Sunday, June 03, 2007


Yet another 'thon' recently completed. This one was six seasons long and took us just under 100 hours. But hey, who's counting. It's not as though you could run this kind of 'thon' any faster. Besides, it comes with a sense of exhiliration rather than exhaustion when you cross the finishing line and there's all this gorgeous scenery along the way. There was some sense of a race to get to the end, but only in that positive way of being in a hurry to watch the next episode and then the next. It's less of a marathon, in fact, more of a fun run.

As cult TV series from the Antipodes go, it's no Farscape, let me say that. Whereas Farscape is pretty much everything New Who should be, Xena: Warrior Princess has a number of qualities in common with Doctor Who, many of which neither show would wish to boast about. There’s the obviously lower budget - almost theatrical - production values, with a frequent am-dram feel to proceedings. A set often looks like a set, for instance, and many a guest role filled by actors somewhat wanting in the acting department. Heck, even the CGI is of the Tesco blue-stripe brand. More effect than special. On the plus side though, those same limitations firmly place the onus on story, script and character(s) for the series to succeed. Whenever those are on form, just as with Doctor Who, the slightly ropier aspects even manage to become part of the appeal.

Still, with those ropey aspects in mind, Xena is not at first glance as clearly head and shoulders above New Who as some other series I've loyally followed and sang the praises of here. It's a spin-off from (what I found to be) a second rate fantasy show with a hero wooden enough to be rolled into Troy and have several Brad Pitts come spilling out to bring the city and one of the truly great mythological stories to an inauspicious end. So I'm obliged to consider what it is about the show that made this a more enjoyable experience - both on this recent rewatch and first time around - than the majority of New Who to date.

There are the trimmings, of course. I love a good martial arts movie and the influences are drawn with verve, style and as much tongue in cheek as kick in head. You don’t need to get as far as the Xena-Callisto ladder fight to know these people have studied their sources. There’s also the cinematography which, while quite ordinary to begin with, later really stands out in a way that has you thinking these people are making an effort. Like many a director on Farscape, you get the impression they’re showing us what they can do, they want to be making movies. See the Native American, I mean, Northern Amazon episodes, for example. And laced through it all, Jo LoDuca’s music invariably hits the mark, with its various ethnic flavours and movie score scale.

And why not be cinematic? After all, Xena has all that eye-catching scenery going for it. By which, I mean the beautiful New Zealand landscape, of course, and not all the girlflesh on display - although let's not pretend that's not a factor. For me, not so much for my wife. But even there, it scores a double whammy, hitting the bull's eye with a single arrow on two target audiences that you'd think would be further apart. But no, it can have its feminist icon cake and eat its leather clad babe fantasy icing. The scantily clad women are all kick-ass heroines, strong, independent laudable feminist icons as well as eye candy for the ogling male. It's like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer for that.

Whereas Buffy had her monster of the week, this show mostly eschews monsters in favour of those hordes of samey warlords and there are, as with all series, poor episodes in the mix, but even most of the weaker ones maintain a certain standard and manage to be entertaining. And although it’s not as consistently sharp the wit occasionally – occasionally – soars to Buffy levels. Watching the series first time around, I encountered only three episodes that were so dreadful as to be cringeworthy. Second time around, Here She Comes…Miss Amphipolis (S2) was better than I recalled and only Lyre, Lyre, Hearts On Fire (S5) and Married With Fishsticks (also S5) (what in TARTARUS were they thinking?) managed to be that bad all over again. Lyre is the second musical episode and opts for the Moulin Rouge approach of having its cast sing existing rock/pop songs with awful results, no matter how obvious it is the cast are enjoying themselves. (N.B. The first of Xena's forays into the musical world, The Bitter Suite, is not likely to be to everyone's taste, but it's ambitiously operatic, courageous and, I think, fabulous.) Fishsticks is just insane, colourful and dreadful.

Still, it only serves to demonstrate that variety is very much the spice of this show. On paper, the series' basic setup would not allow for the same variety of storylines as Doctor Who's famous infinitely flexible format and while many evil warlords blur together in the memory, at its best, the show is persistently inventive within its own framework – not so much pushing the envelope as seeing what it can produce with a little origami. Indeed, by the time we get to the sixth season, there’s a sense that because the producers know this is to be the final season, they’re thinking, “So, what haven’t we done, yet?”

Although they may have already arrived at that stage the season before when they indulge themselves with a little sword-toting Western-style action. Yes, sometimes the boat is pushed so far out it's in danger of sinking halfway across the River Styx because it rarely has the budget for the full trip. But really, you have to laugh. The Western one, Animal Attraction (S5) is not the most successful of episodes, but that week’s particular warlord story plays second fiddle to the witty relationship stuff and the impending revelations about Xena’s pregnancy.

But more than the individual episodes and the sheer – often wacky - variety on offer, it’s the way the series develops, season after season, that is one of the key ingredients that makes it shine.

As far as the story arc goes, the series has in some respects mapped out its path from the word go. By factoring the Greek pantheon so prominently, we’re naturally set on a course for conflict with the gods and the troubled transition to monotheism, with epic battles, betrayal, divine and Satanic intervention, multiple crucifixions, angels, demons, and the shameless taking of liberties at the risk of offending many a faith along the way. But none of this religious rigmarole need get in the way, any more than Lucy’s championing of the Cylon’s One God need interfere with your enjoyment of Battlestar Galactica. Just because the Messianic Eli looks like he stepped out of a portrait of Jesus that used to hang on a Sunday school wall, doesn’t mean you need to take him any more seriously than Farlang, the God of Travellers & Wayfarers in 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons. Actually, if anything, it helps.

But to the show’s credit, for a series with lesbian undertones it plays it surprisingly straight. It’s fantasy, it’s fun, it’s tongue-in-cheek and it’s played with conviction. Something like 99% of the time, I’d say, it strikes the right balance of daft, farcical, serious and heartfelt. It has enough laughs that we never take it too seriously, and yet it’s serious – even deadly serious – enough that we genuinely care about the characters.

And it needs that. The central character is a heroine with an edge. And I’m not just talking about the blade of her sword. Although that does factor in: she’s struggling to throw off and atone for her violent past. But she will resort to violence. Until the world gives it up, neither can she. So she’s not afraid of sticking the knife in, she can’t afford to be. Like the Eccleston Doctor, we have a deeply troubled leather-clad hero who’s seen too much death and been the cause of a great deal of it. We, as an audience, have to forgive her for all that and understand, just as she does, that her recourse to violence is for the Greater Good.

Courtesy of the character progression and Lucy Lawless’ formidable but feminine performance we’re on board with her, and ready to forgive Xena her ‘Sins of the Past’ long before she ever will. It’s curious that just as I never found Eccleston convincing when he tried being goofy, Lucy is never as convincing when she’s going all Three Stooges on us, but she convinces entirely in all other respects. (There’s plenty of comedy she does really well too and when it comes to the doppelganger episodes, she does an exceptional job of differentiating between the various look-alikes for us.) Her character progression is not nearly as full and pronounced as her sidekick’s, but we are treated to great insights along the road, by virtue of many a trip into her past. Where we get to see just how bad Bad Xena could be and just how far she has come.

As for her famous sidekick, Gabrielle is ultimately much more than that. Yes, and not just in terms of their ‘special relationship’, I mean. Her journey is something incredible to behold and I enjoy the fact that the contrast is always – well, up to Season 6 anyway – there to see in each episode’s opening titles. Renee O’Connor is always credited alongside a portrait of the original klutzy but intrepid and faintly frumpy farmgirl, while her character undergoes many a transformation as part of her natural growth while following Xena’s path and attempting to find her own. (It’s good to watch Renee grow as an actress too, hand in hand with the role.) She looks up to Xena from the start, wants to be like her, but in following those aspirations, she completes a journey that will make her a heroine in her own right. Setting out as an aspiring bard - with a definite gift of the Gab – becoming an Amazon is just one step along her journey, through the rejection of violence and the embracing of pacifism, that is doomed to culminate in an amazing explosion of bloodthirsty rage. Her friendship with Xena goes through the mill as well but she emerges at the end as a warrior princess of her own making, rather than merely in Xena’s image.

It’s like a companion might have grown sufficiently in the Doctor’s company to take his place in the universe as one hypothetical conclusion of the last Doctor Who episode ever.

Similar growth is afforded other recurring characters, most notably Callisto. She’s not quite a Scorpius, but Hudson Leick is delightfully psychotic as the villainess who Xena created. She’s key to Xena’s character progression, as Xena learns that, while accepting responsibility for setting Callisto on her bloody path, she cannot be held accountable for every one of Callisto’s murderous deeds. But more than that, Callisto is granted her own chance to grow, after a steady descent of increasingly twisted spirals, ascension to maniacal Godhood and ultimately a redemption that others – Gabrielle in particular – have a hard time accepting. There are a few gaps in the Callisto arc to be filled, but as those took place in the course of a few crossover episodes with the parent series, those will require getting a hold of some Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. But I figure it will be worth enduring small doses of Kevin Sorbo, because as villains go, Callisto is a joy to watch.

In contrast, the development granted Livia/Eve, as Xena’s daughter, seems to be resolved too quickly. As is often the case, she’s just far more interesting as a villain, and Livia’s epiphany and setting out on the road as a follower of Eli is a little too fast to be entirely satisfactory. But once the decision had been taken to end the series, clearly some resolution for her had to be found.

And of course, we couldn’t overlook Joxer (The Mighty). He starts out as a joke, but a brilliant one and it’s clear that Ted Raimi loves the character. And who could not. Through his touching and unrequited (at least, not in that way) love for Gabrielle and his own heroic journey, we get to know him as far more than a one-trick pony or running gag that keeps tripping over himself. The resolution found for his character comes as a shock (first time around!), but is surprisingly fitting and genuinely affecting.

Kevin Smith as Ares, although his character doesn’t enjoy as great a development as some – various ‘future’ episodes prove to us he’ll always basically be the same, he can’t help himself – is brilliant. Alexandra Tydings plays a wonderfully Clueless style Aphrodite. Karl Urban makes for a mean Caesar and Marton Csokas is a good match for Xena as Borias. And Paris Jefferson as Athena is also worth a mention for making a mark, even though she doesn’t feature in many episodes at all.

But just as with Farscape, there’s too much that could be said about this series. And I think the best answer to any questions about the show’s appeal comes in the way they rounded the whole series off. For one thing, all those people who clearly wanted to be making movies were given the opportunity to make one, albeit in two parts. In the two-episode finale, the production values are upped considerably and the team get to show off all their strengths. Except one: there isn’t a great deal of comedy in evidence. But it’s epic, it’s truly cinematic and it’s a journey right to the source, both in terms of Xena being called back to answer for an episode from her past and in terms of really getting to grips with one of those martial arts movies they’d been acknowledging all along. But it’s not just a spectacular closure, it’s one that the series and the characters deserved.

I’d be tempted to say, if you only ever watched one Xena story, watch that one. But at the same time, I don’t know if it would have the same impact if you hadn’t been on the journey all the way. There are probably episodes you could skip (most of the clip shows, for instance, inventive though they can be with their framing) and some you should (Married With Fishsticks, shudder) but the vast majority make it very worthwhile. Although be sure to go for the Region 1 DVDs, as they're much more nicely packaged and presented - and they have all the episodes in the right order.

Take it from me. It’s a journey I’ve happily taken twice now. Xena and Gabrielle, so good they had stellar bodies named after them. Well, for a while. Never mind, Callisto's still out there.

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