Highlander the Series: Season 1, Episode 1: The Gathering

Highlander: the Series first aired on October 3, 1992. It was a Canadian-French fantasy series adapted from the cult classic movie franchise of the same name. You can currently find it (2/8/2020) free as part of having Amazon Prime. This was one of my favorite shows in the 90s. If I’m being completely honest, the entire premise of having a blog was an elaborate excuse to rewatch this show and write about it. My expectations could not possibly be higher and I will be gravely disappointed in my memories if this does not completely hold up to scrutiny 20 years later.

Speaking of premises, the premise of the movies, and the show, is that there is a race of immortal beings living in and among humans. Other than their long life, they are indistinguishable from humans. And for the most part, Immortals tend to think of themselves as humans. Their origins are never really made completely clear within the show. There have been Immortals walking the earth for thousands of years. Each immortal starts life as a foundling baby. One of the movies attempted to delve into the origins of Immortals in greater depth but there are some questions as to whether that movie should count as part of the canon. For the purpose of reviewing the show, we will mostly stick to what the show tells us.

The Immortals do not just have long life. They are all participants in a “game” in which they must behead each other – usually with a sword – to take the life and life force (referred to in the show as “the quickening”) of other Immortals. This continues until there is only one Immortal left standing. Any Immortal who wishes to avoid The Game may try to hide on Holy Ground – loosely defined as pretty much any place where people come to worship or do spiritual things – where the rules of The Game expressly forbid combat. But as the show will demonstrate, this is not a perfect strategy. So for the most part, whether they like it or not, Immortals spend their long lives training to be skilled with a sword. Combat to the death is inevitable.

You’re probably familiar with the tagline: There can be only one.

As goofy as the premise sounds, it provides an interesting vehicle for exploring history, philosophy, religion, and psychology.

So without further adieu, The Plot. This will be a lengthier recap than usual because there is more to explain. Pilots tend to be very info-dump heavy.

Wait, one more thing. The theme song for the show is ‘Princes of the Universe’ by Queen. It is epic, loud, and amazing. I am officially pumped up.

The show begins with a sketchy looking Stan Kirsch, wearing a leather jacket and a dew rag bandanna, breaking into what looks like an antique store. (‘Friends’ fans might remember Stan Kirsch as Monica’s high school aged boyfriend Ethan.) While he is breaking in, the camera cuts back and forth between what he’s doing and a blurry, err, romp, between Adrian Paul’s Duncan and Alexandra Vandernoot’s Tessa. Considering the time period, this was a fairly racy sex scene for cable television. Viewer discretion advised. Abruptly, MacLeod senses someone is nearby because Immortals can sense each other, so he grabs his sword and goes to investigate. He confronts Kirsch’s character and threatens to cut off his head. As one does. As Kirsch’s character is understandably baffled by the exchange, another man jumps through the building’s sky roof declaring that he is here for MacLeod’s head. The new character is Slan Quince, portrayed by Richard Moll (who you might remember as Bull from ‘Night Court.’) He promptly implies that he will soon rape Tessa as a way of announcing “I’m the bad guy.” Then yet another character joins the fray. Out of the shadows steps Christopher Lambert’s Connor MacLeod who tells Duncan, referring to Slan, that “this one is mine.” I guess Connor was just hiding there waiting to make an entrance.

As television pilots often go, what we’re getting in this opening scene is an introduction to the cast and an info dump. After Connor’s introduction, Slan reminds the MacLeod pair that the rules forbid a 2 against 1 fight. Connor and Slan begin a sword duel, Kirsch’s character sneaks off, you soon hear police sirens approaching and the fight abruptly ends. Even the bad guy Immortals do not want the public to know that Immortals exist.

In the next scene, Duncan goes to the police station (driving a ’64 ragtop convertible T-bird) and we find out that he has been called in to identify the Stan Kirsch character who broke into his store. We learn that his name is Richie Ryan. A police detective pleads with Duncan to press charges for Richie’s sake. Since Richie will be 18 next month, his next offense will send him to prison where, according to the detective, “the cons will pass him around for dessert.” Eww.

Duncan talks to Richie privately and tells him that the “deal” is he will not press charges if Richie stays quiet about what he saw. Richie agrees. But MacLeod stares at him for long enough to imply that failure to adhere to the deal will not end well for Richie. From Richie’s point of view, the show’s hero is coming off as a total psychopath.

In the next scene, we cut to Tessa taking a shower through a foggy glass window. I honestly forgot how racy this show could be. Maybe this was a product its Canadian and French origin. Apparently it’s Tessa’s birthday. After she exits the shower in a robe, Duncan gives her jewelry he “picked up during the French Revolution.” The two characters have a quasi State of the Relationship talk. This is an important character scene for Duncan and for Tessa. We see the downside to Immortality. Life in the moment will occasionally be great, but living beyond the lifespan of everyone around you eventually means you lose everyone around you. Over and over again. That must be isolating for Duncan and it is also isolating for a mortal love interest. He is not someone that a human being can grow old with. Duncan is portrayed here as wanting to ignore that but Tessa is clearly thinking about it. It makes sense that having a couple of guys show up at your apartment during the night, with swords, one of them threatening to rape you, would leave a person feeling introspective.

Later on, Connor drops by the loft, giving the two Immortals an opportunity to explain to Tessa and the audience how they know each other, as well as the rules of The Game. So.. more info dump. Connor was Duncan’s Scottish Highlands Clansman. He was his teacher. The conversation also filled in an important part of Duncan’s past to the audience. He once lived peacefully with a Lakota tribe before the entire tribe was slaughtered. This event clearly scarred MacLeod and it will be revisited more than once later in the series. But for the purposes of this review, it’s the first major flashback scene of the show, complete with “Who Wants to Live Forever” playing over the scene. It is genuinely moving.

We cut next to Duncan, at some indeterminate point in the future, walking into Tessa’s workshop. She’s apparently an artist/welder. But Duncan can feel an Immortal presence and we find out that Tessa is gagged and Slan is wearing her welder’s mask. Surprise! After a brief fight, Slan takes off. He apparently wants to play with his opponent before taking his head.

Later, Connor instigates a fight with Duncan as a pretext to punch and knock him out. Immortal? Yes. Glass jaw? Apparently, also yes. Even though he cannot die without having his head literally cut off from his body, the normal rules of physical contact still apply. A punch to the face can knock an Immortal out. Connor does this to take Duncan’s place in the challenge to Slan. When Duncan wakes up, he follows Connor to Slan but not before telling Tessa he will not return even if he wins.

Richie, meanwhile, understandably intrigued, had been spying on the MacLeods, learns where the fight is slated to occur, and shows up to watch. Connor has Slan beaten when Slan breaks out his secret weapon… gun in his sword hilt? He shoots Connor, but before Slan can kill him, Connor falls off a bridge and out of reach. By this time, Ducan jumps in to take Connor’s place in the fight. With no trick up his sleeve to help him, Slan loses the duel and Duncan gets his first on-screen Quickening (imagine a lightning storm attacking one person) while Richie is watching from a distance in a combination of awe and terror.

Cryptically, after the fight, Connor washes up on the shore and tells Duncan that the boy (Richie) will need watching and Duncan says that he will.

Connor goes to tell Tessa goodbye and that Duncan won the fight. She asks where he went and Connor takes her to him (somewhere out in nature.) At this point, it appears that Connor and Tessa change Duncan’s mind about continuing the relationship with Tessa. And that’s the pilot.

Thoughts:

1. This episode had a lot to accomplish from a world building standpoint. It did relatively well.

2. The cast has good chemistry right out of the gate.

3. The series, unlike the movies, had a Scottish Highlander who *sounds* like he might have once been a Scottish Highlander. I enjoyed Christopher Lambert as Connor MacLeod, but it always struck me as strange that he had a French accent.

4. My only gripe with the pilot, really, is that I thought a couple of scenes were a little over-acted.

5. In sum, the pilot weirdly holds up if you can get past the premise. I’m excited to see how the show holds up from here.

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