|Highlander the Series - The Complete Fifth Season|
|DVD TV Shows|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 10 August 2004|
During Season Five, “Highlander: The Series” was at the peak of its creative glory. True, it is a slightly abbreviated season – 18 episodes rather than the usual 22 – but some of these hours achieve a sense of epic in both look and feel that is unusual on episodic television. In those 18 hours, there is only one episode that can be labeled a clunker – at least three are exceptional by just about any standards.
The supplemental features are likewise superb. Each episode has its own interview and bonus feature section and one out of every three episodes has audio commentary and video commentary. The video commentary is usually footage of the commentator watching the episode in question, with one exception (to be discussed later). On opening up the handsome boxed set, one may immediately wonder why there are nine discs for an 18-hour season, especially on observing that there are three episodes per disc. The math doesn’t seem to work. Disc Nine has DVD-ROM features, including episode scripts and production sketches, but that still leaves two additional discs of bonus material – one has to look to “Lord of the Rings” for comparable bang for buck.
Disc One starts with “The Prophecy,” where our 400-years-plus-old hero Duncan MacLeod (Adrian Paul) is visited by Cassandra (Tracy Scoggins), an Immortal “witch” he first met when he was 13 and still ignorant of his own latent Immortality. While the plot in the present concerns an Immortal baddie who has unusual powers, much of the fun here is in the deliberate storybook look of the flashbacks. Chapter 5 has a very nice, subtle sound effect as the villain uses his supernatural power of suggestion via voice. Interviews include actor Paul, sounding somewhat uneasy even now about the use overt fantasy elements (other than Immortality) in Season Five, director Dennis Berry on the look of the episode, writer David Tynan and production Rex Raglan. Supplemental footage includes some footage of a rather peculiar result of moving a scene from indoors to outdoors, narrated humorously and informatively by associate creative consultant Gillian Horvath.
Episode Two, “The End of Innocence,” brings back MacLeod’s protégé Richie Ryan (Stan Kirsch), a relatively new Immortal (his first death occurred during “Highlander” Season Two) who left town after a possessed MacLeod tried to kill him in Season Four. Richie has spent his time away in a state of savage disillusionment with his erstwhile mentor, throwing himself into the Game, i.e., Immortal sword combat for its own sake, with the winner taking the loser’s head and power. Richie’s rashness eventually brings down the wrath of a seasoned Immortal – who happens to be an old nemesis of MacLeod’s. Meanwhile, Mac’s mortal Watcher Joe Dawson (Jim Byrnes) is trying to mend their friendship after a rift between them. Chapter 1 has a nice jazz riff over a nightmare flashback and Chapter 5 has a really good foley effect as Richie picks a lock. Chapter 7 has a great, tough sword battle, with especially impactful sword clashes. The episode, with its themes of shattered hero worship, friendship and vengeance, is a strong one, with Real Andrews fury incarnate as the grieving Immortal intent on killing Richie. Interviews include Horvath, Kirsch and swordmaster F. Braun McAsh; supplemental footage includes a deleted Quickening (the special effect when one Immortal absorbs the energy of a dead foe), an extended scene between MacLeod and Richie and outtakes.
Episode Three, “Manhunt,” begins a stretch of somewhat lighter episodes, even though the subject matter in the flashbacks concerns slavery. Chapter 1 has a very good (and rather rare) daytime exterior Quickening as Bruce A. Young, reprising his role as ex-slave Carl Robinson, takes the head of an enemy. It’s a fair fight but it’s witnessed by mortals, so Carl must hide out and abandon his promising baseball career, which he resents mightily. Worse, the situation attracts the attention of an FBI agent (Eric McCormack, known these days for “Will and Grace”), an Immortal who knows Carl from the old days. Byrnes supplies some twangy, evocative blues guitar as part of the score and there’s a nice, not-quite-sepia glow to the flashbacks. Episode director Peter Ellis provides audio and video commentary, with some agreeable observations on the way the Immortals’ swords appear from nowhere, though he does tend to fall silent a lot (the soundtrack on the commentary rises to almost normal levels when he does). Interviews include Ellis, Tynan, Horvath and Ragland. Supplemental material includes silent footage of a stunt, bloopers with Paul and Young and a variety of takes of Duncan and Carl brawling.
Disc 2 opens with “Glory Days.” Theoretically, the main plot has MacLeod tracking down a smug young Immortal who makes his living as a hit man and never bothered to learn to fight with a sword. However, the real drama is in Joe reconnecting with his college sweetheart (Marcia Strassman), who knew him when he was a football hero and she was a cheerleader. The episode is somewhat groundbreaking in genre television as it tackles the subject of amputee sexuality – both character Joe and actor Byrnes have lost their legs (Joe in Vietnam, Byrnes in a vehicular accident) – with Joe hesitant to reveal his changed body to a woman who saw him at his physical peak. Byrnes discusses the nuances of being and playing an amputee with candor in the interview section. Other interview subjects include associate creative consultant Donna Lettow, production designer Raglan and executive producer Bill Panzer, who points out that he wrote a ‘30s-style song used in the episode. Supplemental footage includes extended scenes of Joe and his girlfriend and Byrnes and Paul tossing a football around.
Episode Five, “Dramatic License,” goes for all-out comedy, with Duncan chagrined to find that the romance novel his Immortal girlfriend Amanda (Elizabeth Gracen) is reading has a hero named Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. Worse, romance author Carolyn Marsh (guest star Sandra Bernhard) seems to know an awful lot about Immortals and Immortal Terrence Coventry (Alistair Duncan) seems to know an awful lot about Carolyn … The over-the-top fantasy flashbacks, with Paul and guest actor Duncan as the not-so-baddie Immortal of the week enacting Marsh’s purple prose are very funny, and director Ellis succeeds in capturing a bodice-ripper cover look for these sequences. Chapter 3 has especially good colors on a crazily bright patterned shirt and there’s nice use of an instrumental version of “Bonny Portmore” under some flashbacks. Chapter 5 brings in a rousing “Hallelujah Chorus” at an apt moment, though Chapter 6 has a crying scene from Bernhard’s Carolyn that is so overdone it takes us awhile to realize that she’s not supposed to be faking the tears. Interviews include Ellis (who also provides a commentary track) and Abramowitz, who both discuss working with Bernhard, and Horvath, who discusses some additional scenes. Extras include guest Duncan’s audition, outtakes of a funny fight in a kitchen and an alternate version of a conversation between MacLeod and Amanda.
Episode 6, “Money No Object,” finds MacLeod experiencing uncharacteristic jealousy when Amanda’s old partner in crime (literally) Cory Raines (Nick Lea) shows up with a proposition for her. The flashbacks to the Depression, with Cory and Amanda as a Bonnie and Clyde-like team, have a nice jaunty attitude, though the episode feels fairly slight. One highlight is Paul as MacLeod sending up Dennis Berry (a frequent “Highlander” director, though not of this episode) in Chapter 2. Interviews include Gracen, writer James Thorpe and Horvath, who observes that the episode didn’t entirely live up to its potential.
While it’s good to have a break from intense drama, after four reasonably upbeat episodes – the last two with no Quickenings – Disc Three’s opener, “Haunted,” is a welcome return to form. The events alluded to in “End of Innocence” come back on Richie in a big way when he is immediately attracted to a woman (Kathy Evison), who falls for him at once – unaware that what she’s responding to is the essence of her husband, a nice guy and friend of MacLeod’s. Richie challenged and took the husband’s Quickening while on the road, but thanks to an old grudge, both the widow and MacLeod assume the man was killed by a longstanding enemy and Richie is wholly ignorant of what he’s done until the pieces start to come together. The ensuing situation is complex and fascinating, with some startling moments of deliberate dark comedy as the flabbergasted Joe tries to console Richie, who offers a resigned, self-critical theory as to how he got into this predicament. There is audio and video commentary from actor Kirsch and post-production supervisor Don Paonessa (who also conducted and directed all the DVD interviews here), with Kirsch talking about working on chemistry with guest star Evison and both elaborating on the unusually collaborative nature of “Highlander.” Interviews include Kirsch and Panzer and there’s supplemental footage of MacLeod taking a Quickening.
Episode Eight, “Little Tin God,” warms up the surround system with a gospel number flowing through mains and rears in Chapter 1, while Chapter 2 has vibrant greens in a flashback to Peru (actually filmed in Vancouver). There are a number of interesting premises here in the tale of an Immortal whose scam is pretending he’s a god – in the present, he’s enlisted three young, gullible Immortals to be his earthly instruments. Andrew Divoff has gusto as the villain of the piece. In the interview section, Horvath reveals that the Peruvian tribe in the flashbacks are based on a real South American people, the Moche, who in fact worshipped a deity known as “the Decapitator” (an irresistible premise for a “Highlander” episode). Other interview subjects are Raglan, Paonessa and line producer Ken Gord. Supplemental footage includes lots of swordfighting between Paul and Divoff and a demonstration of how CGI adds huts to an initially sparse village.
In Episode Nine, “The Messenger,” a pacifist Immortal (Ron Perlman) is trying to convince others to lay down their swords – and he’s calling himself Methos, which the real Methos (Peter Wingfield), MacLeod’s 5,000-year-old pal, is bemused about. MacLeod is concerned when Richie decides to follow the impostor’s teachings, especially with an old foe around. This is the epitome of Abramowitz’s description of “Highlander” as “a Talmudic discussion with ass-kicking,” since MacLeod actually yearns for a more peaceful lifestyle but sees no way of adhering to it when there are always people out there willing to do violence. There are some questionable details – MacLeod, helping a badly wounded slave, lets the man continue to call him “Mr. MacLeod” rather than “Duncan” (you’d think Mac would be a little more egalitarian at this point in the proceedings) – but overall, the episode is thought-provoking and well-done and Richie’s reaction on learning Methos’ true identity is memorable. Interviews include Abramowitz, Horvath and Paul; the supplemental footage includes some very good extended scenes and a parody of a Quickening done to the surfer classic “Wipeout!”
Disc Four starts with “The Valkyrie,” yet another moral quandary for MacLeod as Ingrid (Musetta Vander), an Immortal woman who was his one-time protégé and his colleague in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, is now a political vigilante, killing fascist leaders before they can take power. MacLeod is hesitant to stop her, even when it becomes evident that Ingrid is now taking out civilians who get in the way. After all, he set her on this path. Chapter 7 has a nice side to side Immortal “buzz” (the sound effect indicating that one Immortal senses another). Paul provides enjoyable audio commentary and is joined by director Richard Martin on the video commentary. Interviews include Abramowitz, writer Thorpe, production designer Raglan and director Martin; outtakes are included.
Next up is “Comes a Horseman,” which most of the people involved with “Highlander: The Series” and a high percentage of the viewers feel is among the most powerful in the series. Cassandra returns, hunting an Immortal named Kronos (Valentine Pelka), who ran afoul of MacLeod in the Old West, but is in fact far older than Mac’s experience would suggest. Indeed, Kronos was one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a quartet of Immortals who terrorized the known world 5,000 years ago. One of the other Horsemen, who repeatedly raped and murdered Cassandra (after all, they were all Immortal), was – Methos. Since up until now, we and MacLeod (and the incredulous Joe) have known Methos as a secretive and self-protective but ultimately decent figure, the news that he was once a homicidal rapacious badass comes as quite a shock, but the team pull it off. Wingfield gives an especially astute performance, providing huge emotions that never tip us as to what the character will do next, and Pelka is a blast as a very happy evildoer, with a fantastic entrance in Chapter 1. Interviews include Abramowitz, composer Roger Bellon, Wingfield and Pelka, and the supplemental material includes every surviving take – 19 minutes’ worth – of a confrontation between MacLeod and Methos, where Mac demands the truth and a reluctant Methos finally flings it in his face. As narrator Horvath notes, Paul and Wingfield never played it the same way twice – it feels wonderfully volatile and alive each time.
Paul directed “Revelations 6:8,” the second half of the two-parter, that has Methos helping Kronos track down the remaining two Horsemen, leading to a series of confrontations. Chapter 7 has two simultaneous swordfights, resulting in the series’ lone double Quickening, with composer Bellon’s Navajo chant-themed music, traditional scoring, ambient sound effects, sword clangs and hissing steam pipes all combining to make an impressively dense soundscape. Interviews include director/star Paul, Abramowitz, Wingfield and Pelka, who is articulate about the swordfights. Supplemental material includes showing how a gag with an axe was achieved, an extended sequence and Wingfield’s Quickening footage without the special effects.
Disc Five starts with “The Ransom of Richard Redstone” – watching this right after “Revelations 6:8” is a little like scaling Everest, only to then trip over a rock on flat ground. In this very light episode (no other Immortals except Mac and Richie around), Richie is kidnapped by a well-meaning young lady who mistakes him for a wealthy gambler. It simply doesn’t work very well, though musically, it’s worth listening to Bellon’s musical riff, a variation on the James Bond theme that’s cleverly just this side of copyright infringement, which shows up in Chapter 1. Interviews include Kirsch and Paul (who speaks of being utterly exhausted after acting in and directing “Revelations”) and supplemental footage shows the two actors being playful on set.
“Duende” is probably the only episode of “Highlander” where the swordfighting style – in this case, the Spanish Mysterious Circle – was the basis for the plotline. Guest star Anthony de Longis, himself a swordmaster, had played an Immortal in Season Three’s “Blackmail.” De Longis’ character died, but – as is revealed in the commentary track and interviews – Paul wanted him back as a sparring partner, and Abramowitz offered to let de Longis pitch story ideas. The end result finds MacLeod squaring off against Spanish nobleman Ottavio Consone (de Longis), a one-time mentor turned bitter enemy who bested the Highlander during their last battle. The climactic duel in Chapter 7 is epic, going from day into night in real pouring rain, with two greatly skilled combatants. The bantering commentary with Horvath and de Longis is charming and informative – though it doesn’t start until the end of the opening credits. There are interviews with Paul and de Longis and supplemental footage of Paul dancing flamenco, de Longis and actress Deborah Epstein bursting into song and many takes from the MacLeod/Consone duel to the death.
“The Stone of Scone” is an episode so goofy that it is introduced with the graphic of a book cover flipping open and the subtitle “A Fable” (this also covers ways in which the episode contradicts elements established elsewhere in the “Highlander” timeline). The only episode presented entirely in flashback, the storyline bounces back and forth between 1720 London, when MacLeod is trying to steal back the sacred Scottish relic the Stone of Scone for his homeland at the same time his pal Hugh Fitzcairn (Roger Daltrey of The Who) is trying to blow up Parliament. Neither is successful, but in 1950, a golf game with Amanda revives the effort to swipe the stone. You can’t really object to a script that playfully quotes Monty Python. Chapter 5 has nice colors in the reproduction of stained glass windows and good foley sounds as Mac and Fitz are locked in a hall. The ‘50s sequences have a persuasive ‘50s look. Interviews include Paul, Gracen and director Richard Martin. Supplemental material includes outtakes with Daltrey – for some reason, the sound on these is louder than on most of the other supplements on the various discs – and a deleted scene.
Disc Six begins with “Forgive Us Our Trespasses,” an excellent episode which so thoroughly sums up the themes of “Highlander: The Series” that it arguably would have made a fitting end to the series. MacLeod is sought out and challenged by Stephen Keane (Chris Larkin), a good Immortal who has every reason to believe that Mac is murderous scum. Unaccustomed to being judged by the same standards he uses to judge others, Mac is thrown off-balance. Amanda is afraid he’ll lose the fight and enlists Methos to help her persuade Mac to simply avoid it; when arguments don’t work, Methos and Amanda try other means of preventing the confrontation. “Trespasses” is a wonderful illustration of the notion that the same event can be seen in many different ways. Strobe lighting in a disco in Chapter 1 comes across nicely, without distorting the image, and there’s especially nice sonic resonance in a Chapter 4 swordfight. Interviews include Horvath, Gracen and Wingfield, who explain the blooper (also included) of a comedic ad-lib that got out of hand on subsequent takes. Outtakes include problems with a child’s kite and Paul preparing for a close-up.
“The Modern Prometheus” posits that famed poet Lord Byron (Jonathan Firth) was/is actually an Immortal, a rock star equivalent of his era who has become an actual rock star in the present. Alas, time has made him increasingly jaded … Paul directed this episode, which has a cool, desaturated look throughout. The visuals are good and the flashbacks to Byron and Methos’ shared past, with Mary Shelley becoming inspired to write “Frankenstein” after witnessing a Quickening, are a lot of fun, but the inquiry into the conflict between art and morality never entirely catches fire. Chapter 1 has fairly decent rock (from Byron’s band) in a stadium and likewise credible blues later in Joe’s bar. Chapter 8 contains a Doors-esque snatch of song (it’s hinted that Byron and Jim Morrison are the same individual) and Byrnes plays some solid blues guitar at the end.
“Archangel” is one of the most controversial “Highlander” episodes among its fans. First, it posits that MacLeod is not just Immortal, but the chosen champion of a thousand-year cycle against the demon Ahriman. This is the first time this type of overt supernatural mythology appears in the series. Even more hotly debated is the element of having Ahriman tricking MacLeod – who believes he is battling the demon – into killing Richie. Taken on its own merits, the episode has some good overt horror moments. Chapters 1 and 3 have some trippy special effects and Chapter 8 has an appealing ballad by Byrnes composed especially for the episode, played over a montage of Richie. Byrnes provides commentary on the episode, though he often falls silent. Interviews include Paul, Tynan, Byrnes, Kirsch, Horvath, director Dennis Berry and Abramowitz, who is the most articulate about the decision to kill Richie. Supplemental footage includes scenes that would have been used had this been the end of the series rather than merely the season (Byrnes comments, “I’m glad we didn’t end up using that as the last scene”), alternate takes and a deleted scene of Duncan’s side of his first meeting with mentor Connor MacLeod.
With the series committed to the first six discs of this nine-disc set, and CD-ROM features on the ninth, what’s on the other two? Disc Seven takes the extraordinary step of including full-length alternate rough cuts of the linked episodes “Comes a Horseman” and “Revelations 6:8,” with optional and often hilarious commentary by “Highlander” staffers Horvath and Lettow, who bring to their observations insider knowledge and humorous chagrin at what went wrong. Narrating a deleted scene that mercifully did not make it to the final cut, they lambaste the writing, the costumes, the acting – and most of all, the atrocious wigs. The sound on the rough cut is a bit, well, rough, and there is no chaptering – you have to use the slow-forward feature if you want to go away and come back to any point within the episodes – but it’s still a wealth of information for both fans and general students of the editing process. The disc also includes a blooper reel (which is available elsewhere), a featurette on various significant duels and a featurette on MacLeod’s romances.
Disc 8 contains two enormous supplemental features. One is a 70-minute look at the “Highlander: The Celebration” convention held in 1998, just after the last episode of Season Six had aired. This has interviews with Panzer, Abramowitz, all of the main cast and is a must-own for collectors on Daltrey. Not only does The Who’s lead singer show up in interview clips, but he takes the stage (at approximately 22 minutes into the feature) and sings “Stand By Me” with Byrnes’ band before an understandably blissed-out live audience. There is also a swordfighting demonstration by series swordmaster McAsh and de Longis, more music from Byrnes and Abramowitz singing a Hebrew blessing.
The other feature is a meaty exploration of both Wingfield’s career and Methos’ character, complete with a performance by Wingfield-as-Methos of Horvath’s short story “Postcards From Alexa: World Enough and Time I” from the “An Evening at Joe’s” anthology book. While there are now several other TV DVD boxed sets (“Alias” Season Three, “24”) with new material of actors in character, this is still a really appealing feature, especially as it feels organic rather than something whipped up as an afterthought.
All of the episodes contain the Watchers Chronicle feature, with mini-biographies and anecdotes about Immortals, their Watchers and significant mortals in their paths written by Lettow, with specifics on the various swords penned by de Longis and Troy Rudolph.
“Highlander: The Series” Season Five is so comprehensive, with so much behind-the-scenes material, that the experience of watching all of it feels akin to actually working on the show. Viewers who don’t want a memory of phantom creative labor can still revel in some beautifully presented and creatively outstanding action/fantasy television.