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Old TV show gave novelist time and place for Outlander series

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Claire (Caitriona Balfe), left, and Jamie (Sam Heughan) have all the time in the world in Outlander.


Claire (Caitriona Balfe), left, and Jamie (Sam Heughan) have all the time in the world in Outlander.

As the old saying goes, time flies when you're having fun.

But as it turns out, time doesn't necessarily fly when you're flying through time. And in the context of historical-fantasy storytelling, maybe that's not such a bad thing.

The much-anticipated Canadian première of Outlander (Aug. 24 on Showcase; check listings for time), the sci-fi/fantasy/romance series based on the immensely popular book series by Diana Gabaldon, brings to the tube a saga that's rich in detail, filled with intriguing characters and complex interpersonal entanglements, beautifully filmed and edited, but in absolutely no hurry to get its story told.

Outlander, which debuted earlier this month on U.S. cable's Starz network, is very much committed to lingering in its softly lit moments, making the experience of viewing it much more akin to relaxing in a comfy chair, immersed in one of Gabaldon's novels, than white-knuckling your way through any of the other various costume dramas on TV these days.

The series, adapted for TV by Ronald D. Moore (Star Trek: The Next Generation, Battlestar Galactica), focuses on the time-warped adventures of Claire Randall (played by Irish model-turned-actress Caitriona Balfe), a fiercely independent mid-20th-century English woman who has just returned from serving as a nurse during Britain's Second World War effort.

It's six months after the war when the series opens, and Claire and her husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies), are making tentative steps toward rebuilding their relationship after five years spent apart (she was serving in the field, while he was in London working in the British Army's intelligence unit).

In search of some quality reconnection time, they venture north to the Scottish Highlands, where Frank -- now headed into a career in academia as a history professor at Oxford -- plans to spend some time researching his family's roots. Claire, following on her medical work, has taken an interest in healing plants and intends to track down a few heathery herbs to add to her holistic arsenal.

The trip seems to be going well -- Claire and Frank certainly have no trouble rekindling the physical passion in their relationship -- until one morning when Claire sets out alone to visit a circle of ceremonial stones at which they'd secretly witnessed a pagan Druid ritual the previous day.

She finds the medicinal plant she'd been seeking, but then Claire is startled by a strange sound, and when she touches the largest of the upward-reaching stones, she's sent spinning.

When her eyes open, she's in the same place, but it soon becomes clear that there's something very different about the time. Red-coated English soldiers and plaid-clad Scottish warriors are locked in a furious battle all around her, and there's a very good chance that Claire could become one of the casualties. The year, she will find out much later, is 1743.

Fleeing from the skirmish, she ends up at a creek bed where she encounters an English officer who looks eerily like husband Frank. In fact, it's the ruthless redcoat known as Jonathan (Black Jack) Randall, the very ancestor whose exploits Frank had been researching the past few days -- or a couple of hundred years into the future, whatever the current case may be.

Black Jack turns out to be a nasty character, and he immediately turns his lustful attention to Claire. But before he can assault her, she's rescued by a dashing young Highlander named Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), who carries her off after punching the redcoat's lights out.

He takes her back to his camp, where the rest of the rebel band is waiting. Claire is viewed with suspicion by leader Dougal MacKenzie (Graham McTavish), who fears she is a Sassenach (English/outlander) spy. But after Claire demonstrates her ability to attend to wounded soldiers' wounds, Dougal decides that she might turn out to be an asset, after all.

And so begins Claire's back-in-time adventure -- a sometimes dreamy, sometimes gritty, romance-infused historical romp created by Gabaldon after she spent many months trying to decide what kind of an author she wanted to become.

"I wanted to write a novel, and I had never written a novel, and I said, 'The only way I can learn how is to write one, so, fine -- I'll write a novel for practice,'" Gabaldon, 62, said earlier this year when Outlander was introduced during the Starz's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles. "So the next question was, what sort of novel should this be?... I said, 'Maybe I should write a mystery. I read lots of mysteries,' and then I said, 'No, mysteries have plots; I'm not sure I can do that.'

"And so I said, 'What's the easiest kind of book there might be to write?' For me, maybe, a historical novel -- I was a research professor (and) I knew my way around a library, so it seemed easier to look things up than to make things up," says the Arizona-born former scientific-computing expert, whose books have sold more than 27 million copies.

"I was casting around for a time and place (for the story), and happened to see a really old Doctor Who rerun -- it was with the second Doctor, made maybe 50 years ago, in which the Doctor had picked up a young Scotsman from 1745, and it was a young man named Jamie McCrimmon who appeared in his kilt.

"I thought that was kind of fetching, and I was still thinking about it the next day in church. So I said to myself, 'I would like to write a book. It doesn't really matter where you set it. The important thing is pick a point and start.' And I said, 'Fine. Scotland, 18th century.' So that's where I started."

Thanks to that simple but slightly twisted bit of literary logic, the the kind of novelist Gabaldon turned out to be is a very successful one. Viewers of Outlander will no doubt be thrilled she happened upon that rerun of Doctor Who and his 18th-century kilted companion.

Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 21, 2014 C1


Updated on Thursday, August 21, 2014 at 6:50 AM CDT: Changes headline, replaces photo

7:33 AM: Corrects date

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