Highlander: The Series, season one

Duncan MacLeod, the titular Highlander.Gather round, ladies and gentlemen, for another tale of Christopher Lambert and his amazing agent.

Oh yeah, we’ll also get around to Highlander: The Series.

Following the catastrophe that was Highlander II: The Quickening, no one wanted to see another Highlander movie. The franchise got killed in the opening 10 minutes of Highlander II when someone decided that the immortals were really aliens from planet Zeist. But Davis-Panzer Productions wanted to continue the franchise somehow, probably because it was the only property they owned that had moneymaking potential. Christopher Lambert wanted to give the first movie a worthy sequel. And somehow the market was still there, as fans liked the first movie so much that they wanted more even after seeing what an abomination the sequel had become. But even with all those factors, another movie just wasn’t feasible – the stench of Highlander II was still too fresh. Without a studio behind it, Highlander had to make the jump from the big screen to the small one.

Compared to Highlander II, the series was a back to basics approach. The series was planned to pick up right where the movie left off, but with one main conceit: rather than Connor’s fight with the Kurgan ending the Gathering, it actually served as the beginning. So Connor wasn’t the last immortal, and more immortals would be introduced as friends and enemies as the Gathering continued. After the abomination of the sequel, going back to the formula of good immortal versus bad immortal was a welcome move. There was only one big problem: Christopher Lambert didn’t want to do it.

Well, that’s not exactly true. Lambert wanted to continue the series, and he thought a TV series was a good move. But he himself wasn’t interested in doing a television show. So when offered a chance to reprise his role as Connor MacLeod, he asked for an obscene amount of money and was turned down. Without Lambert on board, the studio had to make a potentially controversial decision: they had to recast cult hero Connor MacLeod.

Out of a field of about 400 hopefuls, the studio eventually chose Adrian Paul, an Englishman who had come to the United States to pursue a dancing and modeling career. The official word was that Paul had been chosen because he would appeal to both male and female fans. In other words, he was a trained swordsman who could pull off the stunts needed to get the action movie viewers, and he had a nice body that could get the ladies drooling over him. I’m pretty convinced that his acting talent didn’t factor much into it. Don’t get me wrong – Paul is not a bad actor. But he’s not particularly good, either, especially in the first season of the series (he did improve as the series went on, though).

While I might bust on Paul’s acting, I do have to give him props for being a major reason that the series became a success. For a newcomer, he exercised a lot of creative control and showed quite a bit of savvy in turning the series from something that probably would have died in one season into a very well-done TV show. The first example of this foresight can be found where he managed to convince the creative team not to have him step into Christopher Lambert’s shoes but rather to give him a different role. Thus we got Duncan MacLeod, a younger clansman of Connor and another immortal. That simple change was a huge help to the series, because then Paul could flesh out his own character rather than trying to copy Lambert’s mannerisms.

With Duncan taking over for Connor, the producers still felt that there needed to be a passing of the torch of some sort. Otherwise, Duncan would just be seen as a cheap knockoff of Connor. So they went back to Christopher Lambert and offered him that obscene amount of money to guest star in the show. Lambert still didn’t want to do TV on a regular basis, though, and said that his price had gone up, and that the obscene amount of money they were offering him would only be good for one episode.

So what happened? The producers caved, and Lambert made out like a bandit. I don’t know who his agent was, but the guy was a mastermind. He took a half-blind, non-English speaking actor and turned him into a major action hero, making a killing in a franchise that should have died with the first sequel.

The first episode of the series, “The Gathering,” was originally intended to be a TV movie that would segue into the series. However, because Lambert’s price meant that the studio could only afford him for three days, it became an hour-long pilot episode that nonetheless introduced Duncan, his girlfriend Tessa, and a punk named Richie Ryan who learns the truth about immortals. Lambert appeared as Connor, who was hunting the evil immortal Slan Quince (played by Richard Moll, aka Bull from Night Court, who does a great job of being cheesy and over the top without ripping off the Kurgan too much). After Slan was defeated, Connor left the show and was mentioned but never shown in the series again.

Thus Highlander: The Series was born. I’m not going to go over each episode, since that would take just shy of forever. However, I will do a quick recap of each of its six seasons over the next few posts. A nice bonus is that the episodes are also available for free on Hulu. So let’s start with season one.

Connor and Duncan spar in the opening episode.

Connor and Duncan spar in the opening episode.

The first season had a few hits and a lot of misses. On one hand, it took the concept of Highlander out of the dark future and reminded fans of why they liked the first movie so much. On the other hand, the first season lacked a sense of direction for most of it, and the creative team’s attempt not to have a formulaic series led to a lot of Duncan MacLeod as a sort of superhero, getting involved in drug deals, terrorists, serial killers, and in one episode an evil doctor secretly performing genetic experiments. For a guy who should be keeping a low profile, Duncan got embroiled in a lot of trouble that didn’t involve immortals at all.

Alexandra Vandernoot as Tessa Noel.

Alexandra Vandernoot as Tessa Noel.

On the bright side, surrounding Adrian Paul was a very good cast of regulars, including Alexandra Vandernoot as his lover Tessa Noel. Tessa provided the human element of the series, showing a mortal’s perspective on the whole immortality thing and also bringing back the feeling of both romance and tragedy that the original film had and the sequel lost. She loved Duncan very much, but also yearned for the ability to have children and to grow old with someone. While she did play hostage a few times in the series, she could also kick some ass herself, such as when she threatened evil immortal Felicia Martins with a blowtorch when the swordswoman thought she could get to Duncan through his loved ones.

Another highlight of the series was Stan Kirsch, who played Richie Ryan. He’s a total doofus, but he’s a believable sort of doofus. Richie is the kind of guy who thinks he’s the coolest thing ever but really just looks like a tool. Kirsch played him very well, delivering horribly corny lines with a style that made him believable and likable despite how stupid he looked.

The biggest downside to the supporting cast was the appearance of Amanda Wyss as intrepid reporter Randi McFarland. I have no complaints about Wyss as an actress, but my god was her character annoying. She was a bad Lois Lane knockoff who for some reason was always pestering Duncan. When the police wanted to talk to him about all the headless bodies that were turning up, that was believable. When Randi showed up, she was just annoying. Thankfully, her character disappeared partway through the first season, right about the time that the show moved to France and the cast was joined by Werner Stocker as Duncan’s mentor Darius. Sadly Stocker would die before the season was over, resulting in his character getting killed off-screen.

Werner Stocker as Darius.

Werner Stocker as Darius.

One fun thing to think about in the first season is how the show would have been different had Connor been the main character instead of Duncan. Would Tessa instead be Brenda Wyatt, the romantic interest from the first movie? About six episodes in or so, the scripts were written for Duncan instead of Duncan standing in for Connor, and it shows. The episode “Mountain Men,” for example, seems to be mostly an excuse to have Adrian Paul run around shirtless – something that probably would have been frightening to see if it had been Lambert as Connor instead. Another example is the episode “Free Fall,” where Duncan explains the origin of his katana as, “It was given to me by another immortal – a clansman,” obviously referring to Connor, which in the original draft of the script was probably originally Connor talking about Ramirez. In the third season, the origin of the sword would be revisited and it turned out that it was given to Duncan by a mortal samurai, not Connor at all.

Some notable episodes in the first season include:

  • The Gathering.” It’s the episode that kicks off the series, and it served as a great reminder of what Highlander was all about. I also give it high marks for Lambert’s appearance as Connor. I personally like Connor a lot better than Duncan, probably because I’ve seen less of him. Connor is enigmatic, the type of guy that seems like he’s been around for 500 years. Lambert played him with charisma and humor. I don’t mean to say that Lambert is a better actor than Paul, but Connor is definitely one role he owned. By comparison, Duncan is serviceable as a main character but very one-note, driven by honor and little else. Still, the interactions with Connor and Duncan are fun, as you see them together as friends for the only time in the entire series. Also, Tessa gets some great romantic scenes with Duncan where she shows her sadness that she is growing older while Duncan isn’t, which highlights the tragic quality of the franchise.
  • A very battered Duncan faces off against Grayson.

    A very battered Duncan faces off against Grayson.

  • Band of Brothers.” This episode introduces Darius, who would play an important role throughout the first season. Duncan’s foe in this episode is one of Darius’ former pupils, an ancient immortal known as Grayson. The episode makes mention of the idea that beheading an ancient immortal can change an immortal’s personality, which would be explored in later seasons, particularly when Duncan experiences a dark quickening. The final fight between Duncan and Grayson is one of the best swordfights of the season. The end of the fight had to be wrapped up in one take, and Adrian Paul lost his sword during the battle. The two actors kept going, and found that the sword had landed point-first in the dirt. So when Duncan finds his katana like that, it’s not movie magic – that actually happened naturally. This episode also moved Duncan, Tessa, and Richie to Paris, which cut off some of the dead weight characters and allowed the show to shift its tone a bit.
  • For Tomorrow we Die.” This episode introduces the evil immortal Xavier St. Cloud. It’s not a great episode per se, and there a minor continuity gaffe would come up later, as this episode implies that Xavier is a poor fighter who first met Duncan in World War I and future episodes would establish him as a skilled swordsman who met Duncan several times throughout the centuries. Xavier is the first immortal to really “cheat” at the Game, using poison gas to get an advantage over his foes. Roland Gift, who plays Xavier, did well enough with the role to become a recurring villain in the series, going from bad immortal of the week to awesome villain of the year by Season Two.
  • The Lady and the Tiger.” Again, not an episode that really stands out right away, but this one is important for introducing Amanda, a love interest for Duncan and romantic rival for Tessa. Amanda was popular enough to return many times throughout the series and eventually net her own spinoff show. Of note in this episode, she totally cheats with the “an immortal can’t interfere in another immortal’s fight” rule, beheading Duncan’s opponent and basically kill-stealing while the battle was still on.
  • The Hunters.” This episode closes out the first season and introduces James Horton and the Watchers. It also introduces Hugh Fitzcairn, played by Roger Daltrey (yes, the lead singer of the Who, who can actually act quite well). The big deal here is the death of Darius, which had to be done off-screen due to the real-life death of Werner Stocker. At the end of the episode, when Duncan spreads Darius’ ashes, those are Stocker’s real ashes. The scene itself had to be dubbed over later because Adrian Paul and the rest of the cast were barely coherent due to their crying.

The first season of Highlander isn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, but it showed a lot of promise. By season two, that promise became realized and the show found its stride. And I’ll get to the series’ peak of seasons two through four next time.

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One Response to “Highlander: The Series, season one”

  1. Really enjoyed this post. I read the other series-related posts AND the movie posts, and they were all great. Extremely informative, too. Had no idea that The Source and The Raven were so plagued by backstage problems. Explains a lot, doesn’t it?

    Personally, I don’t really understand the way people place the original movie on a pedestal. It’s good, but not great. Tried watching it recently for the first time in over a decade and found it barely watchable with the amount of camp. It’s better than the other movies, but I’d easily put the series over the original movie in terms of goodness.

    You mention that covering every episode of the show would take forever, and you’re probably right. That didn’t stop me, though. I’m going to do blog posts for the first three seasons, and might continue after that if I’m up for it. If you want to read what little I’ve done so far, here’s a link: http://www.coronajumper.com/search/label/Highlander

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