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Friday, September 19, 2008

THE XENA PROJECT: SEASON 0NE (1995/1996)

I love this show. No, seriously. I REALLY love this show.

When XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS debuted in syndication after having spun off from HERCULES: THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS, I really didn’t expect much from it other than being a source of cheesy barbarian babes entertainment in the vein of the old school peplum movies I loved as a kid.

The one and only Lucy Lawless as Xena.

The Xena character — as played with gusto by Lucy Lawless — was different from the standard bad guy warlord type only when it came to her gender, but she was considerably more violent than any other antagonist found on the ostensibly kiddie-oriented HERCULES, thereby making her actually of interest and worthy of a sister series that was rather different in tone and possibly more adult. The problem was coming up with a way to make a character as downright evil as Xena originally was palatable as somebody an audience could root for, so the creators had her closely interact with Hercules (translation: “get her hump on with the Herc”) and find his goodness and selfless desire to help others a motivating inspiration. That done, her own series was off and running.

The first season of XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS can be looked at as a case of an adventure show testing its own waters and seeing what worked and what didn’t, leaving much of what it would later become famous for to occur in subsequent years. The main thrust of season one is that of Xena uncomfortably coming to grips with her reevaluation of her purpose in life and kicking as much deserving ass as possible while striving for redemption — or, more frankly, attempting to temper and not erase her violent nature — all while wandering the earth during the days of Greco-Roman and other mythologies with the wide-eyed and innocent Gabrielle (played to great and endearing comedic effect by Renee O’Connor), the self-proclaimed “bard of Potidaea,” as her sidekick.

Renee O'Connor as Gabrielle.

So on one hand we have the implacable battle-hardened warrior while we have the sweet, artistic naïf with a heart full of kindness and hope on the other, and it’s a rather obvious given that the two will greatly influence one another whether they like it or not, each other’s aspects both serving to strengthen and weaken, depending on one’s point of view.

The dynamic between Xena and Gabrielle is certainly nothing new — if you ask me the series owes a huge debt of “inspiration” to Mercedes Lackey’s Tarma and Kethry, very similar characters whose existence shocked the shit out of me when I read their stories years after Xena had started, despite them having been around since the Eighties — but it’s fun to see enacted between two women on a TV series set within a Joseph Campbell-style landscape. The series definitely follows many of Campbell’s theories (truths, in my estimation) about the culturally universal “heroic journey” tale, but while it would seem on the surface to be Xena who’s the central focus of the journey in question, it is actually the chronicle of Gabrielle’s journey to becoming the warrior-poet ideal that just happens to intersect with Xena’s quest for redemption and a sense of peace, a quest that the viewer realizes is more and more futile with every step taken…

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The deeper analysis of Xena must be reserved for the subsequent seasons, although I would be remiss in not addressing the one aspect of the series that holds great fascination and appeal for the majority of its adherents: the “Subtext,” and that’s subtext with a capital “S.” XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS has an enormous cult following for many reasons — barbarian/mythological action, hot chicks in skimpy Frazetta-wear, genuinely funny forays into camp humor, monsters, a female empowerment stance unequalled in television history, crazy musical episodes, just to name a few — but it’s the major lesbian vibe that pervades the show almost from the first episode that renders it unique. There has been much debate over the close friendship of Xena and Gabrielle and whether or not they are lovers, thanks to the fact that the physical nature of their relationship is never explicitly spelled out (Or is it? Stay tuned for further seasons!), and I assure you I have my own take on that burning question, but for now all I’ll say is that season one plants many seeds of what could very easily be interpreted as a growing lesbian attraction. It doesn’t come close to the levels seen in subsequent seasons, but the germ is certainly there.

So, as previously stated, season one is pretty much a standard (though by no means unentertaining) first year for an adventure show, and of its twenty-four episodes just over half of them are must-sees for the Xena scholar. Not a bad average for a first season, especially when you consider for how long and just how badly STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION majorly ate the hose before it got good!

Episode #1: SINS OF THE PAST

Draco (Jay Laga'aia) attempts to sway Xena back to her evil ways.

Taking up right where we left her on HERCULES: THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS, we join Xena as she unsuccessfully attempts to bury her warlike ways — both figuratively and literally — and saves farm girl Gabrielle from being sold into slavery. Gabrielle takes a shine to the Ass-Kicker from Amphipolis and the two become traveling companions (much to Xena’s initial annoyance, and the heartbreak of Gabrielle’s betrothed, Perdicas) despite Xena’s well-earned and widespread reputation as a violent, murderous pariah akin to Ghengis Kahn. We also meet Draco (Jay Laga'aia), a recurring warlord foil for Xena who always carried a torch for her, as well as a scar she inflicted upon him for “getting rough.” Sure, the guy’s a double-crossing asshole, but I’ll be damned if I don’t kind of like him.

Episode #3: DREAMWORKER

Gabrielle, valiantly attempting to preserve her "blood innocence."

When Morpheus, the god of dreams, kidnaps Gabrielle in hope of making her his bride, Gabrielle must lose her “blood innocence,” meaning she must spill blood by making her first kill. The major developments in this episode are Xena coming to accept her own fierceness as an indelible part of who and what she is, and Gabrielle being taught by Xena that “Everything changes when you make your first kill.”

Episode #5: THE PATH NOT TAKEN

Marcus (Bobby Hosea).

While attempting to rescue a kidnapped princess from the clutches of an arms-dealing warlord asshole, Xena runs into Marcus (Bobby Hosea), an old lover who is torn between his love for her and his loyalty to the arms-dealing warlord asshole. Marcus eventually meets a sorry fate — the sole brutha up in this muthafukka, so that was inevitable — , but as this is mythology there are ways around that.

Episode #6: THE RECKONING

Ares (Kevin Smith) attempts to sway Xena back to her evil ways. Hey, I'm sensing a pattern here...

The first of several appearances by Ares (Kevin Smith; the Kiwi one, not Silent Bob), god of war and self-professed “former mentor and still greatest fan” of Xena. Ares is great fun here, trying his best to win the warrior princess back to his side, and he just gets better as the series progresses.

Episode #8: PROMETHEUS

No, this isn't the cover to an upcoming Manowar album.

The series gives us its version of the myth of Prometheus, and Hercules and Iolaus team up with our heroines to free the Titan from bondage (and the annoyance of having his ever-regenerating liver being eaten out by a fucking vulture every day) so the world’s populace can regain its ability to heal from sickness and injury. This one’s fun for the tying up of loose plot threads from Xena’s arc on HERCULES (the show, not his demi-godly meat-pony) and seeing just how far the word of Xena’s conversion from the Dark Side has spread. The dynamic between Hercules and Iolaus also inspires Gabrielle to become more proactive when the fighting starts, one of the first baby steps toward what she would later evolve into.

Episode #9: DEATH IN CHAINS

A not bad episode, notable for when Gabrielle finally ditches her cutesy Renaissance Fair look in the first of several makeovers on her warrior's journey.

Episode #10: HOOVES AND HARLOTS

In my humble opinion this is where the series we came to know and love really started to fire on all cylinders. I won’t spoil the surprises for those who haven’t seen it, but it’s packed to the rafters with Amazons, centaurs, deadly-serious ritual combat, and also includes the introduction of one of Gabrielle’s signature weapons.

Danielle Cormack as Ephiny the Amazon.

We also meet the charming and hard-as-nails Amazon tribeswoman Ephiny (Danielle Cormack), another warrior who could accurately be called one of Gabrielle’s role models and will be seen again on several occasions. A must-see for Gabrielle fans.

Episode #12: BEWARE OF GREEKS BEARING GIFTS

Galyn Goerg as Helen of Troy.

Not much more to say here other than that anything featuring Helen of Troy depicted as a black chick has my undivided attention.

Episode #15: WARRIOR…PRINCESS

Ultra-girly Xena lookalike, Princess Diana.

A very entertaining excursion into outright comedy, this one gives Lucy Lawless a chance to stretch her acting chops by playing both Xena and her ultra-girly lookalike, Diana, a clueless princess under threat of assassination. She and Xena trade places, and Lawless milks the change of pace for all it’s worth as Diana experiences the crushing poverty in her father’s kingdom firsthand, and her performance is so girly and cutesy that it verges on the disturbing.

Episode #16: MORTAL BELOVED

Marcus, enjoying a short reprieve from death.

Kind of a nod to Mario Bava’s classic peplum opus HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1961), one of the very few genuinely good films of that glutted genre, this episode features Xena journeying to the Underworld to help Hades retrieve his helm of invisibility after it’s stolen by the shade of a serial killer. Apparently the helm grants Hades’ powers to whomever wears it, and the serial killer uses it to not only cause the inhabitants of Tartarus (the place for the damned in the Underworld) and the Elysian Fields (the place where you want to be if you’re dead in Greek mythology) to have their situations reversed, but also to escape back to the upper world and launch on a spree of invisibility-cloaked murder. Xena convinces Hades to grant a brief stay of death to her now redeemed but nonetheless condemned-to-Tartarus lover Marcus so she’ll have an able warrior to help her track down the murderous thief, which also yields the dividend of some bittersweet romantic coupling during breaks in the hunt. And look for Michael Hurst, Iolaus on HERCULES, in an amusing turn as Charon, the ferryman of the River Styx.

Episode #17: THE ROYAL COUPLE OF THIEVES

The one and only Bruce Campbell as Autolycus, the King of Thieves.

It’s fan-geek Nirvana as Bruce (THE EVIL DEAD) Campbell steps in as Autolycus, the swashbuckling King of Thieves and recurring character on HERCULES, who teams up with Xena to get their hands on an item of great importance to some ancient Red Sea pedestrians (an item seen to much greater effect in the first cinematic adventure of a certain two-fisted archeology professor). Campbell’s always fun and he’s a hoot here, doing his level best to irritate the living shit out of an in-disguise Xena (she’s supposed to be the concubine to the famed professional assassin he’s impersonating, so the opportunities for abuse are legion), so this one’s a must-see example of just how good the comedy episodes of this series can be (but don’t get me started on the bad ones).

Episode #17: THE PRODIGAL

Lila and Gabby pull the strings of a totally wasted Meleager the Mighty.

After freezing up during a fight, Gabrielle decides the warrior life is not for her and so leaves Xena, returning home to Potidaea. Once there she discovers her sister, Lila (Willa O'Niell), harbors resentment at her having left her behind for the more colorful Xena, while the village finds itself under threat of decimation by a local warlord. The story then becomes ONE SAMURAI (rather than seven) as Gabrielle puts the warrior skills and knowledge she learned from Xena to use in defense of her hometown and realizes she’s not the pussy she thinks she is. Xena’s in this one for maybe three minutes but you’ll be so caught up Gabrielle’s story that you won’t mind one bit, and it also features a fun turn by veteran character actor Tim Thomerson (QUARK, TRANCERS) as Meleager the Mighty, the Xena-era answer to CAT BALLOU's Kid Shelleen.

Episode #19: ALTARED STATES

A thinly disguised version of the biblical story of Abraham, this one’s notable for the series' first blatant lesbian gag, in which Xena is described thusly by the villainous Mael:

“A trial, sent to us, by the Almighty, to test our resolve. Can you doubt it? All you have to do is look at her to see she’s unnatural, an affront to God. A woman with the strength of ten men? Out in the world alone, save only her scrawny little companion? It’s a complete abomination!”

Sounds kinda dykey to me, and I should know.

And then there’s the bit where a stark naked Xena strolls out of a lake and beats the motherfucking shit out of an assortment of ruffians with some fish she just caught. (No, we don’t get to see Lucy’s nekkid excellence, but it’s quite clear what’s going on and it’s very funny.)

Episode #22: CALLISTO

Hudson Leick as Callisto, redefining the term "sociopath."

Every hero needs an arch nemesis, and the tits-out crazy Callisto more than suits that role. Hudson Leick superbly personifies vengeful madness as the homicidal terror that Xena inadvertently created during her earlier days as a borderline psychotic warmonger and is truly creepy/scary, instantly earning a high-ranking place among the warrior princess’ rogues gallery.

I don't know about you, but there's something about this that just plain creeps me out.

The downside to this is that this episode also introduces Joxer the Mighty (Ted Raimi), a wannabe warrior who’s about as useful as maxi-pads designed for marble statues, intended to serve as comic relief, something already ably provided by the interaction between the show’s leads.

Ted Raimi as Joxer the Mighty. Are you laughing? Neither am I.

I have nothing against Ted Raimi and I give him points for making the best if what the scripters gave him, but Joxer is just too broad and unfunny to me in a way that I’ve despised since I was out of training pants, and unfortunately he goes on to plague far too many subsequent episodes. He does grow a bit as a character, but he’s totally unnecessary, his very presence often bringing any given story to a screeching, irritating halt. He's the Xena Universe's answer to Jerry Lewis at his most grating, and I don't give a fuck what the French say, that shit just ain't funny. There are those among the Xena fandom who defend Joxer, but I am obviously not one of them.

Episode #23: DEATH MASK

Not exactly the most cheery of family reunions: Xena and her older brother, Toris (Joseph Kell).

When Xena and Gabrielle encounter a town under siege by the brigands of the cruel warlord Cortise, they of course rush to defend the innocent villagers, but riding with the brigands is Xena's estranged older brother, Toris. To say more would give away too much, but this one is significant for providing a window into exactly what ignited the warrior spark within Xena in the first place many years ago.

Episode #24: IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE?

Lesson learned here: triage in ancient Greece while under siege and being bullied by a religious fanatic is not a walk in the park.

Xena's advanced, battlefield-earned healing skills are put to the test as she and Gabrielle minister to the grievously wounded in a temple during the middle of a vicious war over, among other things, religious ideologies. Xena's single-minded focus while performing tracheotomies, dealing with sucking chest wounds and setting broken bones is pretty intense, and Gabrielle defines bedside manner as a Potidaean Florence Nightengale-style peacemaker. It's like a bizarre episode of E/R, especially when Ephiny the Amazon returns, in a particularly difficult delicate condition, and we get to witness the agonizing particulars of the Caesarean birth of a centaur (Imagine the vaginal birth on that one. Yikes!!!). Oh, and Xena's medical efforts make a lasting impression on some guy named Hippocrates.

So that's it for season one. I'm going to take a break from the world of Xena for a little while, but now that I've gotten into the rhythm of this particular project I'd say you can expect the next installment in about a month, so stay tuned!

And by the way, did anyone else notice that Xena's loyal horse, Argo, started out male and was later referred to as "she" or "her?" What happened?

Xena and Argo, the gender-changing steed. NOTE: when I first saw this photo I thought Argo was grazing on Xena, but then I noticed his head was on the other side of her thigh. What the fuck is wrong with me?

And why isn't this happening to me right this very moment?

Seriously, find me one thing wrong with this (other than it not being me that Xena's riding)!

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

No argument from me that Joxer was annoying as fire ants at a pagan picnic. Callisto and Atolicus, though, helped make that series a "must-see."

Oh, and slight correction: Marcus wasn't the only black male characters on Xena. It's been years since I saw the show, but Tony "Candyman" Todd played at least two different characters in later seasons - Cycrops the Mariner and one other dude whose name I can't recall.

Bunche said...

A slight correction to the slight correction: I should have been more specific when referring to Marcus as "the sole brutha up in this muthafukka;" I was referring to his role in that particular story, not the entire series. But please feel free to write in with corrections. It keeps me on my toes!

bamaxena said...

Well, now I'm wondering if by the "other dude" the commenter meant Draco, played by Jay Laga'aia. But he's of Samoan descent. But then Nathaniel Lees is also of Samoan descent. RIght? So maybe I'm on the wrong track here altogether. Hmm... *scratches head* I guess I'll have to re-watch all six seasons, for research purposes, you understand. Works for me. Ciao! :)

bamaxena said...

Oops, I just realized that Anonymous said that Tony Todd played another character. My bad. I know he played Gilgamesh on Hercules TLJ. Don't remember him playing another role on XWP. But then my brain is obviously on holiday right now.

And another comment of mine seems to have disappeared. Probably just as well since I misunderstood anyway. That's what happens when I read and write replies too late at night. ;)

Buncheman (pop culture ronin) said...

Yeah, Tony Todd played Cecrops on XENA. And thanks for writing in about this and thereby reminding me to get off my ass and cover the rest of this show! (There's been a lot going on in my world outside of the Internet and I just have not had either the time nor the motivation. That will change soon.)