Saturday, 14 July 2012

Xena Warrior Princess: Athens City Academy of the Performing Bards

I can't decide how I feel about this episode, which is an episode about stories and story-telling, incorporating elements of a clip show. My expectations regarding both these things are, perhaps, a little high since I've been watching a lot of Community lately (their recent Halloween episode, 'Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps', is a very funny deconstruction of both the characters and horror stories, and the clip-show-that-isn't-a-clip-show, 'Paradigms of Human Memory', has basically ruined all other clip shows forever). This episode is good fun and has a lot of really nice elements, but I just can't decide if they add up to a satisfying whole.

One major drawback, of course, is that episode 13 of season 1 is rather early for a clip show. I can see why they did it; it wouldn't really make sense for Gabrielle to be making up new stories when she has plenty of genuinely exciting material to draw on. And there's a big advantage to it as the show uses clips from Xena's origin in Hercules: the Legendary Journeys as well. It's great fun seeing Evil Xena, though it might make you want to watch Spartacus: Blood and Sand, since it's strangely like watching Lucretia wander off into Greek myth. It's also a useful reminder of her backstory for those of us who've never seen Hercules, so it does an important job for the series. Still, thirteen episodes into season 1 just seems far too early for a clip show. I'm not sure you've really earned one until the end of season 2 at least.

I try not to get distracted by issues of historical accuracy with Xena. This is a show that puts Julius Caesar and the Trojan War in the same period, after all, and it's not supposed to be historically accurate. But I do find that sometimes the complete mangling of ancient history takes me out of the story a bit, and that's a problem. So, for the record, the things that I wanted to scratch like an itch and that interrupted my enjoyment of this episode were: The Academy was a school of philosophy, not training for bards. The most famous literary competition in Athens was at the festival of Dionysus and it was for tragic plays. Euripides (I refuse to use the show's incorrect spelling) wrote tragic plays, he wasn't a bard. Obviously, we can't really know how ancient oral storytelling worked, but judging by the Homeric epics, it was probably composed as individual bards sang in dactylic hexameter. You would have to train and learn the metre before you could be called a bard - it's not just about telling an exciting story. Prose would get you nowhere. Also, you'd probably be singing, not reciting - not only did diction matter, you'd need a decent singing voice as well.

I know I shouldn't care about this stuff, it's Xena, not a history lesson. But some of these things are just so fundamental to the actual history of the ancient world, I can't help but feel mildly irritated by it. I don't mind what the writers do to ancient mythology - it's fiction and it's there to be messed about with. But the Academy, the festival of Dionysus and the profession of bard were all real, and their representation is so thoroughly bizarre, historically speaking, that it bugs me.

Also, why did they name one of the bards 'Twickenham?' Just call him Nuneaton and have done with it...


On the other hand, there were a lot of little things about the episode that I really liked. The student who just likes fight scenes is funny, rather like Shakespeare in Love's representation of John Webster. The way all her (male) colleagues admire and support Gabrielle is rather sweet, after her initial meeting with Homer's dad suggested we might be doing a story about institutional sexism (not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's been done). I like the way Euripides seems like he'll be very stuck up and self important, but turns out to be perfectly nice, just incapable of speaking in anything other than extremely flowery and archaic prose. And it's good to know that Gabrielle's already noticed the tendency for likeable men around her to end up injured or dead, and leave her either way.

The way the episode sets up the whole thing as a American college campus is fun and works well. We don't really know the administrative details of how higher education worked in the ancient world, after all and it's always fun transposing something modern into a fantastical context (Terry Pratchett's driving test-style assassins' final exam in Pyramids being one of the best).

I also like the way Homer spends the episode trying to decide on a suitable name to compose under. With all the scholary debate over how many authors contributed to the Iliad and the Odyssey (not to mention the Homeric Hymns) and whether 'Homer' was a single person, or even a real person, it's fun having him be a nameless bard looking for an identity. The explanation for why he's known as 'the blind bard' (ignoring the audience and telling his own story, he closes his eyes while speaking) is very neat as well - nicely done.

Homer's dad's insistence that he should watch his audience reaction and change the story if they look unhappy is, of course, primarily a comment about TV audiences and TV ratings (presumably particularly the ratings, since this show predates the widespread use of the internet for TV commentary. Though I seem to remember being on a Red Dwarf message board in 1995...) It's also a nice shout-out to the ancient practice of composing as you go, possibly by coincidence more than design.

The clips of old movies are fun. They're an interesting way of trying to emulate the nature of ancient literature. Tragic plays and epic poems told stories the audience already knew (though they might make quite drastic changes along the way) and that recognition and fondness for the material was part of their appeal. Modern storytellers can't rely on their audience having that familiarity with these stories, but by using old movie clips, the show can draw on those stories a good number of viewers are familiar with, and remind them that these are stories that have been told and re-told. Outside of comic book series and very long-running franchises (like Star Trek and Doctor Who) it's one of the best ways to try to achieve that effect in a modern context. Spartacus is a good choice for Homer's successful story as well. It's one of the best known of the classic ancient world epics of the 1950s and 1960s and it has a powerful and well-known story, with that iconic final scene easily recognisable. It would seem futile and churlish to complain that there were no gladiators in ancient Greece and that Spartacus, like Caesar, belongs a thousand years later than the Trojan War.

On the other hand, I can't quite shake the feeling that using these clips is cheating somehow. Tell your own stories! But this may be the ruinous influence of the brilliance of 'Paradigms of Human Memory' coming through again.

All in all, a fun episode. I think I'll enjoy it more a second time through, without spending the whole episode keeping up with a host of references to the ancient world, to twentieth century films and to twentieth century television. And Homer's cute, as he always has been in my head, which is good since he's playing the hot dwarf's brother in The Hobbit later this year.


Euripides: The cadence of your words played havoc with the fallen visage of my yearning spirit
Gabrielle: Huh?
Euripides: I liked it a lot

No comedy disclaimer this time, as the space was needed to thank everyone who made Spartacus. There was the usual disclaimer about the photoplay being fictitious, which always strikes me as not entirely true when one of your characters is a real historical figure, but there you go.

All Xena reviews


  1. I have vague memories of this episode... not fond ones! I don't care much for clip episodes... I've had to fastforward through several of them as I rewatch SG-1! :s

  2. I wish I was joking but that's really the character's name! It's so utterly bizarre...


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