"Sins of the Past," "Chariots of War," "Dreamworker," "Cradle of Hope," "The Path Not Taken," "The Reckoning," "The Titans," "Prometheus," "Death in Chains," "Hooves and Harlots," "The Black Wolf," "Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts," "Athens City Academy of the Performing Bards," "A Fistful of Dinars," "Warrior... Princess," "Mortal Beloved," "The Royal Couple of Thieves," "The Prodigal," "Altared States," "Ties That Bind," "The Greater Good," "Callisto," "Death Mask," "Is There a Doctor in the House?"
by Walter Chaw With a show title that appears to mean "Alien: Warrior Princess," what's not to like about Sam Raimi's and Rob Tapert's foray into the realm of cheesecake camp cinema? The distaff queer version of "Highlander: The Series", it occurs fairly early on that while there will be many aborted love affairs, the only consistent sexual tension will be between Xena (Lucy Lawless) and her talkative, Willow-esque geek sidekick Gabrielle (Reneé O'Connor). Tackling the series from the pink triangle is tempting, but fairly self-defeating: A scene in the second episode where a wounded Xena commands that a farmer stick his poker into the fire pretty much defeats a snarky approach to the material. That bridge has already been crossed--not to say that I'm above crossing it again.
The series is essentially a great big ball of cheese that, like its "father" show "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys", takes place in a peculiar non-time where mini-skirted girl warriors (with more bangs than the Vietnamese girl's debate team) trade quips with the Greek mythological pantheon. Taking too much time with its anachronisms is missing the point--"Xena" is basically Joseph Campbell's Oriental and Occidental mythologies tossed in a post-modern blender and bound together by Xena & Gabrielle's ambiguously Sapphic duo. "By Ares" the most popular epithet of the show's New Zealand universe, the structure of the episodes is the standard action prologue-into-boring plot-into-nifty-action-finale structure of episodic genre series since time immemorial. What occasionally charms are its moments of humour, its dedication to not taking itself all that seriously, and its action finales, which are carried off with energy and style almost without exception.
All of which does little to explain the massive popularity and seven-year-run of the series, especially among a vocal lesbian community that expressed a great deal of anger at Lawless's real-life marriage to a man. (The ongoing story of a butch lady butchering a bunch of medieval goons no doubt strikes closer to the heart of the phenomenon.) "Xena: Warrior Princess" is innocuous fun of the drag king variety, no question; the real danger of the thing is that, like almost any television series, its hold is based almost entirely on the medium's dangerous addictive quality. After the first few hour-long forced-immersions, one begins to think of these characters as friends, the realization of which is potentially crippling for those prone to depression. Henceforth, a disc-by-disc, episode-by-episode rundown of Anchor Bay's 6-DVD (plus bonus CD-ROM) set "Xena: Warrior Prince - Season One".
1.1 Sins of the Past - And so it begins, in medias res as it were, with Xena riding forlorn through a destroyed village like Frank Frazetta's "Death Dealer" as flashbacks identify the titular alien as the one responsible for all the mayhem. Turning over a new leaf by burying her leather mini in some loose soil, her ploughshares are pounded back into swords when she witnesses a village treated unkindly by a Road Warrior cast-off and his motley crew. The introduction of her trademark battle wail (something between a Turkish ululation and a Chihuahua in season) is as silly as it is not bracing, but after much eyebrow-raising at the performances and scenario, the episode redeems itself with a staff (snigger) battle on the heads and backs of a hilarious rabble. Make particular note of the inanities of the off-screen yokel chorus ("Step on me, Xena!")--intra-textual commentary that makes making sport of the traditional awfulness of the series admittedly moot. Xena and its deconstructionist brethren ("Hercules", "Buffy", "Smallville") are the pinnacle/nadir of the television medium, their reliance on a knowledge of medium for enjoyment the last word on the peculiar phenomenology of television criticism.
Homer's blinded Polyphemus makes a cameo that serves mainly to highlight the soon-to-be-over-highlighted difference between Xena's approach (a Buffy-like dimwit muscle horse) and Gabrielle's (the Willow/Velma intellectual wisenheimer). It should be noted that in addition to the standard S&S broadsword, Xena appears to have one of those throwing discs that the Predator used, but without a centre and with Glaive-like boomerang qualities. The phallus of the sword coupled with the vaginal circle, both hanging conspicuously from Xena's belt, position Xena as something of a Shiva--though the fourth episode's parental ranking of Xena as father and Gabrielle as mother clarifies that Xena is still a little arrested when it comes to her feminine side. (I haven't seen such a concerted movement of heroic android girl-flesh since Melanie Griffith took a sprint in Cherry 2000. "Ai yi yi yi yi yi yi yi!" indeed.) Also worth mentioning is Xena's puzzling ability to administer a Vulcan death pinch that "stops all blood flow to the brain"--explaining in part the series' rapture of the not very deep effect.
1.2 Chariots of War - The partnership of Xena and Gabrielle still an uncertain thing, Xena ditches her gal pal on the outskirts of town before getting pierced most rudely by a crossbow bolt fired by the brother of a warrior that Xena might have killed in her former, less heroic life. Saved by a kindly village person and nursed back to health, the episode charts Xena earning the trust of Hicksville while fending off a conquering horde and the clumsy advances of lover-boy. The first episode's reluctance to kill people addressed a little here, "Chariots of War" ends with a bracing chariot battle sequence that looks a lot better than it really ought to given the restraints of the format. The series' second recurring plot of men, virtuous and lascivious alike, all equally unable to bed Xena is introduced here. If it were a comic book, it'd be sort of collectible.
1.3 Dreamworker - Taking its cue from Krull, "Xena"'s third episode puts Gabrielle as the prospective bride-to-be of Morpheus, the god of sleep, while Xena is forced to "die" to meet the baddies on their home turf. Hoping that Gabrielle will lose her "blood purity" (snigger) by killing someone, Morpheus's goons put the chatty sidekick through a series of tests as Xena, resplendent in a purple kimono, runs through diaphanous halls draped with blue fabric. Ah, of such stuff dreams are made. A running trope of ripping off the Campbell bits of the Star Wars trilogy continues here with Xena facing off with her shadow self in a "tribute" to the hollow tree sequence from The Empire Strikes Back. Afraid? You will be.
1.4 Cradle of Hope - Boasting of easily the worst video quality of any of the episodes so far (lines through the negative mar long portions of it), "Cradle of Hope" also boasts of the most uncomfortable homosexual subtext and a bit of unforgivable mawkishness at its end ("Hope will never die. Hope is in all of us!") that does not bode well for the intentions of the makers. "Family Ties" with an ass-kicking lesbian duo is nobody's idea of a good time. Still, "Cradle of Hope" packs on the good times allusions with the discovery of a baby among some thrushes, a prophecy about a child usurping a kingdom, and the appearance of Pandora's great-granddaughter (also named Pandora (Kristie O'Sullivan)), toting around The Box that houses, still, Hope. No, it doesn't follow the myth nor, really, take any pains to make much sense (wouldn't there be zero Hope in the world if Hope were still in the box? Conversely, wouldn't all the sins of the world be safely leashed if their unleashing were the leashing?)--but, ultimately, "meh."
The line "let's get the babe inside" amuses when it is directed at the found-infant but delivered towards the comely Pandora, and multiple long-glances askance at Xena and Gabrielle walking around with child remind of the reaction shots in Smigel's brilliant "The Ambiguously Gay Duo" cartoon. Oh the hilarity. The episode does feature an homage to the finale of John Woo's Hard-Boiled that ratchets up the infant-peril to perverse degrees--a feat not only unlikely, but laudable.
At the end of the first disc it's fruitful to mention that the only special features on the platter are a 52-image stills gallery (a feature not present on the other discs) and welcome chapter-breaks that divide each episode into six parts.
1.5 The Path Not Taken - Taking a cue from the Highlander series by titling one of its first-season episodes after a bastardization of a Robert Frost poem, Xena and Gabrielle find themselves embroiled in an evil plot to kill a princess to frame an opposing nation. Dedicated to ripping off The Princess Bride with last episode's "mostly dead" thing and now the rest of the plot, a new twist in the Xena-thology emerges as Xena reveals herself to be a mercenary for hire. Perhaps a better way to introduce new storylines than the "Kung Fu"/"Incredible Hulk" wandering do-gooder format, although the fact that Xena can be bought is new to us, it doesn't appear to be new to anyone else in the show. It's very possible that this is the fabled "backstory," and that people who've been following her appearances on "Hercules" are gasping in asthmatic mirth at my ignorance of lore.
The rebuffed male in this instance is buff ally Marcus, who spends most of the episode pleading the case for his trustworthiness while Xena makes anachronistic demands for "equal pay" and not being mistaken for a hooker just because she's dressed like one. The sense of fun is almost completely gone now as the dialogue gets more and more tedious and the references (Gabrielle alludes to Cool Hand Luke) become increasingly bizarre. Though there's hope that fun will be restored eventually (unlike in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", where fun became a completely foreign concept), this episode, structured curiously like Yojimbo, is plodding and interminable--much of the problems probably attributable to Lawless trying to act coy. A late bit of moralizing about doing something just because it's the right thing to do rings particularly hollow given the mercenary angle, and yet, through it all, that concluding fight sequence amuses with its multiple-slashings and suggestive spearings. The only funny moment comes unintentionally in one of those death scenes that ends with Darth Vader on a pyre, having embraced the light side just in time to be martyred to it.
1.6 The Reckoning - Proving that no good deed goes unpunished, Xena fights off a cloaked marauder only to be mistaken for the marauder himself by a passel of angry serfs. The series continues with its references to mythology and oil painting (Seurat the victim this time around), and, regrettably, with its instinct to pander its pocket morality in a subplot about due process. Gabrielle's "gift" for rhetoric is put to irritating use (her "coining" of legalese not quite as witty as the similar stuff of Twain's "The Diary of Adam and Eve") while the first cameo by a Greek god (Ares: of war of course (Kevin Smith, but not that Kevin Smith)) marks episode six as one for the time capsule. It seems evident that Ares is going to be something of a recurring "Q" character. For joy.
The desire for a constant recreation of Xena's image into something soft and malleable (indicated by the umpteenth instance of Xena made the dressmaker's dummy by some chauvinist pig--"wouldn't you feel more comfortable...in this?"), followed swiftly by Xena's rejection of said patriarchal trappings, paints a pretty clear picture of why this stuff is so popular amongst a certain demographic. Men of breeding age in this series so far are either cretins or victims--none of which casts much light on why this episode seems to be a take on the Joan of Arc story with a Perry Mason courtroom scene complete with surprise witnesses and stirring testimony. (In fact, the episode is remarkably like Luc Besson's The Messenger, complete with Ares standing in for the Dustin Hoffman inquisitor.) It does occur that a search for reason is a fool's errand, dazzlingly mirroring the accidental message of the episode as it turns out, and casting some doubt upon my ability to remain objective about all this. It did occur to me, though, that Lawless is a better fighter than Sarah Michelle Gellar--either that or it's easier to find stunt doubles in a size 16 than a size 2.
1.7 The Titans - The stunts getting funnier as they get more extreme, "The Titans" finds Gabrielle fucking up in comically unfunny ways, accidentally liberating a trio of titans who are bound, genie-like, to do the geeky troublemaker's bidding. Infinitely cooler but probably beyond the F/X restrictions of the series would have been to portray the titans as they appear in Greek mythology, but, again, quibbling about the series' gross liberties is as useless as it would be terribly time-consuming. While the series clearly isn't getting any smarter, it does seem to be having a little more fun this time around--experimenting with a slightly more fluid storytelling style while ratcheting up the violence a little. Its CGI appallingly bad in moments, there's still fun to be had in this little ditty, free as it is of the usual refrains of men trying to domesticate Xena while she and Gabrielle make catty bat-eyes at each other.
1.8 Prometheus - Tackling my favourite myth, episode eight features a cameo by Hercules (Kevin Sorbo) as well as a plot revolving around the shackling of everyone's favourite titan Prometheus (Michael Hurst). Not a bad idea, the series messes with the myth a little by suggesting that the binding of mankind's greatest beneficiary results in the gradual loss of Promethean knowledge--focus here is on the healing arts, though fire is addressed. It is by far the cleverest script so far in the Xena-verse, involving our mistress in a series of trials that, once completed, places her at odds with muscle-bound demi-god Herc. All this even sort of makes sense, as the freeing of Prometheus is one of Hercules's trials, proving that it's possible for "Xena" to be a little bit accurate and not explode into a ball of flame. Its sense of the absurd fully in place, a scene where Xena battles a flying beastie ranks up there with anything from "Land of the Lost" in camp factor, with ten minutes or so of the most extravagantly, unapologetically, indescribably bad special effects since the advent of the mainframe. I'm going to assume that some loose ends from "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" are tied up here, but as I haven't been sent any Herc to review (and please don't read that as a request), I don't have any clue what a lot of what's going on in this episode is about. Not terribly surprisingly, that ignorance doesn't do much to detract from the enjoyment of the episode, which is, to this point, either the best of the lot or indication that I should go lie down.
1.9 Death in Chains - Casting Death as a hot brunette something already done by Neil Gaiman, episode 9 gets all zombie-tacular when hot babe reaper is captured by Sisyphus (the rock pushing dude) and people start failing to die. Gabrielle continues to deny that which cannot be spoken by firing up a flirtation with a handsome young Dr. Kildare (one negated by Gabrielle nuzzling Xena's ample wares at the finale). Meanwhile, a horde of undead leather-horses tries to stop Xena from freeing death and thus ending their reign of terror. This leads, unfortunately, to a lot of riding around on horses to zither music. A cameo by Hades ("God of the underworld," he supplies helpfully) brings Xena into the fray, and the probably predictable twist of Gabrielle's new boy-toy having a coronary somewhere along the way still doesn't make "Death in Chains" this show's "City on the Edge of Forever." Not helping the drama that Sisyphus talks a little like Charles Nelson Reilly ("hnnnh hnnh hnnh"), "Death in Chains" is plodding and dour but not in a way that evokes anything resembling pathos--especially during a climactic speech about accepting death. Though the final fight is still sort of fun, there are just too many inconsistencies even within the series' own lore for the episode to fully engage. The threat of the zombie baddies just isn't that great when all that really needs to happen is for Death to be released--calling into question why these idiots were wasting their time with doing anything else in the first place. When Death's death candle (or whatever) suddenly grows majestically erect at the end, however, all is forgiven.
1.10 Hooves and Harlots -So the inevitable has happened and Gabrielle has been named an honorary Amazon princess. Lots of leather bustiers and bad centaur effects combine in another tale of intrigue in which an evil third party wishes to start a war between two nations. Amazons ("It's a man's world, because we let them have it!") living uneasily with centaurs (their no doubt impressive genitals agilely hidden from display) have their equilibrium threatened by an evil warlord. While at least one battle scene is a complete mystery, Xena and Gabrielle's relationship continues to flower: Gaby picks up a fighting staff (snigger) and kicks some medieval (or something) ass. An embarrassing dance sequence identifies Gaby's role as irritating comic relief while a shove from Xena points to trouble in paradise. There's a moment during a stick (snigger) fight between Xena and the Amazon queen, however, that finds Xena with a saucy look and a sense of fun that salvages the episode.
1.11 The Black Wolf - Beginning with an "No, I'm Spartacus" moment with a village attempting to protect masked avenger Black Wolf from evil men, episode 11 features a charming faux-fight sequence as Xena stages her own capture, and an amusing series of mistaken identities as Gaby fails to get arrested. While any episode of something set entirely in a subterranean prison flirts with "Man of La Mancha", the camp factor of the series (with Xena favouring us with a giant cheese-eating underwater grin and battle cry) appears to have been ratcheted up to delirious levels. A pretty hilarious moment where a merchant says to Gaby, "You're (Xena's) friend?" and then to Xena, "You have a friend?" is paid off by a flash of Sapphic jealousy when Gaby says, "None of this would've happened if you'd kept your hands off my tomatoes." The paternalistic look Xena flashes is priceless. The plot at large concerns a lot of double-crosses and moles as Xena tries again to play both sides against the middle, Yojimbo-style. An homage to the log lady of "Twin Peaks" surfaces in "rock guy," and a peculiar subplot involving a comely young lass who sired at the foot of Xena drags on to no good end but to show the tasty little nugget in her leather corset--so who's complaining? "The Black Wolf" also features the best weapon point-of-view shot since Phantasm in its penultimate battle, upping the levels of violence with the first appearance of mouth blood from what one can only guess is a pretty severe internal injury. The stunts ridiculous in a way that points to Tapert and Raimi's influence, the segment represents Xena in full stride, impressing with its sense of fun and internal continuity as Gaby, again, picks up a staff (snigger) and lays some wood on the baddies.
1.12 Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts - Placing Xena Forrest Gump-like at the scene of various historical/mythological events reaches its summit here as the warrior princess finds herself in Troy on the eve of the incident with the horse. Unusually dour, the series is at its weakest when it turns its eye towards mawkish romance, Ever After feminism, and relational dramas. With Gaby swinging her staff like a champion now, thankfully making her less of a liability, the positioning of Helen as a woman of her own mind who rejects Paris's attempts to "own" her (commence eye-rolling) is paralleled by Gaby's reunion with the Donny Osmond look-alike schlep she abandoned way back in the pilot. A fairly funny man-slap towards the end isn't enough to save the lockstep progression of the episode's parallel concerns. "Xena" is best when it embraces its ludicrousness and worst when it thinks its something genuinely cool... Like "Voyagers".
1.13 Athens City Academy of the Performing Bards - How soon is too soon to have a clip show? Apparently not episode 13 of season one.
1.14 A Fistful of Dinars - Sergio Leone is probably not rolling in his grave so much as glad he's dead as Xena borrows his title and thankfully little else in this tale of treasure hunting and four-part puzzles. It's odd that there's not a greater focus on the alleged inspiration, as "Xena" so far has been basically two plots (the Yojimbo rip-off (remembering that A Fistful of Dollars is that film's (spaghetti) western remake), and the other one), but save the introduction of a venal thief character that could possibly sub for Eli Wallach's memorable scumbag from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, the episode is pretty much a long walk through a forest culminating in a cavern with a cauldron. The stuff of bad pornography, in other words (and the same could be said of the show proper, truth be told), but there's always that final fight that makes all of it worthwhile. A spring-loaded knife more sprung from Scorsese than Leone plays a feature role while the moments of maudlin introspection are kept to a bearable minimum. As far as "Xena"s go, it falls right, square in the middle. I've happily forgotten all about it already.
1.15 Warrior. . . Princess - "The Prince and the Pauper" tackled in its inimitable fashion, episode 15 finds Xena spitting fire again and impersonating a princess whose life appears to be in danger. Lots of arched eyebrows and bad doubling CGI share time with Lawless playing a dual role: one butch, the other almost sickeningly femme. The father of the princess the brother of Sisyphus from episode 9, he offers to pay Xena a few dinars for her services, giving lie to the episode 5 revelation that she is, in fact, a mercenary. Lawless demonstrates some playfulness with her decidedly masculine persona, creating a "shadow" Xena given to running away at the first sign of danger and almost decapitating herself with her throwing circle. Slapstick but funny, Lawless is a gifted athlete and may have missed her calling as a physical comedian.
1.16 Mortal Beloved - Episode 5's Marcus returns when someone in the Underworld steals Hades's helmet of invisibility. Xena pulls an Odysseus, banters with Styx ferryman Charon, and rescues her dead beloved for 48 hours of walking around in a forest. (Lengthy aside: A scene in which Xena is attacked by a horrifically rendered digital harpy, allowing the warrior princess to spit fire (and recurring in the end, alas), leads one to the curious realization that this creature of Hell is not only deathly afraid of fire, but extremely flammable. Darwin would not be pleased.) The idea of an invisible foe one destined to thrill the bean counters in the accounting department, there's little fun to be had in Xena and her cronies (Gaby, Marcus) swinging at phantoms while a Vincent Price caricature cackles in overdub. Doors opening and closing by themselves, fruit carts being upturned mysteriously, and stuntmen flinging themselves around like Jim Carrey in a restroom mark the majority of this episodes festivities while--mark this in the journal--Xena appears to get laid, breeder-style. Denial ain't just a river in Egypt. Its final battle anti-climactic in the extreme, "Mortal Beloved" caves to the most callow instincts of the series, choosing to conclude on simple-minded expositions on the nature of death and the importance of gathering rosebuds while one might. Lawless is a gifted physical performer, but pathos is just a little to her left. "Xena" would be well advised to keep it light and leave the existential clenching to '80s-era "Days of Our Lives".
1.17 The Royal Couple of Thieves - The first episode of disc five begins with the episode that I'd love to end with as personal hero Bruce Campbell makes an appearance as The King of Thieves. Xena, sporting a sassy Neneh Cherry windblown look that is equal parts fetching and terrifying functions as a nice straight-man to Campbell's special brand of ego-driven clown. Deadpan is the only reaction appropriate to Campbell's sense of humour: noticing that he's a goofball (as Gaby does) tends to diminish his effectiveness. No matter, it's easy to ignore the series regulars with Campbell's thief is enlisted to steal a super secret weapon from an impregnable vault.
A port city looks keen in a "Myst" kind of way, with a bit on a boat concerning Xena masquerading as Bruce's concubine actually laugh-out-loud funny. The caper itself unfolds with a nice surprise twist at the moment of truth; meanwhile Bruce gets humiliated in a brilliant reversal of a bedchamber misunderstanding. "Xena" at its best, Lawless gets to pull a Salome with a healthy dose of machismo, Gaby is jettisoned early on, and there's a sense of fun so firmly established and maintained that a regrettable attack by a boom microphone midway through can be forgiven.
1.18 The Prodigal - Because a long series never fails to toss an episode a season at the feet of a secondary character, episode eighteen finds Gabrielle going home to her abandoned village to find it under siege by, you guessed it, a marauding horde. The real interest of the piece is Gaby's odd welcome by a little sister who acts suspiciously like a jilted lover. The lines too leading to be accidental, the sexual jealousy all but leaping off the screen in a red tide, "The Prodigal" seems to be building to a nice incestual kiss, but alas, the queer just-barely subtext remains subtext. I wish I could say that I was warming to the Gaby character--her nervous huffing and thin bangs still grate like sand in a Speedo, and the absence of Lawless is a mortal one. No great surprise, one supposes, in a series modeled and named after the warrior princess.
1.19 Altared States - Opening with the most overt lesbian innuendo of the series (and ending, natch, with a skinny-dip and bare-handed capture of a fish), Xena and Gaby find themselves called "freak" and thrown down a well in the defense of an overgrown goddess cult. Oy vey. Disturbing in an intentional, dare I say intelligent, way, the series regains its footing after "The Prodigal," ploughing new ground in the richness of its subtext and internal mythology. Never to be mistaken for a think-piece, episode 19 finds our lusty pair attempting to intervene in the sacrifice of a young boy by his religious zealot father. Disrespectful in an Old Testament way that I like (and did I mention that the "secret weapon" of episode 17 appears to be the Ark of the Covenant?), the episode approaches a few symbolic heights unheard of in previous editions. It's overreaching, then, yet there are thorny issues about organized religion in general--and Christianity in particular--raised herein that make the episode if not the most entertaining, certainly the most edifying. It's the "Shgoraphchx!" episode of "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century", in other words, begging the question: Whatever happened to Erin Gray? (Editor's Note: "Silver Spoons"--it happened to a number of innocent civilians.) Ah, Wilma, I hardly knew ya. The episode ends with a clever and high-spirited duel with a master of the kind of Vulcan death grip-fu that Xena occasionally employs; the cracking sound effects alone are worth the price of admission.
1.20 Ties That Bind - Atrius (Tom Atkins), a grizzled old vet wandering the woods, reveals himself to be first Xena's father, then a sociopath. The one predictably hand in hand with the other, Kevin Smith's Ares returns as a devil's advocate for, all together now, a marauding horde. As Xena comes to terms with finding her long lost pa while Gaby nurses her doubts about Atrius's intentions and identity, "Ties That Bind" addresses issues of repentance and self-sacrifice (housed under the ample eaves of the sins of the father) in ways simple but mature. Even a finale that cuts a little too close to "join me, Luke, together we will rule the universe" doesn't undermine the relative quality of the episode. With episode 19 (and 17 before it), "Xena" 1.20 establishes the series as something to take seriously in a "let's not go overboard" sort of way--an entertaining bit of homoerotic camp that doesn't quite approach the first four seasons of "Buffy" in terms of sociological savvy, but appears to be hitting its stride in terms of execution and confidence. It's not a complete waste of time, and it's fair to wonder at this point if twenty hours of forced-immersion in "Xena: Warrior Princess" has reduced my capacity for rational thought. Bring on Dumb and Dumberer, I've never been more vulnerable.
At the end of Disc 5, it's fruitful to mention that the (fullscreen) image is generally very poor while audio quality is, generally, surprisingly good. ("Xena" has been remastered in 5.1 Dolby Digital.) If you're so inclined, the end credits are pretty funny, featuring clever disclaimers that you can peruse here.
1.21 The Greater Good - The return of fast-talking merchant Salmoneus (Robert Trebor) coincides with Xena getting potted during the opening melee by a mysterious dart. (Thank the gods that after yanking it out of her neck, she doesn't solemnly intone "toxic dart.") Seems that the dart steadily robs Xena of her extremities, inciting Gaby to dress up like Xena and strut around playing the Yang during Xena's recovery. A fusillade of seltzer-propelled cork darts marks the nadir of the series' sight gags, and again, the focus is too severe on Gaby's huffing brand of charm, categorizing the episode as something of an acquired taste. That the identity of the dart-blower is never resolved marks this as the first two-parter in the series, and Gaby actually has a semi-powerful moment in which she mourns the death of a pal. An interest in The Three Stooges (unsurprising, as Raimi's Evil Dead films are essentially living monuments to the trio) first hinted at in the finger-poke-block of episode 19 sinks to a ridiculous cocktail-spritz abyss here.
1.22 Callisto - A blonde version of Xena, Callisto (Hudson Leick), ravages the countryside with her, yes, marauding horde and challenges her shadow self (Xena) in a test of supremacy even as she frames her for acts of atrocity. There are some weird messages embedded in "Xena", and the idea of a psychopathic Hitchcockian "other" existing somewhere in the "Xena" universe is one of the weirdest. Joxer (Ted Raimi in his first non-Shemp role in ages), a would-be soldier of fortune, provides comic relief as the episode unfolds at an uncomfortable clip. An image of a six-year-old boy sharing his last moments on Earth with a soldier responsible for the pillaging of his village is deeply disquieting, as is the running text of the ghosts of Xena's past coming back to haunt her in genocidal ways. In many ways, "Callisto" addresses the idea of Christian forgiveness: Does a sudden declaration of hearing the "good news" forgive a lifetime of evil? Consequences in a universe and medium traditionally without them are addressed here in the most unlikely of sources. I'd be impressed (especially by the almost relentlessly dark feel of the episode) if I wasn't so busy being perturbed by "Xena" actually talking to me on a philosophical level.
1.23 Death Mask - A...wait for it...marauding horde with connections to Xena's past terrorizes the countryside; Xena makes them pay with mighty smitings. I don't know why it hadn't occurred to me until now, but Xena is essentially just the girl version of "Groo" with a lot less humour. After a series of genuinely good episodes, episode 23 returns to the tiresome brooding of its worst moments. Lacking in much subtext or expansions of character, "Death Mask" is lacklustre and moralizing.
1.24 Is There a Doctor in the House? - The return of Amazon Ephiny (Danielle Cormack), with centaur bun most definitely in oven, rounds out the first season of "Xena"--a gesture full circle, as it were, in an episode that takes aim again against organized religion. (The bestiality subtext overlooked in favour of a nice interracial screed.) The show is as gutsy in this respect as it is consistent--Xena demonstrating her battlefield medic skills on victims of a civil war bivouacked in a church. The separation between science and God is highlighted here in bold strokes that aren't meant so much as subversion as dogma. It ain't subtle, but an ultra-liberal voice, despite charges of a liberal media bias, remains a welcome cry in amongst alien corn. Almost as graphic as an episode of "ER", "Is There a Doctor in the House" is a little too serious for my tastes, with too much time given over to the kind of philosophizing in which the series likes to indulge and too little of the sense of campy fun. It should dawn on the creators of the show that too much time given to monologues about pounding swords into ploughshares might, in time, undermine the reason that folks are watching "Xena" in the first place. Though anti-war messages are always sort of welcome (that said, the line "Think of the children" almost never is), the most horrific birth since Geena Davis's maggot in The Fly (more of a "foaling" than a birth, actually) single-handedly saves the episode. I can still see it when I close my eyes.
The seventh platter reveals itself to be a fairly comprehensive CD-ROM that demands minimal system requirements and only forces you to watch the series' prologue once. "Xena Chronicles" features exhaustive summaries of every episode, the text of the humorous disclaimers, and cast lists that the individual shows are egregiously poor in providing. Before this disc, the only way to discover who plays what in any given episode was to sort through the dozens of fan sites proliferating the web. A "Xena Screensaver" is something that I'm perversely interested in but not enough to want to subject my system to it; a "Xena Trivia Game" features ten randomly generated questions a pop (and the questions are hard, too); and the "Director and Actor Bios" are, uncharacteristically for an Anchor Bay production, a little light on commentary, if thorough in the filmography. An accordioning keepcase houses "Xena" in a cardboard sleeve (just like the one for Anchor Bay's "Highlander the Series: Season One", as it happens) with an inner pocket housing a "collectable gold coin" commemorating the first season. (An inevitable invitation to purchase the "Xena Commemorative Coin Holder" is also tucked therein.) A pamphlet adorned with five images and a trivia game includes a detachable postcard that serves as an entry form for the "$100,000 Quest for the Golden Sword" sweepstakes. Yes, I entered--ai yi yi yi yi yi yi yi yi! Originally published: May 17, 2003.