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Spectrum #5

May 1996


One of the surprises of the past year's television programming has been the huge success of Xena: Warrior Princess. This success is relative—the series is syndicated, so the audience doesn't approach a prime time "hit" for a major network. Nevertheless, its popularity among its syndication competitors has been astounding. It regularly ranks in the top twenty, and if one considers only hour-long dramas (eliminating shows such as Oprah, Home Improvement, and Wheel of Fortune), Xena is in the top five.

Clearly, much of its success is owed to its association with Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, currently among the top three syndicated dramas—a close weekly battle among Hercules, Baywatch, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. (We're using "drama" loosely here; we recognize the emphasis on humor in Xena and, especially, Hercules.) The meteoric rise of both of these shows is somewhat astonishing, given that they basically came out of nowhere and are not carbon copies of the popular network fare.

Of course, that's part of their appeal. Neither would have survived the cut with a network—they're too hard to pigeon-hole into easy categories. The shows are just— there's no getting around it—really, really weird.

Xena: Superhero Princess?
If reduced to a bare-bones outline, Xena is easy to describe and actually sounds fairly generic. In an ancient time, grim Xena and her bubbly, talkative sidekick Gabrielle travel the countryside fighting crime and helping citizens in need of a protector. A female version of Batman and Robin, right?

In a way, yes. Xena stands as one of the best television comic books ever. How ironic that it didn't start out as a four-color adventure. (A Hercules comic is on the way; no doubt Xena will be close behind.) Interestingly, executive producers Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert were responsible for the M.A.N.T.I.S. superhero TV movie from Fox a couple of years ago (a horrible endeavor that was later turned into a moderately enjoyable weekly series; see Spectrum 3).

Xena-as-a-television-comic-book is not intended as a put-down. As comic book fans ourselves, we enjoy watching those sensibilities played out on television with some quality (which has rarely been done). But Xena seems reminiscent of the comics of the sixties—before the Marvel and DC "universes" got so large and complex that they became immensely complicated. Xena is like the old Stan Lee/Steve Ditko Spider-Man comics—some adventure, a little melodrama, and a lot of humor, treading the thin line between genuine drama and tongue-in-cheek campiness.

Such comparisons may be stronger than many viewers think at first. Above we mentioned the difficulty of describing Xena. The obvious label is "sword and sorcery," a sort of "Conanette the Barbarian." Yet the show is at least as much—and maybe even more—a superhero series. How else to explain the heroine's superpowers? (Of course she has superpowers: a leaping ability that might as well be flying; gravity neutralization that allows her to stay airborne while kicking an entire line of enemy soldiers—see the episode "Warrior...Princess" ; hands of steel that enable her to grab swords by their sharp blades and wrest them from their attackers; the "Xena touch" that cuts off the blood supply to the brain; and no doubt others to be revealed as the series progresses.)

Another comic book/Xena comparison is instructive. One of the current fads in comics is the strong superheroine, usually a bit nasty and able to fight with the best of her male counterparts. Forget Wonder Woman; now we have Barb Wire, Celestine, Angela, Lady Death, Shi, Vampirella, Warrior Nun Areala, Avenge-lyne—we could go on and on. Grim fighting females are all the rage. Of course, comic book readers' tastes don't necessarily reflect the much larger television-watching audience, but the comic book sub-culture is showing that there is a market for heroines on the rampage.

Bleak Action and Enjoyable Acting

Although both the Hercules and Xena series are related—the character of Xena first appeared in a guest-starring role on Hercules—the two series are fairly different in tone. Well admit that we're less familiar with Hercules, but the episodes we've seen are much more upbeat and lighthearted than Xena. No doubt much of this arises from the central characters. Hercules is not trying to make amends for his past atrocities. Xena started out as a villain on Hercules. She was a somewhat bloodthirsty conqueror who sought to subdue as much of the countryside as she could. Thanks to Hercules, she turned her back on her past and now seeks to atone for her crimes by helping others defend against the criminals that roam the land. Yet (particularly in the early episodes) her past keeps catching up to her, and she finds that her Damascus-like experience is not believed by those she is trying to help.

Her bleak history sets the tone for the series and establishes the personality for Xena, who rarely smiles but sets about her life as one on a serious mission. The series, however, has a fair amount of humor, primarily because of Xena's sidekick Gabrielle. It's a well-established formula— think again of the grim, mission-oriented Batman accompanied by the carefree, slightly irresponsible Robin. Gabrielle, facing marriage to a "dull and stupid" man, seeks adventure by accompanying Xena.

The pairing works well. Gabrielle is a talker who loves telling stories—a perfect complement to Xena's overall silence. Xena is the wise, well-traveled adult with a wide range of experiences; Gabrielle is the (relative) youngster full of innocence.
One of the pleasures of watching Xena (and Hercules, for that matter) is seeing how well-acted the shows are. The casual viewer might very well expect a couple of syndicated "barbarian shows" to be showcases of bad acting, where all of the Hollywood rejects end up as a last resort. We remember recommending Xena to a friend, and he called back the next week surprised: "You know, Lucy Lawless can really act." Indeed, despite the constraints of the character, Lawless has proven to have enough of a screen presence that, following her stint on Xena, she should find a wide selection of roles available to her.

Far from the overacting that adventure roles usually exhibit, Lawless manages to imbue Xena with remarkable subtlety and depth—a haunted performance necessary for viewers to believe that the character actually does have a less-than-honorable past. She can express more with a raised eyebrow or slight smile than many actors can with complete body language. And while all the episodes prove Lawless's ability to portray a Xena-type character, one episode in particular shows she has greater range. In "Warrior...Princess," Lawless plays a dual role as Xena and as Princess Diana, a naive, slightly daffy recluse forced to live outside the castle with the "little people" for a short while. This is standard sitcom-type material, and Lawless excels at the opportunity to immerse herself in it.

Renee O'Connor also is wonderful as Gabrielle. The role doesn't have the range of Xena. Often, her purpose in an episode is merely for comic relief—or to fall in love on a weekly basis with the good-looking, gentle males chat the two constantly encounter. These combine to make Gabrielle a more shallow character than Xena, yet O'Connor makes the most of it. One episode, "Athens City Academy of the Performing Bards," she virtually carries on her own. In another, "Hooves & Harlots," she has a major role. In both—plus in numerous brief scenes throughout the series—O'Connor shows an impressive comic ability. Even if she never gets offered another dramatic role (and she's been in many, including Follow the River, which we reviewed in Wrapped in Plastic 17), we could easily see her establishing herself as a major star in comedy roles.

Xena: Anachronistic Princess?

One of the strangest aspects of Xena is its use of mythology from a variety of sources, regardless of the time or place of the original stories. As such, the show thrives on anachronism. Actually, both Hercules and Xena utilize this at times to make humorous comments about contemporary life. In one episode of Hercules, a man at a roadside stand sells Hercules some "fast food." Hercules takes a bite and immediately spits it out. "This is horrible!" "Yes," answers the vendor, "but it's fast?' Salmoneus, more of a regular on Hercules than on Xena, seems to exist primarily for this purpose. At one point he says that Xena needs a "theme song" for herself— which, of course, he would be happy to provide.

The official press kit states that Xena "is set in the 'golden age' of myth, long before ancient Greece or Rome, on the distant frontier of known civilization far away from the land of mighty Hercules." That seems vague enough, yet clearly elements of Greece and Rome dominate the episodes (although with no specific time reference). But how can Homer (of Iliad and Odyssey fame) tell the story of Spartacus (which he does in "Athens City of the Performing Bards," to be covered in Spectrum 6) when that particular slave revolt occurred at least seven hundred years later? We're tempted to offer an ad hoc, "Marvel No-Prize"-type of explanation: there were two Spartacuses, and the second, more famous one (as depicted in the Stanley Kubrick film) used the first one as a role model! Or here's another theory: Xena is, unbeknown to her, a time traveler. As she walks the countryside, she's slipping through different time portals.

In fact, such dilemmas aren't meant to be given serious thought. The show is treating myths and historical elements as game pieces to be moved at will into a particular episode if they will create more entertaining stories. Sometimes multiple myths will be combined. "Cradle of Hope" merges the story of a baby (who is remarkably similar to Moses) with the Pandora legend—with Xena as the link. Sometimes the myths are re-written by simply adding Xena's influence. For instance, classical mythology tells that Hercules (Heracles) freed Prometheus from Mount Caucasus.

In the world of Xena, however, we learn that Hercules had assistance from the warrior princess.

Mythological Adventures

A comprehensive study of Xena would require extensive presentation of the various myths and historical events that influence various episodes. We do not claim to be experts in either mythology or history (we took the usual college classes), so the following guide will provide only a rough overview of some of those aspects of any given episode.

Finally, a few notes about the episode guide itself. First, because Xena is essentially a fantasy genre show, we will forgo our usual episode-by-episode ratings. (We applied the same rule to M.A.N.T.I.S. in our third issue.) Most of these episodes would fall into the three-star (or "donut") category (see page 26). Secondly, because the end credits are presented in microscopic type (and thus presumably not meant to be seen or read—much like the legalese at the bottom of car commercials), we are omitting listing those credits below. Third, we've tried to get the spellings accurate on the various characters, but we can't guarantee that we were completely successful on everyone.

As mentioned in our editorial, we could not fit the entire feature in this issue Following is part one of the episode guide Part two will appear in Spectrum 6.

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