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Originally published Monday, August 18, 2014 at 6:30 AM

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A Highland fling: Starz brings ‘Outlander’ novels to life

Author/scientist Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” series, which has sold more than 25 million copies, combines sci-fi, romance and time travel. After a long journey, Ronald D. Moore of “Battlestar Galactica” fame has brought her novels to TV.

The Philadelphia Inquirer



Available on Starz; check local listings. Also available on


Diana Gabaldon’s eight-book “Outlander” novel series has sold more than 25 million copies worldwide, yet the author didn’t publish her first story — the first “Outlander” novel — until she was nearly 40 and already established in an academic career as a scientist.

Now 62, Gabaldon said she is delighted her story finally has yielded its first screen adaptation. Developed and written for Starz by Ronald D. Moore of “Battlestar Galactica” fame, “Outlander” is in the midst of a 16-episode first season and has been renewed for a second season.

A genre-defying mix of adventure, sci-fi and fantasy all processed with romance novel tropes, “Outlander” is about a young World War II nurse named Claire (Caitriona Balfe) whose life takes a terrifying turn when, during a romantic Scottish getaway with her husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies), she’s suddenly and inexplicably transported to the year 1743.

Stranded, possibly for good, she must learn how to navigate life in an era defined by a series of bloody battles between Scottish rebels seeking independence and English forces occupying their homeland.

A late bloomer

“I have known since I was 8 I wanted to be a novelist,” Gabaldon said in a phone interview. “(But) my dad was like, ‘You are sure to marry a bum, so get a good education and a job so you can take care of yourself,’ so I went into the sciences,” said Gabaldon.

She earned degrees in zoology, marine biology and behavioral ecology and worked through the 1980s as a professor at the Center for Environmental Studies at Arizona State University.

“When I turned 35 I thought, ‘Mozart was dead at [35], so maybe it’s time I tried” to become a creative artist.

A true scientist, she set up an experiment: She’d write a novel just to see if she could do it.

The “Outlander” series is beloved by fans for its exquisitely researched and raw representation of life in 18th-century Scotland. But why pick this tale? Had Gabaldon been consumed as a child by Scottish history?

Hardly: The story was entirely incidental.

“Historical fiction seemed easiest, since I was a researcher and I knew my way around a library,” said the author, who decided on the time and place to set her yarn after watching an old “Doctor Who” episode that had the time traveler visit 18th-century Scotland.

“There’s nothing better than the image of a man in a kilt,” said Gabaldon.

Three years later, the book had become a best-selling title and Gabaldon, who told her agent she had plenty more to say about Claire, signed a multibook publishing deal.

Adapting “Outlander”

Getting the story on screen was a different matter. Several producers optioned the story over the past two decades but failed to develop a workable feature film, said Gabaldon.

She was impressed by Moore’s suggestion for adapting the books into a TV series and by his intuitive understanding of the story and its characters.

“Battlestar Galactica” fans on the blogosphere have wracked their brains trying to figure what statement Moore wants to make by taking on “Outlander,” whose magic realism is a far cry from “Galactica’s” stark, martial mood, and blood and guts flavor.

Moore said he simply loved the story.

“And I really like the central character of Claire. I responded to her intelligence, ability and strength,” said Moore.

Doom and gloom

“Outlander” is set just three years before the Scottish rebellion is definitively crushed by England at a decisive battle in 1746, when the victorious English break up the clans, forbid the wearing of clan tartans and ban the native language, Gaelic.

“I was really struck by the idea of a doomed culture,” said Moore. “These people are coming up to a cliff they can’t see.”

Scottish actor Sam Heughan plays one of the film’s two male protagonists, Scottish rebel Jamie Fraser, who develops a complex relationship with Claire.

“Claire knows from the minute she arrives, all these people are going to die. From the very start we’re looking at a doomed people, a doomed culture,” he said.

Should we expect “Outlander” to buck the historical record and give us, in grand Hollywood tradition, a happy ending — where the Scottish rebels aren’t defeated by the English, where Claire finds true love with Jamie and gets to go back to the future?

Don’t count on it.

“We have a full-time historian who vets the scripts, a Gaelic teacher and an herbalist to show how herbs were used in medicine,” said Moore. “If you want to give a fantastical story to the audience, then you want to keep it as grounded in reality as much as possible.”

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