Last week Matt tackled the 1986 movie, Highlander, a film we share a mutual love for. I first came across the film when I was about 11 or 12 on a free HBO weekend, or something like that. While I enjoyed it for what it was, even then I recognized there were elements of greatness (the soundtrack, Clancy Brown’s Kurgan) amidst elements I felt were less than satisfactory. We had a French actor playing a Scotsman, a Scot playing a Spaniard by way of ancient Egypt, sword-fighting which was merely okay despite having immortals who’ve had eons to perfect their skills, and some cringingly terrible dialog. Of course at 11 or 12 I didn’t have my vocabulary established enough to employ it in this sort of article, but I knew something was off. It was in my teens when I started watching the tv series that I really understood why I balked at aspects of the movie.
Now, I’m not going to tell you the tv series is in any way high art, but it did fix several of the flaws I saw. First and foremost, the casting was fixed, and I mean in every way. Look, Christopher Lambert isn’t awful. He was okay as Tarzan and as Connor MacLeod. But if you compare him to Adrian Paul, Connor’s younger cousin Duncan, it’s not really a contest. Perhaps it’s rose-tinted nostalgia here, but having a trained martial artist who could actually pull off a Scottish accent portray an immortal Scot swordsman (really, more like samurai here with his sword and how he uses it) sets a whole different vibe than whatever Lambert was trying for. That said, the series is of, by, and for the 1990s, so maybe keep that in mind if you choose to go back and watch it.
There are too many seasons of Highlander to do them all justice, and the show isn’t completely perfect. There’s some hand-waving of the movie’s plot. Connor exists alongside Duncan and no one has yet won The Prize. There are an awful lot of immortals still left walking the Earth, whereas in the movie they’re far fewer in number. And there’s the introduction of the obnoxious sidekick, Richie. And while I love the show, don’t get it twisted – I hate the Richie character and all of his subplot storylines. He’s supposed to be Robin to Duncan’s Batman, but he’s a Robin who maybe should have been killed during a circus accident. Maybe that’s too harsh, but…yeah, I don’t like Richie.
For those minor flaws, the rest of the show stands up and is not only a worthy successor to, but perhaps better (and pulpier!) version of the film. There are clear good guys and bad guys. There’s detective work, including mortal friends of Duncan who are aware of the Immortals and track their movement. This group, The Watchers, have a code to watch but never interfere, but there are secret factions machinating in the background, hoping to sway the outcome of The Game so that the winner of The Prize isn’t a total jerk.
Richie isn’t the only recurring character. There’s Joe Dawson, one of the aforementioned Watchers; Methos, purported to be the oldest living Immortal having lived since around the time of the Sumerians; Tessa, Duncan’s girlfriend at the start of the series; Amanda, Duncan’s on-again, off-again Immortal lover. The latter is played by former Miss America Elizabeth Gracen. And she’s not the only famous person to have played a role on the show. The Who’s frontman, Roger Daltrey, played Hugh Fitzcairn in seven episodes. Other shorter cameos included singers and actors like Ron Perlman (a Broadswords and Blasters personal favorite), Graham McTavish (now more famous for Starz’s Outlander), Roddy Piper, Sheena Easton, and Joan Jett.
Something the show does better than the film is show the everyday life of an Immortal, and their various incarnations over decades as they must move and reinvent themselves every generation or so to prevent regular humans from seeing their longevity. Some Immortals, like Duncan, reveal portions of their long histories to companions, but others use and abuse humans like cattle, seeing them as pawns in The Game.
Additionally, since each episode is a self-contained story-of-the-week, it reads a lot more like a Conan or Solomon Kane. But since it is story of the week, there do have to be concessions to the story, as in the previously mentioned hand-waving over The Game and The Prize. The most obvious one, and what makes this show fun but also perhaps slightly less believable than the movie, is the number of Immortals running around. Each episode Duncan is faced with an Immortal he must deal with. Some are friends, such as one could have in a Game that rests on only one winner at the end, but most are enemies. Many of them are people who have long histories with each other, having variously been friends, enemies, or even lovers in past locations.
If I’m honest, I’d say the show loses almost all appeal around the middle of the fourth season. Then it went on for two more seasons. Without a doubt, the series simply went on too long. Although many other series hit the point of having long outlived their best stories, I was perhaps more annoyed by this one simply because I liked it better. The high point for me, and many others apparently, exists in between the middle of seasons 2 and 3. That’s when the mythology is at its best, works within the confines of its own canon, and tells the most engaging stories. Den of Geek! has a suggested viewing order, which sounds like a good idea, too. Start with the pilot, skip ahead to episode 13, and then hop around a bit in the rest of the first season since most of the episodes are relatively self-contained. After that, you can go back through the series in order.