Disclaimer: If you haven’t seen any of Highlander, there are some pretty major spoiler in here.
World-building. No matter what genre or type of story you are writing, there needs to be some kind of world-building. It could be that actually you are setting it in the real world in places that exist, so you could argue you’re not world-building but I’d say it was just pre-made for you! If you linger in the same genres as I, fantasy, sci-fi and anywhere in between, world-building becomes key. And I say this as someone who has blindly gone off and written a short story with no thought to the world-building that should have gone on beforehand because it’s just a short, it’s not needed! Until you think, hmm, I’d quite like to write a follow-up to that. Oops. So just how important is it?
Some of you will recognise the start of the title above as being the iconic tagline for the Highlander films. It’s about the only thing that didn’t get re-imagined or retconned throughout the universe. Now I say all this with love, as I do so much love the Highlander universe. Okay, possibly I love Highlander 2 less than the rest but it still makes me smile, it did after all have Sean Connery’s splendid waistcoat.
But let’s consider the world-building. Now when I say world-building, I don’t just mean it’s set on Earth, I mean all of the rules and mythology that needs to be considered that the whole premise is built on. So along comes Highlander, a film about Connor MacLeod an immortal from Scotland who goes about his merry immortal life until the time of the Gathering when all immortals are drawn together with the urge to chop off each other head’s until only one survive and can claim the Prize, whatever that may be. Epic, I’m in. So what questions would you need to ask yourself when embarking on this journey? Why are they immortal perhaps? Nope, don’t know. Where did they come from? Err, Scotland? Unless you’re Sean Connery, then it’s Egypt, except you have a Spanish name and a Scottish accent…. Okay next, what happens when you kill another immortal? Well, everything seems to explode and you get the Quickening. What’s the Quickening? Umm, look over there a guy doing random backflips! Okay but they can sense each other right? Yes. Which is why Connor got his first quickening. Huh, but doesn’t that happen when they kill another immortal? Oh yeah, scrap that, just get a weird sensation. Ok, so why didn’t Connor notice the Kurgan in the park? Did I mention they can’t die? Yeah, so that’s why Connor can walk under water but how come he didn’t keep drowning because it seems to hurt them when they get stabbed? Err…. And why doesn’t the Kurgan’s throat heal if they can survive gunshots and stabbings?
Look stop thinking about it so much and just enjoy the film!
And I did. The whole basic premise I find fascinating. Yes, there are some wrinkles to iron out but the idea of immortals through the ages fighting some unseen war between each other appeals to me very much. Perhaps in the second film they’ll figure out the finer details.
THEY’RE FROM SPACE!!
I’m sorry what now?
Immortals are people who were banished from their home world.
Funny they didn’t mention that in the first film. And Connor seemed to have no idea about this when we saw him in Scotland in the flashbacks in 1 either. So the prize was becoming mortal and having all the knowledge of the people who went before. But now some others from MacLeod’s homeworld show up and make him immortal again, conveniently back to the age he was in 1 because geriatric Connor trying to swordfight for an entire film might not be a winner. Cue some Mad Max castoffs flying through 2024 America under a shield that blocks solar radiation and suddenly it feels like we’ve slipped into Fortress territory more than Highlander.
Shockingly, the film was not well-received. Ramirez came back from the dead, for a bit. The quickening was now the thing that binds him to Connor and well, there are too many things to mention. Scroll forward and we get Highlander 3-The Sorcerer. Quick recap from Connor to just underline the fact that we’re forgetting number 2 ever happened. Space? What space, oh no, we’re not alien.
Righhhht. Okay, not aliens, still don’t know where they came from though. Or why they can’t fight on Holy ground. Or why Connor got the Prize in 1 when there were three immortals buried underground in China twiddling their thumbs until they were released by a meddling archaeologist. (Will we never learn from these films, archaeologists really should be more careful.) Alright still we don’t really know the ins and outs but we are back to good old sword fighting one immortal against another.
One has magic.
Fine magic immortal whatever. Connor wins, gets the prize lives happily ever after with the reincarnation of his old girlfriend. That was a nice touch of 3, being able to see chunks of Connor’s life between 1 and the present day. What did he get up to over all those years? Oh the films we could have had. But there you have it. Connor is the only one and that’s the end of…
There was a series.
Yes, you know how Connor was the only immortal left? Turns out not so. Actually there are loads left and one is Connor’s clansman Duncan. Basically, Connor had a cousin he was buddies with this whole time. So a bit more retconning but at least the series does start to think a bit more about world-building.
I love the films but the series does at least seem to sit down and have a think about what the rules are for this world they have created. The Quickening is the transfer of knowledge and power, and yes lots of electricity shooting everywhere. Immortals do sense each other, that useful little noise that happens on screen. Even immortals don’t know where they came from, only that every one of them was a foundling. (Okay, fair enough, it’s such a mystery they didn’t want to answer that one but at least they acknowledge there is no answer.) The series allows for some historical episodes and flashbacks giving us those moments of what happened to them over time. It allows us to see other immortals; Methos the oldest immortal is such a genius creation, I actually liked him more than Duncan, and whoever cast Roger Daltry as a recurring friend (albeit one who only ever recurs after his first appearance when his character was killed off, nice little twist about a show that can do flashbacks) also deserves a big pat on the back. So the series (and Endgame) fills in the world-building that the films lacked and eases that part of my brain that wanted the answers. It’s a shame that the spin offs never came to much, the idea of immortals lends itself to so many possibilities. We could have had so many stories that had immortals that didn’t have the surname MacLeod.
But for some reason that was the only name that sold, so of course a bit more retconning and create Quentin MacLeod for the an animated series, that again re-wrote Connor’s story. And then there was Colin MacLeod… Colin? Fine but now the anime film decided that immortals had superspeed and strength. Sigh.
And no, I’m not going to mention Highlander: The Source. They all pretend it didn’t happen so so will I.
So to sum up: it’s always a good idea to think about what you’re writing before you jump straight in. I’m not saying plan the whole thing, heaven knows I don’t. But be prepared to ask those questions, go back tweak etc before you release to the world. Because if people like the story, they will pick it apart and ask you the questions and it will be a bit embarrassing if all you can do is stare at that gaping plothole and shout- they’re aliens!!!!
But then again. I still love Highlander and yes I will continue to watch 2 but I am glad they didn’t have him fly back to Zeist like they planned. So perhaps in some cases you can get away with it. All I know is there was one rule they fastidiously stuck to on Highlander and it was the one rule they broke most often. There can be only one. Until you need another one, then actually, there are quite a few.
2 thoughts on “There can be only…well a few?”
Highlander…what can I say?
I agree whole heartedly with everything you have said, but I will pick you up on one thing you neglected to mention, the movie sound track by the fantastic Queen; though not just in the movie as it was used for the opening titles & closing credits of the series. This I feel helped cement the relationship between 1 & the series.
When all is said & done though, sometimes you need to forget about the world building & the retconning & just submerge youself in pure, unadulterated escapism!
Highlander 2 not withstanding 😂
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I knew someone would pick me up for not mentioning the soundtrack 🤣