|Highlander the Series - The Complete First Season|
|DVD TV Shows|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 12 November 2002|
Due to curiosity about guest star Nigel Terry (Arthur in John Boorman’s "Excalibur"), I tuned in to one "Highlander" Season One episode, "Eye of the Beholder," and found immediately that the series had a lot more going for it than I had initially supposed in terms of themes, humor and complexity. Although it would be another two years until the series fully hit its stride, it was already offering something out of the ordinary narratively; in terms of production value, it remains one of the best-looking quasi-period shows ever to come down the pike, holding its own and then some against much better-funded product from the major studios.
"Highlander," for those who don’t recall, began as a 1986 feature film starring Christopher Lambert as Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, born in 1500s Scotland, who discovers after a battlefield death that he’s an Immortal, unable to permanently die unless he is decapitated. He is mentored by another Immortal, Ramirez (played by Sean Connery), who teaches him that when one Immortal beheads another, the survivor inherits all of the deceased’s power in a spectacular transference called the Quickening. Some day it will be the time of the Gathering, when all the remaining Immortals will battle to become the only one, who will inherit all Immortal power and rule the Earth for good or ill. "Highlander" being a feature film, Connor winds up as the last Immortal and wins the Prize.
"Highlander the Series" effectively lops off the end of the feature, so that Connor isn’t the last Immortal (not even close, as we discover), but even so, while this sounds like a fertile premise for action, it didn’t sound necessarily promising otherwise. Again, this initial impression reflected more a lack of imagination on my part that that of the series creators, because "Highlander the Series" turned out to have a ton on its mind and, as it wound up running for six seasons, plenty of opportunity to explore all sorts of permutations in moral conundrums. One big issue, introduced in Episode 13, the seminal "Band of Brothers," is, what if you’re an Immortal who absolutely refuses to fight, not from cowardice but from principle? If a fellow Immortal admires your ethics, is he then unprincipled if he does fight?
"Highlander the Series" had a business strategy that is almost as inventive as anything we see onscreen. An American-Canadian-French (and, first season, German) co-production, its financing structure set new parameters for syndicated TV in the 1990s. Rather appropriately, it has a similarly unusual history in reaching DVD, with parent company Davis-Panzer Productions releasing an eight-disc boxed set (actually nine discs, counting the DVD-ROM one containing the series scripts, which shares a sleeve with Disc Eight) available only through DPP’s website – Highlander-Official.com – and now Anchor Bay releasing a nine-disc boxed set (the ninth disc is again a DVD-ROM offering with scripts, except it officially gets its own birth in the packaging) that is available via Amazon.com and through regular retail outlets.
Prices of the boxed sets are comparable. Anchor Bay has arguably more handsome and unquestionably sturdier packaging, while the Highlander Store throws in added goodies like t-shirts and hats (and makes their product available for sale earlier – a set of all six seasons of "Highlander" will be available through Highlander-Official.com reportedly as soon as this October, while Anchor Bay customers will have to wait until some time next year for Seasons Four-Six). As far as can be ascertained by sequential comparison (my system doesn’t allow for side-by-side viewing), the content and quality of the discs is identical – and very commendable.
Each episode comes with its own on-camera, episode-specific interview segment by executive producer Bill Panzer (partnered with Peter Davis in Davis-Panzer Productions) and "Watcher Chronicles," a fun (if rather hard to read, with white letters against complicated background) text-based bit of backstory on the characters and swords we see in each episode, written by "Highlander" staffer with Donna Lettow (actor/sword expert Anthony de Longis writes about the weaponry). One partial downer is that the episodes are broken into only five or six chapters apiece, though on the positive side, this allows all of the icons for the various chapters to appear simultaneously on the individual episode menus (the designers handily include a suitably combative photo on chapters that contain fights, so action fans can jump straight to them). Episodes that contain Quickenings also have a big "Q" on the episode menu. Since many, if not most, viewers will want to see the fight preceding the Quickening as well as the ensuing pyrotechnics, a bit of slow-motion backtracking with the remote may be in order. (An added note – first-time viewers may want to try to ignore the Q or lack thereof on the menu, as it’s a spoiler.)
Lambert’s Connor turns up in Season One’s opener, "The Gathering," as we meet Duncan MacLeod (Adrian Paul), referred to as Connor’s "kinsman" (actually, all Immortals are foundlings, so there’s no way of knowing if they’re really related or not), born in 1592 in the same Scottish village. Duncan has managed to stay out of the Game – the constant conflict between Immortals – for the last 12 years, living as an antiques dealer in an unnamed American city (actually, Vancouver quasi-posing as Seattle) with his mortal love Tessa (Alexandra Vandernoot). However, their tranquility is shattered when three visitors converge on the antiques shop at the same time. One is young burglar Richie Ryan (Stan Kirsch), who gets an eyeful and then some when his break-in is interrupted by the masked Slan Quince (guest Richard Moll, chewing the scenery), who has come to challenge Duncan, and Connor, who has come to challenge Slan.
This introductory episode has high points, low points and some stuff that shakes itself out over subsequent installments. The deliberate dialogue borrowings from Monty Python, the easy charm of the relationship between Paul and Lambert (albeit not to be revisited until the feature film "Highlander: Endgame"), the sexy romanticism of the relationship between MacLeod and Tessa – depicted not as a screechy, in-the-dark Lois Lane but rather as a woman who handles her lover’s supernatural aspects with remarkable pragmatism – and the impressive athleticism of the sword duels are all upfront assets. Moll’s cartoony villainy and WWF get-up, however, are way over-the-top – thankfully, the series doesn’t revisit the extreme camp in performance or sartorial styles too often thereafter. The flashbacks – most episodes juxtapose incidents from Duncan’s (and, eventually, other Immortals’) past to illustrate his present straits – aren’t immediately evident as the wonderful storytelling device they evolve into throughout the show, and Kirsch’s Richie initially seems a rather annoying audience surrogate. However, Richie picks up steam later, though he won’t fully come into his own until Season Two (when it becomes a lot clearer why MacLeod takes the youth under his wing – although, as is pointed out in the supplemental material, attentive viewers may pick it up from clues in Episode One).
What is immediately striking about "The Gathering" is how beautiful the color reproduction is. Blues are vivid, the pinks and purples of a sunset are cinematically gorgeous, night sequences are suitably dark without being either murky or succumbing to that curse of TV-episodic-to-DVD transfers, the infrared look. This is true throughout all the episodes on the boxed set. Sound is fine, with a very good balance between dialogue, effects and underscoring, although like all TV episodic DVDs I’ve encountered so far, the 5.1 is not discrete. Queen’s "Masters of the Universe" jubilant theme music, heard over both opening and closing credits, comes across well.
On Disc 1 after "The Gathering" is "Family Tree," in which Richie tries to track down his biological father, while flashbacks show us the disastrous events following Duncan’s first death and resurrection. The colors are again impressive – Chapter 3 boasts rich reds, greens and blues, and lifelike skin tones. Sound mixing is laudable, with good clean foley on footsteps, opening and closing doors, etc., though Chapter 6 produces a bit of congestive hum in the subwoofer when Richie is tuning up Mac’s car. The episode, one of a number with no Immortals in the present, has no Quickening.
Disc 1 concludes with "The Road Not Taken" has flashbacks in China, with brilliant blues, crimsons and yellows in a Chapter 2 flashback. This episode finds Duncan trying to stop an old, old comrade (Soon Tek-Oh) who has been meddling with the mortal drug trade. There’s a whale of a fight in Chapter 4, though the color seems a little faded here, owing to indirect lighting in the scene. The episode gives Duncan a crisis of conscience – what to do about a fellow Immortal who is a hazard to others, yet unable to defend himself – but doesn’t deal with its issues as well as later installments will.
Disc 2 opens with "Innocent Man," which guest stars veteran character actor Vincent Schiavelli as a mentally disturbed mortal who witnesses a Quickening and is blamed for the decapitation by the actual perpetrator, a corrupt Immortal lawman. Chapter 1 has the first print flaw to be found in the first four episodes, a brief flash of graininess as Duncan and Richie drive through a tunnel. Panzer provides a few interesting details on episode director Jorge Montesi.
"Free Fall" introduces both the first female Immortal we meet – Felice Martins – and the series’ happy habit of casting rockers. Joan Jett does a pretty creditable turn as an apparently new Immortal rescued from "suicide" by Richie and taken on as a student by Duncan.
"Bad Day in Building A" is (excluding MacLeod, of course) an Immortal-free episode, designed, as Panzer explains, to be shot quickly on one location. This is not the episode you want to use to introduce anybody to "Highlander," as it does more or less fit the interchangeable syndicated action hero show motif (anybody can do a "Die Hard" homage). Tessa goes to pay a parking ticket and she and Duncan wind up being held hostage by criminals who take over the court building. It is notable primarily for a fairytale that Duncan tells a child about where Immortals come from, for guest actors Andrew Divoff (of "Wishmaster" fame) and Vladimir Kulich (the Beowulf character in "13th Warrior) and for the fact that series lead Paul, who made it unscathed through some tremendously hairy stunts over the years, sustained a serious injury being dragged down a hallway.
Disc Three commences with "Mountain Men," which finds Tessa getting kidnapped by an Immortal survivalist (Marc Singer) who is looking for a bride. The episode has breathtaking Canadian Rockies scenery and guest turns from Singer, John Dennis Johnston and Wes Studi to recommend it.
"Deadly Medicine" actually has a strong "Highlander"-related premise, but reportedly (albeit not in the DVD supplements) the creative team was so unhappy with the results that it was never revisited. Duncan is held captive by an unscrupulous doctor who wants to find out what makes our hero so freakishly resilient. Joe Pantoliano plays the louse with sweaty but not overstated slimeball gusto, and there’s an awesome hit-and-run stunt in Chapter 1.
"Sea Witch" finds Duncan going up against an Immortal (Stephen Macht) who screwed him over royally once before, in WWII-era Russia, and has a B plot dealing with Tessa’s awareness that, if she stays with MacLeod, she will not bear children (Immortals are sterile, though hardly impotent). The episode boasts a subtle but nice sound effect in Chapter 5, with a metallic echo in the rears when a body hits a bulkhead. It’s also the first time we see a Quickening caused by something other than an Immortal’s sword. Panzer gives well-deserved and informative praise to the production design team.
On Disc 4, "Revenge Is Sweet" has MacLeod targeted by a mortal woman (Vanity) who mistakenly believes that he’s killed her Immortal boyfriend. Vanity acquits herself pretty commendably with a sword, especially considering (as Panzer points out in his interview) that she had all of one day to prepare for her fight with Paul. There’s a very cool bit of swordplay as MacLeod launches into a duel with his greatcoat still flapping around his calves and Chapter 5 has great foley as the two Immortals’ blades whoosh through the air.
In "See No Evil," there’s a stylish black-and-white flashback to the ‘20s, which has MacLeod confronting an insane actor Immortal. In the present, a mortal psycho is copycatting the deceased lunatic’s crimes – again, not a premise that serves "Highlander’s" unique format all that well, though there’s a surprising epiphany at the end.
"Eyewitness" fits the premise of the series far better, as Tessa witnesses a murder and feels compelled to investigate, even before it turns out that the crime involves an Immortal who had lost interest in his mortal lover as she aged. Chapter 1 has some exquisitely specific shots – sparkles on Tessa’s gown, for instance, are pinpoint accurate, with no artifacts – and exteriors have stunning color, though a couple of interior shots have a hazy pinkish hue. Chapter 2 has some subtle bagpipes in the underscoring, though the underscoring itself sometimes gets a bit too strong for the quieter parts of the dialogue track. In Chapter 4, however, an explosion is very well modulated and rain shows up clearly on the screen. Although this episode has no flashbacks, it still has one of the season’s most graceful shot transitions (credit editor Donald Paonessa), utilizing light on water to move from one scene to another.
Disc 5 begins with "Band of Brothers." For the uninitiated, this is probably the best episode to use as an introduction to "Highlander" Season One. Here we meet Darius (Werner Stocker), an Immortal priest who has spent millennium refusing to engage in the combat that engulfs his kind, and who is a mentor of sorts to Duncan. We also experience "Highlander’s" traiditional mid-season shift from Vancouver locations to Paris. The lengthy climactic swordfight between MacLeod and the ancient mercenary Grayson (James Horan) is thrilling and suspenseful, set against a backdrop of vivid mountains of sulfur.
The production values get notably richer in the rest of the season, as the French locations and weather offer realism and sumptuousness to the flashbacks. In "For Evil’s Sake," MacLeod has a rematch with an old nemesis, an Immortal assassin whose trademark is costuming and performing as a mime. Chapter 1 has a startlingly good gunshot effect, and there’s a nice solid impact as a motorcycle hits the pavement. Chapter 2 introduces one recurring problem with the Paris episodes – some of the French-speaking minor supporting players are noticeably dubbed into English – but this has to be weighed against irreplaceable scenic values like a touristy cruise down the Seine in Chapter 4, as a flashback shows how Duncan, fleeing cops by jumping onto a passing sightseeing boat, meets then-tour guide Tessa.
"For Tomorrow We Die" nicely illustrates in flashback MacLeod’s attempts to incorporate Darius’ pacifist philosophies with living in the world, while the present-day story has MacLeod trying to track down an Immortal robber whose uses lethal gas in his crimes. Roland Gift, of the Fine Young Cannibals, takes to playing a callous Immortal with beguiling ease, making such a good villain that he was brought back several times in later seasons.
Disc Six contains "The Beast Below," a "Phantom of the Opera" riff directed by Daniel Vigne, famed for his feature "The Return of Martin Guerre." The Paris Opera House locations – interior, catacombs below and roof above – contribute a magnificent sense of environment, and (especially since this was made in the days before decent-looking CGI was available to the likes of hour-long episodic TV) there’s no doubt that’s leading man Paul in the medium shots of a climactic rooftop fight. Vigne gives the flashbacks an enchanting fairytale look and the DVD transfer preserves the hues of the artwork on the Opera House ceiling with History Channel fidelity. Disco singer Dee Dee Bridgewater is amusing as an opera diva with a mean streak.
"Saving Grace" finds Duncan saving a female Immortal with a crush on him being stalked by her Immortal ex. There is a creative decapitation, but there’s something rather annoying about Grace, an Immortal who needs Duncan to fight her battles for her.
Another sort of female Immortal altogether is introduced in "The Lady and the Tiger," in which we meet MacLeod’s immoral Immortal once and future fling Amanda (Elizabeth Gracen), a woman who continually lets Duncan take the fall for her light-fingered ways, with the certainty that he’ll be all right. Amanda is in town with the circus, dazzles Richie, flirts with the bemused MacLeod and annoys Tessa, before Amanda’s rather surly ex, fellow Immortal Blaine (Jason Isaacs, later known as Mel Gibson’s adversary in "The Patriot"), turns up wanting her head. Amanda, in what we quickly perceive is normal behavior for her, offers MacLeod to Blaine instead, and winds up multiple-crossing everybody. The character is such good fun that we’re not surprised when she shows up in again and again, and Isaacs demonstrates why he well deserves the film career he’s now enjoying. The subwoofer actually creates some nice effects with car engines and the transfer is beautiful – in Chapter 2, we see a darkened arena where the red of the curtains does not bleed onto the environment, and sequins on the fabric twinkle just as they should.
Disc Seven commences with the above-mentioned "Eye of the Beholder," with Terry giving an astute guest turn as an Immortal pal of MacLeod’s who has an eye for the ladies and is unfortunately grabby when it comes to jewelry and more unfortunately still murderous when things get inconvenient. Swordmaster Anderson provides three different sorts of conflicts – a swashbuckler straight out of "Three Musketeers" in Chapter 2, as MacLeod and Terry’s character battle side by side against great odds, a serious fight within a serious fight in Chapter 4 as MacLeod tries in present and past to impress on his friend the consequences of going against MacLeod’s moral code, and a final lethal duel in Chapter 5.
"Avenging Angel" guest-stars Martin Kemp of Spandau Ballet as a deranged man who is killed, revives as an Immortal and believes he’s been chosen by God to exterminate sinners. MacLeod tries to teach the fledging Immortal the rules only to find that the guy has other problems. Despite some nifty locations, the premise winds up feeling too thin to sustain an entire episode.
This isn’t a problem with "Nowhere to Run," which finds MacLeod, Tessa and Richie in the middle of a horrible dilemma that is only exacerbated by the Immortality issue. Tessa is visiting her old friend Alan (Anthony Stewart Head), when a young woman accuses Alan’s son Mark of rape. While Mark insists he’s innocent, Tessa is not so sure – and the young woman’s stepfather is an Immortal out for blood. On the one hand, Duncan believes Immortals should not kill mortals, and on the other hand … The episode displays the thoughtfulness and shades of gray that mark the best of "Highlander," and has a lovely fight in a foggy wood in Chapters 5-6, though the sequence is a bit grainy.
Disc Eight contains "The Hunters," which introduces the concept of the Watchers, mortals who observe and record the doings of Immortals, but aren’t supposed to interfere – although Duncan encounters a group who are exterminating Immortals in what amounts to acts of genocide. Roger Daltrey (yes, of The Who) guest-stars as MacLeod’s good long-time friend Hugh Fitzcairn. Daltrey is absolutely delightful as an expansive rogue and he and Paul leap with utter zest into another of Anderson’s epically-staged swashbuckling flashbacks. The loss of Darius in the episode is made more tragic still by Panzer’s revelation that actor Stocker died just before filming – the grief we see onscreen seems quite real.
Disc Eight also contains a blooper reel, which has very good picture and sound (although many of the bloopers are from later seasons), and a Behind-the-Scenes featurette that aired on TV before the series began its initial 1992 run. Although the presentation is enormously cheesy (the narration is enough to give pause to the unwary), it does contain some good early interviews and rehearsal footage of Paul and Anderson.
Season One isn’t the absolute best "Highlander" has to offer – the show picks up steam intermittently in Season Two, is fully on its game in Season Three and became arguably brilliant in sections of Seasons Four and Five – but it is very well-done and very entertaining. Paul and Vandernoot are charming separately and together, the swordplay has justifiably become famous and, even this early on, the show feels not quite like anything else. For fans of action, fantasy and/or the unique, "Highlander the Series" is well worth getting to know.