Xena: Warrior Princess 4.9 – Past Imperfect

This morning’s episode was pretty strange from a production standpoint. It introduces Catherine Boniface, who we saw playing a different character in a season three story, as Satrina, a face from Xena’s past who has reinvented herself as a master villain. She is totally set up as a new recurring menace – probably filling the hole in the show left by Callisto – and even makes a traditional teevee bad guy getaway, but she’s never seen again after this. I guess the producers decided that she didn’t work and decided against using her again.

Using a face from the past means they go back to the flashbacks again. I swear I didn’t intend for this to happen, but by skipping around the way we have, it’s almost looked like Xena’s old boyfriend, the warlord Borias, has been about as important a recurring player as Ares or Caesar. Our son said he really enjoyed this episode’s fight scenes, but the flashbacks confused him. I can’t imagine it was really as confusing as he made out; he was probably just not paying close attention.

Xena: Warrior Princess 4.6 – A Tale of Two Muses

I really thought our son would have enjoyed tonight’s silly episode more than he did. For a while, he seemed to be liking it. Xena, Gabrielle, and Autolycus get together to bring a little Footloose to a town of religious extremists who have banned dancing. The Prince of Thieves is only in this under protest until he learns that the scheme is to “humiliate this horse’s ass” of a town magistrate. I guess you could make the argument that the humiliation is left to our imagination, and so we never really get the chance to enjoy his comeuppance, but the real tragedy for the kid is that there was far too much music and dancing. His loss; there’s a dance scene in the middle of the story set to a terrific tune called “Let the Spirit Move Me” sung by Gillian Iliana Waters that the grownups really enjoyed.

Xena: Warrior Princess 4.5 – A Good Day

Up until the final scenes, our son was really enjoying this one, which is nice, because he certainly didn’t enjoy the previous three. It ends with a long, long meditation on the horrors of war – there’s slow motion and “noooooooooooo” and a quite unsurprising death among the guest stars – and then Xena sings at another funeral. To be fair, I was enjoying this one quite a lot until the slo-mo myself, but the kid’s precise criticism after five minutes of the show turning into a tear-jerker nails it best. “I really don’t like it when it turns into a sad relationship broken drama.”

Anyway, it’s a heck of a good plot and a very, very good production. Caesar and Pompey have brought the Roman civil war to Greece, and while Pompey’s forces are larger, Karl Urban’s Caesar inspires far greater loyalty and morale in his men, plus he’s a much better battlefield tactician. Xena schemes to assure a little mutually-assured destruction so what’s left of their forces will return to Rome and leave these hills and villages alone.

Pulling this off required probably the largest collection of costumed, combat-ready extras we’ve seen in this series, augmented by some of those CGI-enhanced crowd scenes that were a lot harder to spot in the 1990s than they are today. But the brawling and the scope is very, very impressive: much higher budgeted weekly TV series rarely pull off anything this spectacular. To be fair, the effect was slightly spoiled tonight, because afterward, Marie and I watched the first half of Akira Kurosawa’s 1980 epic Kagemusha, which has one of the largest collections of costumed, combat-ready extras I’ve seen in anything, period. But Xena nevertheless deserves a lot of praise for what it could accomplish with so much less money, and the fight scenes really are golden.

Xena: Warrior Princess 4.3 – A Family Affair

We’d crossed our fingers that Gabrielle had survived the end of season three, and she did, but we also crossed our fingers that Hope died, and not only did she live, she gave birth to a big monster covered with spikes. There’s honestly not a lot to this story; Xena and Joxer head back to Gabrielle’s hometown, hoping that she somehow survived and made her way there. She did, but so did Hope, who got there first and is pretending to be Gabrielle, and there’s a monster in a cave that comes out at night to eat people.

This is definitely a show that blew all its budget on the location shoot and wire-fu of the two-part opening and is down to a small cast and very familiar sets for this one. We’re watching fewer than half the episodes and I swear we’ve seen that bridge at least twice before. The beast is quite well-designed and the animatronic face is excellent, but the spikes are comically rubber and bouncy in an Ultraman monster way. It ends with a deeply, deeply cheesy coda with our heroines talking about how much they missed and feel lost without each other. Our son was reasonably impressed until their conversation, which he dismissed as corny. I think the writers needed to end on something with some emotional heft, after all the angst of season three, so you can dismiss the criticism as coming from the mouth of a monster-crazed nine year-old boy. Fighting, dopplegangers, and skeletons: that’s what he’s here for.

Hope might really be dead this time. Fingers crossed, again.

Xena: Warrior Princess 4.1-2 – Adventures in the Sin Trade (parts one and two)

Chanting, blood, and skulls! Now back to 1997 and the remarkably dreary return of Xena: Warrior Princess. When we last left our heroine, Gabrielle, Hope, and Callisto were all dead, and we’re hoping two out of three stay that way. In the two-part season opener, Xena wants to visit the land of the dead to see her only friend one last time, but learns that an old mystic – once her ally, when Xena was a villain – has locked several spirits out of their eternal, peaceful, resting place. So Xena has to deal with the old mystic first.

This was a chore. It’s a moody two hours with flashbacks on top of flashbacks and a lot of shamanism and mysticism and spirits fighting. Part two features one of the most annoying and noisy things I’ve ever sat through, as Xena and her new gang of Siberian Amazons have a bonfire and a nice long shrieking dance while the bad guy preps her attack. The soundtrack is wailing and hollering and it goes on forever.

I liked little bits of it. Part one opens with Xena tracking down the god Hades to ask permission to cross over and see Gabrielle, and Hades says she isn’t in his land of the dead; the Amazons have their own and he knows nothing of it. That’s pretty interesting world-building. And part two sees Xena and her allies enter a dark and quiet patch of woods where a half-dozen skeletons of long-dead warriors are, gruesomely, impaled on trees. It’s a pretty stunning scene, given incredible meat when Xena gives her allies a heartbreaking flashback: these are the long-missing leaders of their Amazon tribe, and several years before, the villainous Xena killed them all. We then get some fine brawling in the trees, using that wire-fu that was briefly popular in the late nineties. It never looked real, but it usually looked really neat.

The kid was not even remotely impressed. We paused part two to give him a quick introduction to shamanism and folk traditions, communing with the dead, that sort of thing. There’s usually blood, skulls, smoke, wailing, all probably as hard on the ears in the real world as this cacophony was on TV. That reminded me of something he’d seen before drawn from similar sources: Doctor Who’s Sisterhood of Karn from “The Brain of Morbius”. So I pulled that off the shelf for a quick refresher. The Sisterhood, whispering their “sacred fire, sacred flame” chant, are far, far less annoying than the Siberian Amazons and their howling, and it was a timely little reminder. He’ll be seeing the Sisterhood again in a little over a month, so stay tuned…

Xena: Warrior Princess 3.21-22 – Sacrifice (parts one and two)

We’ve been navigating around and occasionally dipping into an arc story this year. A demon-god called Dahak gave Gabrielle a magical pregnancy, and she gave birth to a powerful, evil, demigod daughter called Hope, and some ugly stuff happened that we missed, and then Hope is reborn, played by Renee O’Connor in a dual role. She even says “Hello, Mother,” just like Morena Baccarin would keep saying a few years later in the last season of Stargate SG-1. And hey, stay tuned to this blog for more on the subject of babies who grow up into adults in just a few days, because this trope never gets old. Really.

Since this arc has caused nothing but grief and despair and our heroines snapping at each other, I decided we’d power through both parts tonight. Our son hated it completely, mainly because Hudson Leick shows up as Callisto, and he can’t stand her. I thought there were a couple of good moments, but no real surprises. I had trouble swallowing the insane number of Dahak followers who have sprouted from out of nowhere in this region in what seems to have been maybe six or so months, and wonder how the assizes of the ancient world are going to deal with this many freaks needing prison time and/or execution for all the attacks on villages in part two of this story. The real problem is that Ares’s motives are so insanely unclear that he seems to switch sides every time he’s on screen. At one point, he sends a warlord running to build the largest army the world has ever seen to attack Hope and Dahak, and this plot is completely abandoned without comment.

It ends with Hope dead – I think I believe that’ll stick – and Gabrielle dead – pretty sure that won’t – and Callisto dead. I’d have to think about risking any money on that one sticking. The poor kid squirmed through both hours just ready for it to end. I try to judge with an open mind and a kind heart, but really, while the individual hours were mostly made quite well and the comedies featured a few good gags, this season was just too full of angst. I hope that when they get Gabrielle back from the afterlife, season four’s a lot less heavy.

We’ll look at some selections from season four of Xena: Warrior Princess in February. Stay tuned!

Xena: Warrior Princess 3.20 – Vanishing Act

Bruce Campbell’s back for the second week in a row as Autolycus, but this time it’s Lucy Lawless who steals the show. At Autolycus’s direction, because they’re pulling a heist his way, Xena goes undercover as a fence looking for a stolen golden statue. She invents this accent… I guess it’s kind of a brassy Queens accent? Like Fran Drescher or Barbara Nichols? It’s really amusing, but it also took me out of the show completely. I know full well that Lucy Lawless can play lots of different characters. I’m a little less sold that this is among Xena’s talents. I’d believe it a little more if they’d have brought Xena’s lookalike Meg in for this caper.

The other real problem I had with this one is that there’s a really fine twist in the story, and I liked the way that Autolycus is casing this castle and getting ideas. You can see the gears in his head turning, and you can see that our heroes are up to something, only to get the rug pulled out from under them. This is wonderful, and they should have done much more with this, but it’s almost like they were running short this week and needed to beef up the running time with a long scene where Xena convinces Autolycus not to kill their opponent. It’s a preachy scene, terribly out of place, and it totally derails the much better material around it.

Our son was much happier about it than I was. The Autolycus episodes remain among my favorites, and it’s certainly watchable despite my misgivings, but I’m afraid this was certainly his weakest installment so far. We’re also curious how many more times they’re going to use this harbor set. They’ve tried to redress it, but not quite hard enough. I’m pretty sure they used it as the harbor in Jack of All Trades a couple of years later, too.

Xena: Warrior Princess 3.19 – Tsunami

Sadly, for those of us who go around getting screencaps to illustrate our silly blogs, there’s a huge missed opportunity here. Bruce Campbell is back as Autolycus, and one of the other guest stars is Angela Dotchin. Two years later, they’d star together in the silly and delightful Jack of All Trades but they are never in the same two-shot together.

The episode is a Xena take on The Poseidon Adventure, only with a much smaller boat turned upside down and thrown underwater after Mount Etna erupts and causes a massive tidal wave. What happens is Disaster Movie 101, with a collection of people who need to be taken down a notch, and have their courage built up, and have their rocky relationship reaffirmed. Our son wasn’t too wild about it; the title of the episode had him ready for the tsunami and acted like he’d figured out a great big secret when the tidal wave capsizes the ship. But like Poseidon, the disaster happens very early, and the kid was restless after that.

I never want to linger on special effects when they’re unconvincing. It’s particularly unfair to hold a low-budget show like Xena‘s occasionally dated computer-generated effects against it. I believe that you should praise a show that does the best it can with what it has to work with, and with that in mind, this episode is actually extremely impressive. The tsunami and the underwater miniature work was a huge undertaking for this series, and it only looks dated, never really bad. You can tell exactly what they were trying to do in each individual shot. And doing about half of the episode in an upside-down water-filled set can’t have been easy. My hat’s off to the director and the crew of this one. The script may not have broken any new ground, but it must have been a massive headache to make, and they did an excellent job with the resources they had available.

Xena: Warrior Princess 3.18 – Fins, Femmes and Gems

Weirdly, the first two seasons of Xena had given us mostly lighthearted action-adventure stories, punctuated by some light comedies. Season three seems to be all angst, heavy and unpleasant, and the comedies are completely over-the-top and wonderfully ridiculous. Boy, do we ever prefer the comedies. This one features the return of Alexandra Tydings as Aphrodite. Xena, Gabrielle, and Joxer are on a mission to intercept three bandits who have stolen the Northern Star – eh, magic – for Aphrodite. She waylays them with an obsession spell. Joxer seems to become a monkey-man after the hero of an old legend, Gabrielle becomes obsessed with herself, and Xena, for the second time this year, really just wants to go fishing.

Xena is much, much better at fishing than Jack O’Neill. For starters, she doesn’t waste time on ponds without any fish in them. But she’s really interested in one particular fish that’s been the one that got away for ages, and she has a complex scheme to use a kite to catch it, with a hook baited with a lock of Gabrielle’s hair.

Honestly, the whole thing is a riot again, but as hilarious as the ladies are, I’m afraid that the episode’s editor let Joxer steal the show. Having convinced himself he is Tarzan, or the ancient world’s equivalent, he swings from the trees to abduct Gabrielle, and calls on the animals of the Greek forest to defend them from Xena. What happens next is a hysterical montage of animals who were nowhere freaking anywhere close to a forest, in Greece or anywhere else, when they were filmed, and the episode suddenly and deliberately turns into one of those no-budget African adventure movies you’d catch on UHF channels in the 1970s that didn’t have access to much library footage.

Nobody found this as funny as I did, but that’s in part because one time about thirty years ago, I overheard two fellows debating whether Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom was the greatest television show ever made, because it starred Marlon Perkins as – and I quote – “this seventy year-old guy who beats up giraffes and shit.” Show me beat-up library footage of a lion on the savanna, especially when it flat out does not belong in the narrative, and it just takes me back.

Xena: Warrior Princess 3.17 – Forget Me Not

Well, I knew it was a clip show going into this, but it turned out to be a very specific clip show, recapping all the bad memories and unhappiness that Gabrielle racked up between episodes 4 and 16 of this season. We’d watched all but one of the installments this drew from, and didn’t much enjoy going back over them again. The only interesting bit was expanding a scene from part one of “The Debt” to clarify that Xena had not taken the slow boat to China in that story. Gabrielle, broken-hearted from jealousy, actually asked Ares for the favor of speeding her to China ahead of Xena, and she’s been lying to herself and trying to forget it ever since. I thought it was quite neat the way that they extended that scene, but nothing else here was worth rehashing.

Xena: Warrior Princess 3.16 – When in Rome…

We skipped a few episodes that I’d planned for us to watch. None of us enjoyed some of the earlier installments of Xena and Gabrielle being all angsty and unhappy; reading between the lines at the indispensable Australian Xena Information Page, it seems that the last three episodes, which were very amusing, were welcome detours in the middle of what fans call “the rift arc.” Life’s too short, so I juggled the order of things.

Anyway, this one starts splendidly, with mobs of costumed stuntmen beating each other senseless as Caesar’s troops charge into Gaul looking for a barbarian who’s been a thorn in his side. Karl Urban’s back as Caesar this week, and he really is perfectly insidious and nasty in the role. Xena tries to arrange an exchange for a very important Roman prisoner, and this episode’s all about seeing which of the adversaries is further ahead in anticipating their opponents’ moves. It’s also all about seeing how far Gabrielle’s willing to trust Xena after their recent unpleasantness, and while Caesar and Xena are scheming and planning and setting traps, neither of them could possibly predict what Gabrielle does at the end, making a decision and ensuring that at least one person knows what she’s done and why. Sorry to be vague, but it’s a genuinely terrific ending.

Our son was very pleased with the adventure. It certainly wasn’t as funny as recent installments, but it’s full of the action he’s watching the show to see. I was amused by a little made-for-TV simplicity – this plan only works because the citizens accused of public drunkenness are thrown in the same prison as the fellows on death row ready for the coliseum – but the Xena team really did a fine job pulling this off as well as anybody at the time could on a television budget. Most importantly, Lucy Lawless and Renee O’Connor are believable and so watchable as two friends learning to trust and love each other again. I think we did the right thing skipping the darker stories before this.