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Watching stuff: "Outlander"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: August 8, 2014

Before my most recent vacation, I asked some folks -- including the Danamaniacs, the Facebook group of fans of writer Dana Stabenow -- for reading suggestions. I took several, including that of Diana Gabaldon, author of a series of time-traveling novels starting with "Outlander" (known as "Cross Stitch" in the UK). The book had an intriguing premise -- a nurse from post-World War II England is transported back to 18th-century Scotland, with no way of returning to her own time -- and the writing was often good. But man, was it a story told long. I am a little under 400 pages into it, and that's not quite halfway. I might have gotten further, but Gabaldon at times is a little too much in love with her material, and I am at the point where I have to ask myself how much effort I want to make to keep reading.

I offer all this as background to my thoughts about the TV series version of "Outlander," adapted by Ronald D. Moore and premiering Saturday night on Starz. Like the book, it requires patience; the first episode offers 40 minutes of character-establishing in the 1940s before its main character, Claire Randall, is moved back in time. But once that move is made, the production gains momentum while still offering a good image of a contemporary woman in an old society -- and some sexy romance. (Jamie Fraser, the old-world Scotsman who is central to the tale, looks transferred directly from the cover of a bodice-ripper.)

Claire is played by Caitriona Balfe, and a fine job she does. The early scenes establish that she is no shy flower, having been a combat nurse during the war, and there's a fine moment in the past where she lets fly with some learned-around-soldiers profanity to the shock of the Scotsmen in hearing range. You can see quickly why Jamie (played by Sam Heughan) is drawn to her. Her passion, skill and outspokenness are also central to one of the show's gimmicks, carried over from the book: in the past, Claire meets an ancestor of her husband who is a ringer for him (Tobias Menzies plays both roles) but a very different type -- unapologetically brutal, particularly when it comes to bringing the Scots to heel, but also in his treatment of women; the old Randall therefore offers a hint of why Claire's marriage has its tensions.

But as good as the performances are, as comfortable as "Outlander" is with the dirt and damp of the 18th century -- and the beauty of its wild Scottish terrain -- a major reason why I was thoroughly enjoying it in the latter stages of the first episode and into the second was that it can show in moments what took much longer to tell on the page. There's one scene where Claire is decked out in an old-time gown, and in a few minutes it offers the details and differences in women's garb -- making a huge cultural point in the process. So I am in for the series, and may yet give the book another chance.

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