Outlander is a rich, dense series based on the best-selling series of novels by Diana Gabaldon. Her books are usually described as historical romances, but there's a time-travel element woven into the narrative. (Hence: dense.)
The English heroine, Claire Randall, is a nurse (and a botanist, which will come in handy later, or rather earlier. It's complicated. Keep reading).
As the story begins, Claire, played by Irish model Caitriona Balfe, is enjoying a second honeymoon in Scotland with her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies). They've been kept apart for five years by WWII, which has just ended.
Frank's a bit of a stuffy academic but the reunion seems to be going well. "Why Mrs. Randall," he purrs as they wander through some castle ruins, "I do believe you've left your undergarments at home." (Aye, a man's a man for a' that.)
They stumble upon a strange pagan ceremony up in the Highlands; Claire touches an ancient stele, and whammo, she's back in 1743. When Outlander (9 p.m. Saturday on Starz) goes into a flashback, it goes way back.
Luckily, she falls in with a clan of burly men with tam-o'-shanters on their heads and cosmetic mud stains on their faces. You know they're tough because they gallop about on shaggy horses while wearing kilts.
All the Scots are bearded except Jamie Frasier (Sam Heughan), a fine strapping lad with salon hair. The initial antagonism between Claire and Jamie quickly turns to respect and then passion. (I'm told this is the standard progression.)
But wait, what is Claire's 20th-century husband doing running around the drumlins in a cardinal-red English military uniform, shooting and raping everything he sees? Well, it is Tobias Menzies, but he's playing a dual role as both Frank and Frank's brutal ancestor, Black Jack Randall. Claire wisely adopts her maiden name: Beauchamp.
Hey, if the Scots feel persecuted in 1743, just wait a few years. After Bonnie Prince Charlie's failed Jacobite uprising, the English would get doubly draconian.
The series is executive-produced by Ronald D. Moore, best known for his work on cosmic sagas like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and the revival of Battlestar Galactica. He might seem to be an outlander himself in the dewy realm of romance. But the show is wonderfully conceived and executed (if a little pokey pace-wise).
There are some enjoyable performances here, including Gary Lewis (Billy Elliot) as the clan leader and Annette Badland as Mrs. Fitz, the bossy Mrs. Patmore of the castle. But Balfe (who resembles Mary Steenburgen) overemotes to the point of mugging.
There's no danger of this distinctively flavored show's running out of story. Gabaldon has written eight stout Outlander books (and numerous spinoffs). So break out the tartan, lassies. This is a bonnie treat.
9 p.m. Saturday on StarzEndText