Now for another geek moment and an old television show.
So after my post on Who Watches the Watchers, I was thinking mainly about the Watchers from the series Highlander. If Immortal sword battles and decapitations are The Game, then the Watchers have always been its shadowy audience of spectators. Be warned, I am going to be making a lot of references to this show as this post goes on.
Essentially, the Watchers were a secret society created in about the time of ancient Sumeria to observe Immortals–human beings with eternal lifespans who can only be killed by beheading–and record all knowledge of them. They have a code that forbids them to reveal information about Immortals to the public, and also of their own existence to Immortals. They recruit from a variety of fields and are essentially a glorified and ancient intelligence service of field agents and researchers.
For a spectator-sport of Immortal-watching, this would obviously take a lot of resources to accomplish. Now, here is the thing. In Highlander, the Watchers have three challenges. The first is to make sure they are never, ever discovered by Immortals or the rest of the mortal public. As such, they do not want any of their lore or information falling in hands beyond their own network. The second is to never interfere with Immortal battles or conflicts, but to merely observe them and never get detected. All right, fair enough. Then there is the third task that they have: to make sure that others not only never find out about their group, but also the very Immortals that they are studying.
But how do you explain the bodies?
Yes. There are natural causalities from The Game: mainly the decapitated bodies of the Immortals that lost against their opponents.
So what happens with that?
In ancient times, when wars were fought almost all the time with swords and sharp blades, and when there were much wider and unobserved spaces either no one gave a thought to a beheaded corpse, or there was a more than a likely chance that they would never find it. Also add to the fact that little conventions like democracy didn’t always exist and people would turn blind-eyes to vigilante mobs, and government pogroms and executions alike.
Unfortunately for both Watchers and Immortals, things have changed. The media now exists, forensics has developed to the point of being able to identify tiny fibres of material and DNA, there are much more extensive public records kept and so on. One thing that was always mentioned in Highlander was how the ability of the Watchers’ resources towards secrecy has dwindled down considerably in the last century or so of information technology.
So what about those dead, decapitated bodies? Because nowadays, not only would they be found but there would be investigations. Pretty soon forensics specialists and police, as well as Interpol would find a pattern developing: some kind of ritualistic killing that seems to span across the world. I can also more than imagine that–say the Watchers have agents on the inside of law-enforcement to discourage such investigations–that someone would eventually ask questions.
All they would need is to find someone, or several someones with a purple almost cult-like Watcher’s tattoo on their wrists, order searches onto their properties, analyze their computers, find evidence carefully collected by said Watchers–who not only sat back and did nothing when these killings happened, but actually recorded them for some unknown purpose–and then go into the homes of Immortals–who they would probably think are “champion serial-killers” in a Watcher-sponsored arena of death for entertainment purposes–and start DNA-testing their swords. It would go downhill from there.
So why didn’t this happen at all in the show? Well, I think it’s very simple. You see, I think that not only did the Watcher network have agents in the media, law-enforcement, politics, medicine, education, and business, but I think they were directly involved in disposing of the bodies.
That’s right. The very organization in the show that went on about non-interference in Immortal battles and mere observation most likely were the ones to get rid of the defeated Immortal corpses. That is the only thing that makes sense, because otherwise there would have been a massively historical international hunt going on.
This also means that the Watchers have a lot of power and they aren’t exactly neutral. They would know that if those bodies were discovered, or the documentation on them weren’t doctored in some way, and Quickenings weren’t played down in the media as strange electrical weather disturbances, their Watching days–and their freedom–would be pretty much over.
So really, in a lot of ways the Watchers are pretty complicit with The Game of Immortals and they know that if the Immortals were ever discovered, chances are they would be too. Now, in Highlander itself, there have been occasional times when some Watchers rebelled against their own code and became Hunters: actually killing Immortals themselves. In a lot of ways, if the whole organization became Hunters it’s argued that they would pretty much fuck up all known Immortals everywhere. They know a lot about their pasts, their assumed identities, their properties, what they had to eat for breakfast that morning, their strengths, their weaknesses and all of that. Intelligence-wise, all the Watchers would have to do is put the right information in the right places and arguably let the governments do their work for them.
There would be complications however. For instance, Immortals like Duncan MacLeod and Darius have figured out–on their own–about the existence of the Watchers. It stands to reason that beings that are always being hunted by their own kind for their Quickenings–or essences–or by people in the past that liked to kill “witches and demons,” that they would have developed sixth senses about being followed, or if one of their mortal companions had … other affiliations that might concern them. And these are the nice Immortals.
I’m not even going to go into Immortals–like Kalas who found out on his own that there were Watchers–that wouldn’t hesitate to use torture and murder as their tools to get more information. And a lot of really old Immortals have their own resources and contacts: along with some alliances with each other. In addition to that, not all Immortals are documented or discovered yet. Some are very young and haven’t even died for the first time yet. The Watchers would need a seriously sophisticated network to keep up with that last fact. But there is more: because if a few Immortals could have discovered the Watchers, they might have been pretty circumspect about what they themselves know and deliberately planted false information of their own. Some, like Methos, might have even go as far as to infiltrate their ranks.
At the very least, it’s also been known in the show that some Watchers might have even been approached by the people they were told to observe and they might have their biases. It’s not been unknown for a Watcher to give out classified information to an Immortal that they like: and I am not just talking about Joe Dawson and Duncan MacLeod.
So really, I guess I’m talking less about the nature of the Watchers’ “neutrality,” and more about what would actually happen in a Watcher-Immortal War: an idea I got during one episode of Highlander when Duncan MacLeod was almost seriously facing down that prospect. It didn’t happen, but it easily could have.
Originally, I would have been tempted to say there would be an even split between the two, and for the most part there would be. I also think there would be factions. There would be Watchers that would withdraw from the whole conflict and preserve what they can: mostly dedicated Researchers. There would be Hunters attempting to use their own skills and governmental resources to create pogroms. There would be Immortals using their resources and bounty-hunters to hunt down anyone with a purple Watcher’s tattoo. While one faction wants heads, the other might want severed forearms as proof of jobs well done.
There would also be Watcher and Immortal alliances: some wanting to help an Immortal win The Game for power and glory, and others just trying to help each other survive. The young Immortals would be alternatively tools for various factions, and even their own agencies: seeing as most of them would not be documented during the chaos of such a War and can take advantage of the conflict as well.
It’s also possible that the governments and corporations would turn on both and both secretive kinds of beings–Immortals and Watchers–would be on the run from scientists, overzealous military and paramilitary organizations, terrorists, religious fanatics, and mobs. A shadow war would quickly become an overt and very nasty mass-conflict with the nature of what humanity is itself as the ultimate prize.
But when this is all said and done, I would just like to state that I would definitely have watched a film or a television show based on the concept of a Watcher-Immortal War. In fact, I would even read a book or fanfic based on this idea. Anyway, that is my major and one of my most long-standing geeky thoughts at the moment.
4 thoughts on “Tattoos and Swordplay: Or Musings on a Watcher-Immortal War in Highlander the Series”
This is a great article. I was just trying to look up the watcher tattoo to see if they had it on a specific wrist because I’m an huge highlander nerd and was kind of interested in getting one myself. Thats when i stumbled upon this page. The idea of a an immortal/watcher/hunter war and even world governments getting involved is very thought provoking and I very much would like to see that too. I grew up watching the show and would love to see a new Highlader show be made (and be made right). I myself have had a few ideas for episodes. And I also wanted to confirm your idea about watchers disposing the decapitated bodies. There is an episode in the highlander show spin-off (Highlander Raven) that shows Joe Dawson and a group of watchers picking up a body and puting it in a van right after a quickening.
They could solve the problem of the bodies by just having them disintegrate or something.
It’s possible, but the show never mentions whether or not anything happens to the bodies. All we see are their headless forms after the Quickening happens. So your guess is as good as mine. And if the Watchers destroy them, then — really — they are interfering in what they claim to be a neutral affair.
I can’t believe I didn’t notice nor respond to this post from now three years ago. So they did actually dispose of the bodies: at least in that one instance of Highlander: Raven. Damn.
I also think they could make a much better Highlander series now. For instance, we can see Immortals with more background and different cultural mindsets and orientations that couldn’t have been shown — at least directly — back in the nineties on Cable television. It doesn’t always have to be a MacLeod at the head of a show about Immortals, though given the title is Highlander, there is that connotation. But it would be nice to have more arcs with different characters.
But it’s cool to have one of my theories about a show I liked get confirmed by a fellow fan. I wish I could ask you what you would have liked to see in a new show, but has been a while but even though it’s a late response, I figure it was better than never. Our subject matter has waited longer after all. 😉
Thank you, Steven.