Highlander: The Modern Prometheus

Byron: "There's a fire inside, and stories to tell. Do you have one?"
Mary: "I do. Mine will be about the anguish of immortality."

In the summer of 1816, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, his future wife Mary, and Dr. John Polidori spent the summer together in a house near Geneva. One night, they decided to see who could write the most frightening story. Out of that house party came Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as well as Polidori's The Vampyre, the first vampire story in English. It's one of those delightful historical events that has always tickled my fancy; it's been written about and dramatized many times.

Immortals participating in historical events was done many times in Highlander, but I believe this particular outing was the most successful. They didn't just add Methos; they made immortals, quickenings and resurrections the inspiration for Mary Shelley's famous book. Although the analogy applied to all immortals to some extent, Byron was the Frankenstein monster. He saw himself as an abomination that shouldn't have lived. He was so intensely jaded and so frantic to feel anything that he was using mortals as surrogates so that he could pretend to die. (Which, unfortunately, used up mortals.)

This was no stiff costume drama. It was all about the sex, drugs and rock and roll, both in the present and at the house party in 1816. The flashbacks were something special. Every scene was beautifully filmed and fun to watch; I particularly loved the exuberant carriage chase, and the orgies on pillows piled on the floor. The classical score, mostly the Moonlight Sonata, was enhanced with rock music, and Byron's poetry was effectively scattered throughout the episode. I especially loved Duncan quoting Byron right before he killed him, as if he were acknowledging Byron's brilliance in the man's final moment. Exceptional quickening, too.


Best of all, "The Modern Prometheus" was our first historical glimpse of the flip side of Methos's vicious Horseman persona. Methos was a doctor, a particularly selfless profession for an immortal who would never need one. The reference to the dissection of corpses also made me think Methos might have been trying to figure out why immortals were different from humans.

Highlander tended to be morally black and white, good and evil. "The Modern Prometheus" showed us shades of gray. It showed us how different a spinoff series centered around Methos could have been. Methos loved Byron, and would never have taken him down no matter how many mortals Byron killed. And there was that amazing menage a trois scene. Methos stopped it for Mary's sake, but he was tempted; he was strongly attracted to Byron as well as Mary. I loved seeing this new side of Methos. Chivalrous, protective, compassionate, sexy, and possibly even bisexual when it suited him.

Byron shot Duncan in the foot during the duel to even the playing field because Byron had a club foot. I thought this was a great writing choice; it transferred some sympathy to Duncan, and made the duel less like an execution. Even though Duncan brought Byron the death he longed for, Duncan's presence in this episode felt intrusive, considering it's his show. Probably because this episode was about Methos's world, not Duncan's.

Flashbacks:

— 1816 Switzerland. The Byron/Shelley ghost party, with Methos as Dr. Benjamin Adams. His current pseudonym is Adam Pierson. The first man. It's like a continuing joke Methos plays on everyone.

— We saw Byron's first immortal duel with a jealous husband. Not surprising, because the real Byron had sex with everyone: women, men, farm animals. He even had an affair with his half-sister.

— Mary wasn't married to Shelley yet; she was his mistress. It was mentioned during the carriage ride that Shelley referred to Mary as his wife even though she was not.


— According to the Watcher Chronicles, Byron's first death was by suicide in 1815, and Methos was Byron's teacher. It appeared that Methos kept his real identity secret even from his proteges, because Byron always called Methos "Doc." Methos mentioned offhand in "One Minute to Midnight" that he had studied medicine at Heidelberg in 1453.

— There was a flashback transition of Byron fading into a goat. Probably this episode's Most Obvious Symbolism.

Bits and pieces:

— The title of the episode is the alternate title of Mary Shelley's book, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. There was a brief mention that Methos wrote a story, too. I assume that would be Polidori's The Vampyre.

— Byron as a present day rock star reminded me of Lestat. He looked like a vampire, with a pale face and red lips, and emotionally, he was a vampire, existing off the blood of mortals. I thought Jonathan Firth was memorable as Byron. It's a shame the poor guy has to go through life overshadowed by his brother Colin.

— The present day bar/restaurant belonged to Maurice, who was in the episode for a few seconds. Blink and you'll miss him.

— Like "Revelation 6:8," this episode was directed by Adrian Paul. He knew what worked on his own show, and he even took it to the next level. Bravo.

— Hans Kershner, played by Highlander swordmaster F. Braun McAsh, had a K/C name. Was he evil, or just a jealous husband? I want to count him, because I like the idea of counting the Highlander swordmaster as one of the villains. So I will. He's number 45.

Quotes:

Byron: "Should I kill you here and now? Should I watch your spirit rise before me and pluck it from the air?"

Mary: "Sometimes I wonder who is the more unhappy: those who die, or those who live."

Byron: "Life, my friend, is in the details. I like almonds, not cashews, almonds, shelled, roasted, unsalted. And fetch me my women. Tall, beautiful women with long, black hair. I know you want to make me happy."

Methos: "Still lacerating the help, I see."
Byron: "It's good being a star."

Byron: "Immortality gets pretty damned dull after the first couple of centuries, doesn't it? What's the secret, Doc? What do you do when there's nothing left but the dark, cold emptiness that stretches out for centuries behind you? When you look in the mirror and all that you see is the abomination that is you?"

Methos: "We must live in secret."
Mary: "Or you will be hunted."
Methos: "For the perversion of nature that we are."
Mary: "Poor, tormented creature. The sad hero of a never ending story. Resurrected by lightning to eternal life, and eternal loneliness."

Duncan: "The mantle quits the cunning hand, wraps his fierce eye. Tis past– he sinks upon the sand." From Childe Harold.

This is my favorite Highlander episode. Five out of four stars,

Billie
---
Billie Doux knows that there can be only one. And that's Methos.

7 comments:

Mark Greig said...

This is a brilliant episode and would be perfect in my eyes if not for one fatal flaw that I can never get past; the bloke playing Byron. I think Jonathan Firth was badly miscast, making one of the most fascinating people in history into an annoying and despicable twerp. I find it had to believe anyone would follow this guy across a room let alone off a roof.

Encouraging Methos to essentially rape the incapacitated Mary was a touch too far but I blame the writer for that not the actor. George Byron was an utter bastard, especially towards women he’d grown bored with, but he wasn’t a complete degenerate. Well, maybe a tiny bit degenerate. Although, there’s never been any definitive proof he had an affair with his half-sister, some say that was simply a viscous rumour spread by Lady Caroline Lamb, one of Byron’s many bitter ex-lovers. And yet, he was very close to his dog, Boatswain. Perhaps a little too close, that dog did get a grander burial than its master.

Despite that one personal put off I still like this episode for many reasons. Performance aside I thought the way they handled Byron was interesting. Near the end he ranted on to Methos about how for centuries he had lived but he really hadn’t lived at all, he was stuck, unable to let go of his former life as the infamous Lord Byron. Both Methos and Duncan, especially Methos, understand that to be immortal life has to be about change. The world is constantly moving forward and you have to move with it or risk being left behind. Even someone like Kronos, in his own twisted way, managed to adapt to the ever changing times. Byron was still clinging to his legendary past, even down to his wardrobe, refusing to be anyone other than Lord Byron. Immortality will get boring if all you do is party, fornicate and do drugs for two hundred years. Should’ve considered gardening.

We got some nice little insights to Methos’ character as well when Byron asked him what he wanted written on tombstone. Methos answer was simple, he doesn’t want a tombstone. He’s not bothered about being the guy on stage, adored by millions. He’s happy just to be in the audience with everyone else. He wants to be the guy who can say he saw the first performance of Hamlet, watched Mozart compose Don Giovanni and witnessed Queen steal the show at Live Aid. Byron wanted to make history, Methos wants to experience it.

It was also a little hypocritical that in the past Methos has often encouraged Duncan to take down troublesome immortals, regardless if they’re Duncan’s mates or not, but is willing to let it slide when its one of his friends. I did notice that Methos’ only reasons for sparing Byron were because of his poems and his music, as if the genius was more important than the man who embodies it. If Byron were a talentless hack would Methos have been so defensive of him?

Byron is my favourite poet so I loved all the references and quotations from his works. The flashback scenes at Diodati were luxurious and the use of Beethoven was great if a little obvious. As a director Adrian Paul has certainly come a long way since ‘Homeland’. Byron becoming a rock star was understandable since Byron and Shelley were practically the Mick & Keith of their day. Shame he seemed to be a rather average Goth rocker.

Sadly, after this it was all downhill for the series. There were a one or two good episodes next season but this was the last truly great, if flawed, episode of Highlander.

Kelly said...

I thought you mentioned a lot of great things, Mark, though I don't have time to address them all. But reading your comment, what struck me in the part where you said:

It was also a little hypocritical that in the past Methos has often encouraged Duncan to take down troublesome immortals, regardless if they’re Duncan’s mates or not, but is willing to let it slide when its one of his friends. I did notice that Methos’ only reasons for sparing Byron were because of his poems and his music, as if the genius was more important than the man who embodies it.

As Billie mentioned in her review, I think there was more to their relationship than Methos simply admiring Byron's talents. Besides Byron being his student as well, there did seem to be love or affection there, to whatever degree you want to read into it.

What struck me now is that this episode is a role reversal from 'Chivalry.' Duncan had once loved Kristin and so was unable to kill her, even though she murdered other people. Methos stepped in and removed the threat, and Duncan does the same here when Methos cannot.

But what also always bothered me about this episode (not that it excuses Byron) is that Mike was awfully easy to influence. One encounter with Byron and he's off taking drugs, partying with him and engaging in risk taking behavior... seems to me that if it hadn't been Byron, it would've been somebody else. Not necessarily killing him, but certainly drawing him into addiction and hedonism that could derail his musical dreams. There wasn't a gun put to Mike's head; he just didn't have the willpower to say no to someone he looked up to. Not saying this makes Byron innocent, but you also have to be smart enough to make the right choices.

On one last note, I loved your comment about Methos being content to watch--that he doesn't want to make history, just experience it. I think it's so spot on for the character. That's exactly what he's done, at least for most of his life it seems.

Mark Greig said...

Hi, Kelly, thanks for the feedback.

I don’t doubt that Methos and Byron had a close relationship once but when Duncan and Methos often discussed him Methos repeatedly raised the issue of his talents, even directly quoting ‘She Walks in Beauty’ at one point. He never spoke of what Byron was like as a friend or offered any insight into his character. Even when he was pleading with Hans Kershner to spare Byron he cited the man’s reputation (“Would you be Lord Byron’s killer?”) above all else. It felt like Methos was grasping for excuses to justify his student’s survival and all he could come up with was how talented his was. Perhaps deep down Methos knew that without his gifts he was no different from any other spoiled brat who liked to live to the extremes.

As for Mike, that character always felt a little underdeveloped to me. His sole purpose was just to give Duncan a motivation for confronting Byron.

Anonymous said...

Billie,

You said that Modern Prometheus is your favorite Highlander episode. I read a review a while ago regarding this episode where the reviewer held the opposite opinion, and I find myself agreeing with it. Byron's character did not seem to evolve from 1816 to 1997. And some of the historical innacuries, such as how Mary came up with Frankenstein, bother me. There are other inaccuracies, but they don't bother me as much. I'm kinda wondering how you would respond to Keith's review. I'm hoping you'll help me find things to enjoy in this episode, since I am looking to be pleased. It's possible reading this review (before I ever saw the episode) may have tainted my initial watching experience. Anyway, what do you think of Keith's points?

http://www.sff.net/people/krad/modern.htm

[Exerpt] "'I have no poetry left!' he cries... But that's the only evidence we get of that transformation, because Byron as portrayed in 1816 is exactly the same as Byron in 1997. He's a drunken, fornicating baboon in Switzerland and he's a drunken, suicidal baboon in Paris. "You used to reach for heaven," Methos says in 1997, but in 1816, the only thing Byron reaches for is womanly flesh and another drink."

Thoughts?

Billie Doux said...

Hello, Anonymous:

What can I tell you? I'm not a Byron scholar, and this episode didn't air on the History channel; it's an episode of a fantasy television show. I think it's an exceptionally exciting, complex and well-written episode of a television show that featured my favorite character. I loved it a lot when it aired, and it's still my favorite in the series.

I'm not going to refute Keith's review point by point. I'm sure he's right about the historical inaccuracies. I could add that it's established at the beginning of the episode that Shelley and Mary aren't married yet, but that he refers to her as his wife. And it was also established throughout the series that immortals tended to get nastier as they got older. A lot of them turned into serial killers. I think there's precedent in the series for Byron as a young immortal being a jerk in 1816, and Byron as a much older immortal being a homicidal jerk in 1997.

There's a line I should probably put at the end of all of my reviews, and let's pretend I put it at the end of this one: your mileage may vary. If the historical inaccuracies are too much for you, and you feel the dramatic flaws in the episode outweigh its strengths, then so be it. Your opinion is just as valid as mine, and you're certainly entitled to it.

Anonymous said...

Billie,

Thank you for responding. Eventually, when I get around to rewatching the episode, I'll try to watch with a more open mind.

Regards,
J

Anonymous said...

This episode contradicts the idea, raised in a couple of preceding episodes, that immortality does not work well with fame. If Byron reinvented himself every once in a while as an avant-garde artist, at least occasionally named Byron, someone would eventually have noticed.

The way Duncan ultimately killed him also does not fit with how Duncan handled similar situations in other episodes. When he feels he needs to kill a friend who has gone off the rails, he grieves before and after. Here, he quotes a few verses and offs Byron like any other evil immortal of the week. Sure, Byron was not his friend, but he knew this was not a run-of-the-mill he was killing! Plus, Methos pleaded for the man's life. I don't buy Duncan's non-chalance here.