Thursday, November 16, 2017

A Kind of Magic: #4: Highlander the Series - "The Gathering"

1992's Highlander: The Series came along at just the right time. After Highlander 2, the franchise (which was only two movies) was in the toilet and even the most passionate fans complained that the sequel had ruined something that was once fresh and cool. Along comes the TV show, which offers what is essentially a soft reboot. The syndicated series ignores the second movie altogether, instead choosing to go back to the things that made the FIRST movie feel so special, albeit with a few tweaks. Gone is any reference to another planet or any hint at alien technology. Gone is the futuristic slant and the high-concept premise. Instead, we return to the time of "The Gathering" when only a few immortals remain and must battle until to the death. The premise is its mantra: in the end, there can be only one. The series plays things close to "real;" the only fantastical elements within the series are the Quickenings that occur when an immortal is slain and a sort of "Spidey Sense" that immortals now have to let them know when another of their kind is around, presumably to prevent ambush. The gritty tone from the first film serves as the template for the series, much to its benefit. The music of Queen and the rock and roll swagger is back. If you can't tell, this was MY Highlander.


But first, we must address an unfortunate truth. Highlander: The Series, especially at the beginning, looks really bad. No decade of TV has aged as poorly as the nineties. I'm serious, from the fifties forward, there are dozens--if not hundreds--of classic TV shows that still hold up today. I'm talking Dragnet, Rawhide, Gunsmoke, I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Star Trek, The Andy Griffith Show, Lost in Space, Gilligan's Island, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Happy Days, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Battlestar Galatica (the first one), Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Three's Company, Sanford and Son, The A-Team, Knight Rider, and Miami Vice. Some of these shows were shot on film, some on video, and some look better than others, but they all retain a certain charm and potency. But when you get to the nineties, quality takes a dive, not a dip. Cheap production, editing on video, lots of cast members who aren't professional actors, and boring locations were all the norm for a whole lot of productions made during this time in television history, and syndicated shows were hit hardest. As such, Highlander: The Series has aged pretty poorly. It can feel like you're watching it through gauze, or dirty glasses. It's doubly worse if you try to watch this show on a streaming service like Hulu where the video quality appears to be from VHS. I'm not kidding! Look, I love VHS, and I'll go to bat for it time and time again, but I have the DVDs of this show that Anchor Bay put out in the early 2000s and they look like 4K Ultra HD compared to what's on streaming. The screencaps, by the way, are from the DVDs. That's right: streaming looks worse than this.
My point is that Highlander: The Series has always looked pretty bad, but the Pilot of the series, "The Gathering" may just look worse than any other episode. Because of the nature of the series and the different streams of income that financed the show, half of each season took place in the fictional town of "Seacouver" and filmed in Vancouver, while the other half filmed in France. Let's compare! Vancouver has gray skies, lots of rain, many foggy alleyways, lots of shipping harbors, and actors that say "aboot" and apologize by saying they're "surry." France has architecture that is hundreds of years old, vast forests, ancient streets, book stores that have existed longer than any single human being, catacombs that literally run for miles beneath Paris, THE EIFFEL TOWER, and brie cheese. One of these things is not like the other, and episodes that film in Vancouver have a decidedly cheap feel that plagued so many shows from the early-to-mid '90s.

I'm being too glib, so let me take this opportunity to course-correct. I think this pilot episode works really well, even though it has shortcomings. For a first episode, it does a whole bunch to establish what's happening, who is doing it, and why we should care. BTW, from here on out, we're entering spoiler territory.

So what does "The Gathering" do so well? It establishes Duncan MacLeod of the clan MacLeod (Adrian Paul), younger kinsman to Connor MacLeod by about 74 years. I always thought Duncan was way cooler than Connor. He was muscular and had a ponytail! Duncan was straight out of every direct-to-video action movie of the early '90s and I was around 13, so I clearly gravitated toward the guy. I even liked Duncan's sword better than Connor's. That being said, I think part of the thinking behind Connor in the first Highlander movie is that he could be anyone. I said this when I wrote up that movie, but Connor could be right next to you on the subway and you'd never suspect that he was an immortal. Duncan, on the other hand, was played by a male model, so he's not exactly inconspicuous. Anyway, this episode does co-star Christopher Lambert as Connor, appearing so that we can be sure all this is legit and takes place in the universe established in 1986. We learn that now is the time of The Gathering, that Connor was not the last immortal, and that no one has yet to win the prize.
Here's where things get advanced and even cooler. "The Gathering" establishes the concept of sitting out of "The Game," which is exactly what Duncan has been doing for years. He's taken to domestic life with his girlfriend Tessa (Alexandra Vandernoot) and has never told her anything about his immortality nor of the fact that others will someday come hunting him. He's essentially been hiding out, refusing to participate. This is just the first of several times we'd see an immortal refusing to play The Game to which they're bound. Connor is in this episode because he's been tracking a bad immortal named Slan Quince, played with zero subtlety by Richard Moll from Night Court, and Slan is looking for Duncan. This episode also establishes some new rules that immortals must adhere to in addition to the one about holy ground from the movies. Particularly, two immortals can't team up to fight a guy at the same time. It's one on one. This rule will be played with, explored, and bent over the six seasons.
The pilot also introduces a character who would go on to be very important to the show. Richie Ryan, played by Stan Kirsch, is a young guy (I think he was conceived as a teenager, but he's clearly too old for that) who is trying to break into Duncan MacLeod's antique store when Slan Quince first makes his move. Richie becomes an observer through the whole episode, always in the position to see what's going down, including the beheading at the end. Both Tessa and Richie are really important to this show because they give our main character something that we haven't seen in the movies: a support system for an immortal. I'm sure that Tessa and Richie are also around because you need a variety of characters in any TV show, but they add a lot to the overall flavor and feel. Furthermore, they give Duncan a reason to stay in this location instead of being a nomad. Duncan has put down roots, but even he knows he will one day have to move on. Still, those roots are important to define Duncan as a character and also to make him sympathetic and not a monster when he starts chopping people's heads off. The show makes it very clear that Duncan is sick of the violence and he's sick of the killing. But when the killing literally shows up on his door step, he has to pick up his sword and get to work. See? We already have ideas, concepts, and characterization that didn't exist in the two movies that led us here.

We also have the return of the flashback, one of the raddest aspects of the original film, which allowed us to actually see some of Connor's experiences and how they shaped him over his long life. Flashbacks would go on to become one of the great hallmarks of Highlander: The Series, progressively getting better and better until the show was able to do entire episodes in flashback. Flashbacks are important to a show this steeped in history because they allow the audience to experience key moments in the back-story of the characters first hand. It's the next best thing to having narration or inner monologue. We, the audience, are in on everything.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad TV tropes and '90s cliches that inevitably drag this episode down. Richard Moll's performance as Slan is...I don't even know. It's insane. It's like he's channeling Clancy Brown from the first movie, but someone told him that Clancy Brown was playing it too small. He does everything but drool and snort. It's like watching a living, walking cartoon character. I suspect that the producers wanted a memorable villain for their first episode, but they weren't really sure where to go with it after Clancy Brown and Michael Ironside turned in such large performances. Future Highlander foes would be less and less ostentatious, and pretty soon we'd see the villains approached with an actual thespian level of acting nuance. Not here, though. No, here it's like "HIIIIIGHLANDERRRRR!" *Burp, fart, blow Steve Urkel laugh*
There's also some really bad dialogue coming from just about everybody. Connor and Duncan are written to have this weird, adversarial relationship that seems way out of left field. They're competitive, which I can kind of understand, but they're also openly hostile and keep taking these potshots at each other. Richie Ryan has some of the worst lines. He's supposed to be a streetwise kid with a smart mouth. MAYBE this portrayal was realistic in 1992, but I watched this show as it aired from season one onward and I remember thinking even then that it didn't work. It's not Stan Kirsch's fault. He's excellent in other parts of the show, and would go on to be the second most important character of the entire series. No, I think this is a case of the writers not being sure of the tone they were going for. It's worth mentioning, too, that shows like Renegade and Baywatch were also running in syndication, and a formula had been set for syndicated success. The first half of season one of Highlander: The Series really seems to be exploring what kind of a show this is. Is Duncan a man of action who can take down terrorists in a government building (see the episode "Bad Day in Building A"), is he a survivalist (as seen in "Mountain Men"), or is he an urban angel watching over the streets of Seacouver (see...most of the first half of season one)?

So Connor comes back, Slan gets killed, Duncan gets the Quickening, and Richie sees it all. Connor looks at Duncan and says something like "the boy is going to need to be watched" and Duncan goes "yup." There's a knowing moment where they practically wink at each other, but we the audience aren't quite sure at this point if they're referring to Richie being an orphan or something else. Turns out the producers weren't quite sure, either. Ultimately (remember, spoilers), they were paving the way for Richie to eventually be revealed as an immortal, but they hadn't fully decided that they were going to go through with it. Watching the first season, you can see them playing with the idea, and it actually does provide a little insight to know that the people who were making the show were putting some ideas in there so that they could go in that direction if they chose to do so. I think knowing where the story end up adds a little bit of fun to the first season, which is without a doubt the worst season of the whole show. Well...season six is pretty bad, too, but I still think it's better than season one.
As the episode ends, a lot has happened. Connor has essentially passed the torch to Duncan, who is now back in the game because he has people in his life that he cares about and is willing to defend. The show has established that Duncan has a lofty sense of morality and some pretty high and mighty principles to the point that he's borderline preachy. Tessa is a strong female lead, cast for some flesh appeal for sure, but also able to hold her own. She's now learned Duncan's secret and has her own struggles ahead of her, but she's also in charge of her own destiny and isn't going to let anyone, even the person that she loves, make her decisions for her. Richie, a street orphan, now has a makeshift family, but he's also closer to danger than he's ever been in his life because the immortals will never stop coming for Duncan. It's a great premise for this show, and a great jumping off point. This show offered a new beginning for Highlander, driven by character and ideas and mythology instead of the futuristic visuals and nonsensical storytelling of Highlander 2: The Quickening. 

I'm not going to tackle every episode of the series. I am slowly working my through the series via another rewatch, but there's just not much to say about some of the episodes, especially not from the first season. However, Highlander: The Series has a lot of standouts (even in the flawed first season), and those are the ones I'd like to highlight. This is doubly true once a guy by the name of David Abramowitz became creative consultant, essentially acting as the shepherd of the show. Lots of people are responsible for getting this TV production off the ground, but David Abramowitz is the guy who eventually made it something wonderful. I'm stoked to be jumping into this epoch of Highlander history, because this was such an exciting time for the franchise.

See you soon. Don't lose your head.

More Highlander:
A Kind of Magic #1: Examining the Immortal Appeal of Highlander
A Kind of Magic #2: Highlander (1986)
A Kind of Magic #3: Highlander II: The Quickening (1991)

No comments:

Post a Comment