Friday, March 16, 2012

Nostalgia Theater: Highlander: The Series -- Weekly Beheadings on a TV Budget

In the annals of science fiction and fantasy franchises, one of the stranger ones to maintain a devoted fanbase even through a wonky premise and increasingly erratic new entries is surely Highlander. As first dreamed up by writer Gregory Widen for a 1986 feature film, directed by Russell Mulcahy, it tracks Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert), an immortal born in the early 1500s in the Scottish Highlands (thus the name of the movie).

Per the film, each of the handful of immortals throughout the world -- some good, some evil -- are engaged in battle that sees each square off with another until only one remains, after which the victor claims "The Prize," a nebulous something-or-other that involves having complete control over the universe. Oh, and the immortals fight each other with swords. And have to cut off each others' heads. To get their power.

Okay, so, clearly Highlander's concept backstory is a bit of a mouthful. Nonetheless, whether as a result of the rockin' soundtrack from Queen, the presence of native Scot Sean Connery in the cast (playing Ramirez, MacLeod's Egyptian mentor -- don't ask), or the animal magnetism of Lambert (having come to prominence as the lead in Hugh Hudson's Tarzan movie, emphasis on "animal"), the movie actually works reasonably well and, more importantly, managed to build up something of a cult following even as it died horribly at the box office.

Granted, "cult following" could just as easily refer to, like, five really passionate fans, but in this case it was at least enough of a following to inspire a sequel, 1991's much-reviled Highlander 2: The Quickening, which re-teamed Lambert and Connery with Mulcahy. This is the film that Roger Ebert, in his far-too-generous half-star review called, "almost awesome in its badness." And it is. It really, really is.

Given the focus of this week's column, that same fandom also led, in 1992, to producers and rightsholders Peter Davis and Bill Panzer unleashing the syndicated Highlander: The Series, starring English actor Adrian Paul (just off a stint on the syndicated War of the Worlds show few years prior) as made-for-TV immortal Duncan MacLeod, the hero of the series. When you consider the fact that the original flick left absolutely no daylight for a follow-up of any kind, much less an entire show, it's pretty impressive how much blood they squeezed out of it.

In order to get the show made, Davis & Panzer worked with French-based Gaumont, with the trade-off that half of every season was set and filmed in France. In any other circumstance, the extraordinarily unwieldy premise coupled with the obvious budgetary restrictions of an internationally-financed syndie skein would have been TV poison, but some kind of alchemy happened, and Highlander: The Series not only succeeded in the ratings, but worked creatively far, far better than it probably had any right to -- though it did take a while to find its way.

My first exposure to the brand -- before I even knew about any movies -- came via the show's earliest eps, and between this intro's incomprehensible narration and horrible day-glo graphics, it practically dared any lay person to give it a chance:

Like I said: yuck. Nice song by Queen, though.

Piss-poor intro notwithstanding, by taking the first movie's basic plot and expanding it onto a weekly canvas, the series saw Duncan, a junior clansman (by about 100 years) of the movies' Connor -- who made one and only one appearance in the pilot, again played by Lambert -- squaring off with a variety of fellow immortals every week, while various flashbacks told us a story from his past that related that week's particular conflict, and which culminated inevitably in a final act swordfight that itself culminated in a discrete beheading and low budget lightshow.

But even within those constraints, it managed to expand on and deepen the Highlander "mythology" (such as it was) in several meaningful ways, including the addition of Watchers, a group of humans who chronicle the ongoing battles of the immortals, embodied on the show by MacLeod's friend and ally Joe Dawson, played by Wiseguy's Jim Byrnes. As you can tell from this title sequence from later in the run, there was a considerable improvement by the time it finally had its footing:

While Highlander: The Series was in the midst of its run, the franchise's minders tried to give the movies another go with 1994's Highlander: The Final Dimension, which brought back Lambert and ignored both Highlander 2 and the TV show (which itself also ignored Highlander 2 and those inconvenient final fifteen minutes of Highlander 1 -- noticing a trend here?).

While the movie followed its predecessors' lead and died at the box office, the brand's small screen iteration continued along on its merry way, going far wider and deeper than the movies could ever dream, and plumbing much drama from the many pitfalls of a life immortal, and the tragic toll it exacts. It had run for an impressive six seasons and 119 installments by Spring 1998, when producers and star decided to pack it in.

With Lambert demonstrably aging out of the role of an immortal, the producers envisioned a Star Trek Generations-style sword-passing, with Paul taking over big screen beheadings. But that didn't spell the end for Highlander on the small screen, as fall of '98 debuted Highlander: The Raven, a spin-off focusing on Amanda (Elizabeth Gracen), an occasional love interest of MacLeod's who was also immortal (but not Scottish, making the title a bit nonsensical). I actually never watched this one, but neither did many others, as it was gone after a single season. If you're morbidly curious, check out the intro below:

Again: yuck.

Duncan MacLeod, on the other hand, made his movie debut in 2000's Highlander: Endgame, which followed Highlander tradition and dutifully ignored movies two and three. The film itself is pretty forgettable save for the fact that it culminates in Duncan giving the ol' chop-chop to his friend and mentor, Connor. For some perspective, I was there on opening day in September 2000 when Endgame opened, and I was one of five people in the theater. No surprise that this, like all movie Highlanders before it, belly-flopped hard.

And that, you'd think, was the end of Highlander. But not quite. The final ignominy came when producers tried again in 2007 with Highlander: The Source, which brought Paul and his TV cohorts back for another movie adventure. By this time though, the well of audience enthusiasm had clearly run dry, and the feature -- envisioned at one point as the first of a trilogy (and which I talked about here with a modicum of hope) -- skipped theaters entirely and died on basic cable. Forget losing his head, Duncan MacLeod had lost his dignity.

Since then, Highlander has sat on the shelf, with occasional talk of a reboot/restart that would take the brand back to its beginnings while doing what no one bothered to initially and actually planning for the eventuality of follow-ups that don't necessitate the negating and/or ignoring of each and every preceding entry. After Fast & Furious director Justin Lin flirted with the property, the latest word is that director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo is poised to helm a new take. We'll see.

Regardless, five movies and seven TV seasons thus aren't bad for a franchise whose very catchphrase is, "There Can Be Only One." Though some -- okay, most -- of the content produced has been, charitably, less-than-optimum, the six seasons of Highlander: The Series, available in their entirety on both YouTube and DVD, ably demonstrate how even in the face of low budget and dodgy conceit, sometimes all it takes is drive, determination, and a very good sword arm to get a head -- or several.

Next week: Highlander: The Animated Series. No, seriously.


Abdul-Halim V. said...

Definitely among the least consistent franchises. (The other one which comes to mind is Stargate where in the movie Ra was the last of his race and the stargate apparently was set up to go to just one planet)

Apparently there is a revised version of Highlander 2 which cuts out some of the sillier elements. Have you seen it?

The movies after the first were pretty terrible but the series was really well done. And expanded the mythology nicely. I kind of wish they could have found a non-silly way to explain more about where immortals came from.

Another interesting aspect of the show which I would often think about is whether it is psychologically truthful. I mean, if there really was a class of people who could live for hundreds and even thousands of years would they really be so obsessive, holding century-long grudges, manifesting extreme personality traits, fanatical about their principles. Or would it be more realistic if they were wiser, more mellowed-out pragmatic types?

Ian Sokoliwski said...

I have similar feelings toward Highlander that I have to Robocop - both seem to me to be bulletproof concepts for further movies (barring the 'only one' bit, of course) and other media spinoffs that never (IMHO) worked at all beyond the initial movie. It's puzzling.

Now, obviously, Robocop is the stronger of the two, if only that the movie works as both a straight-up action film and a satire, with lots of human drama, but the central premise of each of these properties are very visceral, seemingly easy to adapt and continue...but maybe it's the 'seemingly' bit that makes it difficult to recapture.

I suppose, in the case of Highlander, it's that entire concept of it being able to work past the first movie if you ignore the there can be only one tagline. I wonder if that tagline is actually much more fundamental to the success of the narrative in the first film than it may appear at first, so if you set it aside in order to create sequels and ongoing TV shows, you end up weakening what makes the movie and the entire premise work.

That being said, this TV show had a few cool episodes, but far more misses than hits. Ah, well.

Zaki said...

HIGHLANDER really is the only franchise I know of where every new installment they put out actively warns you to discount every other version that's out there, making the so-called "canon" precariously puny.

Case in point, when Connor gets beheaded in ENDGAME and they show a montage of his life, it's composed entirely of clips from the first movie, and ENDGAME itself, because those two are the only Connor appearances that "count." Oy.

I have seen the so-called "Renegade Version" of HIGHLANDER 2, and, honestly, it's a lateral move. They cut out all the silly extraterrestrial stuff, but there's just no fixing all that's wrong with it. It was a bad idea from the word go, and there's no putting that mess back together.

You bring up a very good point about the inherent psychological impact of sustained immortality. I wish they would have dug a bit more into the rituals that govern the game, and gotten into why precisely the immortals so rigidly adhere to them. The "Holy Ground" restriction, for example, or only one immortal facing another.

Some exploration of why the game works the way it works, and the impact on those who choose not to follow the rules, might have birthed some interesting stories somewhere in those six seasons.

Zaki said...

Ian, I definitely agree that the producers boxed themselves in with that first movie's conclusive, no wiggle-room ending.

Hanging the entire TV series on "ignore the last fifteen minutes of the movie" probably wasn't the most stable way to launch a show, but in my opinion it did end up working, mainly because the weekly format allowed for a richer exploration of immortality than the movies offered.

I agree that the template laid out by the first installments of each of these franchises are pretty unassailable, which makes their respective missteps doubly confounding.

I'd disagree, however, that HIGHLANDER: THE SERIES damaged the first movie, if only because the first sequel already did that pretty thoroughly, so the show was a step up, if anything.

Abdul-Halim V. said...

I had the sense that the one-on-one-combat-with-no-witnesses rules was mostly deeply embedded ettiquette. But at least the no-fighting-on-holy-ground rule was somehow more about physical consequences. (Isn't there a big explosion on holy ground in the movie with Mario Van Peebles?) ... and somehow I have vague recollection that somewhere (probably the series) characters were speculating that Mt. Vesuvius errupted when immortals fought on holy ground?

Zaki said...

Yeah, I remember the Vesuvius thing as well, though it's never confirmed. That contradicts Connery's proclamation in movie one, though, that no one will violate the rule because of "tradition."

Beyond that, the question arises of what constitutes "holy"? And why? If a Native American burial ground is just as holy as a church, then what power is arbitrating the horrible consequences of doing battle there?

Some very interesting Q's that were never really addressed, just accepted quietly.

Adam Hutch said...

Man did I love me some Highlander: The TV Show in high school and early college. That last season though was a stinker. Every episode seemed like a "Backdoor Pilot" for the spinoff everyone knew was coming. Seasons 3 through 5 are probably my favorite of the 90s' "syndication shows."

Though it's hard to top the utter terrible-ness of Highlander 2, The Source comes pretty close. I watched most of it on mute, to avoid waking my (then)infant daughter, and still managed to keep up with the plot.

Zaki, I can't believe you wrote a whole post about Highlander: The Series and didn't mention that Roger Daltry had a recurring role. :)

Abdul-Halim V. said...

I think I read that one season they really were trying to do "backdoor pilots". It was before Raven came out and for several episodes close together, instead of doing the usual immortal-villain-whose-name-begins-with-a-K
they were doing angry-strong-feminine-immortal-whom-Duncan-may-or-may-not-have-slept-with.

Zaki said...

Yeah, they had a parade of She-immortals that last season before they finally just gave the show to Amanda. I don't think any of THEIR shows would have been any more successful than THE RAVEN, mind you. I think by then the concept was simply played out.

And Adam, there's only so much space, unfortunately! I loved me some Fitzcairn. And don't forget Roland Gift as Xavier St. Cloud!

Adam Hutch said...

And Sheena Easton as Irish Freedom Fighter Annie Devlin! :)