the first episode received nearly 900,000 views between Aug. 2 and Aug. 7, by 606,557 unique viewers. Some viewers watched it online at Starz on Demand, Starz Play,, YouTube or Xfinity on Demand more than once. Balfe, Heughan, and Menzies all appear to have been perfectly cast.

This is a series that should appeal to men as well as women, even though women are probably the biggest fans of the book series. Gabaldon threw everything but the kitchen sink into the book series, which is ultimately also about war, politics, the practice of medicine in the 1700s and in the 20th century, religion, race, relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends and enemies. There's something there for everyone.

Viewers might be advised that this isn't a series that is necessarily suitable for young children. There is plenty of sex and nudity (between Claire and her husband Frank) in the first episode of the TV series. If the TV series closely follows the books, that is likely to continue in later episodes. In the first episode, there are also battle scenes and some fairly graphic scenes showing Claire, a nurse, treating various injuries.

Some of the early online reviews, including one at Buzzfeed, are praising Claire as a strong feminist heroine. It's certainly true that Claire is shown as a strong woman who is comfortable with her body and with expressing her sexuality with her husband. She is also shown on screen as a combat nurse, treating an injured World War II soldier, and later treating Jamie's gunshot wound. Claire remains equally strong-willed, competent and likeable throughout the book series.

However, the reviewers might try to eat their words in a few months if the show is as true to the book as it promises to be. Let's just say that in the Scotland of the 1700s it was legal for husbands to spank or strap their wives, as Claire will discover. The rationale in that period was that a husband could be held legally accountable for his wife's public misbehavior, so he had a right to "chastise" her in the way he would his children or his servants. Feminist reviewers will likely not be pleased, even though the scene is true to the time period. Still, there is a good reason for the scene; it only happens once and Claire and her new husband come to an understanding afterwards. "Outlander" isn't "50 Shades of Grey" by a long shot. Hopefully the TV series should be able to demonstrate why the characters act and react as they do.

This is a promising series that I hope will continue to be as entertaining as the first episode.


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