For geeky completists like myself, the big problem with Xena: Warrior Princess (1995) is that the title character’s story actually began in its sibling show Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, where she was introduced as a villain-of -the-week, before eventually realising the error of her ways and repenting. By the time we meet up with her in the pilot of this series, she’s already turning her life around and making amends for all of the bloodshed in her past… and she’d continue to cross back over to H:LJ whenever the fancy took her, along with various other supporting characters (and one very notable villain!). So to really own the complete Xena collection, you really need to buy all of the H:LJ boxsets too… which is a real pain in the arse, not to mention the wallet!
I hadn’t seen X:WP in decades, so I was quite looking forward to revisiting the show, but found it a little underwhelming, overall. I admire the producers’ ambition, trying to squeeze so many different settings and characters and stories out of their limited budget, but the wobbly sets, chintzy costumes, and rubbery armour are a bit of a turn-off for me… worse still is their Looney Tunes approach to action scenes, with all the goofy sound FX, and fighters defying all established laws of physics while (non-magickal) weapons hover in mid-air for minutes at a time, waiting for our heroines to manoeuvre into position to collect them. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool comedy geek, so I always appreciate a little humour to lighten the mood in action/adventure shows, but in retrospect I can’t help wishing the creators behind this show had taken it a little more seriously. Then again, maybe I’ve just been spoiled by Game of Thrones since this was made? Most likely.
Either way, it’s clear from the more dramatic episodes that their cast could handle the heavy lifting, when required to do so… they’re also remarkably deft at selling the sillier scenes, and wielding a variety of weapons with confidence and dexterity. Lucy Lawless brings so much personality to the role, it’s easy to see how she earned her promotion from supporting actress to series lead. It’s a joy to watch her in battle, grinning with glee and yelping out her signature war-cry… but then, when the battle’s done, she can also be tender and vulnerable… snarky… sexy… righteous… bemused… tortured… triumphant. She’s a versatile actress playing a surprisingly complex character, is what I’m trying to say. And she looks incredible here… with that hair, and that armour, and those eyes and and those cheek bones! No wonder everyone keeps falling in love/lust with her everywhere she goes! Even ‘Ares’, God of War (played by the late Kevin Smith), has a killer crush on her! I’d probably still give Maggie Q the edge as my fave action heroine, because I believe her fight scenes more than I believe Xena’s, but Lawless is a very strong second. I’m also impressed that she did all of her own fire-breathing stunts, taking a swig of alcohol and then spitting it through a flaming torch to burn the faces off nearby baddies! Yowsa.
For all of her awesomeness, and singular billing, even Xena needed a little back-up and emotional support sometimes… which is where her faithful “companion” ‘Gabrielle’ came in. Like Lawless, Renee O’Connor had to pay her dues on H:LJ, before landing a starring role… though she was playing various side characters, completely unrelated to the chatty wannabe-bard we’ve come to know and love her as here. And again, it’s not hard to see why O’Connor was plucked from the ranks, as she charms co-stars and viewers alike with her super-cute smile and irrepressible adorability. Gabrielle’s fast-talking dialogue isn’t always as winning as the other characters’ reactions suggest it is, but O’Connor delivers it with such gusto, you can understand how humans and cyclopses alike might fall for her patter. She’s also a lot of fun to watch in the more slapstick-y scenes, where her character’s excitedly jumping out of bushes, accidentally hitting herself with a stick, or conducting an invisible choir while trippin’ on poisoned nut bread. Considering how many random warlords and bandits there were lurking around every corner, it was an enormous relief when she finally learned how to wield her signature fighting staff (foreshadowed in an earlier ep, when she broke the head off a spear and used it to jump a fiery pit), and started doing some serious baddy-swatting with it, as she evolved from a timid farm girl into a full-fledged Amazon Princess! Hurrah!
Of course, no discussion of Xena’s and Gabriel’s partnership would be complete without touching on the pseudo-sapphic tension between them. In a way, I think it’s a little cruel and exploitative of the show to keep teasing viewers with the possibility that the two heroines might hook up, when the writers knew damn well they never would. All of the suggestive jokes and loaded looks between them… the way they’d both get weirdly jealous whenever the other went off with a disposable hunk-of-the-week, or revealed a previous engagement… all the crying and skinny-dipping and bosom-nuzzling… clearly there was something going on between them (they even had the same hairstyle, for criminy’s sake!), but at the same time, there was nothing going on between them. They’d never consummate their desires on-screen, or openly declare their lesbian love for one another… so it almost became like a shell game to bring in the pink pound/dollar/dinar. Maybe I’m being too cynical… I don’t know. The show had/has a substantial gay following, so clearly there are a lot of real-life lesbians out there who embraced it and ‘shipped hard on Xena-Gabriel, so who am I to knock it?
It’s generally agreed that a hero is only of interest when they have equally powerful and charismatic antagonists to contend with… and there were few more powerful or charismatic than ‘Callisto’, “The Warrior Queen”! What’s so great about the character on paper is that she has a genuine grievance against Xena, whose army inadvertently razed her village to the ground back in the day, killing all of her family/friends/neighbours in the process. Even though she’s clearly taken her revenge kick too far, letting it twist her into a sadistic psychopath, there’s still a fair whack of pay-back and pathos mixed in there… so she presents Xena with a unique dilemma, in that our heroine knows that Callisto has to be punished for her crimes, but in the process she has to acknowledge that she’s also somewhat culpable for “creating” this monster in the first place. And what makes the character so compelling to watch on the screen is the way that Hudson Leick brings her to life, as a bat-crap-crazy cheerleader-type with a morbid sense of humour and an unhealthy streak of suicidal self-loathing. Her “war cry” is a scream of agony and despair… and her perky, girlish charm is a tattered remnant of the innocence that Xena snuffed out, all those years ago. Sniffle. [ahem] She’s also smokin’ hot, yoga-fit, and wearing a skimpy outfit, of course… no point pretending that isn’t part of her appeal! Interchangeable warlords may come and go on this show, but Callisto made such a strong impression that she was brought back for numerous appearances throughout the subsequent seasons, and even hopped over to H:LJ, to tear a few strips off of that show’s hero!
As for the supporting cast, there were disappointingly few future-stars-in-the-making to be found….er, besides Karl Urban, of course… but he’s a bloke, so it doesn’t count. Willa O’Neill made her debut as Gabrielle’s younger sister ‘Lila’ in the pilot, and returned in ep #1.18 (“The Prodigal”)… or rather, Gabbie returned to her, after deciding it was too dangerous to keep hanging out with Xena (before inevitably learning that their world is just as dangerous when her mighty mentor isn’t around!) Gabrielle also gained some spiritual sisters when she was adopted by a tribe of Amazons in ep #1.10 (“Hooves and Harlots”), including Danielle Cormack’s ‘Ephiny’, who would return for the finale and recur in several subsequent seasons, as well as crossing over to H:LJ. Lawless snagged a second role in ep #1.15 (“Warrior… Princess”), when Xena was called to switch places with ‘Princess Diana’ (!), a sheltered and snobbish royal who bore an uncanny resemblance to our heroine. As noted on the fan wiki page, Lawless was atually playing four characters here, as Xena and Diana attempted to impersonate each other in their respective milieus… leading to some hilarious fish-out-of-water comedy, and once again demonstrating her range as an actress. Technically, there’s also a cameo by legendary Brit actress Jean Simmons in ep #1.13 (“Athens City Academy of the Performing Bards”), which rather cheekily uses footage from various pre-existing sources (including Spartacus (1960)) alongside clips from previous eps of X:WP/H:LJ to illustrate the stories being told by competing bards. Tsk, tsk!
Phew! That was a long ‘un, wasn’t it? Now I have to decide whether to carry on to Season 2, or double-back and buy the first season of H:LJ instead. Apparently the latter also features an early cameo by Lucy Liu, as an added temptation, so… er… watch this space!
[Disclaimer: No keyboards or running jokes were harmed during the typing of this blog]