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