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.

Xena: Warrior Princess 3.10 – The Quill is Mightier…

Another Lawless-lite comedy episode, this one had us all chuckling quite a lot. Ares manipulates Aphrodite into doing something about Gabrielle and all the mythmaking that she’s doing with Xena, and Aphrodite blesses/curses her by enchanting her new scroll. Anything that the bard writes upon it – or that anybody writes upon it – comes true. But the scroll is incredibly literal, and pretty soon drinks are on the house and it starts raining money over a town, and both gods lose their powers and really come to regret this intrusion. And Gabrielle has three doubles as well now, only they don’t wear any clothes and go-go dance.

Well, the grown-ups chuckled and enjoyed a couple of good belly laughs, but the kid lost his mind roaring. When Xena finally shows up for the climax, Gabrielle having sent her away for a remarkably successful fishing trip, I thought the kid was going to pass out. The onlookers’ grumbling about whether Xena is using a squid or an octopus as a bolas is easy to miss under the weight of all the rest of the gags, but I’m glad that I caught it.

Xena: Warrior Princess 3.9 – Warrior… Priestess… Tramp

Whatever I might have been planning to say about this hilarious episode, which introduces a third double for Xena, got sidetracked by our son’s insightful criticism: “That was a really good script that perfectly fit the plot. It was like a cup of milk that was just the right size for a cookie that was just the right size.” Also, he laughed his fool head off when Joxer comes to the “rescue” by jumping through a random window for some reason or other.

Xena: Warrior Princess 3.8 – The King of Assassins

So how bad was that two-parter we just finished? Bad enough that Marie decided to make a grocery run rather than watch the next episode. And she missed out, because “The King of Assassins” is triumphantly silly and fun. Autolycus is back, and he meets Joxer for the first time, and thinks that he’s somebody else: Joxer’s really mean – and competent – brother, the assassin Jett. So with Lucy Lawless off filming other episodes, it’s up to Gabrielle, Autolycus, and Joxer to somehow save Cleopatra, who’s in town for largely unclear but plot-convenient reasons, from being killed.

I chuckled all the way through the thing, but the kid fell apart laughing. Jett torments Joxer through such tried-and-true methods as wet willies and hanging wedgies, and you thought they hadn’t been invented yet. Turns out Joxer is the black sheep of his family; everybody else is a real villain. Gina Torres is amusing as Cleopatra, though strangely the character doesn’t appear again. Torres had a different character in Hercules called Nebula who did make several appearances there. Xena shows up again at the end for a mostly played-for-laughs brawl that had our son howling. She just can’t leave this gang alone for a minute, apparently.

Xena: Warrior Princess 3.7 – The Debt (part two)

In the end, I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy that very much at all. The kid liked the brawl at the end, in which Xena is saved from certain death by remembering that about ten years ago somebody taught her some new superpowers. Is she going to be using telekinesis from here out, I wonder. But the main problem is Gabrielle deciding she knows what’s best for Xena without knowing the whole story, and Xena deciding it’s best Gabrielle not know the whole story. The breakdown in trust simply made this one excruciating to watch. Hopefully they’re back to normal after this.

Xena: Warrior Princess 3.6 – The Debt (part one)

We skipped an episode where Gabrielle has a supernatural demon baby. I said that from what I read, it ended with a big, messy breakdown between our heroines and their ability to trust each other. Then Xena gets word that a very old debt’s been called in and she has to go to China to kill somebody, which Gabrielle doesn’t like at all.

So most of this episode is a flashback to Xena’s days as a villain, not long after the events shown in season two’s “Destiny”. It certainly looks amazing in places. The big set piece at the beginning of the flashback involves several dozen costumed stunt riders on horseback in a huge, empty plain having an amazing fight. It’s feature film-quality, which is pretty awesome for a low-budget syndicated TV show to pull off. From there, Xena and her warlord buddy try turning two Chinese families against each other, but Xena’s tactics are too predictable and she’s too vulgar and wild to pull any of it off.

Honestly, though, I was annoyed by the creeping tough guy-isms in the story, the insistence on going it alone, the “you wouldn’t understand”s. Perhaps it makes some sense after the hour that we skipped, in which Xena and Gabrielle have that falling out, but the present day stuff is just self-destructive and dumb. It ends, bizarrely, with the revelation that Xena actually must have taken the slow boat to China, because Gabrielle got there first and found Xena’s target, warned him, and set up a trap for her friend. Because she’d rather get her friend killed than let her friend kill anybody, I guess. Kind of looks like a betrayal from where I’m sitting, and so the cliffhanger is more sour than thrilling.

Xena: Warrior Princess 3.4 – The Deliverer

It would be overstating things somewhat to call this great television, but it has several moments. I picked this one because it’s got both Ares and Julius Caesar in it – this is Karl Urban’s second turn as his other recurring character in the show – and then got a little discouraged because it turned into another story of Gabrielle about to get her heart broken by another cute boy, this one a follower of one of those new-fangled “one God” sorts, and ended up very impressed by the number of tricks it pulls. There are some downright delicious twists in this one, not the least of which is Gabrielle straight up killing somebody to defend the cute boy.

Ares pulls Xena aside for another one of his parlays, which is a bit selfish of him because Xena’s supposed to be working with Boadicea to march against every one of Caesar’s legions in Britain. Xena reads between the lines and figures Ares and the rest of the Olympians are really frightened of the new “one God,” because he’s going to do to them what they did to the Titans. Marie’s about tired of Ares and wishes this show would consign him to history as well. I’m afraid we’re nowhere near done with him yet.

But speaking of recurring characters, the really strange thing is that Boadicea doesn’t become one. The actress Jennifer Ward-Lealand looks totally like she’s being set up as a player in a multi-part arc, but Boadicea’s rout of Caesar’s forces takes place offscreen while Xena and Gabrielle have to deal with other matters. It’s weird storytelling, but I appreciate the show pulling the rug out from under me.

Xena: Warrior Princess 3.1 – The Furies

And now back to 1997 and another “greatest hits” season of Xena. I picked 15 episodes from this run, with what looks like a good mix of recurring players and two-parters. The season started off with a mostly kid-pleasing installment with plenty of slapstick fighting. This time out, Xena’s old enemy Ares alerts the Furies that there’s an unpunished crime that warrants their attention. Xena has never avenged the murder of her father; the killer was never brought to justice.

The Furies agree that she deserves persecution and madness, and, in a massive shift of tone from what sounds like something dark and serious, Xena is fighting with slaps and spanks instead of swords and making comedy gibbledy-noises and doing everything short of saying “nyuk, nyuk” as she pokes people in the eyes instead of brawling properly. So of course, the kid thought this was ridiculous and wonderful, and the climactic wire-fu scrap completely thrilled him.

However, the kid really doesn’t like embarrassment onscreen, a trait he’s inherited from his mom. Early in the story, Xena beds down, wakes up in the middle of the night with the madness clouding her judgement again, strips naked, finds a village and threatens to burn the helpless people. Gabrielle shows up in the nick of time to talk her down, and even though the scene is shot with afternoon TV-safe nudity, all silhouettes and shadows and camera angles obscuring everything, our son still felt so awkward that he shielded his eyes.

There did seem to be a bit more skin onscreen than usual, though. The Furies dress and dance like they’re performing with Prince during his New Power Generation period.

…seriously!