You may have seen a few articles about the original Highlander movie recently, as it’s just celebrated its 30th anniversary. Lots of things have turned 30 this year. Just a few examples: The Legend Of Zelda, Pixar, the M25. Fine institutions, but did any of them spawn a mostly superior TV series in 1992? I think not. Don’t let the fact that it was made in the 90s put you off. People still watch Buffy.
The series follows the adventures of Duncan MacLeod (cousin of the movie’s Connor). Explaining the premise of Highlander in complex detail would make me go far over my word count, so I’ll be brief. Basically, immortal sword fighters fight to decapitate each other in order to be the last one standing and so gain a mysterious ‘Prize’, which is power beyond imagination. There, I think that covers it. If this confuses you, then for God’s sake don’t watch Highlander II.
The film franchise is known for being an uneven product, where sense and meaning tend to get left at the door. Not so with the television series, thanks to a team of creatives who genuinely cared about what they were putting out. It’s a series with an ever-changing cast of characters where nobody is safe.
One of the highlights of the original film was the montage where Connor’s wife Heather grows old and dies in his arms while he stays the same age. This montage inspired Brian May to write the beloved Queen song Who Wants To Live Forever. In Highlander: The Series, they were examining the ups and downs of an immortal’s life nearly every week (sometimes they even used the same song). We got to meet a fantastic cast of supporting characters and we felt genuine pain when any of them died. You’ll never hear Kansas’ Dust In The Wind in the same way again.
The series considers every facet of immortal existence, every way it could go wrong and right for those afflicted with it. Season 6’s Unusual Suspects is a hilarious murder mystery farce, starring The Who’s Roger Daltrey as recurring character Hugh Fitzcairn in an episode set entirely in the 20s. Fitzcairn’s immortality allows him to survive his own poisoning, so he has to hide in the grounds of his house while MacLeod plays detective. I mean, it’s the fantasy Cluedo version of a murder mystery but it hits exactly the right tone. Even if immortality is only used as little more than a joke, this episode still has something to say about love and betrayal.
Episodes like this showcase what screenwriter Blake Snyder called “the promise of the premise”; i.e., the reason that people tune in. All sorts turn up in this show and it’s fascinating to see how the various guest characters use their immortality, from a Nazi dredged out of the Seine to a con-man who uses his immortality to effect harmless little blackmail schemes.
The ‘immortal of the week’ nature of the show allowed for a huge rotation of people who were famous or who would become famous later. To name but a few, you had Anthony Head, Ron Perlman, Joan Jett, Rowdy Roddy Piper. Christ, even a young Danny Dyer was in two episodes.
For my money, one of the most interesting characters in the whole series was Darius, the immortal Catholic priest played by the late Werner Stocker. Darius was a 1900-year old former general who turned away from war. In his heyday he would have been the kind of villain that Duncan needed to stop. The thing is, he doesn’t seem to actually regret it. “To deny what I was is to deny what I am”, he says to Duncan at one point. He simply accepts his past as part of who he is and gets on with helping people, standing as a living example of how it is possible to come back from complete darkness. Such is his impact that a legion of Highlander fans still remember fondly a relatively minor character, not least because of how compelling Werner Stocker was in the role.
This was a show that knew the strengths of its cast and used them well. According to Creative Consultant David Abramowitz, the episode Duende happened because “Anthony [De Longis, swordmaster] came in with that style of fighting and said ‘can we do something with this’?” That’s an hour of proper television with a well-developed story, all because a swordmaster wanted to show off something cool. And one of the most poignant moments of the series happens when series regular Joe Dawson is tempted with the restoration of his missing legs – a moment that’s so much harder to watch when you know that actor Jim Byrnes is also unable to walk due to a car accident.
Part of the joy of watching this show is watching the characters develop as the seasons go on. Duncan goes from a stoic, all-wise immortal to someone who’s questioning what his role is. His sidekick Richie Ryan changes from a young thief with a good heart to a more cynical, toughened immortal. Both Amanda and Methos grow into more noble people and show the positive change that one person can have on his friends.
It’s also worth taking a look at a couple of the villains, because another of those themes that the series was good at exploring is what exactly makes a person evil. This is a show where even the good guys are actively decapitating folks just to survive. What makes villains like Kalas or Grayson, who cut off heads as part of the immortals’ game, different from the good guys like Duncan and Methos, who do exactly the same thing?
Certainly early on there are times where Duncan is presented as right about the issue of the week solely because the story says he is. But this is something they fixed as time went on. Some of the better episodes, like season 5’s The Valkyrie and Forgive Us Our Trespasses, examine how Duncan is guilty of the same fault: he’s killed plenty of times for reasons he sees as just. Nobody is the villain of their own story.
One of the recurring storylines is that of a fallen friend. For whatever reason, the life of an immortal gets too much for many of Duncan’s comrades and he has to decide what to do about it. In a story I still idly think about from time to time, Bryan Cullen, once famed as the best swordsman in Europe, has degraded into a petrified junkie. It’s a laughably 90s PSA against drugs, but it’s also a compelling story, and the way he lives his life is one of the best arguments against being immortal.
Say you were to take my advice and start watching this. With most other shows, the obvious thing to do is start at the pilot and just keep going from there. The best thing to do is to watch the pilot to really get to grips with what the show is about. Then skip ahead to episode 13, Band Of Brothers. The first season is not really continuity heavy and the first half features some rough episodes (it was, as I cannot stress enough, a product of the early 90s), so it’s best to come back and watch them when you’re already invested. Band Of Brothers is universally recognised as a turning point for the show and still stands as one of its better episodes.
Let’s not forget the reason most people start watching in the first place: the fantastic swordfights. Over a period of six years, the swordmasters became very good at putting great fights together. As you can see from watching behind-the-scenes features, they put real effort into considering the different weapons the immortals would use, and how they would interact. At one point, main swordmaster for much of the show’s run (F. Braun McAsh) brings up the very good point that for some of these styles, there is no stage in history where they would have interacted with each other, and so he had to essentially marry two disparate styles. It worked, as the swordfights are one of the better elements of the TV show. Nearly every week, you were guaranteed a great final battle.
While the first season’s title cards did everything they could to make Duncan MacLeod look like a smug idiot, I can assure you that he’s not. Far from it, he shows himself over six seasons to be a man of honour and something to aspire to. That’s what much of Highlander: The Series is about: how you choose to live your life, what moral code you subscribe to. Abramowitz, often described as the moral core of the show’s staff, has said on more than one occasion that a good way to think of the show is as “a Talmudic discussion with ass-kicking”. Some people might not like the spiritualism that implies, but that’s okay. The show doesn’t dwell on it all that much, and if nothing else, you can always just watch for the ass-kicking.
In many ways, Highlander is so 90s it hurts. But when it comes to its memorable characters and the way it deals with the meat and potatoes of immortality, it’s a more timeless show. Any show that can so skillfully mash philosophical debates with unparalleled swordplay is surely worth watching.