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John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: Highlander

Here’s the latest Storytelling Engine from John Seavey. Click here to read John’s description of what a Storytelling Engine IS, anyways. Check out more of them at his blog, Fraggmented.

Storytelling Engines: Highlander

(or “There Won’t Be Only One”)

‘Highlander’ is a relative rarity among storytelling engines, because it didn’t start out as one. In fact, writer Gregory Widen turned in a script that seems to defy sequelization at all–it’s the story of the final battle between a group of immortals that have lived in secret among the human race, summed up by the iconic line, “There can be only one!” (As an aside, it’s important to note the difference between coming up with a sequel and coming up with a storytelling engine. Coming up with a sequel means finding the logical extension of a stand-alone story, while coming up with a storytelling engine involves setting up a premise that can generate multiple stories. It’s the difference between ‘Die Hard 2′ and ‘Dawn of the Dead’.)

But as the movie developed from a minor flop into a slow-burn cult hit, it became evident that “only one” wasn’t enough. The movie developed a franchise that wanted more, and wouldn’t take, “Everyone’s dead except Connor!” for an answer. About the first attempts to develop the story into a storytelling engine, the film’s theatrical sequels, well…the less said the better. They were slapdash, didn’t fit the lyrical fantasy tone of the original, and they were stuck trying to tie into the ending of a film that was fairly definitive in establishing itself as the conclusion to the whole concept.

The TV series, though, took a different tack. TV writers are, by definition, good at creating storytelling engines, because they’re all too aware of a) the challenges of writing twenty-two episodes of television on an enormously tight schedule, and b) the need to write five or six seasons in order to get the lucrative rewards of perpetual syndication (and DVD release, nowadays.) So they took the risky step of breaking down the ‘Highlander’ film to its component elements, finding those that would support a storytelling engine, and discarding the rest.

The first big one they let go was the protagonist. Connor McLeod was a spiky, alienated immortal burned out on caring about the mortals who lived and died all around him. His story was all about finding his ability to love again…and that’s a wonderful plot for a one-time movie, but as open-ended TV series go, it doesn’t work. (Plus, actor Christopher Lambert probably wasn’t willing to commit to a weekly series.) So Connor gained a “cousin”, Duncan, who was a bit more genial, connected to the world, and generally audience-friendly. (It says a lot, by the way, that despite only appearing together twice in the franchise, Lambert and Adrian Paul have a chemistry that easily convinces you that they spent lots of time together off-screen.)

The second thing that had to go was the Gathering. Again, this was just necessary to the development of a storytelling engine as opposed to a one-time story. The Gathering, and the final battle of all the immortals, is by definition the end of the story. (Unless you suddenly decide they’re all aliens from the planet Geist or something.) Setting it in an “alternate universe” (the official explanation, never actually referred to onscreen) where immortals are more prevalent, and new ones appear all the time, gives the writers the chance to tell more stories than Widen’s conception allowed. (The movie occurred in the series continuity, by the way, but Kurgan was just another nasty immortal dispatched by Connor, not the second-to-last of his kind.)

Which brings up another point; the series’ mythos had to be widened to accomodate more stories. Some recurring villains had to show up, simply because it’s hard to create a new villain every week (as touched on in the column on the Punisher); the organization of the Watchers was created to help create supporting allies and enemies, and various recurring foes like the Four Horsemen, Kalas, Ahriman, and Xavier St. Cloud helped keep the pressure off the writers. And of course, supporting characters, both mortal and immortal, generated stories of their own–Richie, Amanda, Joe, Tessa, the list goes on and on. (Mainly because the series wasn’t afraid to kill off supporting characters.) Indeed, by Season Six, Duncan was barely featured in the series at all. (Primarily because Adrian Paul was already thinking of moving on.)

The revamped Highlander concept ran six series and spawned a further two movies (and several books and comics), a respectable run for any series but all the more impressive for a series that started with the end of the story. It’s surprising, really, that it took until 2006 for the comic book to arrive, since a comic can conquer the last hurdle that the series had to being a true open-ended storytelling engine…comic book characters, unlike actors, never age.


Not enough Highlader 2 bashing for me. Maybe that’s why Lambert always looks like, three seconds before any given take, someone hit him full-on in the face with a shovel.

Oh man, sometimes I think I’m the only fan of that show. Good to see someone else writing about it.

I always love how, in the first season or so, they still talk about The Gathering “being here” in some vague sense, and then slowly, unofficially, just… phase it out.

William O'Brien

October 3, 2008 at 2:39 pm

The show, especially in seasons 2-5, was pretty good. Lots of great characters and ideas, some pretty compelling plot lines, and a great core concept. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good.

God, I loathe and despise Highlander in all its incarnations. Of all geek-cult franchises, it’s the one for which I have not even the slightest particle of positive feeling. Hate, hate, hate every aspect of it, from the core idea to every pointless attempt to extend and modify it.

I loved the movie & the serie when I was younger & still have a soft spot for it watching rerun when I find one.

I agrre with William, the first season were good, before they fall in the redundancy of the concept.
I especially digged the Canada episodes.

Come on Jack, tell us how you REALLY feel! LOL!
I happen to have LOVED the Highlander movies and especially the series, which I have watched over & over. The first movie makes me cry every time when Connor’s first wife Heather dies!
So, Elijah, you are not the “only one.”

I really liked the first movie as well as a lot of things about the series. In some respects I prefer the movie’s story while I like the TV series characters more. The way Richie was written out was beyond stupid, though.

There is one question though that I don’t think any incarnation of Highlander I am familiar with has addressed in a satisfactory way.

To some degree there is a bit of blind acceptance of this war among the Immortals. Yet it seems a bit at odds with the compassionate nature of the Highlander protagonists to do so. If it comes down to you and your best friend or even a lover, then rules of the game pretty much require that you have to kill them or they have to kill you. Wouldn’t it make some degree of sense for an Immortal to want to defy the game and instead try to find out how the game started and perhaps how to stop it.

Now, perhaps the last movie (which I haven’t seen) or the comic (which I haven’t read) deals with this.

Or at the very least throw the audience some sort of bone as to why The Game MUST be played at all. Obviously it’s good vs. evil but what being or force created this whole thing to decide which would rule? Or do fans feel that such a thing would basically break the engine entirely?

I always thought that it was a matter of not being able of avoiding the more aggressive immortals. From what we’ve seen it looks like the good highlanders mainly tried to avoid conflict or to protect others and themselves.

Of course, several episodes dwell on how easy it is to fall into the slippery slope.

I liked the first Highlander movie and loved the TV series.

I am a history buff and always loved the old swashbuckling movies like Captain Blood when I was a kid, so the show appealed to me on several levels. The characters had great depth and the stories dealt with all sorts of moral issues. It was not your typical adventure show with a one demensional hero. Yes there were flaws in the continuity of the story at times, but many of the individual episodes were great.. I think Adrian Paul was great in the way that he seemed to carry his 400 years and yet be a totally modern man.

I agree that Adrian Paul and Christopher Lambert had a great chemisty together. That first episode when they were together is one of my favorites. That swordfight between the two of them is the best. I still watch my tapes of the show and wish it hadn’t ended.

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