About the only difference between fans of "Star Trek" and devotees of the newer, sci-fi fantasy series "Highlander" is that Trekkers can assume the unconverted have at least heard of their show.
Although "Highlander" is relatively obscure now, devotees of star Adrian Paul and the show--a spinoff of the fanciful "Highlander" movies about the swashbuckling, romance-filled adventures of a 400-year-old-plus immortal--should be warned: They might have to share their obsession.
The USA cable network airs reruns of the syndicated series' first four seasons every weekday. Filming of the show's fifth season continues in Paris, and industry buzz has Paul taking over the starring role in the next "Highlander" movie from Christopher Lambert. Negotiations for a sixth television season--with Paul at the helm as Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod--are underway.
With each step, the fan base grows, through both traditional and high-tech routes.
In addition to 10 fan clubs devoted to the show and its various stars, "Highlander" enthusiasts have set up eight on-line mailing lists, at least four computer discussion groups and hundreds of "Highlander"-associated sites on the World Wide Web.
And like the Trekkers, who redefined what it means to be a TV-show groupie, "Highlander" fans have created a cottage industry, placing more than 100,000 orders for related books, jewelry, swords, clothing, videos, games, action figures and reference materials. They also have an annual national convention, the Gathering--a title borrowed, of course, from lexicon only a real "HL" fan would understand.
"I was very surprised as to how people would write and become very, very intense about the show, but I'm not surprised at how long it took," Paul said in an interview from the Paris set. "It's not just something you watch and it goes away; you have to think about it a little bit."
You also have to know it exists.
Locally, the syndicated series airs at 12:35 a.m. Sundays on KCBS-TV Channel 2--a slightly worse position than last season, when it ran Saturdays at 11:30 p.m.
Its unenviable time slot here is typical, said George Gubert of Rysher Entertainment, the show's distributor. Although 93% of the country gets "Highlander," it is usually during late hours and on independent stations or the newer networks. The fifth season episodes have been averaging about 4.3 million bleary-eyed viewers a week.
Die-hard fans were never daunted. In fact, some of those involved in the show's production speculate that "Highlander's" peripheral existence only increased the devotion of the original sci-fi and adventure-loving fans.
"People are willing to search us out," said Peter Davis of Davis/Panzer Productions, one of a group of executive producers. "I think it's a great compliment to the quality of the show."
Overseas, it's been a different story.
The three "Highlander" movies, with French star Lambert and, in the first two installments, Sean Connery, raked in tens of millions of dollars in Europe in spite of poor U.S. ticket sales and critical drubbings. The series, an international production partnership among Gaumont Television of France, Filmline International of Canada, Davis/Panzer and Rysher, consistently ranks among several countries' top 10 shows.
Fans describe being entranced by the beautiful stars, the daring sword fights--immortals can only die by beheading--and the jaunts into world history as the immortals flash back to the earlier times and places in their lives.
Jennifer Matarese, a sophomore at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a "Highlander" computer news group regular, said she first became obsessed with "Highlander" because of Paul. Then she became enamored of Duncan's immortal protege, Richie Ryan (Stan Kirsch), she said.
"That kind of hooks you," Matarese said. "Then I got into the story lines and I wanted to find out about everybody and the history and that kind of thing."
The first "Highlander" convention, in 1994, brought 900 fans to Denver. The 1996 Gathering, also in Denver, drew more than 1,500 fans to watch tapes of upcoming episodes, meet the stars, question "Highlander" writers and party with fellow watchers.
Many of the attendees hailed from the "Highlander" e-mail list, an international group of 1,200 high school students, martial-arts lovers, stay-at-home grandmothers, Washington lawyers and every walk-of-life in between, where no issue is too small to debate.
Members argue for days about various immortals' honor and evilness. They talk about how best to support the show, what color Paul's eyes really are, why Duncan acts a certain way in a given episode and why the color of Duncan's clothing was an important part of an episode.
"Sometimes they get a lot more out of it than I thought we were putting into it," Paul said.
Even when the series concludes--Paul swears that at least his part in "Highlander" will end after a sixth season at the latest--die-hards say "Highlander" fandom is destined to continue.
"We're in love with this universe and we're going to explore it as long as we possibly can," said Debbie Douglass, the 37-year-old owner of the "Highlander" e-mail list. "I don't think we'll ever run out of things to say about it."