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Site created 12/15/97.


review added: 11/21/02



Highlander: Season One
1992 (2002) - Gaumont/The Highlander Company (Anchor Bay)

review by Jeff Kleist of The Digital Bits

Highlander: Season One

Program Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A/C

Specs and Features

Approx. 1,078 mins (22 episodes at 48 mins each), NR, full frame (1.33:1), 8 single-sided, dual-layered discs (no layer switch), plus 1 CD-ROM, Digipack foldout packaging with slipcover, gag reel, Behind the Scenes featurette (22 mins), animated program-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (6 chapters per episode), languages: English (DD 5.1 and 2.0), subtitles: none, Closed Captioned

"In the end... there can be only one."

How the Highlander franchise has endured for over 15 years is truly a mystery to me. Every single film in the series bombs, but then redeems itself on video, no matter how bad the story may be or how much the studio mangles it. So it was perhaps inevitable that in 1992, an syndicated Highlander series appeared on TV screens across the U.S. and around the world. Now let's recap... a TV series based on a movie (strike one), syndicated at that (strike two), and made with virtually no money? That would be strike three... but strangely, not out.

In an revision of the movie series plot (think of it as a separate world from the original films), Highlander tells the continuing story of Duncan MacLeod (played by Adrian Paul), born 400 years ago in the Highlands of Scotland and engaged in an epic battle against other Immortals like himself to be the last one standing. Like most shows, Highlander was pretty rough out of the gate, and there's a lot of hit and miss here in this initial season, especially in the first 10 or so episodes, before the local shifted to Paris. For every gem like Lady and the Tiger, there's a painful bomb like Deadly Medicine... and we're talking about almost physical pain here. But once the show hits its stride, you could really start to see the threads of the larger macrostory starting to form. The flashbacks got better, the sword battles became more flashy and dangerous and the writing steadily improved. Make no mistake - Highlander isn't just about the "Immortal of the Week," so you should pay attention while watching. The little things are what really pay off later.

It's worth noting that, thanks to the independent control over the series, it was one of the VERY FEW TV series to have been released in complete season VHS box sets. But VHS could never measure up to the quality of DVD. As fans may know, this first season has already been available on DVD for more than a year, but only as an (expensive) exclusive to the show's official online website. Thankfully, thanks to the folks at Anchor Bay, that same box set has finally been given wider retail distribution. Here's a disc by disc rundown of the set's contents:

Disc One - The Gathering, Family Tree, The Road Not Taken

Disc Two - Innocent Man, Free Fall, Bad Day in Building "A"

Disc Three - Mountain Men, Deadly Medicine, The Sea Witch

Disc Four - Revenge is Sweet, See No Evil, Eyewitness

Disc Five - Band of Brothers, For Evil's Sake, For Tomorrow We Die

Disc Six - The Beast Below, Saving Grace, The Lady and the Tiger

Disc Seven - Eye of the Beholder, Avenging Angel, Nowhere to Run

Disc Eight - The Hunters, Behind the Scenes featurette, gag reel

Disc Nine - CD-ROM containing full scripts for all first season episodes

If anything, this set proves how careful the Highlander Company is with their assets. Shot on 16mm film and finished on videotape, you wouldn't expect the video quality to be that great for this series. But Highlander does a great job of delivering. An improvement over even the original broadcasts, the video here exhibits a very film-like image most of the time, only breaking down a little during scene transitions, which appear to have been done at 30fps instead of the native 24 (making them look a little out of place). But edge enhancement is virtually non-existent and while there's an occasional bout of digital noise reduction smear, you really have to be looking for it.

The new Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix seems to have been done from the original tapes, and it's wonderfully crystal clear. While surround use is mostly limited to explosions during the Quickening and in lending ambience to the score, the front 3 channels give some nice spread to the sound image. But let's face it: this was a low budget syndicated show, so don't expect Attack of the Clones here. The original stereo mix is also provided, but I don't think many people will end up listening to it. True surround is one the improvements made for DVD, so what not take advantage of it.

Unfortunately, while the presentation quality is good, the supplements are much more of a mixed bag. Every episode has a 2-3 minute introduction, accessible through a symbolic menu system that's cryptic enough that'll take 2 or 3 episodes for the average user to remember. These introductions really vary in quality. Occasionally there's a decent story, but about half are just "guess what the Quickening destroyed this episode". I think we would have been a lot better served by 2-3 commentary tracks and/or just a new 15-20 minute retrospective featurette, that wouldn't have seemed so disjointed. Also included with every episode is a profile of the characters and Immortals, and a look at the various swords used. It's interesting stuff I suppose, but frankly you learn just as much by watching the actual episode. On Disc Seven, we get a Behind the Scenes promo, done at the time of the series' introduction, and one of the best gag reels out there. Adrian Paul is a total ham and given his decent singing and excellent dancing skills, you have to wonder what a Highlander: The Musical might be like with him in the lead. I should warn you in advance that the gag reel seems to be assembled from Season One AND Two material, and it DOES contain spoilers for Season TWO. The Behind the Scenes piece is, as expected, extremely fluffy. But it does have some good sword rehearsal footage that's worth checking out. Finally, you get a standard CD-ROM disc containing every first season episode script in Flash format. This is a cool feature, but the scripts are very difficult and annoying to read on your computer screen. Luckily, you can print the scripts out if you'd like. And as a non-disc extra, there's a booklet that contains a decent overview of how the show came about.

If I had to name one complaint about this set, it would be aesthetic. The packaging is, in a word, awful. The exclusive online version came in 9 keep cases (each sporting admittedly awful artwork), but the Anchor Bay version comes in a trio of 3-disc, fold-out Digipacks, with a slipcase that only covers about 2/3rds of said foldouts. And the slipcase is so thin that it feels like it can barely hold the weight of the contents. This also partially exposes the digipacks to damage on the cheap cardstock - really, really annoying. The artwork is nothing special, but it is printed with some nice metallic ink, so it should look pretty decent on your shelf when only the spine is showing. But the menus also leave something to be desired. It would be nice if they were a little less cryptic, easier to navigate and maybe feature some better artwork. Keep in mind that Anchor Bay is really acting only as a distributor here, and the discs were already authored by the time they arranged for retail distribution. Hopefully, Anchor Bay will have some good input on improvements to the design for Season Two.

If you're a fan of the Highlander movies, you've probably already seen this show in syndication or cable reruns. If you haven't, I think you'll be pleased how well it embodies the spirit of the first movie, once it gets going. Love it or hate it, Highlander was still one of the first TV series to really be handled well on VHS. And it's nice to see it looking even better on DVD. As a fan, you really can't go wrong with this DVD set (which sells for about $70 online). I admit it. I love this show. I even have a katana... and for the life of me I have yet to figure out how the heck these guys can hide that sword in a trenchcoat, let alone a halfcoat. But I digress. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this series on DVD as much as I do. And if you figure out that trenchcoat thing, let me know.

Jeff Kleist
jeffkleist@thedigitalbits.com




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