Whoosh! Issue 71 - August 2002

TIMELESS ELEMENTS OF XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS
By Gail Futoran
Content © 2002 held by author
WHOOSH! edition © 2002 held by Whoosh!
4109 words


Introduction (01-03)
Music (04-09)
Acting (10-17)
Production Aspects (18-23)
The Concept (24-35)
Conclusion (36-39)
Postscript: Remembering Kevin Smith (40)
Articles
Biography



TIMELESS ELEMENTS OF XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS



Introduction

Defying advice to the contrary, Xena and Gabrielle stare directly at the sun
The show walked off into the sunset in 2001, even if the characters didn't.

[01] The last episode of Xena: Warrior Princess first aired in U.S. markets about a year ago. Online fan activity is much reduced, at least in the forums I have frequented since early 1998. Will anyone be discussing the show a year from now? Ten years? Will there be a fan demand for a big screen movie, with or without Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor starring or appearing at all? What about the possibility of a spin-off? Is the show destined for the dustbin of TV history?

[02] There was something unique about the show that is not easily replicated. However, the very elements that make the Xena experience difficult to repeat ensure that the series will stay fresh, garnering new converts through reruns, for a very long time.

[03] Some of those elements include the music, the acting, production values, and the "concept."


Music

[04] Music can add a great deal to the experience of a television show or movie. For as long as I can remember, "show tunes," loosely defined as music from movies, stage plays, and television shows, has been my second favorite musical form after classical music. Music does not make or break a TV show or movie, but it can add to a unique viewing experience. The themes from Hill Street Blues, Northern Exposure, and China Beach, to name a few of my favorites, still have the power to move me, years after production ended.

[05] Composer Joseph LoDuca's music for Xena more often than not added something special to a scene or an entire episode. He had the uncanny ability to find the core emotion of a scene and paint it musically in stark relief, not overpowering the acting and writing, but supporting and heightening them, whether a scene called for drama, tragedy, hope, heroism, fear, joy, or comedy. His eclectic approach, incorporating tones, rhythms, themes, and instruments from different cultures and styles, and molding them into music comfortable to Western ears, is unrivaled in my experience.

[06] LoDuca deservedly won an Emmy for the background music to FALLEN ANGEL (91/501). He was nominated for an Emmy every year from 1997 to 2001 for his work on Xena. In my opinion, he deserved an Emmy for his music for ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE (69-70/401-402), and A FRIEND IN NEED (133-134/621-622), at the very least.

[07] A short list of outstanding and memorable music written or selected by LoDuca would have to include the series theme song, "Glede Ma Glede" (Amphipolis' theme song), "Bacchae Rap" from GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN (28/204), the dance of the three nude Gabrielles from THE QUILL IS MIGHTIER (56/310), the music and lyrics for THE BITTER SUITE (58/312), Joxer's theme song ("Joxer the Mighty"), the funeral dirge with lyrics written by Lucy Lawless that she first sung in THE PATH NOT TAKEN (05/105), M'Lila's song (written by Mouth Music) from DESTINY (36/212).

[08] Topping the list for me are several favorite scenes and episodes that were made more powerful by the background music:

[09] LoDuca's music for Xena, along with a few cuts used in the series but written by others, has been featured on seven CDs (the last two offered in one double album), produced and distributed by Varese Sarabande. I have been playing this music almost exclusively in my car since I became besotted with the show in 1998. LoDuca's music was the third "star" of the series and I never tire of listening to it.


Acting

Whoa, you could use a mint!
Xena and Gabrielle had their comedic as well as serious moments.
"I was attracted to Xena at first largely because of Lucy Lawless and her portrayal of Xena. It took a few seasons for Gabrielle to register on my radar screen. However, once I became a fan of the character I noticed that Renee O'Connor had been turning in competent and even exceptional performances from the very first episode." -- Dan Filie

[10] Robert Weisbrot, in The Official Guide to the Xenaverse (Main Street Books, Doubleday, 1998), offered this quotation from Dan Filie, senior vice president for drama development at Universal Studios, about the casting of Gabrielle: "The question in casting the part of Gabrielle was 'Should we be looking for a young swimsuit beauty, a Baywatch-type girl?' Moreover, a couple of the girls who came in were just dolls, really cute. However, because Lucy had not had a lot of experience in front of the camera, we wanted to make sure we had an actor there we could throw 'exposition' to ..."

"It came down to this: Xena is our sexy character, if people don't think that Xena, Warrior Princess, has sex appeal, we're out of luck! Therefore, we decided, 'Let's get the best actress as Gabrielle,' just as we had with Kevin [Sorbo] as Hercules. And in reading the scenes, Renee was just the better actress ...." [page 28]

[11] O'Connor's Gabrielle was a delightful character from her first appearance. Xena, as portrayed by Lucy Lawless, was at first merely adequate as an action hero with a dark past. Over time she became much more, thanks to Lawless' ability to portray any emotion or thought at any intensity. Weisbrot quoted writer/producer R. J. Stewart about the importance of Lawless' talent in presenting his view of Xena:

"Lucy Lawless sells this character, in a dramatic and poignant and sympathetic way. I could easily imagine this scenario: that we cast another actor who might be fine, but who, when she plays the dark side, is scary and mean to be around. Therefore, it is unpleasant for the viewers. 'Ooh,' you want to say [as a writer], 'she's so good when she's cheerful, let's make her cheerful.' But Lucy sells that dark quality." [page 30]

[12] It was not enough that the two leads handled some of the strangest and most difficult acting in television, from high drama to tragedy, musicals, and wild comedies, sometimes in the same episode. They also gave the fans an onscreen friendship that reflected their off-screen affection and respect. They held very little back, and the series gained because of it. Whether fighting each other, protecting each other, or expressing love or hate; Xena and Gabrielle were real to many of us because two real people, the actors, allowed them to be so.

[13] Lawless not only sold the emotion; she sold the action as well. As the seasons progressed, I saw her face more during fight scenes. She seldom did the dangerous stunts, but she could be counted on for the high kicks, hard punches, and expression and body movement that shouted that Xena was a warrior, rather than a gentle and laid-back Kiwi mom who would rather talk her way out of a situation than resort to violence. An essential moment in my appreciation of Lawless' portrayal of Xena came in the opening scenes of THE DEBT I (52/306). Xena's brief but intense fight with the Chinese assassins established for me, as no episode had before, Xena's incomparable skills as a warrior. Xena learned many lessons in THE DEBT, in the past as well as in the present, and Lawless captured every nuance of Xena's complicated inner life. Before THE DEBT, I was fan of the show. By the end of THE DEBT II (53/307), I was a Xenite, soon to be "hardcore nutball".

[14] Season Three was also a watershed for Gabrielle, in many ways. It was not until THE DEBT that I began to see Gabrielle as something more than the "silly sidekick". It was during Season Three that Lucy Lawless let Xena become more expressive while at the same time Renee O'Connor's performance became more restrained. The original "stoic" lead -- Xena -- switched emotive places with the original "expressive" sidekick -- Gabrielle. By Season Four, I began to see more balance in acting challenges, although Xena always had more onscreen time and more acting and reacting to do than Gabrielle had.

[15] Gabrielle truly came into her own beginning in Season Four. The India arc in particular [PARADISE FOUND, 81/413, DEVI, BETWEEN THE LINES (83/415), and THE WAY (84/416)] required O'Connor to let loose a barrage of emotional changes, and yet keep firm control so that she never seemed to be overacting. Her performance as Tataka in DEVI is still one of my favorites. Greater challenges arose in Seasons Five and Six, and O'Connor always met them.

[16] In the penultimate scene of A FRIEND IN NEED II, whatever my criticisms of the story, I have nothing but admiration for the performance the two actors turned in. However hokey some aspects of the story are, the emotions are real and eternal.

[17] Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor easily carried the series on their capable shoulders, but the supporting characters and guest stars also contributed a great deal. There were more than a dozen recurring characters appearing in four or more episodes, e.g., Ted Raimi as Joxer, Kevin Smith as Ares (issues 10, 16, and 33), Alexandra Tydings as Aphrodite (issues 17, 61, and 72), Danielle Cormack as Ephiny, Hudson Leick as Callisto (issues 11, 14, and 61), all outstanding in their roles and a joy to watch whenever they appeared. Actors featured in only one or two episodes amounted to a dozen or more per season, many of them offering memorable performances (e.g., Alison Bruce as Melosa in Season 1; Ebonie Smith as M'Lila in Season 2; Jacqueline Kim as Lao Ma in Season 3; Kathryn Morris as Najara in Season 4; Jon Bennett as Antony in Season 5; and Michelle Ang as Akemi in Season 6). I find myself looking forward to seeing these actors in other venues, to a much greater extent than I have experienced with supporting and guest actors appearing in other TV shows.


Production Aspects

Too cheap to hire actors, Renaissance took to digging up the dead for some scenes
Many of the production team worked unpaid overtime on the show, from set designers to effects personnel and everyone in between.

[18] Production values are largely determined by the backstage elements that most people are unaware of until or unless it goes wrong. Everything from camera angles, lighting, and editing to costumes, sets, props and stunts, all add to or detract from a production. In the case of Xena, the production values started high, if primitive in some respects, and by Season Three, rapidly became indistinguishable from a high budget movie in many episodes. I will mention two aspects that I found especially critical in enhancing my viewing experience.

[19] Costuming was one of the earliest production elements that caught my attention. Guided by head costumers Ngila Dickson (Seasons One through Four) and Jane Holland (Seasons Five and Six), some of the most gorgeous costumes I have ever seen in a television show appeared on Xena. Of course it helps when the leads look good in sackcloth (Xena in THE DEBT, Gabrielle in GABRIELLE'S HOPE [51/304]), but the costume staff never took that beauty and grace as an excuse to rest on their laurels. The costuming was breathtaking in THE DEBT, THE BITTER SUITE (58/312), ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE, FALLEN ANGEL (91/501), PURITY (96/506), BACK IN THE BOTTLE (97/507), WHO'S GURKHAN, and A FRIEND IN NEED, to mention a few examples.

[20] Stunts and other action sequences, especially the fight scenes, were always exciting, never boring, occasionally silly but usually deliberately so. The stunt coordinators, as well as the stuntees and the actors, deserve a lot of credit for making a fantasy show appear real and exciting through a blend of disparate styles, a lot of hard work and high standards of professionalism.

[21] The fights got more complex with the passing seasons. Two of my favorite Season Six fights were in the same episode, PATH OF VENGEANCE (126/614), the first between Gabrielle and Varia (with the actors doing much of the stunts themselves), and the second between Xena and Varia.

[22] The props people also figure in here, since many of the stunts and action sequences involved props designed to be functional yet fantastic, adding texture to a scene. One of my early favorite action moments was in THE PRICE (44/220). A Horde member throws one of their signature axes at Xena who snatches it from the air with her whip and sends it flying back into the chest of the man who threw it.

[23] Not all the talent on the show was in front of the cameras. Whoosh! has published a number of interviews with the behind-the-scenes or uncredited (i.e. stuntees) talent and I urge all fans to read those interviews to learn more about why Xena was such an incredibly rich experience for six seasons. Just go to http://whoosh.org/search and type in, for example, "stunt."


The Concept

Oh wow, this contract you signed also gives me your soul!  Cool!
Evil genius or something else? You decide!

[24] Rob Tapert, R. J. STEWART, and their colleagues told stories in the grand tradition of Greek tragedy and comedy. Some Xena episodes were borrowed from myth or history and recast to fit two female heroes (e.g., the story of Helen of Troy in BEWARE GREEKS BEARING GIFTS, 12/112). Some of those stories used historical or mythical characters, but radically changed their circumstances, as in THE DEBT. Some stories used historical incidents and events and changed them drastically (ONE AGAINST AN ARMY). Most of the great Xena stories, however, were beholden to no past stories or history other than the show itself.

[25] Xena was conceived as a dark, female warrior to fill the time slot following the journeys of a goody-two-shoes, half-god, male warrior, Hercules. Xena was to be blessed with (or saddled with, depending on one's opinion) a female sidekick, Gabrielle, innocent at first but evolving into a fine warrior in her own right. This contrasted to Hercules' sidekick, Iolaus, who was an accomplished warrior from the outset.

[26] Hercules had his dark moments, but it was clear that he was a good man at heart. The verdict was not as clear with Xena, especially when her dark past was shown to be even darker than portrayed in the Xena trilogy where the character was introduced (Hercules: The Legendary Journeys: THE WARRIOR PRINCESS, H09/109, THE GAUNTLET, H12/112, UNCHAINED HEART, H13/113).

[27] Xena: Warrior Princess was about the journey of two women, as individuals and as a couple. Xena's past, the source of the demons haunting her present life and travels with Gabrielle, became increasingly more ominous with episodes such as CALLISTO (22/122), DESTINY (36/212), THE DEBT, ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE, THE RHINEGOLD (119/607), THE RING (120/608), and A FRIEND IN NEED, emphasizing the stark balance between dark and light.

[28] Gabrielle's journey started in innocence, with a simple desire to have adventures, tell stories, and help people. A pacifist at heart, she learned the hard way that life with a former warlord involved violence and loss, but at the end she was as much the hero as her partner was.

[29] At the heart of the show was the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle. Whereas most would agree with Rob Tapert that theirs was a love story, opinions differ over the nature of that love. Some fans preferred to see Xena and Gabrielle as just good friends. Other fans saw "subtext" -- the beneath-the-surface hints of a romantic attraction between Xena and Gabrielle -- as early as SINS OF THE PAST (01/001). I did not become aware of subtext until I joined online fandom midway through Season Three. As soon as someone defined subtext for me, I immediately saw the possibility. I remained a fence-sitter on the issue until THE BITTER SUITE and ONE AGAINST AN ARMY, but after those episodes, I leaned more toward the pro-subtext camp. Any doubts that remained about the nature of Xena and Gabrielle's relationship were eliminated in Season Four, with ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE and CRUSADER.

[30] Looking back from a new (for me) perspective, I could easily see the subtext much earlier in the series, and not just the so-called "wink-nod" moments, for example the nude fishing scene in ALTARED STATES (19/119). The growing mutual need and love between Xena and Gabrielle was evident even in seasons one and two:

[31] Much of the subtext was at the wink-nod level, at the same time that the love between the two heroes was open and growing stronger with each passing season. Season Five, revolving mainly around Xena's daughter, Eve, and a whole new set of responsibilities and threats for our two heroes, seemed to show a withdrawing from the heart of the relationship. Yet, Gabrielle remained steadfast in her devotion to Xena. By Season Six balance was restored. Each woman again acknowledged the extent to which she needed the other in episodes such as WHO'S GURKHAN, LEGACY (117/605), and most notably, WHEN FATES COLLIDE (130/618), the most overtly romantic of 134 episodes.

[32] Even the person most responsible for Xena and Gabrielle's existence could not keep them apart for long. I find it interesting that for the director's cut of A FRIEND IN NEED, Rob Tapert changed the ending to show Gabrielle and (spirit) Xena standing together on the ship. In the episode as it originally aired, Gabrielle was shown alone at the end, accompanied only by Xena's ashes.

[33] As a feminist, I love the idea of two women action heroes, and in particular, two women who are beholden to no men. They did not reject men as people, as friends, as family, or as worthy opponents. They were both quite fond of Hercules, Iolaus, Joxer, and Autolycus, to mention several of the men important in their lives, and counted commoners as well as kings among the people they helped.

[34] They occasionally exhibited attraction to men, but never appeared to stray from each other's side, at least not after Marcus in Season One for Xena (MORTAL BELOVED 16/116), and Perdicas in Season Two for Gabrielle (RETURN OF CALLISTO, 29/205). One could argue that Xena's apparently heartfelt response to Antony in ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA (108/518) and to Ares late in Season Five and throughout Season Six presented a challenge to Gabrielle's "ownership" of Xena's deep affection and love. Nevertheless, I would argue in return that in moments of crisis as well as in day-to-day living, Xena and Gabrielle were emotionally linked to each other, and to no one else. Xena refers to Gabrielle in SOUL POSSESSION (130/620) as "the one person in the world I meant to spend the rest of my life with". Gabrielle resets the universe in WHEN FATES COLLIDE, not knowing whether it will work and not really caring. That illustrates how deep her attachment was to Xena.

[35] As a romantic, I love a good love story, and for most of its run, Xena was a love story, of the romantic kind.


Conclusion

[36] The constant challenge for those who brought scripts to life was to somehow make it all "real," despite unrelenting fantasy elements and a ridiculous timeline. Xena and Gabrielle "lived" at the same time as Homer (9th - 8th? Century BCE), Julius Caesar (100 BCE - 44 BCE), Caligula (12 CE - 41 CE), and Boadicea (d. 60 CE)

[Note 17]. In IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE?, they made Hippocrates a young man studying under Galen, the old fanatic. In reality, Hippocrates lived from 460-377 BC, while Galen lived from 130-203 AD.

[37] Fantasy elements ranged from Xena leaping impossible distances to catching arrows in her teeth, and peacenik Gabrielle defeating a small army of Roman soldiers, using whatever weapons came to hand, despite her lack of experience using edged weapons, and then somehow becoming an expert in the use of the sais without any apparent training.

[38] The sense of realism achieved in the episodes required exceptional background music, acting, and production values. Remove one element and the rest become merely adequate. The outstanding acting of the leads and numerous guest actors would seem less with smaller stories, cheesier effects, lamer action, merely adequate music.

[39] It will probably always be the stories that bring me back to the show, but I will admit to a weakness for the actors. The lamest of episodes remains enjoyable as long as Xena or Gabrielle say or do anything in front of the camera (while Joe LoDuca's music is playing, of course!).


Postscript: Remembering Kevin Smith

[40] While I was drafting this article, I decided to watch a couple of episodes from each season to remind myself what it is I love about the show. Several episodes featured Ares. Seeing Kevin Smith as Ares -- so alive, so complex, in a classic battle to win the heart and sword of his favorite warrior -- was hard to watch at first, knowing the good man himself was no longer in this life. However, it was not long before I could look at Kevin Smith portraying Ares, see Ares, the fictional character, and enjoy the performance as I always have. Smith's gift was his great talent, and I am grateful that he shared it with us, from his first appearance in THE RECKONING (06/106) until his last appearance in SOUL POSSESSION (132/620).


Articles

Gail Futoran, "Joxer: Defender of Subtext" WHOOSH 55 (04/01),

Gail Futoran, "ONE AGAINST AN ARMY: Love and Redemption in Xena: Warrior Princess" Whoosh! #64 (01/02)


Biography

futoran Gail Futoran
I have been a SF/fantasy fan for nearly 50 years, and a feminist for almost as long. I am retired from college teaching, but interacting with other XWP fans provides intellectual stimulation as well as fuel for various "obsessions." These include rose gardening dominated by "theme" beds where roses represent various XWP characters. Our Tonkinese kittens are named Lao Ma and Ephiny. I have made two month-long trips to New Zealand (1998, 2000), an intention I formed in the 1960s but did not act on until XWP reminded me of the beauty of the country and the friendliness of the Kiwis. My husband does not share any of my obsessions, but he is supportive.


Favorite episode: ONE AGAINST AN ARMY
Favorite line: Xena to Gabrielle: "You gave my life meaning and joy, and you will be a part of me forever." SACRIFICE II
First episode seen: late Season One
Least favorite episode: THE KEY TO THE KINGDOM

 

 

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