Whoosh! Issue 72 - September 2002

Page 2

Being the Audience

the mind is a metaphor machine[Note 24]

[39] Xena generated an atmosphere, an environment, that allowed (and allows) the production of fan fiction.[Note 25] Some writing might be done in physical isolation, but all stories take place inside some context. A commentator's remarks about Buffy fan-fiction is applicable to all fiction, including Xena-stuff: Writing is not done in a vacuum, and writers do not randomly impose psychologically implausible scenarios on characters.[Note 26]

[40] No story can be completely original.[Note 27] It has to be based on some experience.[Note 28] Which means that when a story is listened to, it passes through a layer containing the audience's experience before it can be understood and given meaning.[Note 29] The common experience shared by storyteller and audience allows the story to happen. This is the same process that occurs with words during everyday conversation. This in turn means that just as ordinary sentences have a linguistic grammar where sounds interact syntactically to convey meaning, so stories have a cultural and storied grammar[Note 30] where themes and motifs combine together in a structured way to also convey meaning.

[41] Where stories refer to other stories, the complexity of the interactions goes up a notch. The audience may lose the thread or miss it completely, or they may grasp it and appreciate the richly-textured tapestry being presented to them.[Note 31]

Joxer and Xena as high school students.
"Did you watch
Xena: Warrior Princess last night?"
(Sabrina, The Teenage Witch)

[42] Action series, even though they economically use "recurring protagonists in discrete episodes",[Note 32] paradoxically require greater effort and versatility by the actors and writers.[Note 33] The relationship between audience and story deepens as the story continues. New aspects of a character are revealed. Characters can grow and change. In the better series, there is no amnesia from one episode to the next, and consequences remain and, well, have consequences.

[43] Viewer expectations also are  different to those applied to the stand-alone story of a film or movie: an episode in a series is anticipated. Furthermore, it touches on possibilities, potentialities, and has developments.[Note 34] Some of these potentials might be carried over into other episodes and become threads and story arcs. Others will never be mentioned or used again because there is literally not enough time to resolve everything in one episode[Note 33] or a string of episodes.[Note 36]

[44] Fan-fiction draws from this well, "to fulfill the narrative potential suggested by the best episodes.[Note 37] An audience is "eager for"[Note 38] Story, and there is a mutual recompense: "as long as we keep tuning in, the producers make money".[Note 39]

[45] Some themes and ideas "invite such a participation"[Note 40] that the audience enters the story, becomes part of it, cannot ignore it. This already happens to some extent when someone reads a book or watches television.[Note 41] It is only a small step to become a pro-active audience member and begin creating a story, filling in the gaps of an existing one or developing themes beyond the confines of a 42-minute episode.[Note 42]

[46] Passive viewers are the audience. Traditionally, they are assumed to be the only audience. Fan-fiction writers also are the audience. So are the writers on the show.[Note 43] So are comedians, especially as they earn their living by it.

...waitaminute!! I'm supposed to give birth to a WHAT!?!?
"May Zeus strike me down
if what I'm saying isn't true."
Gabby Millgate as Xena and Julia Zemiro as the chatty blonde,
(Totally Full Frontal)
'Xena goes to the Underworld'

[47] "Babylon 5 speaks to us in many voices."[Note 44] Xena speaks to us with many skills.[Note 45] Polysemy ("many-meanings") is the idea that a story can simultaneously support many equally valid different meanings to different people. Xena is often cited as a prime example of polysemy.

[48] I would like to propose a slight extension to this concept. Imagine a gathering of musicians and their instruments in an orchestra. Their collaborative effort produces a symphony, a thing and event greater than the sum of its individual constituent parts. Now imagine the audience's faces as the perception dawns on them that the symphony they are enjoying is a single "instrument" in an even greater symphony. 

[49] The realization that works of art, when taken together, make up a bigger work of art could be called polypoetics ("poet" comes from a cluster of concepts meaning make, do, think, consider). The ancient Greeks might have used the term poikilobardon ("cunningly-wrought word-weaving"). 

[50] Not only do Xena and Gabrielle share the series with a third character, the relationship between them (which simultaneously draws strength from them and gives them strength), but this third character combines with Xena and Gabrielle to form a greater combined character whose relationship with the viewer generates an even greater relationship, a relationship between the series and the audience which draws strength from both sides and sustains both.

[51] The obvious joyousness of individual contributions to each episode, from the hair-swishing sound effects guy to the unseen people who make an invisible "bubble" around the actor to keep the rain off and the light on, from the directorial employment of visual themes and motifs flowing like calligraphy to the story-makers' psychologically complex developments unfolding like a scroll, from frivolities and innuendo to high drama and tragedy, the audience is always welcomed in as part of the experience, as equals with the characters in the setting. There is an intimacy in the sharing. And it creates something bigger than just a group of people watching a television show.

[52] Long ago, there was a wave or fountain of fan-fiction spinning off from the original series of Star Trek, which "seems to have arisen spontaneously in various places beginning in the early to mid-seventies".[Note 46] This current of creativity "devotes as much time to inner space as to outer space, emphasizes women's inclusion and creative control"[Note 47] and began to provide, or allow the creation of, a feedback channel back into what could be called the canonical story-making process, the one that ends up on the screen.

[53] In the Star Trek-like franchises in particular, and in action-adventure series in general, because there is more than one source of ideas, there is a metamorphosis whereby, as the story-circle widens, "the protagonists attain mythological status"[Note 48]. A natural consequence of multi-authored texts is that "Only the most popular and the most resonant storylines and characters survived. [The main characters grow] into archetypal figures representing various universal psychological traits".[Note 49]

[54] In this process, one of the authors is the audience: "The development of Star Trek's storytelling techniques has evolved through its writers' perception of which elements its audience finds most likely to keep them 'tuned in'."[Note 50] "Keeping them 'tuned in'" is a bit mercenary; there is also a component of the story-tellers liking the stories they are telling.  

[55] Xena followed in this tradition, and expanded it, sometimes embarrassingly so. It was embarrassing to the people who did not understand that there was a feedback loop in place.[Note 51] Xena was supposed to fit into the pattern of a television show, but it was doing things that televisions shows were not supposed to do. 

[56] Sappho did not fit into the "pattern" either. In modern times, she is taken to be the icon of a woman who does not do what women are expected to do. 

[57] As an aside, according to this viewpoint, someone liking flowers and singing songs does not seem to count as "doing" things - the psychology of the expectation of womanhood here is rather vague and murky, as if it has not been thought out well, or even perhaps not thought out at all. (It must be a Mars thing.)

[58] In earlier times, when education and knowledge were denied women, Sappho was interpreted as a lady of learning.

[59] Let us wind the clock back three hundred years and go to a play in London. The setting is an upstairs room in which we find Valeria, "a girl of sober education. She understands nothing of gaming, parks, or plays" or other girly things. She is "a philosophical girl..in love with Ensign Lovely" who has just made her a surprising proposal while they were examining her Lumbricus specimens:

Valeria: What, and leave my microscope and all my things for my father to break in pieces?
Sir Richard [ offstage ]: Valera, Valeria.
Valeria: Oh heavens! He is coming up the back-stairs. What shall we do?
Ensign Lovely: Humph! Ha, can't you put me in that closet there?
Valeria: Oh no, I han't the key.
Ensign Lovely [ going ]: I'll run down the great stairs, let who will see me.
Valeria: Oh no, no, no, no, not for your life. Here, here, get under this tub. [Throws out some fish and turns the tub over...][Note 52]

[60] This little snippet has all the ingredients of a potential Xena episode: spur-of-the-moment inventive solutions, a tub, fish, mention of a closet and refusal to go into it, friendship, a dramatic countdown driving the action, even a microscope and an icky Lumbricus.

[61] In times earlier still, Sappho was applauded as the Tenth Muse when all the other versifiers were male.  In her own time, she would have seen valerian flowering in the fields on her island and would have known the best places to go fishing. She would have helped out at the local temple. It would not have occurred to her that weaving wool and weaving words were different kinds of activities and that one of them was un-ladylike.

Being the Writer

[62] Imagination is very powerful. At the same time, imagination is very weak - it cannot imagine the unimaginable.[Note 53] To weave Hanley Kanar's thesis into one sentence: A writer's "inability to reimagine" "unwittingly expose[s] their own lack of understanding" of the "underlying assumption" of their society, lifestyle and environment: "the definition of 'normal' is never questioned".[Note 54]

[63] What to explain, who the audience is, and how far to go in a story all have to be decided by the writer before the story can even begin. The choices made are very revealing.[Note 55] The attitude towards science fiction terminology is an example.

[64] In early television, ignorance in technical matters was almost a status symbol. Terms were used in appropriate conditions as long as they "sounded" right to the uninitiated: "galaxy" and "solar system" are both about space and stars, so they are easily switched with each other; "light year" is easily mis-interpreted as a unit of time instead of distance. "Solar battery" confused the props department in an episode of Lost in Space where a black cylinder with two electrodes and a prominent label was supplied. And the nerdy fan at the end of SEND IN THE CLONES validated his Trek credentials by referring to Dr Spock instead of Mr Spock (though there is a niggling  possibility the Xena writers meant to say "Dr"). "Reversing polarities" is an old one and is now so traditionally entrenched that every space show has to have someone techno-babble the line.

[65] Over the years, the technique of terminology has evolved into something self-consistent and meaningful within the world of the story, even if only not to alienate the audience. Yet the misuses continue, photocopying themselves through conversations and interviews. Is there anything more annoying than hearing a TV reporter attempt to asset their Trek-hipness by referring to Dr Spock? Why does a faux-pas like that occur more than once?

[66] The persistence of these linguistic "typos" and "mutations" reveals a deeper phenomenon at play, more than mere lack of knowledge (though that helps), or contempt for the audience, or uncritical acceptance of previous assumptions and misunderstandings. The objects and concepts themselves are not important: what counts are the relationships between the objects. Angels do not have space-guns, space-helmets, and space-translators, but space-men do. Can we imagine a space-opera without battles or a western without bullets? If we do, we have "broken the mold", provided "a refreshing new insight", and revealed an underlying assumption that no-one realized was there in the first place.

[67] A male poet can sing a song about Aphrodite's lover, and it is just a song. A female poet singing the same song immediately unveils other "meanings" beyond the song. Can we imagine being part of a group not our own? A space-opera without opera and a western without women are so easy to imagine they happen every day. So is a space western. But imagine a space western about, say, Galadriel singing under tree-woven branches under the stars, or Goldberry garlanding her hair by the river in the morning. Would such a story structure make "sense" (or "cents")? Would it have bangs and chases? Would it "work"? Who is the cavalry? The reins of a deeper more invisible assumption begin to appear. Story making follows rules. Which means, storytellers are a part of the rules.

[68] Nowadays, the dinar (almost) decides what is told and who listens. Not so long ago, decisions were direct and directed and not based on economics at all. A 1931 film, Maedchen in Uniform (Sagan), "Schoolgirls", was banned by both Nazi Germany (for daring to present a critique of the authoritarian state) and the United States (for daring to present a plea for tolerance of non-male recognition).[Note 56] A story that can be simultaneously disliked by such opposite groups is rare (and hints that they have some shared goals). 

[69] The rarity of such a story is a lesson that writers who go in that direction will not last long, especially in the mainstream. Ironically, the negative response unwittingly reveals a lack of faith and trust in the strength of social institutions and their underlying ideals to withstand the "assault" of being questioned. A house of straw needs "protecting" from the Big Bad Wolf of a film about schoolgirls; a house of bricks does not. Who are we to question what sort of house we live in? Do we even know? The commonly recurring filmic phrase "Permission to speak, sir" sounds odd to someone brought up in a democracy.

[70] Xena (and Hercules) are in the anime tradition of combining mythology with new plots and characters, all seasoned with anachronistic humour, "although more rigid American strictures regarding violence, sex, and death prevent them from developing their material to the fullest".[Note 57]

[71] Writers (and actors) will not "cross the line". They self-censor themselves in various ways, but only if they know there is a crossable "line" there in the first place.  In the world of the subconscious, there are no lines between categories, only lines linking categories.

[72] Thirty years before Xena, there was a film about girls wandering around looking for trouble. In the Xena episode THE PLAY'S THE THING, Joxer puts up a poster that made an oblique reference to the mid-1960s satirical film Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!  (Meyer 1965), about leather-clad hot-rod chick Varla and her friends free-wheeling it out in the great outdoors while the wimpy males more or less stayed out of the way. One of the group is "Billie, the all-American blonde". Gabrielle is a blonde (though in BLIND FAITH she describes herself as more a strawberry-blonde). "Her attire ... marks her as different". Gabrielle at the start wears soft feminine peasant garb to Xena's and Joxer's butch warrior outfits (though Xena's is more feminine and battle-hardened than Joxer's). Billie walks around "exposing acres of midriff". So does Gabrielle, especially as the seasons progress. Billie's "the one we see taking a shower (although shot discreetly from behind) and she's the only one of the three to change her outfit".[Note 58] Gabrielle is seen taking a shower discreetly from behind (in IF THE SHOE FITS...) before a fashionable beaver makes off with her favourite shirt. Xena keeps her gear, even to the end. Joxer keeps his too. Gabrielle changes hers. In fact, Gabrielle's costume changes become a theme on their own.

[73] The parallels are deeper and more organic than just the surface parallel of "wandering around Greece looking for trouble". Six hundred years before Caesar, there was Sappho.  How did the writers incorporate the Sappho story into Xena? One way was with explicit references.

[74] In Xena, the Sappho episode is MANY HAPPY RETURNS.  There are three ways Sappho enters the story. All the non-poetic attributes of the historical Sappho story are performed by Xena and Gabrielle: the leap off the cliff; helping young people at the local Temple of Aphrodite; the color purple; the "doing a man's job" at the wedding preparations. Aphrodite lends a charm as a pair of young lovers experience the intensity captured in Sappho's poems. Sappho herself is mentioned by name. She never appears directly. The closest we get to her is as an off-screen popular performing poet at a concert missed by the girls.

[75] A real Sappho poem makes an appearance. At the end of the episode, a summary version describing the symptoms of love is read by Gabrielle at the cliff top by the sea, just before Xena takes her on a sunset joy flight courtesy of the winged helmet of Hermes. The actual poem is set among a group of people, like at a dinner or a party or a market. It starts of by saying how lucky "the guy next to you" is, and in general how wonderful you are: "by their listening is your sweet and clear voice applauded". Meanwhile, at the other end of the group, the symptoms of love are manifesting themselves:

Fragment 31

                          voice is bridled,
tongue is haltered, limb-weakening shivers
gallop over skin in heart-racing pulses
sight is misted, hearing is clouded

sweat is pouring, tremblings
have tagged me, kin of pale spring shoots
sprouting my few lines gush forth in expulses
a shadow of myself I seem (all shrouded)

but all-daring, and thereby ...

[76] Vanquished? Conquered? Conquering? Defeated in all glory? Winner in victory? Fragments are so creative.

The Myth

[77]Xena, to borrow a phrase originally applied to the science-fiction writer Ursula K Le Guin,  "may fruitfully be approached in the manner of poetry, with an openness to the discovery of previously unearthed riches"[Note 59]

[78] The other way that Sappho enters Xena is through the power of poetry, in particular through the themes of love and nature. In a mythic context, there can be nothing else.  

Which who so list looke backe to former ages,
And call to count the things that then were donne,
Shall find, that all the workes of those wise sages,
And braue exploits which great Heroes wonne,
In loue were either ended or begunne[Note 60]

Heh heh heh...heh heh heh....
Many Happy Returns
We're baaaack!



[79] Xena operates on two levels of mythology. One level is the everyday myth and legend that is the surface of any Xena episode. The other level is building up a picture episode by episode of the power and strength of the growing bond between two individuals. One is Story, the other is the Truth revealed by the story.

[80] This is exactly how the ancient bards worked. Myths were true: "the truth of mythical accounts lies in what they evoke rather than in the historicity of the events they relate."[Note 61]. There may have been different myths showing that there were different customs used in the different worship of the gods under different names, but they were the same gods. Myths recorded events in a memorable form, ensuring the survival of that record into future generations. 

[81] For example, the myth of Phaethon tells how an inexperienced charioteer took the sun god's wheels out for a spin one day and crashed in flames. Other people took this as a literal representation of what they thought of as the child-like astronomical knowledge of the Greeks at that time: sun=chariot, ha-ha. The important part is the fiery crash. The rest of the myth provides a story structure putting the crash into an easy-to-remember context for transmission through time and across generations. The truth recorded by the myth is that "an alternation of the things that go around the earth in the sky takes place at long intervals and the consequence for the things on the earth is destruction by fire"[Note 62]. A chilling thought and one that is worrying today's Near-Earth Asteroid searchers.

[82] The Amazons began as a near-literal historical truth in early Greek awareness. Then they evolved by the technique of "the exact opposite"[Note 63] into being part of the classical Greeks' self-definition. Then they became a myth in the current sense. Then Xena came along and reversed the process, "turning myth into history, history into myth", as promised in THE XENA SCROLLS.

[83] This was the magic moment of Xena.

[84] Just as "Aragorn of the many names"[Note 64] leads us through the story of the Ring of Doom, Xena of the many skills led us, at first warily, then more confidently, through the story of the Sidekick and the Redeemed Warrior, showing us the truth of love from "inside the story"[Note 65]

[85] Just as Frodo's journey was only a part of the much longer story of Aragorn and Arwen, Xena's journey to redemption is only a part of the much longer story of Xena and Gabrielle.

[86] Just as Middle-Earth allows "a connecting with Story itself"[Note 66], so does the Xenaverse, opening up all sorts of vistas to the mind and heart. The reader and fan-fiction writer can walk along the paths of the Shire or contemplate the ruins of Mordor; the viewer and fan-fiction writer can walk through the streets of Amphipolis or be saddened by the disaster at Helicon. This is not escapism. It is the opposite of escapism. 

[87] We listen to a bard tell one story and we hear many stories. We listen to many bards tell their stories and we hear one story. That is because we are part of the story. 

"'escapist' [as opposed to 'serious'] readings vary so widely because the story is not the text. Rather the text is the tool that the readers use to create the story in the only place where it ever truly exists - their individual memories."[Note 67]

[88] Xena gave us a bunch of stories, fictitious and post-modern, comedy and drama in various genres, an entertainment for a space of time. Yet the fiction as presented carried a truth deeper than anything anyone could have originally intended at the beginning.   [89] There is more to the world than just its materiality. Thoughts are things as much as anything we can touch or taste. Where the seed of a thought sprouts and then flowers, the further thought arises that there might be a Gardener. Just like an Olympic torch is carried from runner to runner, the inspiration that survives inside a story is carried from mind to mind, planted there by the storyteller, nurtured by the audience, tended by the Muses.

[90] This is what Xena has given us: 

"the muses that inspired its creators have become our own"[Note 68]


Xena and Gabrielle discuss freshness.

Many Happy Returns
They say the sun god's chariot 
is a big campfire in the sky


And Sappho was one of the torch-bearers.



[91] In some ways it might have been a good thing that we did not get a Sappho musical episode on Xena

[92] Personally, I think using modern music would have anchored the story too specifically to a particular time and place (and musical taste). 

[93] More importantly, the entire series could have been called Xena: Warrior Princess, or  Waiting for Sappho. We were waiting at the bus-stop for Sappho. The excitement was in the anticipation, in the daring to think that there might even be the possibility of a Sappho episode. The possibility existed from the very first episode. As it turned out, the Sappho episode of Xena never arrived. Instead we got MANY HAPPY RETURNS as a wonderful consolation prize. The series ended, the bus arrived and Sappho never turned up. But we got to chat with the other passengers.

[94] After 2,600 years, all we have of Sappho are a few fragments, some innuendo, and empty gaps in the history filled with conjecture by historians and poets. After 5,600 minutes of Xena, all we have of Sappho is a fragment, some innuendo, and plenty of conjecture-filled gaps in the story by writers and fans alike. This parallel, although unintended, seems, in a poetical sense, a more fitting tribute to Sappho than any direct episode could have been, even if young Gennaia turned out to be a future Sappho, or Xena-Gabrielle-Callisto formed a sort of composite Sappho in folk memory. 

[95] One day, long ago, a young music student on a sunny island surrounded by the wine-dark sea wrote her name on the inside of her tortoise-shell lyre:

Sappho of the Aeolians
Temple of Aphrodite
City-State of Mytilene
Island of Lesbos
Sea of Ionia
The Known World
South of the Hyperboreans
West of the Amazons

[96] One day, long ago, there was a sandal that touched the Earth, a goddess walked the land, and a young girl was inspired by the beauty of Love.

[97] What more do we need to know about Sappho?


Fragment 147
Someone, I say to you,
will think of us
in some future time[Note 69]

Like, Ow..! These things are pointy!
Many Happy Returns


[98] All the threads of Xena form a tapestry, which is itself a thread in a bigger tapestry.

[99] Xena: Warrior Princess is so the millennium before the last two.


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