Monday, 29 November 2010

Highlander: The films and TV series

In 1986 a film was made called "Highlander". At the time of its release it went widely unnoticed in America, but it had great success in Europe, especially Germany. After its release on video it started to win fans in America. Film critics also revisited the film and began to pour praise on it. Since then the original film has spawned four sequels, two television series, an animated series and dozens of novels based on the film and television characters. I’m going to make the effort to write a review of the whole Highlander franchise, as brief as possible so that it isn’t boring, but long enough to point out the strengths and weaknesses.

I’ll assume that the readers already know all the films and TV series, so I shan’t shy away from spoilers.

1. Highlander (1986)

The story is about an immortal called Connor MacLeod who was born in 1518 in Scotland and is still alive today in New York City. He can only die if his head is cut off. If his head is cut off by another immortal a supernatural effect called the "Quickening" happens, in which the power and the strength of the dead immortal flows into his killer. There is a rule among immortals that states "There can be only one". All immortals must fight and kill one another until only one is left, who will then receive something called the "Prize". Connor is trained by an immortal Spanish nobleman called Ramirez.

This film was intended as a standalone product. The makers had no intention for a sequel. For this reason we see Connor and Kurgan as the last two immortals battling to the death. Connor wins and receives the Prize in a divine flash of light. In the original version of the film it was stated that the Prize is being allowed to become mortal (is that really a prize?), being able to bear children (immortals are barren) and the gift of telepathy. In later editions of the film on video and DVD (director’s cuts) it isn’t expressly stated what the Prize is at the end of the film, it’s merely some sort of supernatural power.

"Highlander is certainly a classic film that will continue to be cherished and watched as the world of movie making continues to grow and change. It is a triumphant example of the art of cinema, and watching it reminds us all of why we like going to the movies in the first place" (Danel Griffin, film critic).

"The greatest action film ever made… awesome swordfights, an awesome score, and a time-bending plotline that only a philistine could dislike" (Christopher Null, film critic).

2. Highlander 2: The Quickening (1991)

Market forces demanded a sequel. The popularity of the first film meant that a sequel would be money in the bank. The problem, from a creative point of view, was that all the immortals were now dead except for Connor. There had to be a twist to bring them back to life.

"Highlander 2" explains that immortals originally came from the planet Zeist 500 years ago. The immortals are aliens who were exiled to Earth after rebelling against their government, where their essences were placed into human bodies. Luckily this means that dead immortals can be brought back to life, because their essences are still floating around after their death. Connor reverts from being an old mortal to a young immortal again. He battles the immortal Ironside, wins the Prize again, and returns to the planet Zeist to live happily ever after.

The film was, as expected, a huge box office success. However, its success was due to the popularity of the first film. Almost universally fans called the film awful. The makers reacted to this by releasing a new version of the film, completely re-edited, in which all references to the planet Zeist were removed. Although called a director’s cut, this was really a completely new film that merely used footage from the previous version. There was some pleasure among fans who considered that the whole "immortals are aliens" plotline was silly, but removing this just left the film inexplicable, with no real explanation why immortals could magically reappear after being killed.

"Highlander 2: The Quickening is the most hilariously incomprehensible movie I've seen in many a long day, a movie almost awesome in its badness. Wherever science fiction fans gather, in decades and generations to come, this film will be remembered in hushed tones as one of the immortal low points of the genre" (Roger Ebert, film critic).

3. Highlander 3: The Final Dimension (1994)

At this point everyone knew that "Highlander 2" was a catastrophe. So the easiest solution was just to assume that it never happened. A new film was made as a sequel to the first film that totally ignores the events of both versions of the second film. For instance, Connor’s wife Brenda dies in a car crash in this film, even though she died in an environmental disaster in "Highlander 2".

We find that an immortal called Kane has been trapped in a cave for 200 years. For this reason Connor received the Prize by accident when he killed Kurgan. When Kane finally escapes from the cave Connor is un-prized, he becomes an immortal again, and he has to fight Kane to win the Prize again. This film avoids the silliness of randomly reborn immortals, but the idea that the Prize was awarded in the first film by accident sat badly with Highlander fans.

"Highlander 3" was a box office flop. It seems that after the awful second film nobody wanted to give it a chance.

While there were still die-hard Highlander fans, an interesting phenomenon was developing in Highlander fan circles which can still be seen today. Since there were undisguised contradictions in the films, and even alternate versions of films, fans began to make their own personal definitions of the Highlander universe. Each Highlander fan decided for himself what had happened and denied the rest. This phenomenon was called "denialism". Many Highlander fans proudly called themselves denialists when they visited conventions, but really every fan had to be a denialist, since there was no way to reconcile the differences.

Some TV series have similar problems. The timelines in "Star Trek" have contradictions between the original series and the later series, since we repeatedly hear about space ships "a hundred years ago" (i.e. the 22nd Century) travelling to the edge of the galaxy. In "Doctor Who" the Doctor meets the Daleks for the first time in a 1963 episode, although as a Time Lord he should have already known them. Fans of these series just smile, put it down to mistakes and move on. In the case of Highlander the discrepancies are so great that they can’t be ignored. They have to be acknowledged and denied.

"Ultra-fans will rejoice in the face of the third instalment, and it's nowhere near as bad as Highlander 2, but most of you can give it a pass" (Christopher Null, film critic).

4. Highlander TV series (1992 – 1998)

The producers of this series knew they had a problem. They knew that the Highlander storyline was contradictory and fragmented. They decided to make an effort not to make it any worse. They found a way to hook the series into the films, and they took care to remain consistent within the series. The theory is that the original film happened, but there were still other immortals alive at the time, so the battle with Kurgan wasn’t the final battle and the Prize wasn’t given. The second and third films were ignored, or rather denied. This was something that Highlander fans could live with.

The TV series no longer features Connor MacLeod. The main character is Duncan MacLeod, who was born in 1592. Connor and Duncan are called cousins, but because of the time difference we can assume this is meant in a vague sense that would include second cousins, etc.

Critics vary widely in their opinions of the TV series. Fan reaction was almost universally positive, with the UK being a notable exception, where fans never warmed to the series. Germany is the country with the largest fan base, and the series is still being broadcast daily. The main problem with the series was that they had to struggle with a relatively low budget. While it couldn’t aspire to the professionalism of the films in terms of the special effects or cinematography, the stories themselves repeatedly reached artistic peaks. The series was a joint Canadian-French production, so it was demanded that half the episodes be filmed in Canada and the other half in France. This led to the regular pattern that each season would begin in Canada, and halfway through the season Duncan would relocate to his house boat in Paris.

Actually, each season really began in America. The episodes were filmed in Vancouver, but the producers carefully avoided showing well known landmarks and pretended that the setting was a north west American town, presumably Seattle. Later in the series this town was called Seacouver, presumably as a joke, but the name soon became popular among Highlander fans and became its official name.

The premise of the TV series is that immortals have existed since the beginning of time, and are still being born today. Certain people are born with the potential for immortality, but they only become immortal after experiencing a violent death. Some immortals, such as Duncan, are able to "sense" those who are able to become immortal, but most immortals can’t. Throughout the series immortality is shown to be a curse, because immortals have to watch their friends and loved ones die.

The main characters in the first season are Duncan Macleod, his mortal lover Tessa Noel, and a teenage boy called Richie Ryan. In the second half of the season an immortal called Darius is introduced, who used to be a Roman general but has since renounced violence and become a monk. Darius was originally intended to be a regular character in the series, but the actor who played him, Werner Stocker, died before the end of the first season, aged only 38.

In the last episode of the first season the Watchers are introduced, a secret organisation that has been observing the immortals and chronicling their battles for thousands of years. From the second season onwards the Watchers, in particular Joe Dawson, play an important part.

The main change in the second season is in the fourth episode, when Tessa and Richie are shot by a thief. Tessa dies, but Richie is reborn as an immortal. Duncan had already known that Richie possessed the spark of immortality, which is why he had looked after him. After he becomes immortal Duncan begins to train him to prepare him for battles against other immortals. Soon after this Duncan buys a martial arts dojo in Seacouver, which becomes the place he lives while in America, and the dojo’s trainer, Charlie DeSalvo, becomes a regular character.

During the second and third seasons we get to know two friends from Duncan’s past, Amanda Montrose and Hugh Fitzcairn. Both of them are a contrast to Duncan’s strict code of morality. Amanda is a thief, whose only aim in life is to become richer at the expense of others. Fitzcairn is a rogue who gets into problems through his womanizing and always seems to be broke. Fitzcairn’s death in the third season resulted in mass uproar among fans. The show’s producers later admitted that it had been a mistake to kill off such a popular character. Over the next three years they repeatedly brought him back in flashbacks and episodes set in the past.

Another character we meet is Methos, the oldest living immortal, who is living undercover in the headquarters of the Watchers, pretending to be a mortal. While not exactly unskilled as a fighter, he’s a pragmatist. He would rather avoid battling other immortals than risk being killed, so he uses the Watcher databases to find out where other immortals are living and stay out of their way. Methos’s charm is that despite being 4000 years old and very well educated he’s very down to Earth. If he can’t solve a problem he drinks a beer instead.

The fourth season sees a radical change in style. Whereas the first three seasons concentrated on action stories, the next two seasons frequently deal with moral dilemmas. The usual scenario is that Duncan finds himself morally compelled to kill his friends because they are doing the wrong thing. An example of this is the episode "The Valkyrie", my personal favorite episode of the entire series:

In 1944 Duncan and a fellow immortal, Ingrid Henning, fail in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Ingrid blames herself for the failure and spends the next 50 years trying to make amends by travelling round the world assassinating tyrants and dictators. Duncan meets her again when she’s planning to kill the leader of a racist group in Seacouver. Duncan tells her she has no right to appoint herself judge, jury and executioner, however evil the racist leader is. While Duncan is tortured by the burden of his choice Methos tries to lighten up the atmosphere with humour. In the end Duncan kills Ingrid to prevent her going ahead with her assassination. After this he feels depressed as he realises that by killing her he is just as guilty as she was. The final summing up:

Duncan: Ingrid asked me something before she died.
Methos: They usually do.
Duncan: She said, what was the difference between her killing them and me killing her?
Methos: Good question. Right up there with chicken and egg.
Duncan: So what are you saying? There is no answer?
Methos: No, there is an answer. But the real question is whether you’re ready for it.
(Duncan nods).
Methos: Stefanovich killed and Ingrid judged him. Wilkinson killed and Ingrid judged him. Ingrid killed and you judged her.
Duncan: So who judges me?
(There is a long pause).
Methos: Are you hungry?
(And they both walk away together).

The last episode of the fifth season was the most controversial of the whole series. Duncan beheads his friend Richie while believing him to be someone else. This brought out the denialists in full force. Even before the episode was aired it had been leaked to the Internet that Richie would die. At the time it was first broadcast I had friends that I regularly discussed Highlander with. New episodes were broadcast on Friday evening, and we sat discussing what had happened at lunchtime on Monday. After this episode I asked a colleague what she thought about Richie’s death, and she replied, "I didn’t watch the episode. I refuse to watch it. Richie is still alive". While this response might seem irrational, it’s typical among Highlander fans. If they don’t like something they deny it.

The sixth season was by far the weakest part of the TV series, for various reasons. First of all, the three-part battle between Duncan and Ahriman, which had begun in the last episode of the fifth season, was as outlandish and implausible as anything the film sequels had shown. Ahriman had supernatural powers including the ability to change his form, bring people back from the dead and change people’s bodies. (For instance, he gave Joe Dawson back the legs that he’d lost in the Vietnam War).

Second, Adrian Paul had announced that he wanted to quit his role as Duncan MacLeod to prevent himself being typecast. This was his last season, and he played smaller roles, not appearing at all in some episodes. I’m sure Adrian must be kicking himself now, because his subsequent acting career has been a complete failure.

Third, as a result of Duncan’s departure, a new Highlander TV series was planned with a female immortal, so episodes were used to "audition" female characters. This seems unnecessary, in retrospect, because eventually Amanda was chosen for the role. Nobody else was suitable.

Fourth, a very strange way was chosen to wrap up the series. The two-part series finale is a homage to "It’s a wonderful life". While Duncan is sitting brooding, as he has often done before, Fitzcairn appears to him and shows him what would have happened if he had never lived. While many critics praise the artistic qualities of the series finale, I find it silly.

5. Highlander: The Raven TV series (1998 – 1999)

In a way this could be considered Highlander season 7. The star of the series is the immortal Amanda Montrose, and she is supported by an ex-policeman, Nick Wolfe. While there is obviously an element of desire between them they never become lovers. In the final episode Nick is killed and becomes an immortal, as Amanda had known would happen all along. The series should have continued. It had a lot of promise.

6. Highlander 4: Endgame (2000)

This film continues from the television series. Duncan is surrounded by the same supporting characters as in the TV series. The main fault of the film is that a new immortal is introduced, Kate MacLeod, who we discover had been Duncan’s wife 200 years ago and is still the one he truly loves. This seems artificial, since she was never mentioned in the TV series. If Amanda had been presented as his true love the film would have been more natural.

In this film Connor MacLeod dies in a battle with Duncan. As expected, this stirred up the Highlander denialists, and soon Internet blogs worldwide were announcing that "Highlander 4" never happened.

The film was a flop at the box office. It didn’t even take in half of its budget. Film critics were unanimous in saying that the film was watchable, but nothing exceptional. Seen in the context of the TV series, it’s on a par with Duncan’s sixth season episodes, and it’s a better way of adding closure than the series finale. I enjoy "Highlander 4", despite its weaknesses.

"Highlander: Endgame possesses all of the elements of a straight-to-video action movie. Cheap special effects that look cool, weak characters that still pull heartstrings, and a bunch of actors no one really knows unless you have seen this or that obscure flick" (Travis Eddings, film critic).

7. Highlander 5: The Source (2006)

It’s difficult for me to write about this film without clenching my fists in rage. I thought the Highlander franchise had been pulled back together, but this film proved me wrong. It was intended for cinema release, but no distributors would touch it, and it eventually premiered on America’s Sci-Fi Channel. It’s arguable which is worse, "Highlander 5" or the original alien version of "Highlander 2".

In the near future mankind has plunged into chaos. Duncan MacLeod has lost the will to fight and lives as a derelict. Methos and Joe Dawson encourage him to save the world by taking part in a quest to find the source of immortality. After battling with cannibals, immortals and a supernatural monster called the Guardian Duncan succeeds and is given the Prize. How is this possible, since there are still a lot of immortals alive? We find out that the immortals had always misunderstood the rule "There can be only one". It never meant that only one immortal should survive. It meant that only one immortal may have a baby.

For my part, I deny this ever happened. I intend to meet with other denialists on holy ground, where we shall ritually burn our "Highlander 5" DVDs, and we shall be hypnotized to forget the film was ever made.

"It's bad. Cheesily bad, colossally bad, monumentally bad, bad enough to make you never want to watch another movie again bad" (Danel Griffin, film critic).

"The acting is uniformly terrible, the special effects are hideous, the sets are cheap and grubby, and the directing is uninspired. The film is an utter failure. Surely this is the final nail in the coffin lid for this film series. If it isn't, then something is truly wrong with the universe" (Keith Breese, film critic).

8. The future of Highlander?

It’s been announced that the original Highlander film will be remade. It will keep to the plot of the original, but it will be rewritten enough to make it a prequel of the TV series. I expect this means that the Prize won’t be given in the end. This is a daring venture. The first film is the only part of Highlander legacy that everyone agrees is a classic. There’s so much to live up to. There is such a large margin for failure. While I wish the producers luck, I fear that it will be another monumental disaster.

9. Note on the availability

All the Highlander films are still available in both NTSC and PAL formats, even the films that would be best forgotten. The Highlander TV series are now out of print in America, but you can still pick up copies from Amazon marketplace traders, if you hurry. If you wait too long the price will rise. The TV series were never released in the UK, but Region 2 PAL box sets have been published in Germany and are available from Amazon.de. The German boxes include both English and German dialog and the same extras as the American box sets. The only disadvantage is that the episode titles are printed in German.

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