After five seasons of Highlander: The Series, Adrian Paul started to worry he was gonna have to play the fuckin Highlander forever. And he had dreams. He wanted to do movies and stuff, whether or not producer William Panzer considered that “somewhat delusional” (as he says on a DVD extra). Though Paul indeed appeared in John Landis’ SUSAN’S PLAN and a thriller called CONVERGENCE, it was preparations for his first appearance in a theatrical Highlander movie that really screwed with his TV filming schedule.
So rather than the 22-episodes of seasons 1-4 or the 18 of season 5, the sixth and final season of Highlander: The Series was lowered to 13 episodes, two of which Paul didn’t even appear in. But the producers were planning a spin-off about a female Immortal, and they decided to use the season as “a giant screen test” to find their new star.
Many of that season’s episodes introduced new female Immortal characters: Sophie Baines (Rachel Shelley), Alex Raven (Dara Tomanovich), Kyra (Alice Evans), Reagan Cole (Sandra Hess), Katherine (Claudia Christian), Katya (Justina Vail). Who would it be? Which of these Immortals would syndicated TV audiences fall in love with in Highlander: The Raven?
I mean, I don’t have any inside info, but I figure it’s gotta be the one named “Alex Raven,” right?
Nope. The producers ultimately didn’t think any of them would work for a show, so instead they used Amanda (Elizabeth Gracen, 1982 Miss America who was in MARKED FOR DEATH), a character introduced in season 1 as a villainous former lover of Duncan’s, ultimately appearing in 18 episodes. The character was supposed to be born in Normandy, so this is the only Highlander thing where they decided Just call it ‘Highlander’ – nobody gives a fuck if she’s from the Highlands or not. From what I understand the short blond hair she sports in The Raven might be new, and they tone down her bad behavior from Highlander. But she’s still a thief, so she’s kind of an anti-hero.
I never watched any of those episodes, so I just know her as she appears in the pilot of the spin-off, “Reborn.” She’s one of those sleek, sexy cat burglar type characters you know from movies and television, doing acrobatics, her long leather coat blowing like a Batman cape as she deftly absconds with some valuable jewelry. Living the life of a rich lady, she returns to her fancy penthouse apartment where her older gal friend Lucy (Patricia Gage, RABID, AMERICAN PSYCHO) seems to look after her the way Rachel looked after Connor MacLeod (though Amanda didn’t raise Lucy as her daughter, as far as I can tell).
But the cops seem to be on to her. Two detectives, Claudia Hoffmann (Torri Higginson, JUNGLEGROUND) and Nick Wolfe (Paul Johansson, MARTIAL LAW II: UNDERCOVER) show up at her place to ask questions. Somehow as soon as Lucy lets them in Amanda has a bubble bath fully drawn. It’s a bath of many purposes: an alibi, a place to hide the jewels, a way to toy with them by pretending she’s going to get out in front of them, at which point Wolfe, being a male, would obviously be helpless to her powers. If he’s not already.
She tests him by speaking French in front of him. When she sees him pause because he understands what she said she lights up.
Later they’ll come back to arrest her for a crime she did not commit. And she’s offended they would think she would do it, because it involves a gun. A cool thing about her outlaw life is that she already has a plan where she signals Patricia to fake a heart attack, front kicks one of the cops, climbs out the fire escape to the roof and jumps off using a rope from a window washing crane to slow her fall. But not before turning to smile and wave at Detective Wolfe. Twice, actually – once before jumping, once after landing.
I think she likes him.
Amanda seems pretty cool, and she has a cool look, but that escape is the coolest thing she does in the episode. She’s got some skills, though. She picks locks on doors and trunks. She uses a sword. I’m sure she does other stuff in the other episodes, and I’m sure she meets up with a million different old Immortal friends. In this one it’s Basil (Julian Richings, “Weird Janitor,” URBAN LEGEND, “Three Finger,” WRONG TURN), who ends up getting robbed and shot by the real thief, a guy in a ski mask. She suspects Wolfe is involved, so she searches his apartment, at one point glancing at his book and music collection. I think she’s legitimately looking for clues, but that’s not to say she isn’t curious or that she wouldn’t change her opinion of his sexiness if she saw like a Limp Bizkit CD or something.
When Wolfe comes home and finds her in his apartment she sneaks up behind him with a sword to his throat (glad she carried that with her) and handcuffs him to a handrail. He sits and watches as she continues to go through his things, and it becomes the goofiest part of the pilot, because she happens to touch a statue of a raven and I don’t understand why he has it or why he tries to get her to take it, but when she’s not interested in it, for some reason he feels the need to make a speech:
“Oh, I don’t know. It kind of suits you. The raven’s all over mythology – Norse, Greek. In fact, there’s an Eskimo legend about one particular raven. It seems this raven was a thief. She stole the sun and the moon and all the stars. The legend says there was an evil chief who planned to steal them for himself. He was gonna lock ’em up, keep the earth in darkness. But the raven swore she stole them only to protect them from the bad guy. You see, she thought she was the hero. But the chief insisted she was only out for herself.”
When I say “for some reason,” of course, I mean that they wanted to call the show The Raven and they needed to explain what the hell that had to do with her and be able to quote it in the intro narration.
(If you’re thinking The Raven is supposed to sound sort of like THE CROW, which had its own syndicated show starring Mark Dacascos the same year, then we think alike. But aside from occasional imagery there’s not much similarity.)
Luckily Amanda brings Basil with her when she has to go into police headquarters, and he happens to hear one of Wolfe’s superiors, Ferris (James Purcell, DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN), and recognizes his voice as the robber. Later, Amanda sees the bad cop about to ambush Wolfe (for knowing too much) and tackles him, saving his life.
I know I’m a sucker but I kinda like the way they do a particular cliche at the end. At the funeral, the chief gives Wolfe a speech about how they need to cover up that this asshole Ferris killed his partner, because of how hard it is to be cops and “The public needs us all to be white knights, heroes, to put our lives on the line for less than they pay garbage collectors.” I would have a little more sympathy for this line of reasoning if he chose an easier job to shit on. What the fuck is your problem with garbage collectors? You want to take it to the dump yourself, asshole?
Anyway, he wants to give Wolfe time to consider that he shouldn’t “put the department through hell for this,” and tries to shake on it. Wolfe hesitates, then does shake his hand… BUT SLIDES HIM HIS WALLET WITH HIS BADGE. So subtle it takes the boss a second to notice.
(I hope Wolfe didn’t have his credit cards and stuff in there, though.)
At one point they refer to Amanda as “Amanda Montrose,” and apparently she had been called “Amanda Darrieux” at some point on Highlander, but I guess mostly she just had a first name, like Madonna or Prince or Vern. Earlier in the episode I noticed it was weird that Wolfe kept just calling her “Amanda” when she was only a suspect he’d just met.
The Highlander pilot was chintzy compared to the movies, but it tried to have some style. The Raven is more of a normal TV look. Obviously they got enough cool shots to make an intro.
And it switches to slo-mo at the end of each act, that’s one stylistic choice, I guess. The pilot is directed by Ian Toynton (the original Widows, ANNIE: A ROYAL ADVENTURE!, Relic Hunter, 24, The O.C., Bones), who didn’t return for any more episodes. The stunt coordinator is Alison Reid, a stunt woman on POLICE ACADEMY 3-4, SCANNERS II: THE NEW ORDER, DEATH WISH V: THE FACE OF DEATH, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, JOHNNY MNEMONIC, DARKMAN III: DIE DARKMAN DIE, BLACKJACK, and more. She was the stunt double for Azrael in JASON X and Amanda in SAW II & III. She was stunt coordinator for Avonlea and Degrassi: The Next Generation, and co-stunt coordinator for BLUES BROTHERS 2000, which is an impressive credit even if you hate that movie. The sword choreographer is James Binkley, who played “Quill” on four episodes of RoboCop: Prime Directives.
Highlander: The Raven failed to catch on, and was not renewed after its initial 22 episode season, something nobody has trouble admitting in the extensive extras included on the DVD set released by Anchor Bay in 2005. The thorough multi-part behind-the-scenes featurette spread across the set’s nine discs is called “The Unraveling of a Series.”
On a commentary track, Gracen talks about having to change the Amanda character. “To make the adjustment from sort of this wild, irresponsible female to being the hero of the show… I think it maybe took away alot of Amanda’s fun to make her a bit more responsible, but you had to do it… I mean you can’t have someone who’s stealing and being really irresponsible and very manipulative, and then you can’t have her taking someone’s head at the end of the episode. People just won’t go there.”
She says “It just took so long for it to find what it was supposed to be. And maybe it never found it.” But associate producer Don Paonessa (who also edited the episode) says he likes how the show started out, as “Moonlighting meets Highlander,” but regrets that it turned darker and more like a rehash of the old show by the end. He felt there was a clash between series executive producer Marla Ginsburg, who wanted to do something different, and producer of everything including the movies Bill Panzer, who “wanted to stick to the Highlander aspect of it,” and Panzer ultimately got his way. It never got to the point of bringing Duncan MacLeod into the show, but his Watcher character Joe Dawson (Jim Byrnes), as seen in Highlander: The Series and the last two live action movies, appeared in two episodes.
Gracen seems proud of the show, but is also very candid about feeling she didn’t have a chemistry with Johansson or his character. They were wary of each other and competitive about being the star. The producers considered calling it The Raven & the Wolf (maybe Wolfe?). They wouldn’t have had to change the end credits at all.
But I guess that would be clunky with a The Highlander before it. Anyway, Gracen thinks the relationship with Duncan and “wild child” Amanda worked better.
But also there were extenuating circumstances. As the series was beginning, Gracen was in hiding from reporters trying to ask her about an affair she’d had with Bill Clinton while he was governor of Arkansas. She’d denied it for years, but decided to set the record straight after seeing it portrayed as non-consensual during the Paula Jones trial.
Even more bizarre, she “was in love with a psychopath” who was working as her manager, and convinced her Ken Starr was after her, that she’d only been cast in The Raven as a payoff from the mob, that Johansson was a CIA agent out to get her, and other crazy shit. With that in mind, it’s kind of a miracle that the show turned out decent at all. On the other hand, it sounds like the production was more interesting than the end result.
Other shows that debuted in 1998:
Dawson’s Creek, Fox & Friends, Two Guys a Girl and a Pizza Place, Teletubbies, Love Boat: The Next Wave, Celebrity Deathmatch, The Simple Life, Sex and the City, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, That ’70s Show, Pokemon, Animorphs, Felicity, Will & Grace, Sports Night, Martial Law, V.I.P., Mortal Kombat: Konquest, Charmed, The Powerpuff Girls, The Crow: Stairway To Heaven
Other spin-offs of syndicated fantasy hits that started in 1998 and had only one season:
Young Hercules (starring Ryan Gosling)
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.