Showing posts with label Xena. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Xena. Show all posts

Friday, 18 July 2014

Xena Warrior Princess: Remember Nothing

Xena: Warrior Princess does the It's a Wonderful Life thing. It's quite early in the show to be doing that, but then, Xena has a particularly dramatic backstory and a pre-existing history in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, so it works.

While paying her respects to her late brother, Xena protects a temple of the Fates, so they offer her a reward. Xena says all she wants is for the young boy she just killed (he was attacking her) to be alive, and she wishes she'd never 'followed the sword'. So the Fates change history, with the knock-on effect that her brother never died, but warn her that as soon as she spills a drop of blood in anger, everything will snap back into place.

The Fates here are represented as three woman spinning a thread, which is not far off the ancient Greek Fates. The Greek Fates were the Spinner, who spun the thread of life, the Apportioner of Lots, who measured it, and the one who cannot be turned, who cut it, rather than the maiden, mother and crone seen here (whether or not the maiden/mother/crone division goes back to ancient religion is debatable, but it has more to do with Robert Graves than anything else). The maiden/mother/crone thing works well enough, though, and I liked the simple visualisation of it using three actresses at various ages.

Xena's brother Lyceus at one point mentions that his virillus token, which Xena teases him for still wearing, once saved his life. This is presumably inspired by the ancient Roman bulla amulets freeborn children wore (girls and boys), which they took off when they came of age (i.e. got married for girls, or put on a toga for boys). The word 'virillus' is derived from the Latin for 'manly' ('vir' means 'man') so this seems to be the Xenaverse equivalent, though the name is a bit the wrong way around assuming you become a man when you take it off - it may be intended as a diminutive (like 'Drusilla', feminine diminutive form of 'Drusus') in which case the grammar's a bit off, but you can see what they were going for. It's a nice touch, throwing in a genuinely ancient custom that also serves the story by emphasising how young the boy Xena kills in the opening sequence is.

Roman bulla amulets at the Ashmoleon museum, Oxford

Xena is informed what will happen if she spills blood at the beginning of the episode and ends it by doing so anyway, but interestingly this is not an example of the classic trope in Greek mythology of people being given a clear instruction they utterly fail to follow for no particular reason (see: Orpheus, Odysseus' crew). The way the Fates initially give the instruction, saying "until you spill a drop of blood in anger", clearly indicates that they do not really expect Xena to be able to follow it, and they turn up a few times throughout the episode, almost seeming to want to persuade her to return to her old life.

In the end, Xena makes a conscious choice to spill blood and reset the world. I thought it was rather a shame that ultimately she did so to preserve Gabrielle's innocence and protect her from experiencing what it is to kill another person, since their lifestyle surely suggests Gabrielle will inevitably end up killing someone at some point in self-defence, and to sacrifice her brother for that specific reason doesn't seem quite right. Still, overall she was able to make some peace with herself when he encouraged her to stand with him and told her not to fight destiny. The Fates' real gift to Xena is that she feels better about her life and her choices, despite the high price she's had to pay - and they give her a little extra time to save the boy from the opening as well, so at least one life is spared in the end (and her mother's, of course - though I suspect most mothers would willingly exchange their life for their son's, which is why, although saddened, Xena doesn't change things back straight away on finding out her mother died).

In really liked this episode - I love It's a Wonderful Life episodes anyway and this one was really well done. Lucy Lawless' performance is great, giving Xena a softer edge (while Gabrielle's is much harder) and investing all of it, especially the scene at her mother's tomb, with real emotion. I also enjoyed seeing Xena use her brains as well as brawn and try to find increasingly inventive ways to fight people without spilling any blood (though I have to say, if you set someone on fire, you will spill their blood). I was a bit puzzled by the section in which our heroes are suspended in very high cages, as if being saved for dinner by the giant from 'Jack and the Beanstalk', and Xena's brother becomes the latest victim of the 'everyone Gabrielle fancies dies' curse, but overall it was a very satisfying installment. Even the opening shots of New Zealand were gorgeous, as long as you ignore the fact they're obviously re-used footage from season one (Gabrielle is in her early season one costume). Definitely a good use of the old trope.


Gabrielle: I don't know whether to thank you or to hate you.

Lyceus: Don't fight destiny!

Disclaimer: Xena's memory was not damaged or... ...what was I saying?

All Xena: Warrior Princess reviews

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Xena Warrior Princess: Orphan of War

Trying to prevent a Bad Guy from getting hold of an Evil McGuffin, Xena comes face to face with her past. Literally (by which I do not mean metaphorically - the Oxford English Dictionary's recent redefinition of the word 'literally' drives me figuratively insane).

This episode introduces Xena’s son Solon, left with a group of centaurs to raise as their own (by adoption, obviously) while she was still in her evil phase. This is in the best Classical mythological tradition, as half the heroes of ancient Greece were sent to the centaur Chiron to be raised and educated. Here, though, Solon is left with a group of centaurs rather than an individual - this is partly thanks to the depiction of centaurs as generally fairly reasonable if a little quick-tempered in Xena: Warrior Princess, as opposed to the wild and totally unruly race to whom Chiron is the exception in Greek mythology.

Both Xena and the centaur Kaleipus are desperate to stop Solon from becoming a warrior like both his parents, but the kid himself has to be kidnapped and suffer a broken arm before deciding that maybe he should try to honour his late father in other ways (perhaps he could take up singing, which both parents were apparently good at, though I'm disappointed we don't get to hear Xena sing here). Solon believes his mother is dead, and at first Xena lets him think that because he hates her and thinks she killed his father. By the end of the episode, he knows this isn't true, and I’m not quite sure why Xena doesn’t tell Solon she’s his mother before she leaves, since he seems pretty well-disposed towards her by that point. She really needs to just spit it out - but their interactions are very sweet and poignant all the same.

The McGuffin, the stone of Ixion, is not something I'm familiar with from mythology and seems to be a pretty basic fantasy McGuffin to get Xena and Solon together. Greek mythology isn’t overly big on magical stones, or rings, or swords or any other magical implements, come to that. There are magical gifts given by the gods to their favourites or their offspring, like invisibility helmets and improbably large/finely decorated shields, but generally speaking heroes have to rely on their own strength and the help of friendly deities. There are exceptions of course. The bow of Odysseus is a significant object, but only because of its size, so huge that only Odysseus is strong enough to draw it. The Golden Fleece is a more typical fantastical quest object, although unlike most fantasy quest objects it doesn't actually do anything and is desired for its symbolic value.

Ixion himself was a minor character best known for his eternal punishment for trying to seduce Hera; he was chained to a fiery wheel and set rolling for ever. He was also the father of a centaur, which makes him vaguely appropriate as the source of a mysterious evil-centaur-power.

Overall this was a nice, touching episode, if a rather downbeat start to the second season (though it effectively covers the basics of Xena's back-story for new viewers). I like that we don’t actually see Solon's father Borias in this episode, though he turns up in flashbacks later in the series. Solon never knew his father or mother, and that story plays all the more strongly for the fact the we as the audience also only hear about Borias, rather than seeing him. Gabrielle doesn't have much to do beyond complain that she finds it hard to understand the hatred Xena gets wherever they go, despite knowing full well that Xena was a psychopathic murderer known as ‘Destroyer of Nations.’ Gabrielle really does live in her own little world sometimes, doesn’t she… Still, she shows Solon some defensive tactics and apologises for trying to tell Xena how to handle her personal relationships, so she's definitely growing, at least a bit.


Kaleipus (to Xena, re: Solon): I know he’ll be safe with you.

Disclaimer: No Sleazy Warlords who deem it necessary to drink magic elixers that turn them into scaly centaurs were harmed during the production of this motion picture.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Xena Warrior Princess: Altared States

In a predictable but rather sweet episode, Xena and Gabrielle try to stop a conflicted father from sacrificing his young son, apparently on the orders of his god.

The story of this episode is a clear re-telling/adaptation of the story of Abraham and Isaac and the bulk of the plot and dialogue is really a debate about Judaeo-Christianity, so for the most part this episode draws less on ancient pagan mythology. Ancient myth does provide stories of parents forced to sacrifice their children of course, most famously Agamemnon, who was forced to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia because he offended Artemis, who would not allow them the wind to sail to Troy without a sacrifice (though in some versions Artemis saved Iphigenia and transported her away - unfortunately her mother Clytemnestra didn't know that...). The use of father and son here would indicate Abraham and Isaac even without the constant references to monotheism and 'zealots' - the boy is even called 'Icus' (Isaac) and his brother 'Mael' (Ishmael).

The episode shows the boy's mother disagreeing and trying to stop the sacrifice, so there's perhaps a hint of Clytemnestra there. The mother prays to Hestia, goddess of hearth and home, and there's a distinct division set up between the masculine monotheistic god, with the father's belief manipulated by a son to harm the other son, while Icus is protected by his mother who prays to Hestia, Xena (who answers when the mother is praying) and Gabrielle. Much of the episode is spent objecting to the Biblical story of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac, though Anteus is portrayed sympathetically - clearly in the wrong, but obviously conflicted as well as drugged and mis-led. The episode pulls back from this critical perspective at the end, as it's revealed it was human manipulation that was behind the demand and Icus is saved by a distinctly masculine heavenly voice that stops Anteus just as Xena is about to get him with her frisbee, presumably to make up for the previous 40 minutes of complaining. The music right at the end also sounds very much like a 1950s Jesus movie (or possibly The Life of Brian).

Elsewhere, there's an unusually high volume of ship teasing between Xena and Gabrielle for such an early episode (naked bathing with suggestive dialogue, drugged Gabrielle declaring how beautiful Xena is, climbing up each other). Also Xena growls at one point. While naked. The episode features Karl Urban in the first of his four separate roles across twelve appearances in Xena (plus two in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys). I'd make a crack about New Zealand being short of actors, but honestly, I'm perfectly happy to see Karl Urban on TV as much as humanly possible. There is a brief reference to Classical myth, as Gabrielle tells a very weird version of the story of the Trojan war involving lions and hydras - and that's before she gets high (which is very funny). All in all, the story is a strange juxtaposition of theological philosophy and Gabrielle leading an invisible choir, but somehow it vaguely works, and it puts Karl Urban on our screens for another 45 minutes, so it's entirely worth watching for that alone.


Xena:  I don’t think much of your god - or any god who’d want to kill a child.

Xena: I'm asking you to spare your son.
Anteus: And teach him what? That faith is just for those times when it's convenient to believe? What's the good in sparing his life, if I rob him of the very thing that makes it worth living?

Xena: I thought I told you to wait for me at the cave.
Gabrielle: I did. And then this rock told me I had to come find you.
Xena: The rock spoke to you?
Gabrielle: Oh, yeah. I mean, his voice was a little gravelly, but I understood.

Disclaimer: No Unrelenting or Severely Punishing Deities were harmed during the production of this motion picture.

All Xena: Warrior Princess reviews

Friday, 8 February 2013

Xena Warrior Princess: The Prodigal

Gabrielle, suffering a crisis of confidence, rather abruptly abandons Xena to return home, only to discover that inevitably, her village has been attacked by a gang of generic, swarthy bad guys in her absence. The warrior hired to defend the village being about as sober as Denzel Washington's character in Flight (which was rather good by the way), Gabrielle and her sister are forced to take charge of the village's defences. Naturally, they succeed, Meleager the alcoholic warrior talks about his own crisis of confidence with Gabrielle and turns good in the end, and Gabrielle's sister encourages Gabrielle to go back to Xena and live the life of adventure again.

'Meleager' is an appropriate name for a character who admires Gabrielle as a female warrior. Mythologically, Meleager was the son of King Oeneus, one of a number of kings  lords and other characters who managed to annoy one of the gods, in this case bringing down the wrath of Artemis on himself by not bringing her enough offerings. Artemis sent the Calydonian Boar, a huge boar intended to destroy the countryside of Calydon, to punish him. Meleager led the hunt for the boar and eventually killed it, but dedicated the skin - the trophy from the hunt - to the female huntress and runner Atalanta, who in some versions had drawn first blood from the boar. Either way, Meleager being in love with her usually comes into it somewhere. Atalanta was a huntress rather than a warrior, and Xena's Meleager isn't in love with Gabrielle (so far as we can tell) but still, it's a nice choice of name, and appears to be a genuinely meaningful choice, which is more than can be said for some names on this show (the bad guy is called 'Damon,' which sounds neither ancient nor Greek to me, though I could be wrong, it could be a derivative of Damonides or something. But I don't think so).

As Gabrielle's sister Lila advises her to go back to Xena at the end of the episode, she says that Gabrielle's life will never be complete and she should live life, not let it pass her by. Gabrielle replies that she thought she was the only oracle in the family, and her sister says it doesn't take an oracle to realise the Gabrielle belongs with Xena. I can't decide whether this is an irritating misrepresentation of oracles or not (I suspect it is). Oracles answered questions or made predictions about the future. The could give advice in the sense that they could answer direct questions (e.g. 'Should I get married?') or they could predict things (e.g. 'If you go to war, you will destroy a great empire'). If Lila is predicting literally that Gabrielle will be 'incomplete' in some measurable way, that would be an oracle-like thing to say, or if Gabrielle asked her 'Should I go back to Xena?' and she said 'Yes,' that would be sort of like an oracle I suppose, but this sounds more like generic advice to me. An oracle is quite a specific thing, it's not a guidance counselor.

There are a few other Classical references scattered around - Gabrielle is (unconvincingly) playing pan pipes at the beginning, which was cheesy but sort of fun. She seems to be doing her best impression of the scary-cute fauns and satyrs from Fantasia: The Pastoral Symphony. Her home of Potidea on the other hand, aside from having completely different geography to the Greek version, looks like a medieval castle for some reason.

Generic bad guy Damon

There's a nice idea behind this episode, in which Gabrielle doubts some of the choices she's made and goes home, and sees how much she's changed in her time away. Unfortunately the execution is a little bit too hurried, and Gabrielle's sudden panic during a confrontation with some random bandits at the beginning feels very forced. Freezing up and being disturbed by that is fair enough - one of Buffy's best episodes ('Fool for Love') was kicked off by a similar plot, albeit with more 'getting horribly stabbed,' less 'freezing up' - but Gabrielle seems to have rather an extreme reaction to it, given what's already happened to her while travelling with Xena. Come to think of it, it would have been more believable if Gabrielle had been stabbed or broken an arm or something. After that, the action in her village follows a series of predictable beats, with little real depth, though her conversation with Meleager about freezing up is a good moment, and it's nice to see her connect with her sister. In the end, though, the most touching bit of emotion was probably the sad little wave Xena gave Gabrielle as she walked away right at the beginning.


Gabrielle, stalling the bad guys: ...And as for what we want, I think it was Sophocles who once said - (here she's abruptly cut off).

Disclaimer: Meleager the Mighty, the generally Tipsy and Carousing Warrior-For-Hire, was not harmed during the production of this motion picture.

All Xena: Warrior Princess reviews

Monday, 19 November 2012

Xena Warrior Princess: The Royal Couple of Thieves

Xena gets hit on my the self-proclaimed 'King of Thieves,' a character somewhere halfway between Robin Hood and Plunkett and Macleane. He doesn't steal to give to the poor exactly, but he does occasionally do so anyway, and he is apparently an honourable man. who steals things. It's one of those types of stories.

Autolycus, who's clearly a character from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys given how many times he mentions Hercules, seems to be modelled after Errol Flynn's Robin Hood, though not quite as suave. He even wears green. He actually has quite nice chemistry with Xena, but overall the writing seems to be relying a bit too much on assumed familiarity with the character, which those of us who haven't watched Hercules don't have.

The story of the episode is largely about Robin Hood helping Xena to recover the Ark of the Covenant for her friends, and doesn't really have anything Classical in it. The Ark is from the ancient world of course, but really, its presence and role here owes more to Indiana Jones than to anything from ancient history (on the actual history of the Ark, the Catholic Encyclopedia has an obviously biased but decent entry). On the Robin Hood side, the Roman world included plenty of bandits and one of them, Bulla Felix, is sometimes thought of as the Roman Robin Hood, so he's not completely un-classical. Not sure the Romans were quite so into the neat little goatee though.

To be honest, I wasn't overly enthralled by this episode. It had some nice moments (Xena, undercover, as a courtesan, faking horror when a body is uncovered; a guard who is even more stupid than usual and refrains from searching their room when Xena pretends to be in the middle of business with Autolycus). But it also had some truly daft stuff, particularly the guy who kills by hitting pressure points (who constantly reminded me of Tom Conti in the London episode of Friends, following Elliot Gould's Jack Geller with murder in his eyes and saying 'I could kill you with my thumb, you know'). Overall, it's rather dull, but it does feature Xena gyrating in a short skirt and corset, if you're into that sort of thing.


Xena: Magmar told me his former boss has got a big ego. Almost as big as yours.
Autolycus: Nothing is as big as mine.

Disclaimer: No Ancient and Inflexible rules governing moral behaviour were harmed during the production of this motion picture.

All Xena reviews

Monday, 8 October 2012

Xena Warrior Princess: Mortal Beloved

I love stories about journeys to the underworld and ghost stories, so I really enjoyed this episode, in which Xena has to chase a bad guy from the underworld up to the land of the living and do a deal with Hades.

The plot devices and set-up seen here are a mixture of Classical and non-Classical. The main plot device, Hades' Helmet of Invisibility, is rewritten to suit the needs of the episode (see comments below - I had initially forgotten its existence, but it is a Thing. The ancient helmet just makes you invisible though, it doesn't do any of the other things attributed to it here). And as in many depictions of the ancient underworld, the producers can't resist the urge to throw in some elements of the Christian hell as well - although Tartarus was the Classical part of the underworld where the wicked were punished, the fire and brimstone aspect (represented here by some nice stock shots of a volcano erupting) is more a feature of Christian hell than the ancient underworld.

Many elements of the Classical underworld are incorporated here, though. The most obvious, of course, is Charon the ferryman. Here's he's a rather grotesque, broadly comic character. I'm not sure I'm wild about that interpretation - I prefer my Charons more creepy and ghoulish, generally speaking. But his boat made of bones is quite good and he does get in some funny lines.

At one point, Charon mentions 'the hanging gardens of disgusting diseases.' These, of course, are a joke, but the ancient underworld was often imagined as being split into different realms, with specific groups of people in specific areas - suicides, women who died before marriage, old men and so on. Tartarus was indeed where the wicked were punished, and in some versions (though not all) the 'good' (for varying definitions of 'good', e.g. heroic, died for Rome, etc) live in peace in the Blissful meadows/Elysian fields/etc. The Elysian fields here are a bit cheesy, but they do look very... Elysian. The idea that however pleasant they are, nothing on the other side quite matches the living world, is also quite Classical. Death was not something you really wanted, even if you were hoping for a pleasant eternity.

Other elements are a bit of a mixture. The most important quality of ancient shades, or ghosts, is that they are completely incorporeal and will pass through your fingers like air if you try to touch them. Here, just as in ancient literature, the dead are insubstantial, but Xena seems to get a minor electric shock from trying to touch Marcus rather than simply finding him body-less, and once she's in the underworld, he appears substantial and she can touch him again. That's not usually the case in ancient literature, though it varies according to what you're reading. And the ancient dead couldn't usually tell when the living were thinking about them - though they did tend to have more knowledge than when they were alive, sometimes gaining powers of prophecy, and sometimes they demonstrate knowledge of what the living have been up to while they've been gone.

The bad guy, Atyminius, is here a fairly ordinary human murderer who has become something of a bogeyman, known for killing children and girls about to be married, and sometimes chopping them up. There seem to be elements of a lamia in him, a female monster of Greek mythology, but mostly he's just an unpleasant human being who manages to steal Hades' special helmet. The harpies are creatures from Greek mythology, though in ancient literature they're not especially associated with Hades (more with Zeus).

The whole episode has a very fairy-tale atmosphere, complete with, apparently, Little Red Riding Hood at the beginning, Hades' medieval-looking castle and lots of mystical-sounding music. The underworld being at the bottom of a lake isn't exactly ancient (the location varied; caves and the edge of the sea were quite popular) but it fits, being down towards the ground, and it adds to the magical, medieval-folklore feel.

Overall, a really nice episode, if slightly OTT in places. I especially like Xena's special black underworld outfit (I think it's actually just her underwear, because she has to swim there, but still). Marcus, last seen dying in 'The Path Not Taken,' has become a bit implausibly nice, wanting to go back to eternal punishment for the sake of the innocents etc (not that much seems to be going on in Tartarus when they visit - no rocks rolling down hills, no grapes dangling over pools, nothing). However, his scenes with Xena are lovely and they have a nice chemistry, with a sweet and sad romance (I like to think they made time for a quick shag before returning to the underworld at the end). Atyminius the villain doesn't half devour the scenery, but he's kind of fun, a really hissable bad guy. And I especially like Xena taunting Hades into letting Marcus back up as a mortal and later getting him shifted to Elysium, though Hades insisting he can only give him 48 hours of life is a bit weak, considering that theoretically he was willing to let Eurydice go back to a full life. An excellent episode - I'd recommend it as an introduction to the series, since it's early and it has the humour, angsting and sense of adventure that Xena does best.


Gabrielle: Even if you reach the bottom you won't have enough air left to make it back to the surface.
Xena: Then I'll make it to the underworld one way or another.

Charon: You wanna help set things right? When Hades can't do anything? This I gotta see!

Marcus (re the wicked): They're not happy, even in Paradise.

Marcus: You know him?
Xena: I killed him...

Marcus: Love is the strongest power in the universe. It's stronger than evil. It's even stronger than death.

Atyminius: I hate jugglers (wallop). Be glad you're not a mime.

Charon: If you look on the left, you will see the Caves of Despair, and if you look on the right, you'll see the Hanging Gardens of Disgusting Diseases.

Disclaimer: No winged harpies were harmed or sent to a fiery grave during the production of this motion picture.

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Sunday, 16 September 2012

Xena Warrior Princess: Warrior... Princess

Xena: Warrior Princess does The Prince and the Pauper (and establishes that, as far as I can tell, she's not an actual princess, which I've been wondering about for a while).

Xena switches places with a princess who looks exactly like her, to find out who is trying to assassinate the princess and prevent her marriage and the abolishment of slavery that is intended to go with it. This sort of set-up always promises to be fun and the episode does not disappoint. OK, Lucy Lawless' 'princess' acting is largely restricted to a squeaky voice, but there are some great moments here, like Xena breaking all the strings on a harp to avoid having to play it (preceded by a beautifully framed shot from the harp, close-up and on a raised dais, menacingly looking down on Xena approaching it). There's also a great sequence in which the princess throws what she refers to as Xena's 'round thing' (I call it that too), causing everyone present including Argo to duck, which is hilarious. Xena fighting off a bunch of ninjas behind prince Philemon's back and looking innocent whenever he turns around is very funny too.

The girly, pink-swathed princess is named 'Diana,' which is a bit incongruous. Diana was the Roman name for Artemis, the virgin huntress sister of Apollo. She was a tough cookie and probably not into pink. Mind you, that's not as incongruous as an incompetent assassin called Plato. Meanwhile, Gabrielle is still trying to be poet, though she's moved on from bardic oral performance to written poetry.

The episode also addresses the issue of arranged marriage, which is of course common in many parts of the world and many historical cultures. Diana is reasonably content with the idea until she falls in love with someone else, but Xena is firmly against it. This seems a slightly awkward attitude to take in the pseudo-feudal culture she's currently inhabiting. In this case the joining of two kingdoms will bring about the end of slavery in the region, which of course she's all for - so surely breaking off the marriage could be disastrous for many people. Also, arranged marriage is not forced marriage and many couples who willingly enter arranged marriages are perfectly happy. Luckily, the man Diana's really in love with is the brother of her intended husband and just as capable of helping her end slavery, so it all works out OK in the end, but still, the issue is half brought up and then left aside without really exploring the ramifications of Xena's attitude.

Overall, this is a really nice, fun episode in which Xena gets to wear a succession of very pretty costumes, culminating in a great short skirted action version of a wedding dress (complete with metallic corset) which actually does look like something the goddess Diana would wear. It's also got love, and a bit with a dog. Classics 1990s adventure material.


Tesa: I thought you might want to cover your costume.

King (re recently dispatched assassin): It would have been nice to interrogate him!

Diana: Amazing... it's like looking in a mirror. Before I've brushed my hair.

Diana: I took care of them all with my trusty round thing.

Xena (to Gabrielle, re finding a man who makes her happy): Just don't be afraid to speak when it happens.. of course that's never been a problem with you, has it?

Disclaimer: Neither Xena nor her remarkably coincidental identical twin, Diana, were harmed during the production of this motion picture.

All Xena: Warrior Princess reviews

Monday, 20 August 2012

Xena Warrior Princess: A Fistful of Dinars

Xena and Gabrielle go on a treasure-hunt, accompanied by an unpleasant bleach-haired assassin and Xena's possibly untrustworthy ex-husband. This episode is a crazy mish-mash of things (even more than usual) - a Western title, a pirate-story-like treasure hunt, complete with maps and clues, and names taken from the Iliad (to which the story bears no resemblance whatsoever).

Our heroes are searching for the lost treasure of the Sumerians. In real life, the Sumerians were inhabitants of Mesopotamia whose civilization, one of the earliest Western/Near Eastern historical civilizations, flourished in the third millennium BC. The idea of some pseudo-Greeks in the Greek Mythical Period searching for an ancient and lost Sumerian treasure actually kind of works. Well, right up to the point Thersites claims to be Sumerian anyway.

Thersites is the name of a character in the Iliad. His character here is mostly quite different, though he shares the quality of being unpleasant and disliked by our heroes. In the Iliad, Thersites is ugly, rude, hunch-backed and club-footed (showing that prejudice against disability is as old as Western literature. One has to wonder why he's in the army in the first place). He is terribly rude to Agamemnon, and Odysseus gives him a literal beat down. Many scholars think this is an example of snobbery in favour of the aristocracy and against the common soldiers, the latter represented by Thersites.

Anyway, his character here isn't especially good-looking, though he's not that ugly - he mostly just has rather dodgy taste, including bleached-blond hair (just where did he get bleach-blond hair dye in pseudo-ancient Greece anyway?). He's also an assassin, which I suspect Homer would think was even worse than being a common soldier, so that sort of fits in a weird way, as long as you ignore the Sumerian thing. The actor does a fairly good job of chewing the scenery in a suitably entertaining fashion so he makes for quite a fun villain.

For Reasons of Plot, the lost treasure of the Sumerians happens to include a Titan Key, which gets you into a cave with some ambrosia in it (or you just take the back door, as long as you can walk quietly). If you eat ambrosia, the food of the gods, apparently you become a god, so Xena and Gabrielle join the treasure hunt with Thersites and Petracles (some kind of corruption of Patroclus, another character from the Iliad? Not that they have anything in common, but still). Why have the gods left some random ambrosia lying around? Who knows. Possibly Xena explained it briefly, but I missed it. In ancient mythology, ambrosia was connected with corpse preservation and healing powers, and possibly occasionally immortality, but it wouldn't actually make you a god with the power to cure world hunger, as Gabrielle would like to do, or to bring plagues down upon the Earth, as Thersites plans.

The treasure hunt motif, aside from producing a nice Indiana Jones-vibe and inspiring the composer to write some fun music, also requires our heroes to solve mysterious riddle-style clues. The clues and solution offered only work in English. I realise I shouldn't let this bug me - everyone on this show speaks English, and it takes place in Fantasyland anyway, not ancient Greece. Any show that has the Trojan War and Julius Caesar occupying the same time frame is not one that should be scrutinized for historical accuracy. But somehow, the fact that a riddle is solved in a way specific to the English language ('teacher's student' = 'pupil', as in of an eye) in a world where theoretically everyone should be speaking Ancient Greek, bothers me. I can't help it. I'm a natural nit-picker.

Overall this episode was fairly forgettable, aside from a rather nice depiction of the Temple of Demeter only slightly spoiled by the cast's odd pronunciation of 'Demeter.' There were some serious lapses of logic in a couple of places. It's a bit of a mystery why the priest of Demeter let two people very obviously concealing weapons into his temple. And at the end, as Petracles lies dying and Xena and Gabrielle cry Woe, why didn't they feed him some of the ambrosia that's sitting right there? Gods are immortal, so one swallow of ambrosia ought to save him, and they have plenty of time as he slowly croaks. Perhaps even after he's given his life trying to save Gabrielle, Xena still doesn't trust him enough to let him become a god.


Petracles: A warrior is going to be a lot more useful on this quest than a murderer.
Thersites: I'm an assassin, OK? An assassin!
Xena: You mean there's a difference?
Thersites: Yes. Assassination is for pay. Murder is for... kicks.

Priest (to Gabrielle and Thersites): Your doom is assured!
(Xena and Petracles beat up his friends)
Priest: However, I could be mistaken.

Disclaimer: No Ambrosia was Spilled or Spoiled or in any way harmed during the production of this motion picture. (Thanks to the indefinite shelf life of marshmallows.)

All Xena reviews

Monday, 30 July 2012

Hercules the Legendary Journeys: Let the Games Begin

There is a bandwagon in town, and I must jump on it. Thanks to everyone on Facebook and Twitter who told me about this episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, in which our hero founds the Olympic Games. Although I've been reviewing the spin-off series Xena: Warrior Princess, I've never seen any Hercules, so it was interesting for me to watch this (apparently Hercules makes a stand against the gods. Classical Heracles would probably be fairly baffled by that, but I notice they've kept Hera's legendary hatred of him, so that's cool).

The founding of the Olympic Games was often attributed to Heracles, which works out rather nicely for the show. The inclusion of Atalanta is also a really nice nod to ancient mythology. Atalanta was one of those virgin huntresses who were quite common in Greek myth, and she took part in the famous story of the hunting of the Calydonian Boar (when Meleager's uncles tried to take her prize for drawing first blood, she killed them - don't mess with her). For some reason she seems to be super-strong here - I suppose this was felt necessary to explain how she's able to win so many events.

She was also supposed to be the fastest runner in the world, so her inclusion in an episode about the Olympic Games is perfect. She told her father she would marry a man who could beat her in a foot race, but that anyone who tried and failed would be killed, knowing she would beat them all. (Unfortunately it turns out she was fast but stupid - Hippomenes beats her by throwing goddess-given golden apples at her feet, which distract her). The idea that's she's Spartan is kinda neat too, as not only were Spartans frequent victors in the early years of the Olympic Games, Spartan women were encouraged to exercise (to improve their health and therefore get them to bear stronger, healthier Spartan baby boys) so they were fitter and more likely to be good at sports than Athenian women.

It's great to see Atalanta but I wish she'd been allowed to wear a bit more, especially around the lower half. I know the ancient athletes competed naked, but everyone else here is dressed and I just don't need to see her butt cheeks. (I have no problem with nudity or skimpy clothing in general - I like Spartacus: Blood and Sand and True Blood after all - but I prefer it to be more even-handed. Shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer have done equal opportunity exploitation better - for every scene of Buffy in a tiny, tiny top there's a scene of Angel with his shirt off). I would also like to have actually seen her win the foot race - the episode cuts off before they get to it.

According to this episode, Hercules founds the Games because he wants to prevent two particularly volatile groups of people from fighting each other, and get them to let out their aggression through sports instead. This relates more to the modern conception of the Games than the ancient Games. The ancient Olympics were held in honour of Zeus - they were a religious festival, like the festival of Dionysus in Athens where the tragedians competed against each other for a prize for drama. Initially mainly won by Spartans, eventually they were open to all Greeks, so they also became partly a statement of Greek identity. All Greeks were allowed to participate but no non-Greeks - when Alexander I of Macedon (not the famous one) came to the Games, some objected that he wasn't allowed to take part because he was a barbarian and he had to prove he was actually Argive before he was allowed to compete. So, they were a rather exclusive event - open to all the disparate Greek city-states, so technically international, but also a marker of Greek identity as opposed to barbarian.

At Salmoneus' suggestion, the Games are called the Olympic Games, because he says this sounds suitably 'majestic' and 'Olympian' ('unless this brings up your family troubles' he adds to Hercules). They all stare at a mountain as he says it, which is presumably meant to be Mount Olympus. Unfortunately, this perpetuates a mistake so common it was made on BBC 3's recent programme Olympics' Most Amazing Moments, Richard Bacon claiming in his narration that the ancient Olympics were held on the slopes of Mount Olympus. The Olympics have nothing to do with Mount Olympus. They were held at the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia in the Peloponnese, which is hundreds of miles from Mount Olympus. Although the coincidence of the names works out well for the modern Games, it was originally just a geographic description. From the show's point of view, it doesn't really matter, but this is a bit of a common mistake, so although the writers of this episode probably knew the real origin and chose to change it for the show, it's frustrating to see it as the audience may not know any better.

I quite enjoyed this episode. The show is clearly completely daft (as is Xena) but it's quite amusing and it seems to be genuinely interested in using Greek mythology as a springboard for its storytelling. The Olympic Games as depicted here are clearly the modern Olympic Games - open to everyone, supposed to help prevent war, everyone fully dressed at all times. But I think that's a good thing. This is a fun, family show and much of the audience will be children who don't know much about either the Olympics or ancient Greece. I think it's nice to use the pseudo-ancient Greek setting to talk about the modern Olympics and what they stand for. I still wish we'd got to see Atalanta's foot race though.


Hercules (re fighting): So senseless. When will they ever learn? The ancient Heracles would never have said anything like this and was reasonably keen on fighting, but I applaud the sentiment.

Hercules (to himself, re not sleeping with Atalanta): What is wrong with you?

Some unseen random: No woman's got any business in the Olympics.
Hercules: The Olympics are open to anybody. (Again, totally inaccurate - they weren't open to non-Greeks, and one possible explanation for why the athletes competed naked was to make absolutely sure that no women sneaked in. But again, I applaud the sentiment).

Disclaimer: The nuclear blast that destroyed those fiendish Mesomorphs was purely trick photography. The Mesomorphs are alive and well and living in Poughkeepsie.

Xena: Warrior Princess reviews

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

Friday, 29 June 2012

Xena Warrior Princess: The Bitter Suite

So I finally saw the Xena musical. And it wasn't at all bad.

This episode was determined to demonstrate how very Dramatic it was being from the start (and I saw why it's so popular when we opened on a shot on Gabrielle's naked behind). I'm not clear quite how Gabrielle survived being dragged so far behind Argo and it seemed a bit extreme even given Xena's background, but there was a nice Classical echo there of the famous scene from the Iliad where Achilles drags Hector behind his chariot for ages, so that was nice. Except Hector was already dead at the time. Even Wrathful Achilles was less brutal than Xena.

Once we got into the Land of Illusia, things started to look more like one of Farscape's wackier episodes (what are they all drinking down there in Australasia?). I wasn't too bothered by the fact that the Land of Illusia was never explained - when your show's mythology includes actual gods, I can take a lot on faith (hah! See what I did there?). TV Tropes offers any number of potential explanations for this sort of thing, from A Wizard Did It to just follow Bellisario's Maxim or the MST3K Mantra. In fact, the phrase 'A Wizard Did It' comes from the Lucy Lawless Halloween episode of The Simpsons, so there you go (I love the end of that episode, where the Simpsons children protest that Xena can't fly and the answer is, 'I told you, I'm not Xena. I'm Lucy Lawless, the actress.' Ever since, in my head, Lucy Lawless is a flying superhero. That would be an interesting addition to Spartacus: Vengeance...). Apparently the costumes are based on Tarot cards, which partly explains all the bright colours and medieval theme.

The most interesting moment, Classics-wise, comes at the end of the episode. Right after Xena has been crucified (because the story is all about the importance of love and forgiveness, lest we forget. Also apparently this is the second time this has happened to her), a waterfall appears over a very small underground stream, with a pretty-looking glade on the other side. Xena's late son Solon is wandering aimlessly in the glade, as the dead have a tendency to do in Classical mythology. Gabrielle leaps over but Xena has to sing another song before she can bring herself to do so. When she does, she has a final hug with her son, who then morphs into Gabrielle as they rejoin the real world (completely minus Gabrielle's fairly serious injuries from the horse-dragging incident. A Wizard Did It).

The important unresolved question here is, what was the river? Was it a tributary of the River Styx, representing the border of the underworld? That would mean that Xena was able to say goodbye to the actual shade of her son and tell him she was his mother, something she never did while he was alive. Or was it just a metaphorical stream produced by the Land of Illusia (suggested perhaps by the fact Xena's hugging Gabrielle when they return to reality)? That would mean Xena managed to make herself feel better, but nothing really changed other than that she and Gabrielle forgave each other. I'm not entirely sure which the writers intended; I suspect they were aiming for the second option, though they may have left it deliberately ambiguous. I rather like the idea of the first option - after all, in a series based on a corpus of mythology in which there are practically regular bus services to the underworld, it would seem a shame if Xena was never able to impart this important information to Solon just because of the minor problem that he happened to be dead.

This is a good episode, though once you've seen the Buffy musical, everything else tends to pale by comparison. The choice to dub some of the actors with professional singers was a good one, as everyone sounds great here (including Lucy Lawless and a couple of others who are doing their own singing). I liked Xena's tango with Ares, every TV musical needs a good tango (that's one thing the Buffy version lacks - a shame, as a Buffy/Spike tango would have been really cool). The advantage Xena has over Buffy is that it has such a small core cast, it can take the opportunity to bring back other regular characters and show them in a fresh light, particularly Callisto and Ares. Joxer was at his least annoying ever - singing suits him. Other familiar faces, though, were a bit wasted as they appeared so briefly I didn't even recognise Karl Urban - it was literally blink and you've missed him. The songs are pretty good and quite catchy and in a way it's rather nice that because the entire point of the episode is emotional resolution, the story basically contains nothing but emotional hand-wringing. Other than the need to get out of Illusia, there's really no plot at all. And since without the Xena musical, there might not be any Buffy musical, we are all forever grateful to it!

Disclaimer: The musical genre was not harmed during the production of this motion picture. In fact, the Producers sincerely hope you were A-MUSE-D by this episode.

All Xena reviews

Friday, 18 May 2012

Xena Warrior Princess: Maternal Instincts

I've been meaning to catch the musical episode of Xena, 'The Bitter Suite', for ages, since it's so well known and has had quite an impact on genre television. When the Internet suggested it was more or less the second part of a two-parter, with this as the first, I figured I'd better watch this one before watching the musical.

My goodness, that was depressing. This flippin' musical had better be worth it!

See, I'm an old-fashioned girl. I like my stories to follow certain narrative rules. No one dies without there being some purpose to it (unless it's a World War One story), the dog always escapes while the rest of New York burns, and you never kill the baby. Or the offspring, of whatever age, of any of your principal characters. This is why I've never watched Trainspotting. There are exceptions - I'm weirdly fond of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, probably because the revival of Spock compensates emotionally for the offing of Kirk's son. But for the most part - keep the kids(/grown-up offspring) alive.

Of course, poor Solon was doomed from the moment Xena said he could come with her, since these shows have to maintain the status quo. It's a shame, as he was pretty likeable and it might actually have been interesting to shake up the cast dynamics with a teen. It's also interesting that Xena obviously got to the evil-child idea and the bad guy quoting vaguely Biblical sounding phrases ('my father's kingdom is at hand') years before Joss Whedon went anywhere near them. I guess that hideous Jasmine-storyline in Angel is, ultimately, Xena's fault.

On the subject of children, this episode also saw the return of the woman who gave birth to a half-baby, half-foal, which will never stop looking ridiculous. And centaurs apparently grow as unnaturally quickly as Evil Babies, Miracle BabiesAlien-Implant Babies etc. Or possibly, to be fair, as fast as horses. Xena leaving her son with a centaur to raise him is very Greek-myth-appropriate; Chiron was practically running a nursery of budding Greek heroes.

The various Gimmicks of Plot in this episode end up prodding Gabrielle to kill her own daughter (something to do with the child being inherently evil from some earlier episode I haven't seen). This is a recurring subject from Greek myth that I've been thinking about a bit lately because one of my students is writing an essay on it - thank you to Rachel for most of what I'm about to talk about! Usually, parents will kill their own children for one of two reasons. One: the father kills his child/children because of the gods - Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter under orders, Heracles is driven mad by Hera (I think that got a reference early on in the episode actually). There's an interesting parallel there with the story of Abraham and Isaac, in which Abraham has to be willing to kill Isaac on God's orders, but ultimately is spared having to do so. Two: the mother kills her children as an act of revenge against their father (Medea, Procne). (There's a third category, groups of children who are sacrificed, but this post is long enough already. I'll save that for when I get around to doing Doctor Who's 'The Horns of Nimon'). This is one of those Greek horror stories designed to get the biggest cringe of disgust out of the audience (see also: Oedipus) as a parent killing their own child is often thought to be one of the worst crimes imaginable.

(This sort of child-killing is distinct from the infanticide of very young babies by exposure, which was common in both myth and reality in the ancient world - there's usually some sort of ceremony to accept a child into the community, after which it's murder to kill the child. Also, newborns are usually exposed, not stabbed/throats cut/chopped up and fed to their father etc. It makes a difference - exposed children might be rescued by someone who can afford to raise them or keep them as a slave).

Thing is, I suspect these particular Greek myths stem from most of the myth-makers - poets, pot-painters, sculptors - being men who somehow thought it was plausible that a woman would be so angry with her husband, she would murder her own children just to spite him. Notice (as Rachel pointed out to me the other day) the men are never the ones choosing to kill their children, only the women. By contrast, the modern crime of familicide not only includes both partner and children and has completely different motivations, but is also more commonly (though not exclusively) committed by men. In sum: the ancient Greeks were rather sexist and didn't understand women.

Science fiction and fantasy also occasionally plays with this plot, as way of torturing its main characters as much as humanly possible. Generally, it will go for the first version - substitute evil aliens/weird technology for the gods, and you've got Torchwood: Children of Earth. More often, the situation will be more of an Abraham and Isaac story (e.g. Fringe, 'The Firefly' and others), because a) it's less depressing and b) there's a part of you that can never quite forgive a character who kills their own offspring, because it's such a horrific thing to do. Well, there's a part of me, anyway. Whatever mortal danger the planet was in at the time, I still prefer to pretend Children of Earth never happened.

Ultimately, whether or not this kind of story works depends on whether you want people to sympathise with your murderous character and whether you come up with a good enough reason for them to do something so awful. I'm not sure I can quite get behind Gabrielle's reason - however guilty she felt, I can't help thinking the big mistake was sending the potentially evil child to hang out with Solon by herself. Just supervise her better, Gabrielle! But then, I haven't seen the episode that explains the origins of Evil Baby, so maybe that would make a difference. More pressing is the problem that I can't see how Xena could ever forgive Gabrielle for inadvertently causing the death of her son. This musical has a lot of work to do.

They look far too happy. Naturally, he's doomed.

(Oh yeah, Callisto was in this episode too. She and Xena yelled at each other about their respective pain. A lot of rocks fell on her head.)


Hope: They'll kill what they love most... their children. How very Greek.

Xena: Unless the impossible's happened she's trapped for good. This is the trouble with living in mystical myth-time - you never get to watch TV, so you can never become genre savvy

Disclaimer: Xena and Gabrielle's relationship was harmed during the production of this motion picture.

All Xena: Warrior Princess reviews

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Xena Warrior Princess: Been There, Done That

I was writing an article on time loop episodes the other day, so I dug out this season three Xena episode, in which Xena is forced to live the same day over and over and over again, while everyone around her remains blissfully unaware of what's happening.

Although they've been around longer than the film (TNG's 'Cause and Effect' predates it by a year) these episodes are often known as 'Groundhog Day episodes' and the SG-1 classic episode 'Window of Opportunity' gives the film a shout-out. Xena, however, is actually closer to the plot of Groundhog Day than most, something it's able to pull off because of the pseudo-Classical setting.

Groundhog Day never explains exactly what was causing Phil Connors to repeat the day over and over until he got it right, though I can't help feeling some kind of morally or romantically inclined deity would be the only possible explanation. A few TV shows might be able to get away with an unexplained plot of that type - Quantum Leap, of course, and The X-Files could do a beautiful, tragic time loop episode ('Monday') with no explanation because it was all about unexplained phenomena. Most shows, though, can only get away with this sort of inexplicable mysticism once or twice, and for the sake a major and usually quite soppy plot point (magic snowfalls in California, people popping in and out of existence, that sort of thing). When it comes to a fairly standard plot of the week, there usually needs to be some kind of pseudo-scientific or show-logic-based reason for it (a spell, if it's that kind of show) with an accompanying, logical reason why whichever specific characters are able to remember the loop (if any) remember it.

Xena, however, is a show based on ancient mythology. Ancient mythology is largely driven by the actions of gods, and gods can do whatever they like! So Xena is able to ape Groundhog Day much more closely than most shows, though it provides a more logical and solid explanation for events than the film does. The female half of a young Romeo and Juliet-style couple (named Hermia, to carry on the Shakespearean theme) will die tomorrow, but Cupid agrees to let the young man live 'today' over and over again until a hero comes to put things right. Ancient Cupid wasn't in the habit of granting wishes so much as destroying people's lives by throwing his arrows around, but the logic of it works perfectly well (though we are sadly denied an appearance from Cupid himself).

Cupid's offscreen role as a plot device is the only substantial Classical reference in this episode. There's a wonderful moment where the young man says he didn't realise Xena was the hero sent to put things right because he was expecting a 'Hercules, or Sinbad' - which, anachronistic sailors aside, is a perfectly exasperating bit of potentially ancient sexism. When Gabrielle is wondering why the two 'houses' are in the middle of a feud she mentions that they both worship the same god, showing the usual lack of acknowledgement of the nature of ancient religion (everyone worshiped lots of gods so the chances of a religious feud - at least as bad as this one - were fairly slim, though it wasn't impossible). Mostly, both plot and tone are inspired by Shakespeare, mixed in with the show's usual pan-global, vaguely medieval aesthetic.

The episode is played as a broad comedy which mostly works, except that the tone sits oddly with the scenes where one main character after another drops dead. And although I don't like Joxer much, the moment where Xena actually kills him seems to be going a bit far, especially as she doesn't yet know what's causing the loop and therefore can't guarantee that it won't stick. As far as I can remember, I'm pretty sure Phil Connors only deliberately killed himself on his loops, and on SG-1, even when he knew he would loop again, the most drastic thing O'Neill did was resign and kiss Carter, which would be embarrassing but not fatal if the loop were to be unexpectedly broken. Because the episode so resolutely refuses to take itself seriously, it's impossible to take any of the characters' emotions or reactions seriously either. Having said that, Xena's slow breakdown and Gabrielle and Joxer's reactions as she starts to lose it completely are both funny and make perfect sense. And the loop where she kills the rooster is strangely satisfying.


Xena: No, no, yes, no, I tried that, yes both ways, no, I don't know, no again. Are there any more questions? Good.

Disclaimer: The rooster was not harmed during the production of this motion picture, although his feathers were severely ruffled. However, a little gel and mousse straightened out the mess.

All Xena reviews

Monday, 20 February 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Once More With Feeling

Every time I think I've blogged everything remotely Classical in Buffy the Vampire Slayer I find something else! And I haven't even read Season 8 yet...

I was reminded of this episode because for my 29th birthday, thanks to a competition run by Cineworld and SFX, I went to the SFX Weekender (i.e. a giant geekfest at Pontins). The weekend included a screening of 'Once More With Feeling', the Buffy musical episode that somehow managed to get to No.13 in Channel 4's  viewer-voted run-down of the 100 Greatest Musicals back in 2003 (it's a great episode, but a better musical than Les Miserables, Cabaret and The Phantom of the Opera? Come on!). I love this episode, but I haven't seen it in years, partly because I ignore everything that happened in Season 6 after 'Tabula Rasa'. So one thing this did was remind me just how good it was. I was also reminded that there's more to the Classical references than that one shout-out to Xena: Warrior Princess.

During an early scene, Xander exclaims 'Merciful Zeus!' in the middle of an intense discussion of why everyone's singing and dancing. This is because part of the inspiration for this episode was Xena: Warrior Princess's early musical episode, 'The Bitter Suite'. Some quick internet-based research reveals that Xena was not, in fact, the first show to do a musical episode (there seems to have been an I Love Lucy one). It may, however, have been the first to incorporate a traditional, everyone-bursts-into-song-for-no-apparent-reason musical into a non-musical TV show, rather than the sort of musical where there's a reason for the singing, like a talent show or in-show performance (as in the later Xena episode, 'Lyre, Lyre Hearts on Fire'. I was going to say 'proper musical', but it seems silly to suggest that Cabaret, in which all the songs are performed in-universe and only 'Tomorrow Belongs to Me' takes place off-stage, isn't a 'proper' musical). Perhaps more importantly (and I haven't seen it yet, so I'm relying on the internet to tell me this) the writers of 'The Bitter Suite' also ensured that the episode wasn't just a random moment of singing never to be spoken of again, but incorporated important character development into the story, which was one of the guiding principles behind the Buffy musical.

And it seemed like there were only three walls, and not a fourth wall...

So, Xander's sudden affinity for Classical mythology is more to do with Xena's place in popular culture than ancient Greece. But, having been initially inspired by Xena, Whedon seems to have gone with a mythological feel and theme for the story as a whole. There are demons all over the place in Buffy, and more than a few references to Hell-dimensions. But Hinton Battle's demon Sweet seems to emphasize the idea that he's been summoned from below more than most, implying a Classical-Hades-type origin more than a sci-fi-style alternate dimension. More importantly, he insists that he is entitled to take Dawn back with him as his bride.

The show gets a lot of mileage out of the concept of the child bride taken away to the underworld, best known from the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone (it wouldn't surprise me if there were similar myths from other cultures, though none spring to mind at the moment). Among other things, it gets a good couple of laughs out of the idea. I like Anya's observation that she's 'seen some of these underworld child-bride deals and they never end well. Maybe once', which made me smile, though I don't read it as a reference to Persephone and Hades in particular (I always get the impression Persephone is pretty unhappy with the whole thing, or she'd have just told her mother not to worry about it a lot sooner). And of course the whole concept is hilariously subverted when it turns out it was Xander who summoned Sweet and the demon lets them all off because he doesn't fancy Xander.

But the show really plays into the incredibly creepy side of such a story too. Quite apart from the inherent creepiness of the MacGuffin Whedon came up with for the musical, in which he brilliantly makes the very nature of musicals the source of the danger (musicals blow up emotions into huge spectacles, so if all of life becomes a musical, people are overwhelmed and burst into flames), the idea of this older male demon insisting on taking Dawn away to a dark place underground to make her his bride is played in a genuinely unsettling way. The show doesn't directly address the full consequences of such an action, but you get the gist and it's made threatening and spooky (courtesy of the underworld aspect) without drifting wholesale into areas which might be a bit too dark for the overall tone of the episode.

Having said that, the overall tone of the episode is pretty dark. The story arc for the first half of season 6 was mostly focused on Buffy slowly adjusting to the fact that her friends pulled her out of Heaven. Back in the second episode of the season, when Buffy had just crawled out of her grave, she asked Dawn if she was in hell, because that's what the world seemed like to her (and, er, because there were demons and random fires everywhere). This is the other reason for building a plot partly around the Persephone/Hades myth. The realm of Hades (rightly or wrongly) tends to be associated with Hell and this is the episode in which Buffy reveals to her friends just why she's been so depressed since she returned. Just as Sweet wants to take Dawn down to the underworld against her will, Buffy has been wrenched out of Heaven and dragged down to a world that feels like Hell, and this episode reinforces how awful that was for her (it also shows her looking for something to tie her to this underworld through a romantic/sexual relationship which is either really clever or a little disturbing. Maybe both!).

Between Xena and Persephone, the whole episode has a distinctly Classical feel, and Whedon enhances that with another couple of thrown-in lines. Sweet declares that 'I bought Nero his very first fiddle' which reinforces his pyromaniac tendencies and, of course, the association between song and fire. Willow and Tara announce that they need to consult some books on bacchanals as an excuse to go and have sex, which is quite amusing, though perhaps not really helpful in terms of correcting the wild views held in popular culture about either witches/Wiccans (and yes, I know Willow and Tara are nothing like real Wiccans) or bacchants.

I don't think I really need to say how great 'Once More With Feeling' is at this point, do I? After ten years, I think it's been pretty well established as one of the all-time great episodes of television. Without having seen the Xena one, I suspect it's also the most effective TV musical* - I love Scrubs' and Community's musical episodes, but even in those shows, which are pretty out there, it seems slightly weird that everyone is singing and dancing (I could never quite buy Scrubs' excuse that the patient was seeing it all in her head. Just - how would that work? Was everyone just standing there for minutes at a time while she imagined them singing?). Personally, if I was writing a musical episode of a non-sci-fi show, I'd make it a dream or a Cabaret-style in-show musical. But in fantasy, you can get away with a lot more, and Buffy makes this work perfectly. (I'm now trying to picture True Blood: The Musical. Maybe inspired by the Rocky Horror Picture Show?) If you haven't seen it, where have you been all this time?! Rent it immediately.

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*In non-musical shows, that is. Glee and Flight of the Conchords don't count. Nor The Simpsons, which plays with the format all the time and has done several musicals.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Xena Warrior Princess: The Execution

This episode follows the near-execution of Gabrielle’s friend Meleager on a false charge by a judge who really doesn’t like to change his mind.

Meleager is a figure from Classical mythology, though his myth doesn’t have anything to do with his story here. The mythical Meleager was to stay alive as long as a brand on the fire. Having killed the Calydonian boar, Meleager killed his uncles (whether accidentally or on purpose depends on which version you’re reading) so his mother burned the rest of the brand and Meleager died.

The way Meleager here thinks he’s guilty when in fact he’s innocent might bear some relation to some versions of his story but really, this is an independent tale. The depiction of Meleager as a hero who goes around saving villages all the time is rather nice and vaguely fits with the fact he rid the world of the pesky Calydonian boar. Similarly, the mythical Meleager fell in love with Atalanta, a virgin huntress who’d been raised by bears and who killed various unpleasant centaurs etc, so it makes sense that he’d get on well with Gabrielle, though here he sees her as a daughter rather than a lover.

This was an interesting episode, most particularly for the moment when Gabrielle defies Xena to defend her friend. This at the same time marks her out as becoming more independent of Xena, while simultaneously reinforcing her dependency, since she’s motivated to do it by hero worship for someone else. Xena forces her to confront her tendency towards putting people on pedestals, though the fact that Meleager turns out to be innocent after all may have wiped that particular lesson!

Being based around an execution, the episode has a fairly dark tone, brought out unexpectedly in the closing lines.

Gabrielle: When I’m that age, I hope I’m knitting socks.
Xena: Oh don’t worry about it. People in our line of work never reach that age.
Gabrielle: That’s a comforting thought.

Buffy had all sorts of angst about the short life expectancy of Slayers. Perhaps, since Xena and Gabrielle have chosen this lifestyle, they’re less woe-is-me about it, but it does seem that Gabrielle hasn’t quite thought it through, which doesn’t bode too well for the future…

Side note: love the knitting women waiting for the execution. Very French Revolution.


Gabrielle: Whatever he did, he didn’t do it!

Gabrielle: Consider this; when we doubt that heroes exist in this world, who do the optimists name?
Some random: Hercules!

Executioner (looking exactly like Death from an Ingmar Berman film): These are my comfortable clothes.

Note: By popular demand “The Executioner” will bring back his comfortable lightweight cotton-flax blend robe in a variety of spring colours.

All Xena reviews

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Xena Warrior Princess: Death in Chains

A cracking early episode of Xena about death, love and giant rats, you can see the show starting to settle in here and work out what it can do and how it can best work with the ancient material.

Unusually for Xena, this episode is more or less a straight re-telling of an ancient myth. It's also a version of the myth that we know mainly from fragments (Sisyphus and his punishment appear in the Odyssey and other underworld scenes, but the story of him chaining Death is less common), which means the writers had pretty free rein in terms of interpreting it.

There were some lovely nods to wider Greek mythology here. Sisyphus refers to having angered Zeus trying to get water for his people, which isn't part of the ancient story - ancient kings are rarely as generous as that - but in several versions, he had angered Zeus by telling a river god that Zeus had abducted his daughter, so the explanation sort of fits (this is why Sisyphus is still alive at the end, which is only briefly explained in the episode - his body wasn't actually dying in the first place, Zeus sent Death to him to punish him). Sisyphus' declaration 'Don't count me out yet!' in the face of apparent certain death is rather good too, as in several versions, even once he's in the underworld, Sisyphus tricks Hades into letting him return to the world above for a visit, and then refuses to come back. This is why his punishment when he finally does come down to the underworld for good is so cruel (he's the guy who's constantly pushing a rock up a hill).

A few of the alterations to the myth are there to increase the tension in the episode, and to give it more of a sense of urgency, especially the addition of the candle that, if it burns out, will kill Death. Or something. Most, however, are thematic or artistic. The Greek Thanatos (Death) is male, bearded, and has wings, but I really like the interpretation of Death here. A female figure in white, veiled and moving in that fabulously eerie glide, like Buffy's Gentlemen, she looks both more beautiful and creepier than more traditional masculine images of Death. Maybe it's because I used to read so many ghost stories about women in white dresses as a child or something.

The most important innovation is, of course, the inclusion of Talus, the latest of Gabrielle's doomed boyfriends. While the episode is full of characters whom Xena is trying to kill, or who are incapacitated and suffering, Talus provides the essential note of tragedy the episode needs to work emotionally - just sick enough that he has to die, just healthy enough that he looks pretty doing it. The actor does a great job at making him likable enough quickly enough that you feel it when he goes, and without that tragic note, the episode couldn't work, as our heroes would probably seem to be taking death a little too much in stride. The afterlife Death leads Talus off to looks a lot more Judaeo-Christian than Greek to me - all light and implied niceness, no empty souls and creepy river - but I'm OK with that. It would be hard to root for Xena & co. to rescue Death if the afterlife was presented in the Homeric style, which is thoroughly depressing (it's no wonder Sisyphus wanted out).

I'm a sucker for stories about ghosts, the afterlife or Death, so I really enjoyed this episode. And, although this was a fairly downbeat story, Xena always remembers to bring the funny - in this case, Gabrielle trying desperately not to scream as an enormous rat nuzzles her ear while she hides behind a curtain. This is a really nice re-telling of an ancient story - fingers crossed for more like it!


Talus: It's not how long you live that matters, it's how well you live.

Sisyphus: Don't count me out yet!

Disclaimer: No Jumbo Sized Cocktail Rats were harmed during the production of this motion picture.

All Xena: Warrior Princess reviews
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