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'Outlander' review: Genre mashup delivers in all realms

"Outlander" on Starz is based on the book franchise by Diana Gabaldon. Credit: Sony Pictures Television / Ed Miller

THE SHOW "Outlander"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Saturday at 9 p.m. on Starz

WHAT IT'S ABOUT So what kind of show is this? Let's be clear. It's a historical suspense culture-clash war escape sci-fi medical romance adventure.

Add space travel, and you'd have the defining series of producer-writer Ronald D. Moore's career, "Battlestar Galactica." That quality drama of the 2000s remains unseen by many who couldn't get past the Syfy thing and who've thus forgone the show's keen study of the human soul (with sex and combat).

Now Moore has developed Diana Gabaldon's genre-bending "Outlander" book franchise into an epic adult saga that attempts similar depth on a narrower focus (with sex and combat).

World War II field nurse Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) is reconnecting with husband Frank (Tobias Menzies) in 1946 after five years apart. The British couple has traveled to trace his ancestry in Inverness when Claire touches a fabled field stone and finds herself time-jumped to that locale in 1743. Men of the Scottish clan MacKenzie happen by, doing battle with the British. And Claire is not only British but strangely talented in matters medical, made clear as the men remove her to their castle. This is no 18th century lass -- which makes "outlander" Claire suspect, and intriguing, and helpful. And dangerous.

How can this wily woman find her way back (to her) home (era)? And survive this archaic life till then? Her quest becomes a deep-seated test of both memory and identity.

MY SAY Those conversant with Gabaldon's eight "Outlander" novels know Claire's challenge centers on a sensitive horse-training hunk by the name of Jamie (Sam Heughan), packing secrets of his own. We get to glimpse those as we do Claire's, in flashbacks explained by character narration like "The hairs on the back of my neck bristled at the sight." Starz's first four episodes (of 16 this first season) convey Claire as a "strong-minded" heroine and Jamie as an idealized hero, while dropping obvious clues of things to come, sometimes through Scottish folk tunes.

So, yes, "Outlander" can occasionally be a bit much for those not already enamored of its romance-novel leanings. (I plead guilty.) But for those open to textured historical sweep and/or time travel what-ifs (guilty on both counts), it's easy to lose yourself in this gritty production's pungent sense of place, character and dilemma.

Picturesque location shooting in Scotland doesn't hurt. Neither does the rich tapestry of mostly little-known performers, who assuredly evoke their bygone time without seeming too quaint or contemporary. (Supporting stereotypes of the jolly-round-housekeeper type are less vanquished.)

This weekend's first episode moves slowly, especially during its initial 1940s segments. But their relaxed depiction of Claire and Frank's adult relationship crucially anchors Claire's "present"-day thought and autonomous attitude, enabling her to match the MacKenzie men in a disarmingly innate fashion.

Future hours move faster, while being more episodic, even chapter-like. Their continuing narration and other elements (including Bear McCreary's ethnic music) can hit the nail a bit too squarely on the head. But that quality isn't unknown among the many genres from which "Outlander" draws storytelling formulas and cinematic styles. When you've got so many antecedents, you're bound to incorporate their penchants along with their potency.

BOTTOM LINE "Outlander" distills a tasty spirit all its own.


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