Our reviews of Highlander (Blu-Ray) (published November 12th, 2010), Highlander / Highlander 2 (Blu-Ray) 25th Anniversary Collection (published January 31st, 2011), Highlander: The Series, Season Two (published March 18th, 2004), Highlander: The Series, Season Three (published March 29th, 2004), Highlander: The Series, Season Four (published June 8th, 2004), Highlander: The Series, Season Five (published September 22nd, 2004), Highlander: The Series, Season Six (published February 16th, 2005), and Highlander: Ultimate Collection (published May 16th, 2007) are also available.
There can be only one.
Every so often, a cherished bauble of the übergeek set catches the mainstream eye. The movie Highlander was a surprise hit, igniting the imagination of geeks and non-geeks alike. The problem: Highlander left no room for a sequel. What is Hollywood to do when such a rich vein of gold lies just out of reach, fenced off by the finality of the original? Why, rely on their strength and make stuff up, of course. Thus we were assaulted by putrid, pontificating sequels.
Fortunately, Highlander: The Series does the right thing: it ignores the ending of the movie. Treat Connor MacLeod's dismembering of the Kurgan as a big quickening and not the end, and you're good. This gave the series an inarguable advantage over the movies: time. Highlander: The Series has plenty of time to explore the concepts introduced by Highlander, and the story is stronger and more poignant as a result.
There are phases to TV viewing, like a shadow across a sundial. Morning viewing is primarily to get information or to start the day on a pleasant, if innocuous note. Mid day viewing is notoriously placid. Prime Time viewing is a riot of hot shows, reality TV, feature films, sports, and other mass appeal programs. Night viewing is more mature (or less mature, depending on your definition), with edgier, thornier fare.
Then there is late night viewing. It its way, late night viewing is as placid as mid-day, although with a different focus. Late night viewing aims to soothe the poor, restless souls who are awake at such unnatural hours. The issues address alienation, isolation, and individualism. The best late night shows strike a sympathetic chord with night owls, give them something cerebral to chew on. Among the hyped-up drivel of its late night contemporaries, Highlander: The Series was a gem. The themes resonated with viewers, becoming universal in their appeal. The protagonist is brooding, magnetic, and appealing. The action is top-notch, and the flashbacks add a dimension of culture and diversity. I spent many a late night in energetic solitude, basking in the light of this mysterious, but eminently approachable universe.
In the case of Highlander: The Series, lightning struck twice. The series became a surprise hit and lasted for five seasons. It has faults, but Highlander: The Series is a great fantasy action series with memorable characters, great stories, and a fascinating premise: what if we could live forever?
Facts of the Case
Living among humans are the Immortals. They are indistinguishable from humans except for one detail: they will never die unless beheaded. To that end, an instinct called The Gathering draws the Immortals together to fight. When one kills another, the victor draws the power of the loser in a spectacle called The Quickening. Let's just say that when a quickening occurs, it is a bad time to be a light bulb, window, or automobile. You'd think that a quickening would be like an X-laced triple espresso, putting a smile on the face and a zing in the step, but quickened immortals look more like sea-tossed rag dolls. But I digress.
Speaking of lightning striking twice, it did so for the Clan MacLeod. Two generations after Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) woke up from his dirt nap, fellow kinsman Duncan MacLeod (Adrian Paul) plays possum and freaks out his clan. Confused and alone, he is befriended by Connor and taught the ropes. The rules are many, but chief among them: Don't lose your head, never fight on holy ground, and most importantly THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!
Highlander: The Series was such a great series because of the timeless appeal of the premise: immortality. For ages, men have been after the elusive secret to extended life. Sure, this is a fantasy series, but what a rich concept! The show treated its viewers with intelligence, leaving them to ponder the themes and truths for themselves. Like the best shows, it had a solid cast and writing that gave the cast personality, character, and heart. As a fantasy series, it had action, adventure, eye candy, villains, and heroes. Perhaps the most compelling element was the normalcy of the immortals, their hang-ups and ambitions, their lack of absolute good or evil (in most cases).
The primary figure in the series is Duncan MacLeod, aptly portrayed by Adrian Paul. Duncan is 400 years old, but wiser and stronger than his years would suggest. As an immortal, he is respected and feared by those with much more experience. There is something special about the MacLeods: perhaps their incorrigible warrior code, or their inherent nobility? Paul's acting is sometimes criticized, but for the life of me I can't see why. He is brooding, sensitive, threatening, subtle, mature, elegant, witty, and charming. This man is not a one-note actor by any means. And master swordsman Robert Anderson called Adrian Paul the most physically gifted actor he has ever trained with the sword. Paul has the chops to hold this series steady.
His love interest, Tessa Noel (Alexandra Vandernoot), is beautiful and spirited. She is the perfect mortal foil for MacLeod's heavy concerns. She lightens and strengthens him. Together, they are a model couple. They have healthy banter, intense arguments, plenty of romance, and an easy comfort with each other. Alexandra is another gifted actor: she has the poise, restraint, and grace to be both sensual and frustrated, accomplished yet vulnerable, mortal but aware of greater concerns.
Richie Ryan (Stan Kirsch) is a "street punk" befriended by MacLeod. Richie hyperactively schmoozes his way through the series, punctuated by brief moments of insight and intensity. He is supposed to represent freewheeling youth, but he doesn't carry the requisite bitterness or edge. He serves his role and makes for some exciting moments.
The direction is sometimes uncertain, but Highlander: The Series gives viewers something unique and inspiring. Each episode gives us a provocative glimpse into the trials and concerns of immortality, great swordfights, stylish flashbacks to bygone eras, and occasionally wicked immortals with awesome quickenings.
When you take into consideration the tight TV shooting schedule and the vastness of the Highlander universe, the feats accomplished by this series are particularly impressive. Without further ado, I present comments on each episode.
One of the rare episodes that contains neither other immortals nor swordplay, "Family Tree" further expands the relationship between Richie and Duncan. Perhaps the biggest indicator that the writers were uncertain of the proper direction, this episode begins weeks after the first and jumps right into Richie's sad past, forgoing any exposition in between. It is a somewhat clichéd story, with Duncan acting as detective and protector. Peter Deluise is over the top as a pain loving heavy, and it is fun to see his verbal and non-verbal sparring with Duncan. The flashbacks show Duncan's own struggles with identity, so there is a kernel of pathos here. It seems like the writers said to themselves "Hey, we can't have immortal swordfights every week!" Grade: B
THE ROAD NOT TAKEN
Even immortals can spend their lives in the pursuit of a pipe dream. The flashbacks have style, and the swordfights are better than in the inaugural episode. This is the first episode to show immortals as friends who can civilly disagree. It also introduces Angie (Christianne Hirt), a hot friend of Richie's who should have been given a larger role. Speaking of Richie, he is completely unconvincing as a former resident of the ghetto. Creative camera angles and artistic repetition of textures add sophisticated interest. Grade: B
In many ways, this episode is a step back for the series. The sound is wan and the dialogue unclear. The acting is stilted, laughable. The exception is Leo's touching portrayal of a combat veteran. The plot takes several unrealistic yet predictable turns, although the Civil War era flashbacks are gritty. Much of the episode is a wash, except for the intense swordfight and the gruesome beheading. Grade: C-
"Free Fall" is in many ways the exact opposite of "Innocent Man." The plot draws you in, and the character interactions are engaging, but the sword fight sucks ass. I never expected Joan Jett to be an expert sword maiden; Xena she is not. The mysterious immortal is the spitting image of Duncan MacLeod, which is confusing at times. We get to see a non-Duncan flashback, which is a neat twist. Grade: A
BAD DAY IN BUILDING A
No immortals, no flashbacks, no subplots…this is a straight ahead action piece. If John McClane had been immortal, this is how things would have shaken out. There is little in this hostage crisis we haven't seen before. Grade: C+
Deliverance meets Last of the Mohicans, with the Beastmaster thrown in for good measure. Hey, there are immortal rednecks! This episode shows the tough stuff Tessa is made of. Duncan runs around sans-shirt most of the time, something for the ladies. A neat foray into the woods with little bearing on the direction of the series. Grade: B+
This episode is a little far-fetched and doesn't flow very well. Of the
first season, it is probably the weakest entry. There are myriad plot holes and
it just doesn't feel authoritative. The cheesy medical drama aspect is
incongruous. Grade: C-
Why are all off Duncan's old pals drug dealers? In this episode the series begins to find its stride. The immortal is a baddie communist who pissed off Duncan back in the day. A classic early episode that helped define the formula. "The Sea Witch" reveals more about the choices Tessa will have to live with, since Duncan cannot have children. Richie's ex gives a great performance, as does her young one. Grade: A-
REVENGE IS SWEET
Vanity is actually pretty convincing as a sword mistress. This one is pure femme fatale, driven by a vague conspiracy plot. The action is intense, Vanity is sultry, and Tessa is green with jealousy. The flashback is very well done, showing Tessa "pre immortal-awareness." Grade: A
SEE NO EVIL
Whereas "Bad Day in Building A" was a straight ahead rehash, "See No Evil" is taut, creepy, and mostly original. The timeline is switched around, and the flashback swordfight is wonderful and dramatic. The tension is palpable, and Tessa gets a taste for how Duncan's life must feel when she faces the killer. Grade: A-
The season keeps rolling right along, hitting on all cylinders and finding its stride. There are several exceptional action sequences, balanced by touching emotional explorations. What do you do when an immortal doesn't play by the rules? Adrian Paul gives a convincing, authoritative performance. Grade: A+
BAND OF BROTHERS
If the series found a stride with "Eyewitness," "Band of Brothers" is an outright gallop. The episode is superlative. The action is riveting and the events have a deep underlying importance. Seriously, how often do we get a truly moving treatise on peace and unity in late night TV? The flashbacks, subplots, and mood all combine to serve the whole. There is dramatic, thematic unity. But above all, there is the uncertain resolve of Duncan MacLeod confronting an immortal 1000 years older than he—an immortal who has killed legions of men. Grade: A+
FOR EVIL'S SAKE
Any series that can combine absinthe, mannequins, mimes, and beheadings and pull it off is okay in my book. This episode is high on the surreal creep factor. Not as good as The X-Files, but good enough. The writers really riffed on some groovy stuff. Grade: A
FOR TOMORROW WE DIE
Roland Gift (of Fine Young Cannibals fame) was made to play an immortal. He gives a memorably twisted performance, mocking the people he kills. "For Tomorrow We Die" has several neat spins on immortality, such as Duncan jumping out of a moving car without fear. It gets a little old to have a suspicious cop bump into MacLeod in every episode, but every series has its formula. Grade: A
THE BEAST BELOW
THE LADY AND THE TIGER
The flashbacks get better and better, this time showing Amanda abusing Duncan's good graces. Adrian Paul shows us another side of Duncan, as hot-blooded male threatens to triumph over committed family man. The way Duncan escapes capture is amusingly campy and clever, and the fight scene is dizzying with an unexpected twist. Grade: A
EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
Sly glimpses into the wiles and needs of immortals cannot wholly save this somewhat generic episode. One of Duncan's mortal flock crosses an immortal. Duncan benevolently lets him make his own mistakes, sagely dispenses wisdom, and then confronts the immortal to save his overwhelmed friend. It looks like a Highlander episode, it acts like one, but it doesn't have the depth or menace of the better ones. Grade: B-
This episode has the distinction of being one of the most confusing episodes ever. Remember, Immortals cannot fight on Holy Ground, yet Duncan fights Cahill in a very holy-looking church-like place with crosses and other religious paraphernalia. Technically, it is a museum devoted to a knightly religious order, but the end is confusing to most. "Avenging Angel" explores a fascinating concept, but it is marred by the heavy-handed treatise on morality, religion, and prostitution. The aforementioned fight is unsatisfying because we know Duncan has about 350 years more experience than Cahill. Plus there's that holy ground snafu. Grade: B+
NOWHERE TO RUN
A somewhat contrived vehicle to explore the concepts of honor and due process. The characters are great, and the swordfight is atmospheric and suspenseful. But the veneer of believability is stretched just a little too far. Can four unarmed civilians plus one immortal really fend off a squad of highly trained commandoes with submachine guns and mortars? And forgive me, but a couple of two by fours nailed across a ceiling-high window will not keep anyone out, even ignoring the impossibility of boarding up so many widows in so short a time. Grade: B-
This episode is the turning point of the entire series, and it is not the writers' faults. The man who played Darius, Werner Stocker, died of a brain tumor. Unfortunately, they had to scrap the entire future of the series and whip up something completely different in 25 hours. Thus, we get the introduction of two groups, The Watchers and The Hunters. Personally, I do not like the idea, because it is unrealistic that a society of such complexity, knowledge, and secrecy could exist. (I know, it isn't realistic for immortals to be walking around giving each other head transplants either.)
Rather than lament what could have been, I enjoy this episode for its macabre tenor and the fear of an immortal about to be beheaded without reason. Grade: B-
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As you might expect with such a complex and limitless concept, contradictions exist. One example: immortals can sense each other's presence, but cannot tell how old or evil that immortal is. Yet in season one Duncan says "It is an immortal. An old one." How does he know? There are many such inaccuracies—nitpicking is not only easy but inevitable. But isn't our enjoyment supplemented by the game of nitpicking? Fans need something to talk about!
The production budget wasn't particularly high, and I think it is most noticeable in the sound. The dialogue often sounds faint, washed out. Whenever an outdoor scene is shot, the sound quality takes a noticeable nose-dive.
This next complaint may be due to my setup: I watch DVDs on a computer via front projector. And when I watch these discs, there are really bad combing artifacts and "digital clouds," which make the image look like a patchwork of blocky pixels. The image is noticeably bad, and the flaws are regular and pervasive. I also think the colors look a bit washed out, and many times the contrast was poor in darker scenes. However, as far as image quality goes, the show was filmed with style and elegance.
Adding fuel to my suspicion of poor digital mastering, the menus are finicky. After watching an episode, I would try to access the root menu, and the screen would go black. I would try to access the episode menus, and all I got was grey dots. This happened on all discs, but not consistently. Many times I had to start the disc over again to get to a particular menu.
I'm ambivalent about the extras. I really appreciate the packaging, presentation, and layout, but there are technical and informational flaws that mar the enjoyment of the extras. Each episode has a "Watcher Chronicle," a brief commentary by Bill Panzer, and a shortcut to The Quickening. The Watcher's Chronicles are somewhat hokey, but do give clarification on some of the characters. They are broken down by Immortals, Mortals, Watchers, Chronicles, and Swords. The Watchers component is odd, given that the Watchers weren't made up until season two so they just found random extras to be watchers. I assume this was done for continuity with future boxed sets. The Chronicles are confusing, because any time two immortals meet, there are two chronicles that say almost identical things. The swords section pretty much has Duncan's sword in it, with an occasional change of pace weapon thrown in. But the real problem is that the Watcher Chronicles give major spoilers, both within season and into next season! Do you want to know who dies and how later in season two? Do you want to know who is actually a latent immortal or watcher? Read and find out.
The interviews with Bill Panzer have been roundly criticized online. The sound quality is terrible, and the boom mike keeps dropping into the shot. But part of this is that he took the time to travel to the film location of each episode to jog his memory about the shoots. This was a nice step and gave legitimacy to his recollections. His statements are blandly obvious at times, but he does occasionally give a neat tidbit about the Highlander universe. All in all, I enjoyed these segments.
A word about the chapters: Why isn't there a chapter stop right after the opening credits? I had the theme song hammering in my head for days after hearing it 22 times in succession.
The season extras are spartan. There is a behind the scenes short and a bloopers reel, both of which suffer from awful image and sound quality. There is some amusing stuff in there, if you are patient. Finally, the shooting scripts are provided on a CD-ROM, which is disc nine of the set. This is really nice because you can read the sonically indistinct dialogue to see what was said.
There are some weak points in this season and the DVD presentation, but who cares with a show this creative, thought-provoking, and engaging. Imitators such as Beastmaster and Hercules have tried to capture the same magic, but they make the fatal flaw of pandering. We know just who is good, who is evil. The viewers are not allowed to draw their own conclusions. The closest match is Xena: Warrior Princess, but even Xena is not as complex, dark, or sympathetic as Duncan MacLeod.
Highlander: The Series has great action, acting, and atmosphere. It is one of those rare programs that breaks out of late night obscurity to capture the hearts of its audience. There can be only one, may it be Duncan MacLeod, the Highlander!
All parties are acquitted. They are to be set free from the guillotines and are allowed to keep their heads, so that they may create new wonders for us in the future.
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