BACK IN THE BOTTLE
Season 5, Episode 7
September 18, 2000
Reviewed by SLK
RATING: 7 chakrams
SCRIBES AND SCROLLS: Teleplay by Buddy Williers [alias of Steven L. Sears], Directed by Rick Jacobson.
PASSING PARADE: Ted Raimi (Joxer); Marie Matiko (Pao Ssu/K'ao Hsin); George Kee Chung (Khan); Daniel Sing (Ming Tien); Anthony Wong (Lin Qi); Helen Phung (Tei); Lohsing Cheng (Peasant).
STORY SO FAR: Xena returns to Chin to destroy the last of the black powder and faces two dead(ly) adversaries: Ming Tien and Pao Ssu ... and a new one, Genghis (one presumes) Khan.
DISCLAIMER: Pao Ssu's split personality was not harmed during the production of this motion picture.
REWIND FOR: That neat trick with the revolving Ming Tien/Pao Ssu twin thing. Always knew they'd turn out to be two-faced.
Heroic Xena as she delicately picks her way through a minefield to save Joxer and assorted refugees. Her plan being for them to walk out in her footsteps. Seconds later Khan turns up and *then* she suddenly remembers her trusty chakram which she duly flings into the minefield, thus clearing a path for their escape. Initial use of her twin spinning things would have put everyone, including herself and her unborn child, in far less peril.
One of the most implausible scenes to date, when Gabrielle and Lin Qi are caught in one of Khan's ammunition dumps. A rewind clearly shows they had 3 daggers between the two of them when a net fell on their heads trapping them. Despite the fact they are seconds away from being blown to Mount Olympus, they chose to use none of those daggers to cut themselves out. Nor did they even attempt to pull out the daggers that held down the net. Yet, once the coast is clear and Xena has telepathically snuffed out the perilous gunpowder fuse, Lin Qi miraculously breaks his way out of the net -- bare-handed and announcing "lets get out of here". Eh?!
Next scene rewind for Gabrielles grateful thanks to Xena for getting them outta there. Who told Gabrielle it was Xena? They do have wind in Chin dont they? Or is she so used to Xena coming to her rescue that she now attributes all seemingly natural phenomena, wind, rain, sleet, snow to Xena, regardless. (This time of course, she was right... but still!)
Joxer's every word of consolation being understood by a peasant girl. I was momentarily impressed at how quickly he had picked up the local lingo, until the climactic fight scene. His screamed instruction of 'stay low, tight formation, follow me' made not one of bit of sense to a group of locals held as Khan's prisoners. Two possible explanations: the peasant girl's Greek was a lot better than Joxer's Chinese *or* Joxer forgot to wear his Babelfish/universal translator, to the battle scene.
Gabrielle's piqued expression as she catches out Joxer delivering yet another one of his tall tales about how *he* saved the day. The sight of Gabs; arms folded, eyebrows raised was priceless.
"I used to write, but it's been a while." Gabrielle finally 'fesses up to a clearly prolonged case of writer's block.
"You know what I'm looking forward to? The look on your face when Xena devastates your army." Gabrielle nominating herself as No.1 cheerleader for Team Xena. Give me an X...Give me an E...
"I used to think love was enough. I was wrong." More immortal words from the bard, Gabrielle. Rivalling that other glib gem - 'love means never having to say you're sorry.'
Xena: "What did Lao Ma have that I didn't?"
Gabrielle: "A full stomach."
Gabrielle: "What is that?!"
Lin Qi: "The sound of my dead ancestors making a place for me at the table."
Well you dont get much bigger than one woman facing down 100,000 men. And to think Id thought One Against An Army was a big deal with Xena singlehandedly facing Persias entire advance guard. Of course in OAAA Xena was doing it the hard way... as in a bruise or two to show for it.
Here we see Xenas been taking the Jedi Master advance course and Im surprised we cant hear, whispered on the wind, "Feel the force, Xena".
Although Xenas Yoda is a little hard to spot here -- as in Lao Ma has been dead for years now. But interestingly, as Luke also discovered, the universal message in telekinetic talents seems to remain constant: size doesnt matter. A rabbit; a 100,000 strong army, pfft. Whatever.
I am still pondering the notion of Xena killing 100,000 people while shes good -- almost certainly more than she and all her men together were capable of killing while she was bad....now thats irony.
While I thought it very cool that Xena created the terracotta army -- nice surprise finish that -- Back in the Bottle sets some very disturbing precedents for the future of the show and the Warrior Princess.
Consider this: any time Xena gets into strife again -- big, serious, deadly strife, youd be half expecting Gabrielle to nudge her and say: "Come on, Xena, think us out of this already... do the mind zappy thing." Yes, now that Xena has the superdooper powers it really will be hard to put them back in the bottle, regardless of the episodes title.
How do you take away someones ability to think her enemy dead?
Well the Xena folks thought of that and tried to close some of these loopholes, referring to how the power was "using" Xena, not the other way around. But this is a little tough to buy. For two reasons: One, Xena, the first time she came in contact with the power, she slowly learned how to use it and there was never any reference to her (or Lao Ma or, later, Pao Ssu or any other users) being under its spell. Its not magic, remember, its a discipline of the mind. But suddenly, for no reason at all, Xena is now expressing these weird doubts. Its like, after riding a bike for years, suddenly turning around saying, "I fear I shall lose this ability -- I am starting to think the bike is riding me."
Secondly: Lets presume there is controlling happening here. Why its suddenly decided to control Xena now is more to do with the Xena writers realising theyve dug a super-Xena-sized hole for themselves more than anything else. OK, whatever. What is inescapable is that the power is not sentient. It can not think for itself -- it is simply a power, like electricity. Otherwise it wouldnt be a power -- it would be a living being. Thus, as a power, by definition, only others control it.
So if Xena is right and she isnt controlling it, who is? The implication is its Lao Ma.
So there Lao Ma is, lying about, dead, pulling the puppet strings on Xena. Thats really hard to swallow, even in the Xenaverse. Even in Chin, not only can the dead tell no tales, they cant do much of anything else except act as worm bait.
Thus, under the Chin rules of dying, to do these things Lao Ma would theoretically have to be alive in spirit form -- in much the same way as her evil offspring are, hanging about between life and death, waiting to finish whatever still ails her. So (impatient tapping) where IS she?? She wouldnt visit her favourite student and nicest daughter about to face death and give them the plumping "win this for the Gipper" speech?
But alas, no show.... And, well, they do go to pains to explain Lao Ma is really dead -- Especially as Xena refers to her mentors legacy several times.
So if she is dead, who is yanking Xena about, giving her special strength and power?
We know Kao Hsin isnt doing it because she fears making her siblings stronger by using them.
That only leaves Xena. The only logical explanation (not that this matters in the Xenaverse) is that Xena is doing it all on her lonesome and doesnt understand she is. Immense power can often feel like its out of control, or we are, and theres no reason to suspect thats not whats happening here.
Which leads us back to where we began... Xena now could well have superhuman abilities -- super breath; shields; lightening ball hands; and a stone-turning glare -- and so any future tough spots she gets into will be a little hard to not expect her capable of literally thinking her way out of them.
Theyre sort of damned both ways, the writers. If they make it logical and consistent, then Lao Mas still dead as roadkill, Xena was always in control but is now Super Xena.
If they stick to their line, that Xena was controlled by the spirit of Lao Ma, and the power was temporary/she was its vessel, then they ask the fans to swallow a lot of inconsistency -- not just about death but the way the power has operated in the past compared with here. And the fans arent stupid. They do notice how dumb it sounds.
It is an imperfect solution. Id have personally gone with what they tried after The Debt 2 -- that Xena simply lost her focus and ability to properly empty her mind the more time passed. While thats also a long shot -- its more plausible to believe shes human than controlled by the magically undead dead.
These plot holes were distracting and hard to get past. Fix these, and the episode would have been 100 times better. In fact, fix even 20 per cent of the gaping flaws and Id have been happy.
Heres another niggle that just doesnt sit right:
"They're coming from Lao Ma's temple," Xena says, opening a Pandoras box early on in the episode. Lao Ma's temple? Must have been a large temple to hold all those refugees, which raises a question or two. The strictly modest Lao Ma would not have dedicated such an edifice to herself. Her modesty even extending to secretly crediting her evil, comatose husband Lao Tsu with all her teachings. So that leaves the villagers themselves building one in her memory. But why? Officially, the great one was Lao Tsu, not Lao Ma. Publicly, Lao Ma was simply a concubine who had married 'up' -- nothing more. Ruling out a temple as improbable, that leaves Lao Ma's *palace* as the only place the refugees could have come from. The same place Xena later told Joxer to re-direct all the said refugees to, sending the hapless souls right back from where they started...
And a quibble -- why, oh why, do they insist on adding a stupid scene to a serious moment? I think I know why -- to not be so dark -- but it is so jarring. The moment this time is Joxer struggling to take sword out of scabbard, a manoeuvre even he has done seamlessly a thousand times. It was the humor element, I guess they thought -- but it really sucked. It reminded me of pogo-stick Xena from OAAA - a terrible mistake in the context of that episode.
Onto the fun stuff.
This is the first episode I can ever recall where Xena plays the comic relief. She does a Joxer/early-Gabrielle at the start of episode, trying to cook the rabbit instead of, er, stone it. For the first time, its Joxer and Gabrielle rolling their eyes at the hero, not the other way around. And it was a funny little skit. (I dont even want to imagine what fried squirrel tastes like, thanks Joxer.)
I want to know, by the way, where Joxer gets all the money from? He had it in Chakram, too. Whod have thought being a goofball with delusions of warrior grandeur paid so well. Or maybe hes been selling his cooking skills?
Joxer-haters still putting holes in their Been There, Done That tape from excessive rewinding will have the joy of seeing him explode in this one. Its starting to have a South Park feel to it now... ohmigod they killed Joxer! Theyve had his death by sword, by chakram, by rocket... whats next? I am personally voting for a trampling death by farm animals, but I wont hold my breath.
Same scene, Gabrielle, meanwhile, also dies -- again. I am starting to wonder about Xenas fixation with having visions where the bard keeps biting the bullet. Is this her worst fear or what?
Speaking of Gabrielle, my, my how that bard has changed. Shes all growed up now, Xena. She fights so well in this episode, its probably good Ares wasnt watching or hed have upped the anti on his "Wont you be my chosen heir"...routine.
But those little ittybitty daggers of hers against all those big swords are starting to terrify me -- so I was almost relieved to see her switch to a staff mid fight. If she really was using the knife handles against her adversaries the way she seems to be, then in reality shed have poked so many holes into her forearms by now shed be a pincushion.
Gabrielles also taking charge with a lot more ease. For the first time in as long as I can remember, its Gabrielle who organises the plan of attack instead of Xena, telling the mother-to-be to cool it, Xena aint going and shell handle it. Loved that...
But the maturity is also in her being settled about who she is and knowing where she wants to be. She tells Lin Qi that home can be a person too -- implying shes found hers with Xena.
A season ago, hed have been the redcoat shed have been making ga-ga eyes at. Sure, hes still doing the flirtatious Hower line "Have you ever thought of settling down", but shes so unmoved. Lucky for him too -- probably saved his life, given her romantic history.
I was interested to read Renee saying the script originally called for Gabs to return to that season two habit of her making eyes at him and he her. Renee actually was the one to say hold on, thats ridiculous -- that a pregnant Xena was facing down a monster army and Gabrielles only thought would be in keeping her companion safe, not flirting with some blow-in.
I read that despite Renees protest at the credibility of it all, she was asked to play it that way anyway and told theyd "fix it" later in the cutting room. Well if Renees playing it that way, then Im Genghis Khan. Of course someone forgot to tell Lin Qi it seems...
Yet another sign that Gabrielle has changed is how she responds when Xena asks her not to be at her side, saying "no Gabrielle, I need absolute clarity for what I am about to do -- youll only be a distraction." (Theres that d-word again.)
Gabrielle just nods and says "good luck" acknowledging Xenas probably right, instead of arguing the point or agreeing and then sneaking back, as she once might have done. Of course the irony is that in the early days, when she did sneak back, she was far more of a distraction than she is now, as a competent warrior who sees Xenas point and wouldnt get in the way!
Speaking of agreement with Xena, Gabrielle, once one of the strongest advocates of peace will solve all, now says stuff like "I used to think love was enough. I was wrong." Hmm.
Gabrielles also no longer the "storyteller of sorts" as the bard tells Qi but she is a "mini warrior" as Renee describes it. Gotta be tough, those mid-life career changes. I wonder where theyre heading with that?
Its as if these two women are turning into clones of each other -- I mean that in the nicest way -- hell, many people who live together start to take on one anothers characteristics. I am just wondering where it will go from here? Shouldnt maybe they retain some distinctive, unique qualities? Or not? Was this always inevitable, that theyd come to a place of similarity/sameness of views and resolve their most outstanding different philosophies by field testing them and seeing which held water best?
Im very interested to see the future evolution of this dynamic duo aka Distracto Bard and Super Mario Warrior Princess.
In summary -- not a bad episode at all, just not the great it should have been with a story like that. The plot holes came too thick and fast for fans to suspend disbelief entirely this time and so I cant even give them points for trying any more. I seriously doubt they are trying to resolve some of them -- they just seem to be crossing their fingers and hoping we wont notice. This may seem like I am being too harsh, but anyone in any doubt of what this show is capable of need only look at The Debt again and you will see slick, entertaining, gripping episodes with nary a plothole in sight.
Were being gipped by lazy writing now. Its like the The Powers That Bes minds are on other things -- and its really starting to show.
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