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'Outlander' Is a Shaft of Light to 'Game of Thrones' Darkness

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire August 8, 2014 at 4:29PM

Yes, breasts heave and passions surge. But Starz' new series, based on Diana Gabaldon's books, is romantic in a more important way: It believes in good.
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Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan in "Outlander"
Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan in "Outlander"

The executives at Starz, where "Outlander" makes its premiere on Saturday night, can't be too upset that the series is drawing persistent comparisons to HBO's runaway hit, "Game of Thrones." Nothing succeeds like success. But the first episode, which has already been viewed a million times on the channel's website, strikes a very different tone, so much so  that if you hadn't already been presented with the comparison you might not rush to make it. Diana Gabaldon's source novels — there are eight, including the recently published "Written in My Own Heart's Blood" — combine history with elements of the fantastic, and she's even good friends with "Thrones'" George R.R. Martin. But there's a big difference between creating a world that occasionally resembles the European Dark Ages — but with, you know, magic and dragons and stuff — and setting your series in a real historical period. Yes, "Outlander's" 18th-century Scotland is unintentionally invaded by a woman from 200-ish years in the future: Claire (Caitriona Balfe), a battlefield nurse who, shortly after the end of World War II reunites her with her husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies), is whisked back in time by a Druidic stone circle. But the world she enters turns out to be just as real, and just as un-magical, as the one she left.

Although Claire spends a few episodes trying to find her way back to the 20th century, she, and we, soon realize that she's stuck for good (or at least until the ratings flag). Her husband, or rather his identical ancestor (also played by Menzies), is a British soldier who tries to rape her shortly after their first encounter in the Highlands forest, but fortunately she's rescued by Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), a fetching Scot who sweeps her off her feet. That the latter phrase is not entirely metaphorical is a good indication of how at ease showrunner Ronald D. Moore ("Battlestar Galactica") is with the show's pulpy undertones: Although Gabaldon has spent two decades trying to keep the "Outlander" books from being filed under "Romance," there's no question that chest-heaving, bodice-ripping passion is part of the attraction here. More importantly, I think, the show is romantic in a nonsexual sense, which is to say that where "Game of Thrones" is governed by the belief that the human animal is essentially savage at heart, "Outlander" seems, at least based on its initial sampling, to believe in goodness. There is violence in this world, as there is in the one Claire left behind —early in the pilot, we're treated to a closeup of a shattered femur protruding from a mangled leg, which Claire calmly attends to while blood spatters her face — but it need not always be met with more violence, or an equal measure of deceit. As they cast the spell that will eventually whisk Claire into the past, the Druidic priestesses move through the dark bearing candles, looking like wisps of light in the darkness — which is exactly how "Outlander" feels next to its premium-cable competition's endless night.


Reviews of "Outlander"

Todd VanDerWerff, Vox

The best word to describe "Outlander," Starz's new TV series adaptation of the popular books by Diana Gabaldon, is "seductive." Because the books are famous for their intense central romance, "seductive" might suggest that this is a story about sex, first and foremost, but that would be wrong. No, "Outlander" is seductive in the way so many good TV shows are seductive: It lures you slowly but surely into its world, then leaves you there long after that week's hour has ended.


Jeff Jensen, Entertainment Weekly

There's a subtly played allegorical aspect to Claire's adventure, too. You could read her time-space odyssey as a Narnia-esque dream-fantasy, a way to process her war trauma and fluxy identity. There's also a feminist interpretation: Claire — strong, intelligent, and sophisticated; married to a man who regards her as an equal — has gone down a rabbit hole into a misogynistic, patriarchal society. "Outlander" is good enough to inspire such overthinking. 


Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture

"Outlander" is punctuated with savage violence (including a flashback in the second episode to a woman's violation and a man's torture) but rarely dwells on it, often cutting away from explicit sex or violence before anyone can accuse the filmmakers of being gratuitous. There's also a sense in which "Outlander" can be watched not just as an involving fish-out-of-water adventure, but also as a commentary on female audience's often thorny relationship to mainstream genre fiction, which tends to be centered on issues of pride, honor, and goal-oriented journeys that end with the hero winning glory and a woman.


Sonia Saraiya, A.V. Club

It should be said that "Outlander" is, on some level, purely entertainment. While that could sound dismissive, it’s actually one of the show’s greatest strengths. Moore and Gabaldon both dispense with the idea of trying to make A Point and instead focus on the task at hand: telling the story. Indeed, its interest in plotting is so careful it marks the show with the traces of genre fiction that its creators are so familiar with. In that sense, it’s following in the footsteps established by "Game of Thrones" — establishing an alien landscape, then focusing on the character stories within it.


James Poniewozik, Time

The series spends a lot of time luxuriating in the scenery and atmosphere, as if it’s meant to be binge-watched over a pot of tea on a rainy weekend at a bed and breakfast. But once you accept, with Claire, that we may be sticking around for a while, "Outlander" becomes an intriguing kind of social drama, a study of a people under siege whose bristliness comes with a deep sense of honor. 


Willa Paskin, Slate

As a show trying to scratch the same itch as "Game of Thrones," "Outlander" is at a disadvantage. It just is not as robust as "Game of Thrones": Its story would be just one of "Game of Thrones’" very many. In some ways, this sounds promising — so many storylines on "Game of Thrones" are given short shrift — but "Outlander" lacks "Game of Thrones’" moral complexity. Claire may be British, but the show’s loyalties are all with the Scots. The early episodes are a mix of lesser world-building and sometimes dull, sometimes trite, sometimes appealing fish-out-of-water tales as Claire’s knowledge of the future gets her into and out of scrape after scrape.


Anne Helen Petersen, BuzzFeed

"Outlander" is not a "Game of Thrones" also-ran. Sure, it takes place in a location with keen resemblance to the once-Stark-dominated kingdom of The North, and both "Outlander" and "Thrones" escape neat genre delineation, mixing fantasy, romance, action, and sci-fi. But the similarities stop there. In "Outlander," honor is paramount; in "Thrones," honor signals the swiftness with which a character will meet their death.


Alan Sepinwall, HitFix

If Starz executives can't make "Outlander" into a big hit, they need to get out of the hit-making business and go back to just showing movies. But I'm guessing they won't have to deal with that problem.

This article is related to: Outlander, Game of Thrones


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