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"There can only be one!" Or not, as the case may be. In fact, there are quite a few Immortals still bopping about, in various incarnations.

The films

It all started with the film Highlander, in 1986. This told the story of Connor MacLeod (pronounced "McCloud"), aka "Connor MacLeod of the clan MacLeod", who was born in the highlands of Scotland in the eighteenth centry. He then found out that he was an immortal, someone who will live forever, unless he is decapitated. He hooks up with Ramirez (Sean Connery playing an Egyptian with a Scottish accent, following his performances as a Russian with a Scottish accent, a Welshman with a Scottish accent, a Frenchman with a Scottish accent...). Where was I? Oh yes, well, Ramirez teaches MacLeod the three rules:

  1. You live forever, unless someone chops off your head

  2. Holy ground is neutral territory

  3. There can only be one

Some basic terminology:
Quickening - This is when one Immortal kills another, and there is a transfer of energy to the winner (typically accompanied by bright lights and explosions)
Gathering - This is happening now, and it means that all of the Immortals get drawn together. They still have free will, but they will tend to bump into each other a lot more often than before. The upshot of this is that there will be a lot more fights.

The basic idea of the film is that there are various Immortals around, and they will all fight each other until only one is left, who gets the greatest prize of all. Some of these Immortals are good, while others (like Kurgan) are evil. The film winds up in present day New York, where MacLeod kills Kurgan, becomes The One, and receives the prize: he knows everything, and is now mortal, so he can age. This is better than it sounds, as he got married a while back, and wound up burying his wife when she died of old age.

So, cool film.

Then came Highlander II: The Quickening (1991). Why, oh why, did anyone think that this was a good idea? The premise here was that all the Immortals were actually alien criminals, who'd been fighting in a rebellion. When the ruling party caught them, they gave them a choice - be killed on the spot (they weren't immortal at this point), or be sent to Earth (with amnesia), where they could fight each other as Immortals. That is some kind of bizarre penal code! Hmm, what to do, what to do... I'll take the immortality please! Anyway, some of these aliens then come to Earth, and find Connor, who has built a big weather machine, and is now an old man. He kills one, and therefore (?!) becomes Immortal again, Ramirez (who died in the first film) comes back as a ghost, then dies again.

A few years later came Highlander III: The Sorceror (1994). This was okay; not as good as the first, but much better than the second. The idea here is that one of the Immortals was a sorceror in China who got himself stuck in a mystical prison a few centuries ago. Therefore, he wasn't available to take part in the Gathering (where all the remaining Immortals were drawn together to fight it out), and so Connor got the prize "by default". He then got released, and cue lots of sword fights. (I've sometimes seen this film referred to in TV guides as a prequel to the first one, but I think that my description here makes more sense.)

The live action series

Meanwhile, there was a TV series spin-off (1992-1998). This follows the adventures of Duncan MacLeod, Connor's cousin. Conner showed up in the pilot episode, but not afterwards, although he was referred to a few times. This series digresses from the film continuity at the end of the first film - Connor killed Kurgan, but they weren't the last two Immortals left, so the Gathering continues.

As I said, Duncan is Connor's cousin, but that's a slightly vague term. Basically, they were both members of the same clan. This series doesn't refer to the messy origin of Highlander II, but it doesn't contradict it either. Basically, they say that all the Immortals weren't actually born into their families. The real babies died, and the Immortals were substituted in their place. It doesn't say who by; I assume the idea could be that the criminals were de-aged somehow.

The basic formula for this series is:

In other words, the episodes were fairly standalone. However, as time progressed, more of an arc developed. One example of this is the Watchers (this predates Buffy). Basically, they're a secret society who know about Immortals, and are keeping tabs on them. However, they don't interfere. A bit later, we found out about the Hunters, a splinter group who have decided to kill all the Immortals.

One thing I particularly like about this series is that Duncan actually acts like someone who is hundreds of years old, even though he looks like he's 30. In some of the flashbacks, he is quite brash and impetuous (and initially illiterate), whereas in the present he's a lot more mature and well-educated.

Another nice aspect to the series is that it can take more time to develop some of the ideas from the films. For instance, holy ground is safe territory, so one of the Immortals decides to become a monk, and live inside a monastery for the rest of his life. Also, we learn that Immortals are (apparently) normal up to the point where they "die" for the first time. That's when the immortality kicks in, and they stop aging. This explains why you have characters like Ramirez who aren't frozen in the prime of life.

The series also introduces a fourth rule to the three that were mentioned in the original film: all fights are duels. In other words, you aren't allowed to gang up on someone; all you can do is take it in turns to fight that person.

One of the odder aspects to the series was that every Immortal always carried a sword around. This isn't odd in itself; quite practical in fact. However, you would see Duncan wandering along in jeans/T-shirt, and suddenly he'd produce a sword. Where did he keep it? Since he wasn't hobbling along, I assume it wasn't down his leg. It's a mystery!

Unlike Connor (and other Immortals we've seen), Duncan never seems to use any aliases in the flashbacks. I suspect this is mainly for meta-reasons (i.e. to make it easier for the audience), but the "in character" reason seems to be that he pretends to be his own son, grandson, etc.

One thing I'd be interested to know (which hasn't come up in the episodes I've seen) - what happens if a pre-immortal gets decapitated in his/her first death? Is there a Quickening?

Watching the episodes recently, I do sometimes wonder whether all the killing is necessary. Duncan only targets bad guys, e.g. criminals, but even so, presumably he could report them to the authorities instead of taking the law into his own hands. I suppose that there are two main problems with this. Firstly, a short prison sentence may be less of a deterrent to people who measure their lifespan in centuries. Secondly, a long prison sentence would risk exposing the existence of immortality to the general public.

Where to watch it

The main problem with this series is actually finding the episodes to watch. Sky have shown them all, but ITV only showed the first two seasons. These episodes were repeated a few times, but in no particular order, and with no regular slot. And I haven't seen them at all in the last few years. Some of the episodes have been released on VHS, but most of them have now been deleted.

However, there is some good news - the whole series (all six seasons) is being released on DVD, by an American company called Anchor Bay. These are only available for Region 1 at the moment; I don't know whether they'll be available for Region 2 at a later stage. However, my DVD player is chipped to handle all regions, so I've bought them from Play USA. These are reasonably priced (£52.99), but beware of import duties. I didn't have to pay any duties when season 1 arrived, but I was charged £13.27 for season 2. 25% tax is quite a markup! I've ordered season 3, but that hasn't arrived yet, so I'll see what I get charged for that.

Anyway, leaving aside the cost, these are very nice boxsets, in terms of packaging and content. Obviously you get the episodes themselves. A couple of them have had commentaries from Adrian Paul (the actor who played Duncan MacLeod); one interesting variation here is that they have an audio version (where you listen to his voice while watching the episode), and also a video version where you watch him watching the episode. A little odd, but it works. Aside from this, every episode has a short video clip at the end (about 2 or 3 minutes long), which is effectively a mini-commentary. Bill Panzer (the producer) tends to focus on anecdotes from behind the scenes, e.g. "when we filmed this episode in Paris, we didn't have the right permits, so the director was arrested". By contrast, David Abramowitz (one of the writers) generally says more about the themes of the episode, and what they were trying to achieve, so I find his comments more interesting.

There are also text pages linked to each episode, called "The Watcher Chronicles". These give brief biographies for the various characters involved. I'm not sure how much of this is based on other episodes, and how much is original, but even if an immortal only shows up for 2 minutes in the episode, the bio page will include the details of his/her first death. So, I think that's a nice touch. Just beware of spoilers for future seasons (particularly regarding Richie Ryan). There are some fun aspects to it as well. For instance, one episode has MacLeod in a speakeasy (an illegal pub), and we see him nip out the back way before the police arrive. In the watcher's report, there's a comment that "Yours truly was not so fortunate, so you'll find the receipts from my bail bondsman and solicitor in this month's expenses."

Only the first three seasons have been released so far, but according to The Rumor Mill (on 2003-09-16), the other three should be released next year (2004). Season 4 is due in March, season 5 in July, and season 6 in November.

The animated series

In 1994, there was an animated series. This was set in a post-apocalyptic future, and told the story of Quentin MacLeod. He wasn't a descendant of Connor (Immortals can't have children), but he was sort of a member of that clan.

The basic premise here is that in the near future, there is an asteroid impact that wipes out most of our technology, and sends us back into a dark age. The remaining Immortals (including Connor MacLeod and Ramirez) get together on holy ground for a meeting. They decide that since they have so much knowledge between them, they have a responsibility to use it to help mankind, rather than fighting among themselves. Therefore, they declare a truce. A nasty Immortal (Kortan) then turns up, and says "Thanks very much, I'm in charge now". Connor can't accept this, and attacks him. Since he's breaking the rules, none of the other Immortals will help him, and he gets killed. Clearly the series has diverged from the continuity of the films/live action series at this point! Anyway, Kortan sets himself up as a big evil overlord type, and the rest of the Immortals basically get on with their lives.

About seven hundred years later, a new Immortal turns up: our lad Quentin. He isn't bound by the truce, and therefore he can take on Kortan, and save the world. However, he's nowhere near ready for that at first, so he needs to deal with the rest of the Immortals first, in order to become The One. Ramirez takes him in tow, and this basically gives you the premise for the series. Each week, they will track down an Immortal, and Quentin gets his knowledge, leading up to the final confrontation with Kortan. However, this being a children's series, decapitations are a little bit on the violent side. So, they came up with an alternative. Basically, if an Immortal renounces all claim to be The One, then he/she can do a Quickening with Quentin. You still get all the flashing lights, wind, etc., and Quentin gets the knowledge. That Immortal survives, but is now mortal, and will age and die.

As with the live action series, an Immortal can tell when another one is nearby. In the live action version, this is accompanied by rapid eye movement (rather like Action Man's "Eagle Eyes") and a swishing noise. "My spider-sense is tingling!" In the animated series, they all have a green jewel on their belt buckles, which glows when another Immortal comes near. I assume there's some acclimatisation effect in place, since two of them travelling together don't have permanently glowing jewels.

This series used to be shown on Sunday mornings a couple of years ago, but I haven't seen it recently. I'm not sure whether they ever got to the end. Some of these episodes have been released on VHS and DVD.


In 2000, there was a fourth film: Highlander: Endgame, featuring Duncan and Connor. This follows on from the end of season 6 of the live action series, so there are some parts which don't make much sense unless you've seen the episodes. This is the equivalent of Star Trek: Generations - it's a film spun-off from the TV series, which happens to guest star a character from the original films, rather than being the fourth film in the original saga. This film featured some interesting concepts, and it resulted in only one Immortal left. Place your bets as to who it was - I'm not going to spoil the ending here.

Apparently there is now a spin-off from the live action series: Highlander: The Raven (1998), which features Amanda, one of the recurring characters. I haven't seen this in the UK yet.

Claudia Christian (Ivanova from Babylon 5) guest starred in an episode of the live action series called Two of Hearts. There were rumours about this being used as the basis for another spin-off, but nothing seemed to come of it.

There has been a novelisation of the original film, and a few original novels based on the live action series.

There are some rumours at the moment about a forthcoming fifth film (working title - Highlander: The Source), but I don't know any details of this.


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This page was last updated on 2003-12-29 by John C. Kirk

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