There Can Be Only One (Again)

lent me the complete Highlander TV series a little while ago, and I’ve been chipping away at it for a while now. I’ve been trying to justify this to myself on some kind of high-handed intellectual grounds – it’s art, it’s good, it’s meaningful, etc etc. It’s not that easy, not as easy as it is perhaps with shows like Buffy: The Wampire Slayer or Babylon 5, where care has been taken on a holistic or conceptual level to create an artistic piece as well as an entertainment. No, as far as my discerning eyes and brain can fathom, Highlander: The Series functions on more-or-less the same basic yet ruthlessly efficient premise-enactment of most modern television.

What is that premise? Well, see, there are these guys who live until someone cuts their head off in ritual combat; eventually there can apparently be only one of them left, which does rather imply conflict is a necessity. The first season works out fairly much exactly like this – each week an immortal shows up, runs afoul of our hero one way or another, and gets invariably his head chopped off.

Accompanying the formulaic plot is a rigidly adhered to flashback structure, trying to place the immortal in a longer-term context, trying to make the world feel less coincidental – effectively trying to stretch the timeline of the episode over centuries.

This combines to set up a situation where you have a highly constrained story structure, but where the content of that story is completely free: it is virtually a procedural drama with a central Iconic Hero (to borrow Robin Laws’ terminology). This is inherently uninteresting, in much the same way as any other procedural drama, and just like those others, the creators try to create interest in the incidentals. Do we like the characters? Do we find their relationships interesting? Are we intrigued by the variations proposed?

In a crime procedural, the main tools of variation are the details of the murder. As crime dramas wend their way through season after season, the arrangement of the motive, means and opportunity become ever more labyrinthine. Highlander has a far larger set of incidental variables to play with, including all of human history and every configuration of lifestyle. Over the course of the show you can see the creative team patiently sifting through the variations and looking for different points of interest.

There are a few places where the show verges on the interesting. For my money, perhaps showing my bias, the most interest incidental material are two of the three substantial love stories running through the show. The first love interest is our hero’s long-term partner, informed about “The Game” – she was used exactly how you’d expect, to create drama through endangerment.

However, his second entanglement is with another mortal, and here we see a wider range of behaviours. They are convincingly attracted to each other, but the relationship is uneasy because of his secret life and because I think both of them appear to being a dominant half of a partnership. Their courtship is therefore more interesting than the usual TV romance, and I was particularly pleased when despite the obvious appeal of them as a couple, the creative decision was for it not to proceed. Most of the time when TV writers pull this gambit, it’s a last-minute almost deus ex machina which destroys the fledgling romance, but I was persuaded that within the limits of TV, this was just an incompatible match.

The third romance is between two immortals, and the multi-centenary nature of the romance offered some interesting possibilities in terms of how a relationship could work. In the end, this has been somewhat under-done, but was nevertheless, slightly interesting.

The second thing which I found a little interesting was the gradual formation of an almost coherent mythology and sense of historical scale – the flashbacks eventually begin to coalesce into a broad-ranging but connected long-term history of the character. The pay-off for the duration of the show is that by the later seasons, the structurally-demanded flashback sequences explaining the context for the action actually come from previous episodes of the show itself. The so-called “Butterfly Effect” implied by the early flashback sequences begins to manifest itself within the show you’ve actually been watching.

Once that sense of a legacy and history becomes established, the basically episodic nature of the show becomes submerged, because you can almost begin to believe that over a long enough view, there is a coherent narrative of a life being portrayed.

Unfortunately, to reach these points of interest takes the show far too long, and the individual episodes are not really as dramatic or intense as I’d like. I’ve found myself watching them at 2* speed or faster looking to cherry-pick scenes of interest and hunting for the ongoing story threads. Enjoying the potential, essentially, more than the actual show.

Given that potential, I’d love to see this show remade under the guidance of a JMS or Joss Whedon – I think that show could be really excellent.

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