Anchor Bay // 1998 // 1060 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // March 18th, 2004
"You know, I once heard it said that the main difference between a wise man and a fool is that the fool's mistakes never teach him anything." -- Duncan MacLeod
There are times when you get hooked on a TV show and get swept away. Maybe you're just at the right place at the right time; there's a happy confluence of events that makes you a fan. Then, years later, you get a chance to see the show again. On a second viewing, your nostalgia and fan loyalty cannot mask the truth -- the show stinks. You want to relive the moment, but it just isn't there anymore.
I'm happy to report that this is not one of those times. When Highlander first aired in the 1990s, it grabbed my attention. I didn't see every episode, but watched it whenever I got a chance and really enjoyed it. When the first disc of Season Two popped into my player, I had a slight twinge of apprehension that the show would not live up to my rosy recollections. The thought quickly evaporated, replaced by enthusiasm. Highlander hooked me anew and has swept me away as thoroughly as it did the first time. Although Highlander is over 10 years old, the timeless nature of the concept prevents it from feeling dated.
Season Two demonstrates surer footing than Season One, although not without a few minor missteps. Tone and direction oscillate several times, making it hard to get a read on the series. Season One ended on a tragic note, and with it came a revelation that turned the Highlander world on its head. The opening of the second season moves at full speed, delivering a series of heavy emotional blows both touching and tragic. Season Two packs a heavier emotional impact than its predecessor, plus a dogged focus on character over action that cements the heart of the show.
The Immortals have unearthed a worrisome secret: they have been spied upon for centuries by a secret order of scribes known as The Watchers. A sect of The Watchers has become hostile to Immortals. These renegade Watchers view the Immortals as a threat to humanity. Unbound by the Immortal code, they use deceit, traps, and technology to hunt down and kill any Immortal they find.
Duncan MacLeod (Adrian Paul) confronts his Watcher, Joe Dawson (Jim Byrnes) with the truth about the renegades. The two form an uneasy partnership, but neither is completely comfortable with the implications.
Meanwhile, life goes on for Duncan. He moves back to America with Tessa (Alexandra Vandernoot) and Richie (Stan Kirsch). Both Immortals and men will challenge their tenuous happiness.
Ordinarily I like to focus on the material itself rather than the presentation, but this time we'll do it backwards. There are two reasons for this. First, my discussion of Highlander's second season will be rife with spoilers. Second, this boxed set is such an improvement over Season One that it deserves special mention.
Anchor Bay and the people responsible for making these DVDs have really hit stride with this boxed set. Season One had more than a few problems. You can get the full report in The Rebuttal Witnesses section of Season One's Verdict, but in summary, the set had poor video quality, bugs in the DVD authoring, anemic stereo sound, lackluster extras, and no chapter stops after the theme song. In this new set, there still aren't chapter stops after the credits, but everything else is dramatically better. This improvement is a testament to the conscientiousness of the people involved.
The video quality is never going to be considered good, I'm afraid. The series was made on a tight budget and the film stock shows it. Nonetheless, Season Two displays a marked improvement over the first season. The combing artifacts are completely gone, along with most of the pixelation. Black levels have settled down and colors don't seem quite as washed out. The digital cleanup includes edge enhancement, but it's only distracting in a few episodes, where pervasive haloing really detracts from the quality of the show. Fortunately, the disc mastering bugs that caused the screen to go black are gone. The series looks rather grainy, but this is nearly impossible to avoid in a program shot 12 years ago for late night television, in the days before DVD. In light of these considerations, the transfer is a much better effort this second time around.
Season One's stereo sound has, in Season Two, been remixed into a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. The result is a slightly more involving mix with richer bass. The opening song benefits the most, although key parts of the episodes had more dramatic sound that enhanced the scenes. (The heaviest bass appears in "Prodigal Son," when Richie is fumbling through a dark hotel room.) Music and effects are punchier, especially in the studio-mixed scenes. Many scenes had dialogue captured in the field, and these scenes sound about the same: somewhat faint and hard to hear at times. (Subtitles would be really welcome here.) In fact, the 5.1 mix hurts the location scenes somewhat because you have to play Volume Police to get a comfortable listening balance. Again, this is a limitation in the source material; in this set, Highlander sounds about as good as one could reasonably expect.
The packaging has taken a turn for the better. The first season featured three billfolds of three DVDs each. I did not like this arrangement, because (1) you have to think about where the DVD fits every time you remove a disc from the packaging, and (2) the other two billfolds fall out of the case unexpectedly when you attempt to remove only one. The Season Two set features one loooonnnngggggg billfold with eight DVDs. Many people find this format awkward, but I like having everything in one piece. The pseudo-foil cover has been replaced with an actual foil cover.
The extras are superb. Each episode includes a commentary by Bill Panzer, David Abramowitz, or both together (which is best because they crack each other up). These commentaries are quick and dirty, just like Season One, but they were recorded in a more sonically conducive environment. The information is also better, and the men show genuine fondness for the series. We get to hear about Adrian Paul's injuries, production challenges, tips, tricks, and other inside information. There is also a healthy spattering of extra video content, such as lost scenes, altered scenes, bloopers, techniques, and other goodies. Every disc has something different. These visual clips can be tedious, such as the deconstruction of Charlie walking in with his girl, but the end result is still interesting. The extras are varied and easily accessible from the submenu of each episode.
Adrian Paul gives video and audio commentaries on two episodes. The video commentary is simply a filming of the audio commentary, but with Adrian's reactions captured on film. The audio commentary is more complete, but the video offers some funny reaction shots. Adrian's comments should please any Highlander fan. He obviously cares about the role and the series, and remembers many of the actors and stunt people he worked with over six seasons.
Shooting scripts are back again, so you can catch missed dialogue. (Some of the scripts are hard to read, but what can be done about it?) The Watcher Chronicles return as well. They seem like a better fit this time because the Watchers are featured so prominently throughout the season. The background image is easier on the eyes, and the information is imaginative. There's some effective Flash multimedia on the final disc, including a trivia game and cast bios. As a complete package, the extras feel thorough and are well chosen. Considering that this is a decade-old, late night television series, this represents an outstanding amount of new supplemental content.
The improvement is not just in the package; the program grew stronger in its second year as well. Season Two shifts constantly, never letting the viewer or the characters get into a rut. Part of the variety came from trying to find a groove in the face of casting issues, but they dealt with these successfully.
[SPOILER ALERT: the remainder of this section contains major spoilers. To avoid these, skip down to the Closing Statement.]
The season opener has us believing that Season Two will be dominated by the Watchers subplot. I was particularly fearful of this. I feel that Highlander should focus on Immortals and not mortals. Thankfully, the writers use the existence of the Watchers to build a level of paranoia, but they rarely invoke the Watchers directly. For example, "Eye for an Eye" shows a mysterious car hovering around Duncan and Richie, and you naturally assume that the car holds Watchers. Actually, they are terrorists. No single subplot dominates -- Watchers, Immies, and mortals all take precedence at different times. This changing mix of subplots keeps each new episode fresh.
Characters take on new shades of personality, deepening the emotional complexity of their interactions. Take Richie, for example. I didn't much like him in Season One -- he was too breezy, headstrong yet bumbling. This season has Richie end his mortal existence and become Immortal. With this change comes a transformation in character. We see the weight of immortality alter Richie's carefree nature. He becomes a deeper, more serious thinker. We see darkness creep into his decision making. Duncan is forced to let Richie go, and let him exist in the world as his own person. Richie may not do the right thing -- a troubling thought. Duncan is moodier as well. Tessa is no longer around to lighten him. Duncan does the wrong thing once or twice (or was it the writers?), giving us a multifaceted impression of his character.
Let's see how the season unfolds. Visit the official site or tvtome.com for episode summaries.
* "The Watchers"
This episode picks up where the previous season's finale left off. It does what it is supposed to do: remind us about the Watchers, set the tone for the season, and introduce new characters (most notably Joe Dawson, MacLeod's Watcher). The episode is flashback-heavy, as are many of the early Season Two episodes. This technique was used to reinforce previous events, and it gives the series a sense of interconnectedness. On occasion, however, it is obvious that the flashbacks are also padding the episode's running time. This is one of those occasions.
* "Studies in Light"
Right away, the writers delve into one of the character-driven episodes that are hallmarks of this series. Season One too often featured the "Bad Immortal of the Week" that Duncan had to confront. Season Two relaxes the formula, and this episode is a great example. Gregor, a nihilistic Immortal, has been twisted by long years of acute sensitivity into a being that represses all emotion. In contrast, famous photographer Linda Plager has devoted her life to expressing feeling. Duncan eases both of their souls in alternatively touching and violent ways. Some people find episodes such as this one boring; the series is about immortal bloodlust, right? There is a case to be made for that criticism. We don't get to a truly evil immortal until episode 32, "Epitaph for Tommy." I welcome the suspense of waiting for an evil Immortal, and appreciate that the writers took their time before introducing another baddie.
A run-down asylum set gives this episode a horrific edge. The flashbacks are truly spooky, but give the entire plot away if you pay attention. Geraint Wyn Davies (AKA Nick Knight in Forever Knight) plays Season Two's second mentally unbalanced immortal. Davies is so hammy that he's a joy to watch, particularly in his transformation. Creepiness and campy acting cannot completely rescue the episode if you figure out the end early.
* "The Darkness"
The night-vision goggles bit from The Silence of the Lambs is used to give this episode a taut opening. The camerawork is dramatic and you feel threatened watching it. Traci Lords channels Whoopi Goldberg's Oda Mae Brown and continues the tide of dark imagery. As a canvas for emotional weight, the plot serves well. Tessa and Duncan have some of their best moments yet, giving the first half a warm feeling of optimism. That feeling is shattered with Tessa's kidnapping. I was taken aback by the dark tone and emotional range generated by this episode. Highlander is a fantasy series, yet I cared about the characters as though I know them.
The ending of this episode is one of many turning points in the show. From
here onward, Duncan, Richie, and the series will be darker and laced with pain.
Tessa and Richie are both killed, with Richie coming into his immortality. The
triangle of actors on the pavement is a lasting image. Richie and Duncan relate
to each other differently from now on, and Duncan is bereft of much of his joy.
"Dust in the Wind" is used to capture the mood, and used as a
recurring theme throughout the season. "The Darkness" is an apt title
for a heartbreaking episode.
* "Eye For an Eye"
This one caused an uproar -- one I feel is justified. Panzer gave a defense (in my opinion a weak one), but the simple truth is that Duncan turns around and sleeps with Annie Devlin (Sheena Easton) in the episode after Tessa's death. I have a high tolerance for insensitive guy stuff, but this got to me. Alexandra Vandernoot gave Tessa such vitality and charm that her death left me reeling. As I watched this episode, I was still trying to process the loss of Tessa. When Duncan rolled into Annie's arms, part of me smirked in appreciation of Duncan's magnetic charm. But the rest of me found his actions cruel to the viewers.
Otherwise, this episode has some great action (look out for a PO'ed Duncan
in a bar room brawl) and features Richie's burgeoning independence. He seems to
establish a goodness of heart that we have always suspected. Charlie DeSalvo
(Philip Akin) begins to take prominence as well. Sheena Easton acts with fire,
giving this episode a menacing edge (and a freakily erotic morgue scene).
* "The Zone"
If you know producers, you know they are always trying to spin their efforts positively while maintaining credibility. They are masters at the old interview technique of listing a weakness that is really a strength. It is therefore a surprise to hear Bill and David explicitly apologize for this episode and say they wish it didn't exist. That's when you know it is bad, folks.
And it is bad, make no mistake. The sets are bad, the pacing is bad, the
dialogue and acting are bad. The premise, the plot twists, and the climax are
bad. The fight scenes are bad, the costumes are bad, the title is bad. Nothing
is memorable except the salmon-orange suit of the bad guy and the blah feeling
in your mind. I would go into detail, but why? This is TV at its most
* "The Return of Amanda"
Who better to help us recover than Elizabeth Gracen as Amanda? The episode opens with a sultry song and dance number. Adrian and Elizabeth generate heat, not as much as he and Alexandra but enough to give this installment sensual underpinnings. Duncan jumps into the sack again, but seems to relish it this time around. The flashbacks are sharply executed, as is the commentary track, in which Adrian describes some misfortunes.
* "Revenge of the Sword"
Perhaps they sensed that audiences were growing restless: "Revenge of the Sword" is all fight scenes. Kiem Sun's den from the first season is recycled into the home of a Zen master. Dustin Nguyen plays a charismatic Brandon Lee and gives the action a believable urgency. As a kung fu vehicle this episode fares well; character building it is not.
* "Run For Your Life"
This episode is all about Bruce A. Young playing Carl Robinson. Bruce has had bit parts in such movies as Basic Instinct and Enough, but in "Run For Your Life" he gives a convincing argument that he's capable of more. Carl is an ambitious black immortal who becomes disillusioned by the racist South. Ironically, he carries that despair forward into the 1990s, when racism is less stifling. Carl rails against Duncan for owning his own place...but one baseball season would give Carl more money that Duncan ever had. In the commentary, David mentions that Bruce is his favorite actor in the series, and that praise is well founded. The genuine flashbacks enhance the episode's craftsmanship.
* "Epitaph For Tommy"
At long last we confront an evil Immortal, Rowdy Roddy Piper as Gallen. The episode is a snarl of deceit and treachery, with Duncan using his long years of experience to tease out the truth. The suspense and action are reminiscent of melodramatic soap operas, but here it just manages to work. Getting back to basics is good for the show. Roddy really is rowdy: Adrian suffered his first major injury at Roddy's hands. But Adrian finished the episode before going to the hospital. For such dedication, this one earns a solid...
* "The Fighter"
Bruce Weitz brings in the second standout performance of the season. As Tommy Sullivan, he shows a boyish good nature that masks a cold-hearted gangster. Duncan catches on to Tommy's duplicity and handles things the Immortal Way. This episode reveals the ways people manipulate each other, be they mortal or no. It highlights Duncan's morality when we see such alternative Immortals. Philip Akin gives Charlie more depth and cements the character's personality in some witty exchanges with Duncan. All of this fine acting is secondary to the stark brutality of the episode, with realistic bare-knuckle boxing, barroom brawls, and swordfights. It's tough to stomach this one.
* "Under Color of Authority"
Yet another great actor shows up -- this time, Jonathan Banks as the quintessential lawman Mako, an Immortal with over 800 years of experience enforcing the letter of the law. Mako is not concerned with justice, only rules. His stark eyes are chilling for their dogged resolve. Mako is like the Terminator, pursuing his prey until they have been brought in. Banks has Mako taunt Duncan in a way that is not directly hostile, but sends a clear message to say out of the way. Mako is an intriguing Immortal who doesn't represent good or evil.
Richie doesn't see it that way. Mako is a threat to be dispatched. This
episode is really about Richie. Stan does a great job of giving Richie
conflicted nuance. Richie is taking his first steps as an autonomous Immortal.
In his first quickening, Richie estranges himself from Duncan. Duncan sets him
free in a powerful goodbye.
* "Bless the Child"
Oh, the irony. After cranking out a fantastic, genre-breaking episode, the writers dip into the well named "Generic." Duncan and Charlie are stranded in the woods, just as a woman and a baby run by, being pursued by men with guns. Duncan steps into action and tries to get them out of danger. Stretch follows stretch, until the viewer is forced to question the integrity of the series. Duncan and Charlie ambush two of the gunmen, but leave the guns on the ground right next to the enemies. Thirty-aught-six bullets are stopped by leaves. A bear paws its way into the cabin. Duncan hides himself in the woods -- wearing a white turtleneck sweater. The entire episode is uninspired.
* "Unholy Alliance -- Part 1"
Ahh, the inimitable Xavier St. Cloud. Roland Gift gave us one of the most memorable Immortals of Season One, and it was simply a matter of time until his return. Xavier coasts on his reputation a bit, lacking the menacing charm of his first appearance. But Xavier is a truly delicious bad guy and we want to see him brought down. That won't be so easy with Jim Horton back. Duncan confronts Joe in a series of taut interactions, and Joe is forced to choose what kind of man he will be. Renee Delaney (Stacey Travis) is a comely and spirited special agent on Duncan's trail. This episode crams a lot of subtext into the scant running time, and thus feels fuller than most episodes. Unfortunately, the end seems like an artificial extension of Roland's screen time. I find him as riveting as anyone, but the deus ex machina is far too apparent: a helicopter lifts him into the sky. Fortunately, Akin is on hand to give some much-needed character building as he and Duncan mince words.
* "Unholy Alliance -- Part 2"
Paris lends her charm to pump things up a notch. Xavier regains some of his cache in a few verbal fencing matches. Stacey Travis does her best "Tessa Lite" impression to make a bid for Renee's longevity. Joe makes a stand. Charlie shows some vulnerability and frustration. Separately, each actor has individual triumphs. But the whole feels like a sham. Joe shoots Horton, but Horton is right there at the end, untouched. Charlie was shot three times but seems fine. Renee was shot but just has a color-coordinated sling to show for it. The only one who dies is Xavier, and he was a fan favorite. Duncan and Renee share some believable moments of longing.
* "The Vampire"
This episode is firmly tongue in cheek, with lots of goofy gags: bloody screen wipe transitions, a Eurotrash vampire, and more fog than a heavy metal concert. Most of the episode takes place in flashback, which gives the episode a different feel than the rest. This one is fun, but not entirely solid, particularly in the supporting acting. As a gag episode it works, and the swordfight is good, but there's not much else here.
Duncan faces a crisis of honor, and it brings up thorny issues: is a promise made to pure evil binding? The supporting cast is engaging, particularly Tom Watson as Eli. He is convincing as a fiery and distraught widower. Peter Firth (Arthur Drake) is reminiscent of Hitler, with the bouncy stride of Auric Goldfinger. He is fun to watch, especially when he gets what's coming to him. Duncan's love interest is forgettable, and the romantic angle is starting to feel like "hussy of the week." A solid episode.
* "Pharaoh's Daughter"
Episodes like this are what makes Highlander a standout. Nia Peeples is luminous as the spirited Nefertiri, a devoted handmaiden to Cleopatra. The episode begins with a tragic premise: Nefertiri has been entombed for over 2000 years. The very thought is chilling. She seems remarkably untouched by the experience, which is somewhat unrealistic, but the originality of the rest eclipses such issues. There is lots of skin and sin in this one, and it is done well. The supporting cast is uniformly great. Nia's swordfight with Duncan is absolutely superb, full of energy and aggressive malice. The only real nit I was going to pick is that Nefertiri speaks fluent English right out of the box, but Bill Panzer shamed me out of mentioning this with his commentary.
The magic continues in this episode, rife with drama, tragedy, humor, and sensuality. Amanda returns, but she is subdued and serious. It adds to her character and makes Duncan's fondness for her believable. After 400 years, one tends to get into a rut of communication, but Duncan and Amanda really connect this time. Amanda's mentor, Rebecca, is a great character. Seeing Amanda and Duncan in the flashbacks is hilarious. The introduction of Immortal mythology is a nice touch: do the crystals grant invulnerability? Fortunately, this episode merely poses the question without providing the answer.
* "Prodigal Son"
At long last, Richie returns. It is everything you'd expect. Stan gives a harried and complex performance, cementing Richie's maturity. The evil Immortal Hyde is unlikable. Duncan confronts a suspicious police inspector and tells her how to do her job. How many more times will we see that one?
* "Counterfeit, Part 1"
I'm starting to notice a trend: I dislike episodes with Horton in them. Don't get me wrong -- he makes a menacing and unlikable bad guy -- but episodes featuring him stretch the bounds of reality too thin. He gets killed once, twice, three times, but he never really seems to be dead. In this one, he manufactures a fake Tessa? Puh-lease. What I like about the show is a truly unrealistic premise set within bounds of reality. Horton has too many resources, too much cunning, and too much luck to be convincing. Richie's friendship with Pete is too quick. Most of this episode is setup for the next.
* "Counterfeit, Part 2"
Continuing the train of unreality, we have a sociopathic hood who behaves exactly like Tessa, down to her voice and interests. There is a bit of horrific thrill seeing a malicious doppelganger in Tessa's place, and Richie has a good scene with Joe. Otherwise, the episode is predictable and over the top. Bring back the evil Immortals, please.
According to Amazon.com, Highlander: The Series is popular with programmers. I have to come clean: I am a programmer. This may explain my passion for the series. But I'm a discerning programmer. Perhaps Highlander earned my praise the old fashioned way: great premise, solid acting, notable guest stars, and originality.
Does this court hold sway over Immortals?
Review content copyright © 2004 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 1060 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Episode-By-Episode Audio Commentary Featuring Producer Bill Panzer and Writer David Abramowitz
* Audio and Video Episodic Commentaries Featuring Actor Adrian Paul
* Photo Gallery
* Season Two Scripts
* DVD-ROM Cast/Crew Filmographies
* The Watcher Chronicles
* Lost Scenes
* Review of Season One
* Episode Guide for Entire Highlander Series