Starz are likely to have more luck with this new Doctor Who spin-off than they did with Torchwood. Okay, it’s not an official Who spin-off per se, but author Diana Gabaldon has made no secret of her multi-book series’ debt to the character of Jamie McCrimmon, the Highlander played by Frazer Hines in the Patrick Troughton years of the classic show.
Star Trek/Battlestar Galactica producer Ronald D. Moore is the creative force behind this TV version, whose opening episode takes things nice and gently. There’s no hurry to get Claire back to Jacobite times: we have plenty of time to get to know her and the flawed relationship she has with her husband, Frank, as well as seeing her in action during the war as a nurse, and even assisting her archaeologist uncle as a child.
There are a few bits of very heavy-handed telegraphing of future (or should that be past) events as Frank and Claire drive through the Highlands, but it’s the sort of thing that pilots have little option but to include. Using Claire as narrator works to an extent – barring the last line which is a little too all-knowing to be credible – but it would be interesting to find out if this is meant to be her account to someone specific, a la Michael Westen in Burn Notice.
Not being familiar with the books, I don’t know if the casting fits the novels, but it certainly works well for television. Caitriona Balfe has the necessary fire to make Claire work in both time periods, while Tobias Menzies has fun as the Randalls. We see far more of him in this opener than we do of Sam Heughan as Jamie, but there’s a quick chemistry apparent between Heughan and Balfe.
John Dahl has a keen eye for detail in his direction – the sequences at the stones are shot beautifully, in particular. Money has clearly been thrown at this: the 1940s-set scenes look good (albeit deliberately filtered to indicate the austere times), and the make-up budget – for grime, particularly – has been hammered for the 18th Century characters.
Verdict: Spending time setting up the premise is always worthwhile, and this opener entices the viewer to want to spend time with these characters, as well as solve some of the mysteries inherent in the series. 8/10