Cult Times Special #11
Many thanks to Kevin James for the transcript and the scans
There'd be no Xena if it wasn't for Hercules. and no Buffy or Stargate if it wasn't for films. We take a look at the similar origins of mnay Cult TV hits and investigate the way in which spin-offs have kept many a series alive.
The majority of television spin-offs are in the mould of Angel, which will transplant the most popular character from Buffy The Vampire Slayer into a new setting where he can continue to combat the sorts of evil that Buffy, Xander and company will carry on fighting in Sunnydale. That's very much the traditional way to establish spin-offs in all genres of television programme, from Jason King to Frasier to Tucker's Luck. As in all these cases, the programmes are best advertised by having the transplanted character's name in the title.
By far the most successful cult TV series spun off from another in recent years follows the pattern, but with a twist. Xena, a leather-clad Amazon warrior, appeared as a guest character in three early episodes of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, and there was an instant reaction from the audience and the production team that told Renaissance Pictures that they were on to a winner. There was just one problem: Xena was a villain.
But since when did anyone let something like that stand in the way of a good idea ? With a wave of the television producer's magic wand, Xena was reformed and reborn so that Lucy Lawless could take her place as the crusading heroine of her own series, Xena: Warrior Princess. From day one, the show has courted controversy and attracted attention from the press and public alike, sometimes not for the best of reasons - but the producers' thinking must be that no publicity is bad publicity. They're probably right: Xena, now starting its fifth season, will definitely outlive the much less popular Hercules, which seems rather tame in comparison. Xena has an incredibly loyal and devoted fan base, attracted by the series' blend of action, adventure, comedy and a stunning woman dressed in leather. The show even has a sizeable lesbian following owing to the close relationship between the two main characters, Xena and her sidekick Gabrielle.
Such topics can, however, court controversy with religious groups. Season Four managed to offend many Hindus with a series of episodes that took Xena and Gabrielle into India where they met gods who are still very much a part of Hindu worship. Despite getting into a great deal of trouble over this, the producers don't seem to have learnt their lesson: in what could easily be seen as a spectacularly crass season finale, the two heroines are crucified. It's not as though Christ was the only person who died on the cross, but let's just say that there's going to be trouble if Xena and Gabrielle rise from the dead three days later.
But all the fuss over lesbian subtext, depiction of violence and religious insensitivity doesn't take away from the fact that Xena is a hugely successful spin-off. Last season's already cancelled Young Hercules is much more typical of the usual unimaginative and invariably short-lived series that are born from successful but not Earth-shattering parents like Hercules.
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