Monday, 11 August 2014

Xena: Warrior Princess, Season 1 (1995)

Xena is one of those spin-offs that becomes a bigger success than the original show from which it was spawned.  I ascribe some portion of that success to it having a slightly less 'sanitised' tone than Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, but I believe there are two more important reasons, the first of which is that it has a much stronger lead actor.

It's ironic then that Lucy Lawless only got the role because the actor they originally cast (Vanessa Angel) was unable to come to New Zealand for filming.  Serendipitous all round, especially since I rate Lawless's charisma and acting several steps above that of Ms Angel.

In case you don't know, Xena made her debut as an evil warlord in Hercules, where she seduced Iolaus, Herc's best friend, and tried to turn him against Hercules.  She failed, of course, but she was back a few episodes later in the season's two-part finale, where she turned away from her life of villainy and joined the white hats.

Response to the character was very strong, and a spin-off was launched, where the repentant ex-warlord travels Greece attempting to make amends for her earlier deeds.  She's accompanied in this by a young woman named Gabrielle.  And now we come to the second reason the show was so successful.  While Herc had Iolaus (and as played by Michael Hurst, he was often the best thing on the show), the two men never had the chemistry that these two did.

And I mean chemistry in several senses of the word, because trust me, this show did not become a sensation in the lesbian community for nothing.

Anyway: Xena and Gabrielle travel Greece, mostly protecting folk from bandits, but occasionally interacting with Amazons, fighting monsters, or brokering peace between warring states.  They also have their first encounters with the wicked war god Ares, the crazed warrior woman Callisto, and the King of Thieves, Autolycus.

Now, Xena is by no means immune to the common flaws of episodic TV: there are some pretty ordinary episodes in here, and a couple of episodes with very similar concepts get slotted in back to back, which does neither of them any favours.  On the other hand, it does neatly sidestep some of them: for one thing, it shows people's reactions to Xena change over the season.  In the first episode, almost no-one believes she is reformed.  Those she wants to help spurn her while her former allies and now enemies are often easily fooled into thinking she's just running some scam.  Later, reactions are more varied.

The more impressive thing though is what they do with Gabrielle.  She begins the season as the 'comedy sidekick', useless in a fight and always needing saving, or otherwise making mistakes that drive the story along.  But over this season she becomes reasonably capable of defending herself with a staff (though of course she's no Xena), and they let her develop as Xena's conscience and foil.  When they argue, there's something close to an even chance she'll be right.

Not that this means she can't sometimes still be the comedy relief.  But I'm okay with that, since Renee O'Connor is a gifted comedic actress (as is Lawless, for that matter).

If you're after some relatively light, fairly family friendly adventure (sapphic subtext not withstanding), this is a good option.

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