Highlander at 30: The Beginning – Threat of the Future

Highlander at 30

There can be… Many futures…

The original Highlander film has reached its 30 year milestone on the road to immortality!

Despite its obsession with The Rules, it’s been three decades of contradictory, legacy-obsessed complication. To celebrate the anniversary, Jokerside looks at the lesser seen and most fascinating part of the franchise’s convoluted saga. Not the past Highlands of Scotland, or the presents New York of The Gathering, but the unmistakably dark future awaiting humanity no matter who wins The Prize

IF THERE’S ONE THING ABOUT BEING IMMORTAL, YOU’RE GOING TO SEE A LOT OF THE FUTURE. JUST AS LONG AS YOU KEEP YOUR HEAD. But if there’s another thing, it’s that the complicated franchise that sprung from 1986’s Highlander is all about avoiding that future. On one hand, each Immortal is trapped in The Game, the ultimate Darwinian whittling process that reduces their number in one-one-one sword combat according to The Rules. Down until the last Immortal standing, the One has blocked every other immortal from seeing that future by default. And their reward is The Prize.

But for a franchise every bit about time as very old men (usually) decapitating each other, it’s the future that casts the most ominous shadow. Yes, even compared to the desperate times of the past, present and Kurgan. As it’s all about time, it’s hardly a surprise that Highlander has struggled with internal consistency from its beginning.

Crucial to the mix is that past of course. Everything’s built on it, and that’s especially pulled out in the rolling soap of the 1990s series that followed that other younger MacLeod, Duncan. Letting grudges and loss scar every immortal, with a wry poetic justice ready to play out in the present, that’s crucial ingredient. That contemporary time has moved since the 1986 of the original film. Onto the presumed 1994 of the third film or the rolling final decade of the 20th century during the television series and first spin-off film. But it remains a small window considering the incidents that built to it. The present is the audience’s window into a hidden world of course. It amounts to fascinating scraps that for all their faux complexity never rise above the simple concept of an archaic fight to the death unravelling in the shadows. It’s the interactions with mortals and skewered police procedurals that make for the intrigue around it. Mortals remain crucial to the plot, but seldom seem affected by the outcome…

Because then there’s the future.

A little bit of asking around the fans, slightly familiar and couldn’t care less of Highlander doesn’t feedback ‘The future’ as a big patch in Highlander’s broad tartan. But for Jokerside that’s the most fascinating part. And typically, there’s more than one aspect of it in the saga’s different continuities. There’s a future post-Immortals where the final player has claimed The Prize, but also alternate futures where immortals are still awaiting The Gathering.

What’s intriguing is that either way, it never pans out too well.  For any of us.

The Threat of the Future

Of course, while Immortals may have long lives of various lengths, packed with memories and presumably great brain power to store it, but most Immortal existences are focussed on surviving to the future. An interesting side effect of knowing far more about the past than any mortal.

Highlander (1986)

Madison Square Garden, 1986. The posturing, melodrama and frankly confounding rules of a wrestling bout in the great arena is just a cover. In the car park below a shout of “MacLeod” pulls us into The Game. The challenger soon dispatched, and with that kill we’re at a step closer to the end of The Gathering.

In 1986’s Highlander Connor MacLeod has been lodged in New York for a considerable time, the pre-destined place of The Gathering. Later in the film MacLeod’s mentor Ramirez eloquently describes it as “An irresistible pull towards a far away land. To fight for The Prize.”

In that first film the last handful of Immortals have assembled for a finite Gathering, despite some ambiguity in what the friendly Kastagir says to MacLeod halfway through. Those Immortals have been whittled down to a handful come the start of the film after centuries of undercover warfare. MacLeod’s opening kill is a scrappy affair which the Highlander finishes with a decapitating strike so strong he embeds his sword in a concrete pillar. When he does he doesn’t utter a word. The first utterance of that famous line falls to his nemesis, The Kurgan.

 “There can be only one”

Of course, that first film makes a classic franchise mistake. Not only does it start in the very final days of The Game, even worse it links the hero’s victory right back to his origin. It’s the same mistake bigger and better received films have made. 1989’s Batman is a prime example. There, slotting the Joker back into the Batman’s creation just as the Dark Knight later aids the Joker’s emergence may look great on paper, but villain takes the twisted superhero’s motivation with him at the end. That was something the DC franchise struggled to move on from… Highlander gave up pretty much instantly. Read more…

Jungle Garb: Star Wars Episode VI – Return of the Jedi

Star Wars VI - Return of the Jedi

Third, a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… There was a jungle moon…

A glimpse at the original Episode VI, its iterations and context in the wake of The Force Awakens glorious boosting of Hollywood’s mightiest space franchise.

Black shirt Jedi

IF NOTHING ELSE, RETURN OF THE JEDI BROUGHT SOUND TO CINEMA IN 1983. IT WAS THE FIRST ENTRY OF THE STAR WARS SAGA TO EMPLOY THX TECHNOLOGY. But more importantly, it was a closing chapter on the saga that had sent palpable shockwaves across Hollywood… And would influence film-making forever more.

It’s the one with the Ewoks, the one with the Emperor. The one that simply can’t live up to the promise of its two predecessors. Return of the Jedi completed what is no enshrined as the original trilogy exactly six years to the day after the first film’s release. And it was here that Star Wars became ever-so-slightly self-derivative; ruling out any similar accusations against the latest instalment, The Force Awakens. While the majority of the film is dedicated to completing the story in a huge multi-set-piece final act, it was happy to pick up the familiar and convenient elements of the Death Star and space dog fights from the first film. It continued the process of focussing the epic space opera through one bloodline that had been set by the conclusion of The Empire Strikes Back and Jedi took to some strange if strangely satisfying conclusions.

Unsurprisingly, the pressure on the production was immense. The Empire Strikes Back had built on the success of its predecessor, claiming around $450 million at the world box office and critical acclaim with it. The risk had been there, with maverick creator George Lucas financing the film himself, but he recouped his investment in months and had bona fide proof that his epic space opera was no mere flash in the galaxy.

Much like the Death Star, if you could solve a few technical issues, why not recapture that Force lightning?

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983)

Vader’s early arrival and purpose is an unwitting mirror of the film’s production.

Waiting three years for a resolution to The Empire Strikes Back? How on Endor have we explained that to the generations that followed? After the vapid and rather obvious developments of the prequel trilogy, The Force Awakens provided the experience closest to that long wait between 1980 and 1983, even if we’re waiting for jaw dropping revelations. If the new sequel trilogy manages to match the saber-dropping, hand-lopping twists that the original films managed, they’ve done very well indeed.

The sheer quality of Episode IV had managed to set Star Wars on an even greater course to immortality than the tremendous performance of the first film had managed. Having seen the Rebellion on the run after their unexpected victory and prematurely triumphant ceremony at the close of Episode IV, the odds seem even more stacked against the “small band of rebels” Jedi’s opening scrawl refers to. So, how surprising that at the head of the film we encounter a near completed new Death Star. The message is clear, despite the loss of ships, strategy, limbs and friends that battered our heroes in the film before, the real risk is that all their efforts might be in vain.

Read more…

1966: Invasion Earth 2150 – Movie Daleks at 50

1966 Dalek Invasion Earth 2150 at 50

It’s 50 years since the Dalek’s last big screen outing. The 1960s were packed with science-fiction invasions, but this was something else. Riding on the unexpected wave of Dalekmania, the fiendish pepper pots of hate were ascending through pop-culture awareness to immortality. Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. released 50 years ago this month.

Print the neg-a-tive!

“I didn’t want any bug-eyed monsters and the Dalek is what made Doctor Who” – Sydney Newman

AFTER BEATLEMANIA, THERE WAS DALEKMANIA. THEY ARRIVED ON SCREEN AT THE VERY TAIL OF 1963, FAMOUSLY THOSE BEMS SNEAKING PAST PRODUCER SYDNEY NEWMAN’S BLANKET BAN. And classic, early production issues with their resulting risky decisions by a producer, in this case the inimitable Verity Lambert, is what phenomenon is made of. True enough, by the end of their first serial in February 1964, the Daleks were a hit, and Doctor Who with them. Come the end of that year the pepper pot tyrants had seeped into popular consciousness, happily employed in newspaper cartoons and headlines. They would return the following year, for not one but two seven part serials. None of the other early Who monsters earned a repeat, let alone triggered a cultural shock. Those quick returns, all penned by their creator Terry Nation, remain the perfect comebacks against which all of the Doctor’s foes must be measured. Perfect  escalation.

After the travails of that first story on their home planet of Skaro, the show’s first alien world with its distinctive petrified forest, deadly whirlpools and gleaming city, they then made it to Earth. It was an planet, a country, very familiar to the one we knew, but set in the exotic reaches of the 22nd century. An utterly alien and yet a terribly familiar environment where the monsters had… Won. And everyone, after years of occupation looked like they were from the 1960s. That Wyndham-styled sequel was followed by a third story in the show’s second year that saw the Daleks build on their mastery of space to tackle time, pursuing the TARDIS crew through various points of history and future.

Simply named, The Chase was the Doctor’s first odyssey, a lightweight but spectacular blockbuster tale completing a set and thrilling the viewing public. It’s a miracle of the show, but testament to the power of the Daleks, that each of those first three serials survive in their entirety. Sadly, the same is not true of their fourth and most extravagant story. The 12-part Daleks’ Masterplan sought to tie up winter for the third year in a row. Now almost entirely missing, it was an epic journey of galactic politics and suitably imposing McGuffin, the Time Destructor: a devastating weapon that could do just that. Combining intrigue and invasion with the multi-location approach of The Chase, that adventure would conclude the monster’s first age. Credited with half the episodes, something rather scoffed at by then script editor Donald Tosh, it would be Terry Nation’s television swansong to his creations during the 1960s. He had other plans for his deadly creations.

Gliding evil

The  Daleks barely changed…

No one mind produced the Daleks full-formed and ready to exterminate like Victory of the Daleks’ Progenator. Their design was typically fortuitous. Nation’s script directions had been light, really only specifying that they should not have legs, apparently inspired by dancers Nation had seen glide across a dance floor. When young BBC designer Ridley Scott wasn’t available, the job fell to Raymond Cusick who had mere hours to formulate their look. The classic anecdote that the distinctive design came from the designer sliding a pepper pot across a canteen table is apparently apocryphal. That happened, but only when Cusick demonstrated the movement of his design, already based around the idea of a man encased in a sitting position.

The final design would become a 1960s classic, and it had staying power. Cybermen came to be defined by upgrading and change, other monsters would return during the classic run with vastly different designs (Sontarans) or when they arrived in the 21st century New Series new budgets and design allowed them to update (Ice Warriors, Zygons)… But the Daleks barely changed. That’s not to say there haven’t been considerable attempts to do so. But the spider modification that would have met brought the Daleks to the mid-90s American series were ultimately pushed into expanded universe fiction. The poorly thought through New Paradigms of 2010, while not as huge a change as they first appeared, were quickly dissolved in the in-continuity spats of renegade factions and racial purity that dogged Dalek culture since the 1960s.

It’s of crucial importance that the Daleks have retained the same, undeniably distinctive shape and design for over 50 years. With most Doctor Who monsters, any lay man would struggle to identify one from its shadow. Not so a Dalek. Everyone knows that.

And soon to become science fiction’s premier recurring fascists, it’s fitting they looked ridiculous from the start. Read more…

1966: Revolver at 50

1966 The Beatles' Revolver at 50

The third of Jokerside’s tributes to the mighty cornerstone of pop culture that was 1966 links back to the first. It’s August 1966 and the arrival of the second of two musical landmarks that heralded the start of something new. A few months after The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, The Beatles were about to turn into something else entirely … Revolver, released 50 years ago today.

Yet you may see the meaning of within… It is being, it is being

IN THE MIDST OF A CULTURAL EXPLOSION, UNCHALLENGED SINCE, MUSIC, FILM, TELEVISION AND ALL MANNER OF MEDIA EXPLODED IN 1966. It collided with street level pop culture revolution, simultaneously responding to and dousing those same flames with its own intoxicating fuel. Sat prime in the cultural decade that reached from 1963 to 1974, it blended with the baby boomers’ coming of age, the counter-culture and social revolutions that set a template that’s still felt today.

It had been building for some time. And having played a huge part in the beginnings of the cultural revolution in 1963, four years and six albums into their career, The Beatles were perfectly placed to help this seminal time reach its apex. They were also in the right place. The first two long-reads in this 1966 series have necessarily dwelt in America, celebrating the immediate success of Batman the television series and the May release of the Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds. But few places could rival London as a hotbed for the ongoing revolution. And unlike The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks and other bands who’d sprung from the capital, The Beatles had soon left the Merseybeat boom in the early sixties when they led the British invasion of America and by the mid-1960s were lodged in the British capital as observers as much as instigators. But unlike many other bands of the time, The Beatles’ output rarely responded or referenced the cultural shifts around them. Typically, the songs, films and long players that emerged from their prolific work-rate rose sat self-contained. Above that. But 1966 caught them on a cusp.

Spinning disks

“I was alone, I took a ride…”

Writing about Revolver always feels daunting task, as it teeters on the brink of full pelt worship. But subjective as The Beatles’ back catalogue is, it’s helped by its incredible quality. Picking a favourite tune from The Beatles’ output may wax and wane from day to day, season to season, but this writer’s favourite songs don’t sit on Revolver. Nor is the distinctive, monochromatic album cover their best. The difference comes on the turntable. While every Beatle album is an enjoyable album to spin, Revolver couldn’t have been better named. It slots together from that sleeve to the split of the sides, the balance of the tracks and the inspiration of its musicians make for a combination greater than the sum of its quality parts. It’s simply the greatest record playing experience in the Beatles’ oeuvre.

True, it followed close on the heels of albums like A Hard Day’s Night and Rubber Soul each of which marked a new step in maturity, skills and depth for the band. But compared to the huge, influential leaps into the unknown that followed, Revolver is a clear tipping point. Balanced and varied, emotional deep and frivolously disrespectful, it’s an album of the future.

Because what Revolver does is something different altogether. It shows the Beatles at their full power: a live band, whose players were just about cohesive, before later albums found them drifting apart. That later divergence would take them on to higher plains, but the looser fit abandoned the energetic phenomenon that was the Fab Four, the unbreakable force that had defined Beatlemania.

Cohesion would remain in aspects of the albums that followed of course. But in many ways Revolver is the end of one Beatles story. The songs between it and its successor Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band started a revolutionary new tale altogether.

At the end of the road, Abbey Road brought back the illusion of beautiful collaboration but from the work of many band members toiling in pairs or on their own, while most were working on solo projects. As a result, that album incorporates the worst excess of both McCartney and Lennon, left unchecked, where Revolver had demonstrated the power of the two working together just a few years before. The rivalry had stretched too far. Before Abbey Road, Let it Be featured a notably unified sound and blues sentiment under the brash production of Phil Spector, but that plastered over growing disdain for each other and multiple disagreements that had grown from mid-1960’s grumbling. Before that, Magical Mystery Tour was to find them rudderless without Brian Epstein, trying the experiment of McCartney leadership. Even Revolver’s follow-up Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a fraction too far into the band’s splintering. The arrival of facial hair and new costumes came with a studio-bound band that had left touring behind. Revolver was the lightning period, the tipping point. The Beatles’ recording era had arrived, where they had chosen studio over road. That, among other things… Read more…

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