"The Gathering," "Innocent Man," "Road Not Taken," "Bad Day in Building A," "Free Fall," "Deadly Medicine," "Mountain Men," "Revenge is Sweet," "The Sea Witch," "Eyewitness," "Family Tree," "See No Evil," "Band of Brothers," "For Evil's Sake," "For Tomorrow We Die," "The Beast Below," "Saving Grace," "The Lady and the Tiger," "Avenging Angel," "Eye of the Beholder," "Nowhere to Run," "The Hunters"
by Walter Chaw It always struck me as the height of synergy that Queen would score a homoerotic cock opera involving swords and decapitations (and a first episode flat-of-the-blade ass-slap that would make Boy George blush), so, despite all of the things that are extravagantly wrong about the "Highlander" franchise moving to weekly television, the one thing that's right about the transplant is the use of Freddie Mercury's creepy ballad to immortal Scottish duellists as its theme song. Essentially a variation on that favourite fantasy of morbid teenagers--the vampire rock star mythos (live forever, fight clandestine battles with leather-horse foes, bed beautiful women and have a non-queer justification for not wanting to commit, pretend to have a cool accent, feel sorry for the small worries of mere mortals, look great)--the main difference in the "Highlander" universe is that the Highlanders aren't capable of making new Highlanders. It's as gay as a French holiday, is what I'm saying--not that there's anything wrong with that.
The first Highlander film in 1986 starring Christopher Lambert and Sean Connery (and directed by once-promising Aussie director Russell Mulcahy) has become a solid cult classic and for good reason--it's awful in a way that a small group of dedicated enthusiasts love to defend without, perhaps, a complete understanding of the attraction. The premise is that there are immortals walking among us, packing broadswords and katanas and engaging in occasional duels that invariably end in decapitation, with the victor "stealing" the power of his slain enemy in a process called "quickening." In the end, there can be only one (cue Queen). A thin fantasy of empowerment conceit (junior Nietzsche) that has spawned five feature films, two television series, what look to be two animated series, and a collectible card game, it's a franchise with legs that has the distinction of crafting its own simplistic mythology from tired loam.
The dangerous extremes to which the premise had been stretched began to show as early as the first threadbare feature sequel, with its pathetic alien story and Connery resurrection (suggesting that Connery without a good agent is most likely just an Anglophone Burt Reynolds). With the 1992-97 television series (the first season of which makes its way to DVD this month by way of the genre-fan's best friend, Anchor Bay, in a handsome nine-disc set featuring all 22 episodes of the first year's run), "Highlander" reveals itself to be a premise that's endlessly reductive, displaying the same weaknesses as the "V" television series in relation to the magnificent bastard fromage of the first V mini-series: lower budget, excrescent effects work, confused performance, and the restrictions of a looser narrative arc. Like almost any television series, however, the shows do get better as the season progresses--a lot of that having to do, probably, with character introductions and premise establishment handled in the first few episodes, and Lambert only making a cameo in the first.
Begin at the beginning, as they say, with pilot episode "The Gathering," an extremely poor bit of rubbish that revolves around the tripartite concerns of Connor MacLeod (Lambert) passing the "baton," Star Trek: Generations-like, to young hunk Duncan MacLeod (Adrian Paul--as aggressively not-Scottish as Lambert); of Duncan's soft-porn lovin' with Tessa (Alexandra Vandernoot--aggressively not an actress) and Bruce Wayne tutelage of mysterious delinquent Ritchie Ryan (Stan Kirsch, also not an actor but he gets better--either that or you get used to him); and of a fight with another immortal goon played by Richard "Bull from 'Night Court'" Moll. With various period flashbacks signalled by a shaky zoom into Duncan's left eye, the mysterious dedication to having every second scored, and camera shots and compositions that would feel at home in any episode of "Benny Hill", it's easy to understand why the Highlander cult is such an exclusive one: you'd have to be a fanatic already to come back for a second dose.
Or you'd have to be a film critic somehow suckered into reviewing the first season of a television show in its entirety. Episode 2, "Family Tree" is a bloodless affair that parallels Ritchie's search for his birth parents with flashbacks to Duncan's own abandonment by his demon-fearing da--a fate unctuously identical to Connor's creation story from Mulcahy's first film. Latching onto a small-time hood as his surrogate pa, Ritchie learns a valuable lesson from his inevitable betrayal and the steadfast protection of his ward, Batman. I mean, Duncan MacLeod. Peter Deluise (Dom's son, of course) plays a heavy--the show's dedication to having an embarrassing guest star per episode ever in danger of making "Highlander" "Fantasy Island" with more slashing homicides. That said, although there is no quickening in "Family Tree," the sight of Deluise getting the tar kicked out of him twice is almost worth the ordeal. Almost as an afterthought, it occurs to me now and again that it couldn't hurt if they hired a stunt coordinator.
Episode 3 "The Road Not Taken" involves kung-fu zombies under the control of a potion invented by immortal Kiem Sun (Soon-Teck Oh) and not Robert Frost--a potion that has been stolen by one of Sun's former students, Chu Li (Dustin Nguyen, who, between he and Peter DeLuise represents half of the original cast of "21 Jump Street", oddly enough). The possibilities of an army of narcoleptic robo-fighters are squandered completely while the writing, which seemed to be getting better last episode, most assuredly is getting worse again. I remember enjoying "Knight Rider" and "The A-Team" when I was a young teenager, though, and begin to wonder if it isn't that the "Highlander" series is awful, it's that I need to be pumped full of sense-confusing testosterone and fifteen years stupider to appreciate its limp one-liners, bad action sequences, leering adolescent sexuality, and lock-step exposition. Never has so much been done to make an unimpressive stunt appear safe, by the way, causing one to consider that it's nigh impossible to be injured in an abandoned warehouse that appeared to once manufacture empty plastic bottles and cardboard boxes.
At the end of the first disc, it's fruitful to mention that each episode comes with a behind-the-scenes monologue (four minutes approx.) featuring executive producer Bill Panzer waxing somnambulistic along the streets of Vancouver, BC, where the series was shot. He doesn't have very much insight to offer beyond the usual self-deluded recollections of noble efforts and difficult decisions. Accessed through a special episode menu, there's also an option here for an info-sheet wherein Anchor Bay's legendarily complete notes can be accessed for each episode. Character biographies, character diaries, and descriptions of guest-immortals' weaponry are described "in character" as it were--a trés cool appendix for the student of the series, I wager. In episodes in which there's a beheading/quickening, a silver "Q" appears over the scene selections, the clicking of which allows one to view the decapitation without suffering through the rest of the show again. Sadly, of the first three, there's only one quickening: something to do with deepening Duncan's pacifist nature and, I imagine, something to do with the budget.
Disc two begins with the best of the "Highlander" episodes so far--an opinion based at least in part on what David Foster Wallace defines as "meta-watching" and the "pleasure of the familiar" in his brilliant essay on the mental dependence of those who watch too much television. I'm sad to say that my elitist resistance to the medium only extends over the course of about three hours, which is also why I only watch "The Simpsons" and professional and college sports on television. It's the same reason that alcoholics don't even have a taste of the sweet stuff--I don't have a tolerance and I'm starting by this point to feel as though the "Highlander" regulars are my friends. Yes, I'm scared.
"Innocent Man" guest stars distinctive character actor Vincent Schiavelli as a homeless person framed for the cutlass-murder of a southern-fried immortal named Lucas (played in flashback by Victor Young). Set in some undefined yokelville shot in the verdant backwoods of Vancouver, the episode begins with a series of ridiculously inept editorial decisions that work as a primer on what happens when all rules of visual storytelling are cast by the wayside. It's almost dada, truth be known, and it's comforting somehow in its incomprehensibility. With flashbacks to a Civil War-era Duncan juxtaposed against Duncan's current struggles with the inbred hicks of this backwards Southern burg (including a strange reference to The Town That Dreaded Sundown), issues of racism, the Confederate cause of slavery, and the aftershocks of the Vietnam War are tackled in a great big sloppy embrace. Lovable for its wide-eyed ambition, this is the first of the "Highlander" episodes so far to engage me on a level beyond the watch-checking, reminding a good deal of the late lamented schlock genre time travel series "Voyagers".
Hopes remain high for Episode 5, "Free Fall."Guest starring Joan Jett at her butchest as a mysterious immortal that stumbles into Duncan's, Tess's, and Ritchie's lives with a few dated grrrl tracks and the vertiginous realization that while Jett was never that great a singer, she's Pavarotti compared to her acting ability. "Free Fall" makes the tragic mistake of being a starfucker; too much time, in other words, is given over to Jett's marginal charms. Scenes shared by Jett and Stan Kirsch (and Jett and Vandernoot) are so bad they transcend the funny into the astonishingly painful; an objective assessment of plot value becomes impossible. I would guess that the story of a sneaky fatale immortal weaselling her way into the good graces of a pony-tailed pacifist immortal has potential. When the penultimate duel is presented in a grainy stock medium and set to music to unsuccessfully mask Jett's inability to swing a sword with anything approximating grace or power, however, the words "Good Christ" swim to mind. Disc two rounds out with a surprisingly violent episode called "Bad Day in Building A" that can best be described as "Die Hard with a Ponytail."
Disc three opens with "Mountain Men," an awful take on Deliverance guest starring Marc Singer of "V" and Beastmaster fame doing a Wolfman Jack impersonation that should be funnier than it is. Singer is Caleb, the head of a few survivalists who wants to make Tess his mountain bride. To its credit, the violence in this series has ratcheted up to perverse levels, with this episode alone featuring a disgusting regeneration, a few point-blank rifle shots, what looks like a broken cheek, and an axe battle that shouldn't be nearly so fun as it is. The question of the hour, however, is why Duncan continually allows himself to be disarmed at the point of firearms before throwing himself off tall cliffs. (Is his invulnerability conditional or just his judgment?) That aside, the episode is probably worth it for the slavering fans of the series just for its heated slow-motion shots of Duncan running shirtless through a river.
The venal excrescence of "Mountain Men" is leavened, however, by episode 8, "Deadly Medicine." In addition to sporting a new opening voice over that replaces the monotone of the first seven episodes with a slightly inflected monotone, it features Joe Pantoliano as a messianic emergency room doctor eager to perform medical experiments on Duncan to unlock the secret of regeneration. The standard bad acting, scripting, and direction aside (and let's just take those things for granted in the future in the interests of time, shall we?), Joey Pants's hilarious now-goofy, now-Son of Sam take fits in just fine with the mad tenor of the series. The disc wraps up with a rote white-trash-girl-makes-good episode "The Sea Witch" that locates Duncan in Russia during the revolution in flashback while demonstrating that a sword is not always necessary for the dispatching of an immortal: a giant propeller does just fine. This first messing with the "Highlander" mythology is extremely wrong-headed, straying unforgivably from the phallic transgressions that define this series. Meanwhile, Duncan mainly beats up on mortal bullies engaged in harassing Duncan's pals, thus fulfilling the fantasy-fulfillment requirement of this adolescent melodrama and hopefully supplying ample catharsis for those feeling the need to take up arms against their boorish classmates or co-workers.
The fourth platter opens with a step up in special effects, stunt work, and performance called "Revenge is Sweet" that is all the more puzzling for the revelation that Eighties pop sensation Vanity is actually sort of a good actress. Concerning the desire for mysterious Rebecca (Vanity) to avenge the death of her immortal boyfriend, the series is either hitting its stride or has gotten lucky. The appearance of Tim "Venus Flytrap" Reid as a trench coat-wearing Columbo is a disquieting reminder that no matter how much better any particular episode is, it's all pretty much relative on a sliding "Fantasy Island" scale. It bears mention that of the last four episodes, three have featured a quickening (though there is that one cheat)--a marked improvement over the relative squeamishness of the early hours.
Tim Reid returns in episode 11, "See No Evil," which mixes, unsuccessfully, the serial killer genre with the timelessness genre in a way vaguely reminiscent of Time After Time. Though production values remain elevated, the screenwriting has regressed to early-season levels and the whole exercise begins to remind again of something like the new "Kung Fu" series--lots of wandering about, lots of bad scoring, and a resolution telegraphed like punches at an octogenarian boxing match. It occurs to me at this point that if Duncan gains the knowledge and the power of those he beheads (sort of a long-haired Leda to their uncrowned swans), something interesting could be crafted concerning his ever-increasing knowledge--maybe a "Duncan on 'Jeopardy!'" episode.
"Eyewitness" tackles the hoary mystery cliché of the disappearing body with the muted witness this time around the still-not-an-actress Alexandra Vandernoot pulling a "Nancy Drew" and getting her man in trouble. The series is sort of misogynistic it goes without saying, but the casting of Tess as a sub-literate victim/hysterical siren is frankly too hilarious to overly offend. Duncan and Ritchie, after all, aren't exactly paragons of intelligence and moderation--a fact underlined by "Eyewitness" as Ritchie woos a lovely lassie in his smooth "I can't deliver a line to save my life" style. Ooh la la. This last episode on disc 4 features yet another guest star stint by Reid's recurring detective character, along with Amanda Wyss's ('80s bitch goddess of such cozy oldies as Better Off Dead..., A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High) fifth appearance as a nosy investigative reporter. It's all becoming one big extended family.
An interlude in the festivities to note that the video quality on the early episodes is generally appalling with small strides in these last few episodes. It's pretty clear that not a whole lot of effort has gone into remastering the image for DVD--same goes for the Dolby 5.1 Surround remix(es). It ranges from the tinny to the unimpressive.
Disc five opens with "Band of Brothers," also the title of a series I wish I were reviewing instead. Alas. Concerning the arrival of an ancient immortal (older than Duncan by at least 1,400 years), "Band of Brothers" is anchored by a Rocky IV training scene involving logs and jumping as Duncan prepares to meet a superior foe. The episode also includes a ridiculous voice-over narrative device that sort of makes me cringe just thinking about it: "What is this thing called hope?"--Emily Dickinson he ain't. The video quality on this "Band of Brothers," it bears mentioning, is horrible. The entire thing is one big digital artifact--shadow detail is so poor that a scene set in a park at night looks like brown blobs fighting each other in front of black blobs. The witty banter between Amanda Wyss (whose reporter character, nobody's fool, seems to be figuring out the whole sword fight thing) and Adrian Paul has now officially moved into the realm of the bizarre from the land of the discomforting.
Speaking of unpleasant, episode 14 "For Evil's Sake" concerns evil mimes murdering the French. (Brrr... the French.) It opens with three separate vignettes of mimes killing Parisians which, in itself, does not make the mimes evil--and Duncan MacLeod carrying a grocery bag with a baguette stumbling on the scene and donning his deer hunter hat and magnifying glass. The reason Duncan and Tess are in Paris is haphazardly explained with a flashback to their first meeting: he, on the run from an immortal; she a riverboat tour guide dazzled by his empty gaze. A meeting of the minds, no doubt. The score is awful and omnipresent, the writing stilted, and the action and narrative stilted and perfunctory besides--classic "Highlander", in other words. A quickening in a mannequin factory brings to mind The Hidden, but otherwise, "For Evil's Sake" is a peculiar episode, for sure, and not among the better ones by far.
Episode 15 "For Tomorrow We Die" features the Fine Young Cannibals' Roland Gift as a Kray-esque criminal dandy with zero acting talent. A minor surprise, then, that this episode is the best to date. The second set in Paris (I still don't really know why), the triumph of the piece is the premise: an immortal uses his immunity to mustard gas, acquired on the lines in The Great War, to rob jewellery stores. Character development is interesting, historical flashbacks are well integrated, and the performances, save Gift's, are a marked improvement. A final shot of a feral Gift scurrying away into a drink is memorable, but more memorable would have been the inclusion of a FYC tune the way that a few of Joan Jett's awful ditties were tossed into her episode.
Music not the issue in the third "Highlander" episode set in Paris, "The Beast Below," finds our heroes in the Paris Opera House and, predictably, pawns in a Gaston Leroux riff, the phantom replaced here by a retarded immortal caveman or something. Badly written and badly directed, the episode will probably be best remembered for two of the most unconvincing fatal falls in recent memory--the mannequin protection league should be up in arms. Yet episode 17 "Saving Grace" isn't memorable at all except that it raises the question of how "the quickening" chooses which immortal gets the dead immortal's power when the instrument of decapitation is a train. It seems to have something to do with whomever is closest at the time of head removal which is, you'll agree, exceedingly lame. It makes one think that any random immortal would be victim of a sudden embarrassing public quickening whenever some other stray immortal jobs itself in a clothesline accident or something.
Rounding out Disc Six is "The Lady and the Tiger," another concept episode in which another of Duncan's ex-lovers (400 and looking like a basic cable Lorenzo Llamas results in a fecundity that would make Wilt Chamberlain genuflect, I guess) returns in circus performer form to serve as yet another femme fatale. The level of woman fear in "Highlander" is so high (Tess is tranquilized in order to remove any threat to penile-burdened members of the audience) that it serves to bolster the case that this series and premise is the most interesting example of sublimated homosexuality in mainstream "straight" culture. It's important to remember that the last time most men could indulge in open and joyful same-sex friendships in which women are the feared "other" is childhood, making entertainments such as this exceedingly enjoyable on a jejune level. Possessed of a greater level of slapstick comedy (why, I dare not ask), "The Lady and the Tiger" hinges on making Tess act jealous and catty while gathering most of its interest in esoteric observations about the lingering sway of Freud's anal stage and a wholly inappropriate rip-off of Rififi. The title of the piece doesn't, by the way, seem to have anything to do with the Schrodinger's Cat quantum superposition allegory that shares its name.
In the home stretch now, Disc Seven of Anchor Bay's "Highlander: Season One" collection kicks off with "Eye of the Beholder"--an episode that already has a lot to live up to by ripping off the name of one of the most beloved "Twilight Zone" episodes of all time. Recycling the already-tired bit about Ritchie Ryan falling in love with some bad news only to be bailed out by the long-suffering Duncan MacLeod, the piece fulfills one of my wishes by sporting a Fine Young Cannibals tune ("She Drives Me Crazy," natch), as well as a bevy of strutting, bra-less, PG-semi-nudity (God bless the slow-motion button)--all stuff made embarrassingly tame by prime time Victoria's Secret runway shows and Christina Aguilera's special brand of skank ho chic. The evil immortal of "Eye of the Beholder" is a "collector" of pretty women (Nigel Terry, mixing Hugh Hefner distastefully with David Carradine); it's all feeling sort of familiar now. The series and the audience are running on fumes. "Avenging Angel" sports a psychotic immortal (Martin Kemp) who believes because of his immortal, invulnerable status that he has a mandate from God to kill people indiscriminately. Shrug. Sort of a nifty idea (and one that sheds some disturbing light on the recent Catholic Priest indiscretions when coupled with my basic premise for the series), but like many of the nifty ideas in "Highlander", it's reduced to a lot of running, a lot of bad music, and a perfunctory beheading.
And then there's the problem of "Nowhere to Run"--episode, yes, 21, and the last of Disc Seven--which tackles the problem of rape in the Very Special Episode way of the "Facts of Life" crapulence of yesteryear. I have a problem with heavy-handedness even in the service of a good cause, as it tends to restate the obvious and trivialize the problem. This first dabble into the land of PSAs is always a sign of a TV show running out of ideas and, in this case, a noticeable ratcheting up of cruel violence (bear traps are never amusing...well, I guess there was that scene in Ravenous), and lack of innocuous and banal, campy fun. Here's hoping that the ratio of such top-heavy episodes to the usual ephemeral bullshit remains a healthy 1-to-22.
The last episode of season one, "The Hunters," completes the trifecta of musician guests with The Who's Roger Daltrey, dressed and looking vaguely like Tom Baker (the fourth Dr. Who). Closing out year one with the death of Darius, a monk immortal (he'd made a handful of appearances in the series' Parisian detour), "Highlander" introduces the Anne Rice-esque conceit of a secret society of immortal hunters who seek to kill all such beings because...well, why not? Though not the finest episode (that title still belonging to "For Tomorrow We Die"), "The Hunters" does manage a detectable level of pathos and tension, mostly in the introduction of an element that is unpredictable, mysterious, and apparently cunning. It's interesting after twenty-one episodes with Duncan MacLeod to see him reduced to something "other" again--a removal of empathy that calls into question the role of suture in the act of spectatorship.
Disc Eight continues with a nine-minute blooper reel that includes a few surprisingly funny bloopers (and a whole lot of typically unfunny ones) including a suggestive banana consumption that pleased the theoretician in me. A good decision is made to score parts of the reel like a music video, particularly as Paul's first reaction to a flub is to do a white-man's dance. What I'm trying to say is that it's surprisingly inoffensive for this kind of vainglorious garbage. A thirty-minute making-of documentary that originally aired as an introduction to the series is the typical B-roll, obsequious interview bit of propagandist huff 'n' puff. Disc Nine is given over entirely to a complete reproduction of each of the shooting scripts of the series' first year in easily accessible DVD-ROM format. Originally published: November 16, 2002.