Diana Gabaldon and Caitriona Balfe explain time travel's role in Outlander

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Aug 11, 2014, 3:50 PM EDT (Updated)

Starz brought Diana Gabaldon's Outlander novels to life on Aug. 9 and hopes its enormous fan base will follow the scent of haggis and stovies to their channel to make the show the next big hit on premium cable. Outlander follows Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), a British Army nurse who was separated from her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies), an Oxford history professor (and former MI6 spy) when she was called into duty for World War II. Claire returns to Frank at the end of the war and they go on a second honeymoon at Inverness, Scotland. While on a nature walk at the stone circle of Craigh na Dun, Claire travels back in time 200 years to the 18th-century Scotland Highlands and is captured by the Mackenzie clan, who suspect she is an English spy. Complicating matters is the fact that the British army officer who is fighting the Mackenzies, Jonathan "Black Jack" Randall, is an antecedent of Frank's and looks nearly identical to him. Fearing she may never see her old life again, Claire strikes up a complicated romance with highlander Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). 

In what may be one of the more impressive television debuts this year, Outlander is a beautifully crafted series that is shot like a movie but takes its time to develop rich and textured characters. It's primarily a historical drama, with flavors of fantasy, adventure, survival and romance that simmer throughout but never boil over with any one genre component. Science fiction fans will recognize Battlestar Galactica's Ron D. Moore as the showrunner, and other writers on staff include Ira Steven Behr (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Alphas) and Matthew B. Roberts (Caprica), but the sci-fi element is toned down, especially early on. Blastr asked Gabaldon, Moore and cast members at Comic-Con how much of a supernatural element will be present.

"It's not supernatural; time travel actually has a physical basis of explanation," Gabaldon replied. "It's just that we experience it along with the characters, who are having to learn it by trial and error. There is no handbook for time travelers. What's happening to Claire is not magic, it's not ghostliness, however there is a ghost in the beginning of the series, and he'll show up again in the end of the first series, but in between we need not worry about him. There's not really much supernatural to speak of, but there is a fantastic, 'woo-woo' element."

"[Time travel] is the main conflict of the story, at least in the beginning. This is what's driving Claire, is the need to get back to her original time. It's that displacement. It might've been a shipwreck like in [the James Clavell novel] Shogun, but it is the precipitating incident. It was a need of the main character in that story to get home and back to your familiar culture, meanwhile being sucked into a culture of where they are [in the present], forming ties and being enmeshed in the life they're in, while still struggling to get back to the life they left. So it is a drama, the time travel forms the basis of the conflict there. Now, in later books, time travel emerges in different ways, and we do explore it further. But in our first book, in our first season, that's what it's being used for."

One of the interesting questions is whether Claire can or will use her knowledge of the future. Her skills and experience as a nurse in World War II, her rugged independence and her knowledge of Scottish history affords her the chance to survive in the era, but she must also learn how to blend into 18th-century Scotland. "I think the first season is interesting because Claire's main drive is just to survive," said Balfe. "She's not looking at the macro. She has information about the future and about what is going to happen as far as the Highlanders, but it's not something she is fully able to grasp until she knows her life is not at risk. As the story progresses, she is able to look at the bigger picture."


According to Moore, cast members and, most importantly, Gabaldon (who served as a consultant), the author feels the series does great justice to the novels, and was excited to see her novel explored in 16 one-hour episodes rather than a compressed two-hour film. "I told Ron when I read his pilot script that this is the first bit of work that was based on my books that didn't make me turn white or burst into flames." The hope is that one season will be devoted to each of the seven Outlander novels, similar to HBO's treatment of Game of Thrones. Having Gabaldon present on set and writers who respect the source material suggests that a devoted fan base will be pleased but should be prepared for some differences.

"There will always be the fans [watching] with the books in their laps, and they're cheating themselves of the pleasure of the books and the series if they're not willing to accept them as different things," Gabaldon warns. "It's just a different experience of the same story, but it makes the entire experience much richer, because they have the visual aspect and this sense of novelty and discovery that are not in the book."

Moore said, "Let's be true to the book, let's be as faithful as we can, and let's make the characters as recognizable as the characters are in the book. At the same time, you can't give over the creative impulses to the fans. A TV show is not a democracy. You have to go for your own artistic instincts and hope for the best."

Scotland is very much a character in the series, but should the series get renewed and follow the novels, the setting eventually moves out of Scotland after the second novel and reaches the southeastern shores of America. "If we're fortunate enough to get a second [and subsequent seasons]," Gabaldon cautiously teased, "You will notice that there is this constant longing for Scotland on the part of the people who've left it to a certain extent; they re-create that culture in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, which are visually similar." Scotland will still be a part of the series and could also be echoed in flashbacks.

"I hope as much as possible we are staying truthful to the book," added Balfe. "But it is an adaptation, so in terms of the medium the story is being told in, certain things have to change to fill a proper arc of the one-hour episode. Some things have been moved around a little bit, or expanded upon, or maybe we haven't been able to touch certain parts, but I hope that's exciting, because it's something you recognize but there are all of these new elements. I hope for people who haven't read the books that this will be great storytelling about fantastic characters, and hopefully that will draw them in, too."

Outlander premiered Aug. 9, and new episodes will air on Saturdays on Starz at 9 p.m.  Are you buying in to Gabaldon's and Moore's vision?