Promising but not Perfect
My general feelings on “Outlander?” Entertaining: Yes. Quality: Promising, but room for improvement.
The series begins with voice over narration paired with absolutely beautiful cinematography of the Scottish Highlands, but also foreshadows what the true title of this episode should have been. Outlander Episode 1:
Sassenach Narration-Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop. We’ll get back to that.
The narration starts building interest in what is otherwise a slow start for tv. We are not in media res, but rather watching a half-hour buildup for the inciting incident. There are complaints about slow pacing, but I’m not that bothered. The details from 1945, while not as exciting as a gun battle, are majorly important for later. And it wasn’t that dull. It could be that much of the details are concentrated on Frank’s ancestor, Jack Randall, but this information is crucial by the end of the episode. As in I somewhat ignored it the first time, and now I need to go back and take notes. There’s a lot of just traveling on a horse, but the whole episode is interspersed with the old standbys “sex and bloodshed.” Allowing time for the characters and audience to breathe without inducing sleep is an absolute art form. I’m not sure if that’s quite accomplished here, but neither do I find it terribly slow. The opening lines set up that there will be a payoff eventually, and I’m confident it’ll be before the episode’s end, so I’m good for now.
However, however, HOWEVER, just 3 minutes into the show (and until the end), I’m already frightened and horrified by the painful amount of narration, mainly used to establish background and reveal Claire’s inner thoughts. Here’s the deal- though this is based on a book, it’s an entirely different format. If I wanted to hear/see a bunch of words, I’d read the book (Oh wait, I did). Lots of brilliant movies and tv use narration, but this is too much. I’m hoping it’s just in Episode 1, for the sake of brevity and clarity to establish the storyline (even though I find it unneeded) and will dissipate as the series continues. I recognize there is significant backstory (like every story told ever). The show is already strong in its ability to “show, don’t tell.” When the words are added to that, I feel insulted and annoyed because I’ve already figured it out. I think even non-book readers would find the amount used superfluous, but maybe I’m wrong. Is my ranting now more annoying than the narration itself? Possibly. I’ll stop now. It really bothered me; moving on.
The pilot also establishes the use of flashbacks, which both seems fitting for a time travel series and problematic. Here’s why I balk at time travel literature in general: there are always issues with the timeline and how the past/new past affects the present/new present/future/new future. Even that sentence was complicated.
Something done very well is use of color and music to clearly establish when the flashbacks are occurring and in what time periods. In the 1740s, the bright greens of the lush landscapes are highlighted and traditional music is employed. In the post-war 1940s, bright, muted trumpets sound and the film appears washed out, almost like an old photograph (like a memory of a different time. Hmmm). And finally during the war, the hunter greens of the uniforms and a sickly green cast dwarf the color scheme. These details add art, beauty, and interest.
While I’m on flashbacks, I also like the absence of flashbacks (this is going somewhere). Even though the details of 1945, Frank’s genealogy, and historical tidbits may bog down the beginning a bit, I’m so happy those were not reserved for flashbacks to pair with Claire’s revelations in later episodes. Now they’re clues, like OMG, that random giant rock is about to be significant (ambush alert). Otherwise, the flashbacks would be “convenient.” In life, that’s great. In a story? Not so much. Another example, the lights of Inverness. She clearly sees them early in the episode. Later in the episode, they are clearly gone. No flashback. Fantastic.
(Here we are) What can’t happen is use of flashbacks to hit the audience over the head. I want to think and discover, not be told outright. There’s a flashback to Castle Leoch in the 1940s as Claire is arriving to the castle in the 1740s. It’s a flashback to a scene that literally happened earlier in that same episode. It. Just. Happened. I. Remember (paired with the narration it’s overkill, sorry sorry, moving on). So we’ll see how the rest of the series trends.
It will be interesting to see how Claire develops and grows in this new (to her) world. She is a strong, interesting character already, but with plenty of room for change and growth. In 1945, she’s essentially a wife, with the hobby of botany to occupy her mind. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s not for everyone. She was a nurse in World War II, which was presumably her first experience in self-sufficiency. A flashback shows she was very capable, commanding, and even gritty. It was awesome. After the war, she, like many women were, is expected to return to her former role in the home. Looking at vases. But never mind that.
In the highlander world, she’s not a housewife and botany is not a pastime; its healing powers are life and death. She will have an active role here one again. We’ve already seen some proof of it when she snapped Jamie’s arm back into place like a badass, but I’m looking forward to other uses/opportunities for her to grow through new responsibilities and challenges in the Highlanders’ world.
Long story short: I want it to be good. I really do, but I’m not quite convinced. I’m so excited to see a woman main character in a sci-fi type series, even though the focus isn’t so much on time travel. I think Caitriona Balfe, who plays Claire, is riveting. If the timeline starts getting messy, I’m going to be unhappy. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but make it good enough that I don’t notice. Definitely interested to see where this series will go.
I’d love to hear from you. One of my favorite parts of tv is its ability to start a discussion. I realize a lot of things bother me that others don’t even notice or vice versa. Let’s chat.
Comments/arguments? Overall feelings?
How do you feel about the narration? Am I just crazy? Non-book readers, do you find it really helpful?
Do you find the pacing slow, or about right?
UPDATE: I continued to watch about half the season. I think the story is great, still love Balfe, cinematography and scenery-excellent, but ultimately I could not get past the narration. It truly bothers me that much. Maybe a stronger person could do better.