Outlander review: First look at the dazzling time-travel romance

Aug 5, 2014 at 2:29 p.m. ET
Image: Starz

If Starz wanted to ensure that we'd spend the weekend swooning by releasing the Outlander pilot early, mission accomplished.

The television adaptation of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series is everything fans have been hoping for, and more.

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Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) is an English WWII combat nurse celebrating the end of the war by taking a second honeymoon in Inverness, Scotland, with her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies). While out gathering botany samples one morning, she's mysteriously swept back from 1945 to 1743 and into the arms of gallant Scottish warrior Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan).

The pilot is a little slow to start, with the first half hour dedicated entirely to Claire's relationship with Frank. They're getting comfortable with each other again after years apart during the war, and the tension between them is believable and a little heartbreaking. There's clearly so much love between them, but after all the time apart, they're fumbling and tentative around each other, more like a couple that's only just started to date than a couple with a few years of marriage under their belts. They're committed to each other, though, and there's real tenderness there.

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But their gentle tenderness is no match for what happens the moment Claire falls through time and Jamie Fraser arrives on the scene.

Claire is a spitfire, a woman used to being taken seriously in combat situations, and she knows how to keep her wits about her, even when she's so entirely out of her element. From the moment she resets Jamie's dislocated arm, the sparks are already flying between them. It's not just that he's the one member of Clan MacKenzie that takes the Sassenach (Jamie's fond nickname for her, "outlander" in Gaelic) seriously, it's that he sees the fire inside her. Without the war on, Claire's been a woman unmoored. She's been trying to settle back into normal life, but we get the sense that she's most comfortable in crisis mode, when there's a problem in front of her to be solved.

Jamie's the one who knows that, when given a chance to escape in the middle of battle, Claire will take the chance, and as they square off, her fury pitted against his amusement, her dress soaked with rain and his sword drawn, there's more chemistry in their standoff than in any of Claire's sex scenes with Frank.

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Newcomers to the series may find the pilot a little slow, but ultimately worth sticking around for, and for fans of the books, it's everything we've been hoping for. The romantic Scottish highlands, the crackling sexual chemistry between Claire and Jamie, the attention to historical details... Gabaldon's world has been brought to life by Starz with as much care and love as HBO has handled Game of Thrones.

One particular standout is the score by Bear McCreary, by turns moody and wistful, then pulse-poundingly thrilling, and his arrangement of the old folk song "Skye Boat Song" as the show's theme is such an excellent tone-setting touch.

Balfe and Heughan hit it out of the park, as well. While casting speculation swirled around this project for years, first when it was in development as a film before finding a home as a series at Starz, several big names have been attached to it. The benefit of casting relative unknowns is that these actors aren't bringing a ton of history along with them. It's as though we're meeting them for the first time as Claire and Jamie, and thus far, it's as though they've simply walked out of the books and onto the screen.

Now we just have to wait for the next episode, and it can't get here fast enough.

Outlander premieres Aug. 9 on Starz. Will you be watching?