Tattoos and Swordplay: Or Musings on a Watcher-Immortal War in Highlander the Series

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.

Who Watches the Watchers?

I suppose the title of this post is really rhetorical in that the question already has an answer. We do.

In case you were wondering, this article isn’t about Watchmen. Instead, it’s about Watchers. You can find the idea of them in comics, film, television, and various other media. They are depicted as either very powerful enlightened beings, or hidden organizations with more knowledge than most people. You can find them as a race of cosmic beings with large craniums within Marvel Comics, a secret society of men and women that observe Immortals in the Highlander television series, and even the Ascended in the StarGate series.

Aside from their great power and knowledge, Watchers generally have one more thing in common: they have some sort of code that permits them to observe but rarely–if ever–interfere with the existences of those either “beneath” them, or unaware of certain facts of life. This idea can also be found in Star Trek‘s Prime Directive: where by law the Federation cannot interfere with the development of civilizations that are not as advanced or as cognizant as those of their member worlds.

This means that this agreement of “non-interference” not only prevents these powers from abusing their abilities, but also helping others with them as well. Of course, as I’m sure something like TV Tropes will point out, there is always a conflict of some kind with regards to said beings following these codes and also certain “bending” and “tweaking” of the rules from time to time. Certainly, there have been instances in Star Trek itself where more powerful beings have more than interfered with “lower planes of sentience” … and I’m not just talking about Q either. I mean, you could argue that the Enterprise and the Federation it represents have evolved to the point where certain advanced beings can safely–to some degree–interact with them without causing permanent harm, but there is a really fine line there. It’s also not really what I want to talk about.

No, I think this trope of non-interference has always bothered me on a creative geeky level to some degree and I’m going to try to explain why.

Basically, these advanced beings or secret organizations–who dedicate themselves to observation–do not want to harm anyone intentionally or otherwise, or endanger themselves and existence as they understand it by “interfering.” But my issue is three-fold. First of all, if you follow Einstein’s theory that an observer of an event is also a participant–that an experiment is affected by the mere presence of an observer–then these beings “interfere” all the time simply by existing. If you have a certain amount of power–of any kind–or a presence somewhere it will affect your surroundings. I mean, yes, there is a big difference between sitting and doing nothing, and acting in said space but your mere presence changes things just by you existing.

So perhaps, in these various forms of fiction, said beings are aware of the fact that by existing they do change matters so they try to minimize the effects as much as they consciously can. Maybe some of them make a point of not observing: claiming that the material no longer interests them, or is somehow inferior to them but in reality knowing that the temptation to act would be too great or, again, by simply looking they affect matters. Add telepathy and psycho-kinetic powers along with spatial-temporal manipulation to the mix and you can more or less figure out where it can go from there.

Of course, there is the other side of the weird coin which is that perhaps perception itself by these beings determines the material plane’s very existence or, to quote George Berkeley, “To be is to be perceived.” Imagine if said watchers started perceiving a thing in a different way, or began ignoring it entirely. In essence, they could make something cease to exist by diminishing or denying it. Changing someone’s perceptions or having them ignore a thing can definitely change the world as human beings have proved many times in fiction and in reality.

Essentially, you can also say that by actively not looking or paying attention to the rest of the “normal world,” they also affect reality. In the case of the Highlander Watchers, if they stopped observing and went away, a lot of the historical lore and information on the Immortals that pop up among humanity would be lost. I suppose it could said that this wouldn’t hurt anyone–I mean no one would really ever know what was lost or not–but as these plots unfold it is never really as simple as all that. Imagine, for instance, an evil Immortal is gaining power and you know as a Watcher that if he or she continues at this rate, they will rule the world. You have the knowledge to stop them or at least help someone indirectly in doing so. Of course, the rules exist for a reason and the idea of possibly making things worse or revealing your presence to those who don’t understand you or your work are definitely barriers to overcome right there.

This is not the only series where such a moral conundrum happens. In StarGate, there have been Ascended Ancients and even the character of Daniel Jackson that have realized that if they let events continue unimpeded in the material plane, villains like Anubis or Adria will not only cause damage to that plane but potentially their own as well. Yet the argument is that the code exists for a reason. As a result, they can interfere, but only in small plausible ways in that reality: as though they are playing some sort of game or helping to write a novel where continuity has to be maintained (I really like that word, continuity), but then they aren’t really just watchers anymore are they?

There is also another saying, which only recently I realized was created by the philosopher Edmund Burke, he which he states: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

I know that this is a moral argument and that in the case of actual cosmological beings in fiction, they may have a greater understanding of reality and morality than flesh-based beings do. In fact, we can even go as far as to say they would understand the way of things far more than Einstein ever could. It feels like a cop-out to state, but we are also talking about fiction and imagination.

Yet with our limited understanding of things, you can see why it is very hard for an observer to remain perfectly neutral and not affect the reality around them. These beings and orders are still part of the world and the universe. They may be on a different level, but that doesn’t mean they are removed from everything. In fact, the idea that they have limitations–even and especially self-imposed ones–illustrates that they are not all-knowing, all-powerful, or perfect themselves. Is enlightenment recognizing your own limitations along with those of others and acting, or not acting appropriately?

Is not acting a sign of wisdom or a kind of paralysis: a fear of making things worse than they are when–by not interfering–you could be making a situation dire in any case? Also, if an observer is a part of life, then by not acting are they really living?

How many cultures and civilizations in our world would have reached the places they are at now if they did not bother to even meet each other? I mean, yes, there has been a whole history of colonization and imperialism and destroyed ways of life, but there has also been trade, and innovation, and new knowledge. And what is “higher” or “lesser?” Is it that observers are any better than physical beings, or that they are just different and have different constraints?

I guess, as these things go, this is a whole lot of armchair philosophy, but it is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. So in terms of fiction, who watches the watchers? Well, I will say again that we do.

And it can be very entertaining.