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Highlander the Series - The Complete Second Season Print E-mail
Tuesday, 29 July 2003
Highlander The Series: Season Two
Anchor Bay Entertainment, 1993
MPAA Rating: NR
Starring: Adrian Paul, Stan Kirsch, Jim Byrnes, Philip Akin
Film Rating: Three-and-a-Half Stars
Audio/Visual Rating: Four Stars
Digital Sound:
English Dolby Digital Surround 5.1
Full-Screen Aspect Ratio:
Features: Episode-Specific Interviews With Executive Producer Bill Panzer and Creative Consultant David Abramowitz; Episode-Specific Audio Commentary by Actor Adrian Paul; Episode-Specific Video Commentary by Actor Adrian Paul; Outtakes; Alternate Takes with Explanation by Creative Staffer Gillian Horvath; Watchers Chronicles; DVD-ROM of Talent Biographies; Trivia Episode Scripts; Shooting Schedules
Fans of "Highlander: The Series" generally look back on Season Two (1993-1994) as the period when the action/adventure/fantasy series was finding its own voice, establishing itself more firmly as an entity that didn’t simply reiterate the themes of its feature film roots but began inventing some new, resonant and often wildly entertaining mythology. On the flip side, Season Two was also plagued by edicts from on high – that is, individuals and/or entities who had more power than the series’ producers – that "Highlander" should be more conventional, which resulted in some lackluster episodes. It is much to the credit of the creative staff and cast that they persevered and got the show back on track, so that the season gathered steam and built to a genuine climax in a TV era when fantasy series weren’t expected to have plot arcs.

The hero of "Highlander" is Duncan MacLeod, a 400-year-old Scotsman who is an Immortal, a secret race among humans that can only die by decapitation. Immortals can sense one another’s presence and often fight to the death with swords, with the winner absorbing all of the loser’s power. MacLeod, a true good guy with a sense of responsibility second to none, customarily only challenges the truly evil and tries to avoid harming mortals at all costs.

Season Two adds a new riff to the mythology with the introduction of the Watchers, a society so secret that even the Immortals don’t know about them. Watchers are (physically) ordinary men and women who have been chronicling the doings of Immortals for thousands of years – they "observe but don’t interfere." The end of Season 1 introduced a renegade group of Watchers who not only interfered with but murdered Immortals, reckoning even the good ones as a threat to humanity. By the end of six seasons of "Highlander: The Series," the whole non-interference thing would well and truly trashed, mainly by MacLeod’s Watcher Joe Dawson (Jim Byrnes), who starts out aloof but quickly winds up enmeshed in the Highlander’s life and vice-versa once MacLeod becomes aware of his existence. The Watcher arc weaves in and out of "Highlander," allowing for any number of moral conundrums, as well as providing a benign and oddly astute analogy for fandom (although the show’s writers swear this was unintended).

Like Season One of "Highlander: The Series," The Season Two release from Anchor Bay is both beautifully packaged and – given the limitations of era and budget – startlingly lovely in its DVD transfer. Episode prints are pristine, colors are usually vivid (now and then a scene is a bit washed-out, but this is a relative rarity) and sound quality is always strong and clear. The eight-disc release (22 episodes over seven discs, with an eighth disc containing trivia, actor and director biographies, scripts and shooting schedules) has the "European" version of the series, with each episode containing approximately four more minutes of footage than was seen on U.S. TV.

Season Two ups the supplemental ante from the Season One release. Each episode features interviews with producer Bill Panzer (who is partnered with Peter Davis in DPP, the principal production entity behind all versions of "Highlander") and/or showrunner David Abramowitz. Two episodes have audio commentary by star Paul, with the added option of "video commentary" – footage of Paul recording his commentary intercut with relevant outtakes and on-set photos. The boxed set also features the famed-among-"Highlander"-fans "convention in a box" devised by series staffers Gillian Horvath and Donna Lettow. This consists of episode-specific outtakes, sometimes speaking for themselves and sometimes with Horvath providing helpful commentary, explaining what we’re looking at. Like Season One, all episodes here also feature Watchers Chronicles, written by Lettow (with swordsman/actor Anthony de Longis writing up the weapons), providing background on all the characters we see, both mortal and Immortal. These are fun to read, although for Season Three and beyond, the designer might want to consider graphics that are easier on the eyes than white letters on a patterned background.

Disc One begins with "The Watchers," which has a vengeful MacLeod tracking down the Immortal-hating renegade Watcher Horton (Peter Hudson), who murdered MacLeod’s mentor in the Season One finale. MacLeod’s quest takes him from Paris to the Northwestern U.S. (actually Vancouver), where he first meets and becomes warily acquainted with Dawson, who turns out to be Horton’s brother-in-law. Dedicated Watcher Dawson is considerably and sincerely shocked to find out that some Watchers are targeting Immortals (to say nothing of the fact that Horton murders his would-be son-in-law). Chapter One boasts some beautiful night shots, with strong blacks that show off the twinkling lights of Paris, though an interior makes everyone’s skin tones a bit paler than usual. Panzer and Abramowitz introduce themselves in their interview and talk about the Watchers in general and the brilliance of actor Byrnes in particular.

"Studies in Light" finds MacLeod and his young friend Richie Ryan (Stan Kirsch) interacting with a non-evil but suicidal Immortal. MacLeod finds himself reunited with a now-dying mortal woman who had been his lover decades ago, which triggers some strong emotions in MacLeod’s current mortal lover Tessa (Alexandra Vandernoot). There’s an agreeable rock number on the soundtrack in Chapter 5, which also has some gorgeous blues in the shadows and vivid greens in lettuce strewn around a dumpster in an alley. Abramowitz provides some interesting character analysis.

"Turnabout" is the first episode to feature outtakes (to access them, press the "Blair Witch"-esque symbol on the episode menu), which in this instance are pretty amusing. The episode features "Forever Knight" star Geraint Wyn Davies as an old Immortal friend of MacLeod’s who’s on the trail of a serial killer. The episode unfortunately requires a suspension of disbelief of a different sort than is usually required by "Highlander," in that the characters don’t put two and two together for a remarkably long time.

Disc Two starts out with the tragic episode "The Darkness," in which MacLeod combats a psychotic Watcher who has kidnapped Tessa. MacLeod is victorious – only to lose Tessa to an act of random street violence. Panzer and Abramowitz are thorough and articulate in explaining why Tessa, who was an unusually gutsy love interest (not to mention a refreshing sexually active heroine, as opposed to the coy "sexual tension"-generating females who usually populate the genre), had to be written out as a regular character. There is also discussion of Richie, who turns out (much to his own surprise) to be Immortal at the end of the episode after reviving from being shot. Horvath narrates the outtakes for us. Chapter 2 has especially clear and vivid hues, maintaining cohesion on a very busy piece of costuming on guest Traci Lords as a medium. Chapter 3 is slightly grainy, but Chapter 5 does justice to the green and black palette created by point of view shots through night goggles, with good foley on footfalls and scraping metal.

"An Eye For an Eye" has Richie antagonizing an old Immortal associate of MacLeod’s before he’s learned to fight properly. Sheena Easton guest-stars as an Irish Republican Army operative of supernaturally long standing who blames Richie for her boyfriend’s death. Panzer and Abramowitz talk about Richie’s evolution and explain how the location for a swordfight was selected to give credibility to Kirsch and Easton, neither of whom were experienced with a blade. Chapter 4 has some good punchy gunshots and lovely, clear ocean exteriors, while Chapter 5 has a classic training sequence, with MacLeod and Richie almost entirely framed in two-shot as the older Immortal mentors the younger one in use of a sword as a power ballad soars along the soundtrack.

"The Zone" is worth watching if only for Panzer and Abramowitz’s introduction. It’s not often you hear people on the commentary track actually apologizing for the existence of an episode, but there is indeed a case to be made that "The Zone" may be the least worthwhile "Highlander" episode ever, with no other Immortals and a plot (MacLeod takes on an inner-city gang) that could have been grafted onto pretty much any syndicated action show of the day. This was the beginning of a period when "Highlander" experimented with episodes that didn’t focus on MacLeod associating with other Immortals. As it turned out, MacLeod didn’t need to be fighting other Immortals to create distinctive episodes, but nearly all of the good episodes have him at least interacting with members of his own kind.

Disc 3 starts with "The Return of Amanda," which again sees MacLeod against mortal opponents – but that’s okay, because as the title says, the episode brings back MacLeod’s once and future lover and nemesis, the 1200-year-old beauty and thief Amanda (Elizabeth Gracen), introduced in Season 1’s "The Lady and the Tiger." Amanda is again in trouble and again wants MacLeod to bail her out. Paul and Gracen have great chemistry together. The episode also features audio and video commentary by Paul, who is good at recalling anecdotes and consistently entertaining in his observations.

"Revenge of the Sword," like "The Zone," has MacLeod going up against mortal gangs. At least this episode gets in a good swordfight anyway in Chapter 5, with Dustin Nguyen as an irritable martial arts movie star. Paul also provides audio and video commentary on this episode, noting he was "pissed off" when he first read the script, as it proposed to cram the filming of 12 action sequences (plus everything else) into a shoot that was six days’ total. The logistics got wrestled down to manageable level before filming commenced. Paul also points out that the crew on the film-within-the-episode is the actual "Highlander" crew.

"Run For Your Life" is named by both Panzer and Abramowitz as a favorite episode. Guest star Bruce A. Young (known to Chicago and Los Angeles audiences for his interactive stage production of "Dungeonmaster") was nominated for a Genie Award, the Canadian equivalent of the Emmy, for his guest performance as a former slave who believes he’s being targeted in the present due to racism – which turns out to be the case, though the prejudice is anti-Immortal rather than (as he assumes) anti-black. There’s a rather amusing riff here, with MacLeod trying to convince a fellow Immortal about the existence of another secret group (the Watchers). The episode soundtrack also boasts a solid blues number, "Jack of Diamonds," on the soundtrack, contributed by actor Byrnes, and a good rocker, "Looking For the One," from Peter Scott, who has a day job as Bryan Adams’ guitarist.

Disc 4 contains "Epitaph For Tommy," which features Rowdy Roddy Piper as an Immortal thug-for-hire. Panzer tells a truly impressive "the show must go on" story about Paul, who stuck around for a take after receiving a bloody injury. Chapter 7 features a fairly spectacular Quickening (the usually pyrotechnics that follow one Immortal beheading another), with great vivid colors against a dark sky. The chapter selection menu for this episode helpfully points out that a newsroom office is really the "Highlander" production office.

"The Fighter" features Bruce Weisz of "Hill Street Blues" fame as a small-time hustler Immortal who’s become a boxing promoter. There’s a good long swordfight that spans Chapters 6 and 7, with nice use of moving spotlights to create strong contrasts of light and shadow. Unused footage shows a multitude of ways in which a single brief scene can be interpreted.

"Under Color of Authority" has Jonathan Banks as an Immortal lawman who doesn’t believe there’s any such thing as extenuating circumstances – which makes it tough for Richie, whose fallen for the object of the lawman’s pursuit. Chapter 5 has an exceptional (for a TV episodic) mix of ambient sound, sword clangs, dialogue and music, and Chapter 6 features very bright, clean-edged colors as paint cans explode. The episode marks a turning point in the relationship between Richie and MacLeod, as well as in Richie’s life overall. The supplemental footage illustrates the difficulty the crew had in creating an illusion of movement for the elevator in Mac’s loft.

Disc 5 opens with "Bless the Child." While Panzer provides some illuminating insights into the specifics of production and guest actor Ed Lauter is very good, this episode – about MacLeod aiding a woman and a baby – features no other Immortals and feels fairly rote and inconsequential.

"Unholy Alliance Pt. 1" and "Unholy Alliance Pt. 2," however, more than make up for this lack, with Horton joining forces with the absolutely unscrupulous Immortal Xavier St. Cloud (Roland Gift of the Fine Young Cannibals, reprising his role from Season One with visible delight and great panache) to eradicate other Immortals by nefarious means. MacLeod pursues both nemeses from the U.S. to Paris. Chapter 3 in Part 1 has good volume and impact during a bout of sustained automatic weapon fire and Chapter 5 has a swell fight. In the interview section, Abramowitz elaborates on how the rules governing Immortality were devised by the creative staff. Part 2 has some telling supplemental footage of a flooded would-be set, while Abramowitz and Panzer talk about a shoot so difficult that the production manager wound up getting arrested for trying to do his job. Part 2 actually goes to eight chapters (rather than the customary seven per episode here), with a monumental duel to the death at the climax.

Disc 6 commences with "The Vampire," about an Immortal who covers his criminal activities by pretending to be a bloodsucker. It is, as Panzer points out, a bit campy as "Highlander" episodes go, but it has a dazzling daytime Quickening in Chapter 7, with excellent explosive sounds.

"Warmonger" features guest star Peter Firth as an Immortal who gets satisfaction from manipulating mortals into waging war. The trouble is, MacLeod promised long ago not to harm the man, who is now being ever so harmful to others. In the interview segment, Abramowitz talks about the nature of this ethical dilemma, while the extra footage contains a genuine goof outtake.

"Pharoah’s Daughter" has MacLeod aiding a female Immortal (Nia Peeples), one of Cleopatra’s handmaidens, who has just spent 2000 years in a sarcophagus. The young woman is genuinely grateful – but still has her own fierce agenda. Supplements include a version of a scene between MacLeod and the Egyptian that was not used, while in the interview, Panzer thanks the audience for being understanding about the newcomer’s relative ease in mastering English. Peeples is extremely good and is as fierce as advertised.

Chapter 7 commences with "Legacy," one of the most acclaimed episodes of Season Two, which introduces Amanda’s admirable mentor Rebecca (Nadia Cameron), whose death Amanda now seeks to avenge. Chapter 3 has some of the most sumptuous costumes ever in "Highlander," along with one of its more classic character introductions, as MacLeod and Amanda meet for the first time in a flashback. Panzer explains about the effective day-into-night Quickening that happens near the finale, and there’s a funny if risqué outtake that finds Paul playing a practical joke on Gracen.

"Prodigal Son" brings Richie back to MacLeod, a bit more experienced yet a bit more cautious, as an Immortal aims to track down the Highlander through his younger friend. Panzer rightly praises the last shot, a moment of charming and spontaneous friendship, while the supplemental footage shows how MacLeod’s sword always arrives in his hand at the right moment.

The boxed set concludes with "Counterfeit Part 1" and "Counterfeit Part 2," which has the evil Horton trying to get to MacLeod by means of a woman altered via plastic surgery to look just like Tessa (and played by actress Vandernoot). The double episode brings up multilayered issues of trust and finds the chemistry between Paul and Vandernoot still potent. Both halves of the episode come with outtake supplements, and Panzer and Abramowitz express their appreciation for their viewers.

The boxed set also includes instructions on how to enter a drawing to win MacLeod’s restored black T-Bird (the contest runs through Dec. 31).

"Highlander" continued to change and grow after Season Two, but it can be seen already exerting its unique nature, full of thrilling combat, affirmations of friendship and a healthy dose of humor. Overall, this is one of the best fantasy series ever to run six seasons. Hurrah for "Highlander," and hurrah, too, for this comprehensive and gorgeously-transferred DVD boxed set.

Reviewed by: Abbie Bernstein

Reference System:
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 27-inch Toshiba

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