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Saturday, March 17, 2018

Xena Warrior Princess: Sins of the Past, Chariots of War, Dreamworker

So here we are, embarking on a Xena-watch for the second time (though reposting my reviews from the first time around, with a few additions). I only watched it sporadically when it first aired back in the Nineties, though that was mainly seasons two and three, and by the time I settled down for a full beginning-to-end watch I had forgotten most of the details.

So here goes...

Sins of the Past
First of all, I LOVE THE THEME MUSIC. It's just so epic, and it's my most vivid memory of watching the show the first time around. There's nothing you can't do to the sound of that refrain.
I'd forgotten how much presence Lucy Lawless has. She hits this odd but awesome note of subtlety and theatricality in her performance, which may have something to do with playing a serious character in an (at this stage) extremely campy show. Here she manages a sense of awkwardness and even embarrassment at the fact that after all she's done, she's now committed to seeking atonement. Like most people looking for redemption, she doesn't think she deserves it, and doesn't expect other people to think so either.
I liked the fact that her armour and weapons were buried for all of two seconds before she had to dig it all up again. Something tells me that scene is this entire show in a nutshell.
I also liked how everybody in this episode except her mother and Gabrielle was anything from wary to terrified whenever Xena was in the vicinity. Gabrielle takes credit for saving Xena's life from the villagers in the tavern, but I'm not sure they would have had the guts to move any closer to her regardless. It helps that Lucy Lawless actually is physically intimidating (and I don't think we get another female warrior in mainstream pop-culture who actually looks like a genuine physical threat until Gwendoline Christie as Brienne).
So, I'd probably run away from home to follow her as well. And having vague memories of Renee O'Connor later in the show's run, it was kinda surprising (but nice) to see her as such a bright, perky teenager (and also, as a strawberry blonde. I remember her hair being much more platinum in later episodes).
I really liked the contrast between the two women, with Xena as this brooding, silent presence (it struck me afterwards that she probably only had half the lines that Gabrielle did), and Gabrielle as a chatty, bouncy tag-a-long. It would have been nice if there had been a slightly more drawn-out coming together of these two as companions, but I get that any pilot needs to tell a self-contained story that essentially sets up all the dynamics and themes ASAP.
Although the story itself was reasonably predictable, it was made up of a series of nice little sequences. I liked the opening scene of Xena giving the kid her food (atonement starts now), seeing Xena and Gabrielle's different ways of dealing with the Cyclops, and all of Xena's scenes with her mother and at her brother's tomb. In fact, the emotional resonance started early for me, as I honestly got teary-eyed at Xena's reconciliation with her mother. I really liked that the first step Xena takes in the path to redemption is to go home and try to reconnect with her remaining family.
Draco is also a surprisingly developed villain. You're led to believe the soldier that shot the green arrow was a goner, and he instead gets commended for his skill. He also gets a moment of pathos when he reveals he tried to go home once and his father almost beat him to death. And then he saves Xena's life in the end by killing his second-in-command's assassination attempt and tells her that he'll keep to their agreement. I honestly didn't see that one coming.
On the downside, though I realize that the crazy fight-scenes are a staple part of this show and that I'll no doubt get used to them in time, I think they're quite ridiculous at this point. Standing on people's heads and shoulders whilst fighting with a staff? How is that even....okay, I know that questioning these sorts of things is an exercise in futility. I'll just roll with it.
There were also a couple of other amusing sights, such as a bamboo doorway, a man wielding what looked like a TV antennae as a weapon, the punk-rocker costumes of the war-lords, and the fact that Draco's henchmen lunged at him with a spear, aiming about ten inches left to his body.
Chariots of War
I have this long-held theory that any show, no matter how good or bad the pilot is, will always have a rather "meh" second episode (or if the pilot is a two-parter, a "meh" third episode). Such was the case here. It wasn't bad by any means, but the episode was definitely more of a quick character-study on Xena/Gabrielle and a vessel for some of the themes pertaining to their relationship than an actual story.
That said, I thought it was a bit strange that the writers would chose to keep them apart for most of the episode's run-time when they could have been exploring their newfound bond by working together on a problem, but the parallels between their separate experiences were pretty blatant. Each bond with a man who's their diametric opposite: Xena meets a gentle farmer who can offer her a stable and loving home-life; Gabrielle meets a rugged but sensitive warlord who can give her the excitement she craves, and yet both forego these chances in order to keep travelling with each other.
Again, I get the sense that this encapsulates everything that is to follow pertaining to the relationships of the show, and the centrality of Xena and Gabrielle's.
Which is great. It's like a soothing balm to the soul to see a female/female friendship as the most important relationship on a show, with male characters as the underdeveloped love interests left behind to pine after them (I can't even remember their names). I feel a bit giddy thinking about it, to be honest.
Gabrielle is cute, describing herself as Xena's best friend, even though she feels the need to say "don't forget about me" when Xena heads off on her own, and I liked the story-thread concerning the blue dress: Xena is hesitant to wear it, the dad insists that it wouldn't harm the memory of his wife, it's inevitably torn to pieces, and it's the cause of Xena misplacing her chakram. 
The comparison between the two otherwise-bland men was also a nice touch: one is the father of three kids, the other is the son of a disapproving warlord, and it takes the women to help them get in touch with their peaceful/fighting sides.  
But the story itself was pretty forgettable. I had to laugh when the war-lords called a council with the villagers in order to discuss peace. What's to discuss? If you want peace, just leave them alone and stop attacking them! The chariot race at the end seemed like a requisite action sequence, and some of the camera work was a little dodgy – there were all these awkward close-ups of the actors' faces, followed by long-shots of the chariots or horses in completely different places than they were just a second ago. It was weird.
Dreamworker
I enjoyed this one. Once again the women get split up, but their stories were more intertwined than they were in the last episode, especially with the little visit into each other's dreams to impart important information.
I'm pretty charmed by the fact that at this early stage, Gabrielle is a complete dork (almost to ditzy levels!) and with the ringlets and the blue dress, I'm not surprised that everyone she came across immediately assumed she was an innocent. The ways she managed to outwit the tests were a little contrived (like the knife getting blown out of the wall by a build-up of smoke) but it was a nice way to establish her inherent innocence. I think it's safe to assume that the rest of the series will involve Gabrielle steadily losing all of it.
Xena was interesting: she gives Gabrielle a reasonably wise and lengthy speech about how killing is wrong and running away is right, but the very second a threat turns up, her immediate response is to prepare for a fight (throwing the dagger down so she can retrieve it at the right moment). It's like she knows that her "no violence" mantra is objectively true, but the exact opposite is so ingrained into her instincts that the words mean absolutely nothing to her. I'd say she was hypocritical, but it's clearly more complicated than that.
Xena's trials in the dream-world were predictable, but still good. I especially liked the way all her past kills introduced themselves to her by name, and how she was eventually confronted by her first and her last. The threat of Gabrielle eventually becoming just like Xena was an interesting point to make, and with that in mind it was a nice touch that her quest to save Gabrielle wasn't just to save her life, but her innocence too. Even though Xena must know on some level that Gabrielle will inevitably have to kill someone (it comes with the territory), it's telling that Xena still isn't willing to send her home.
I liked Xena going up against her Dark Side. It's a staple part of any fantasy-series (I've seen it on Angel too) and though they had to work around the obvious body double/camera angles, it opened up a new idea when Evil!Xena said: "I'm the real you." Xena strikes me as a drug addict. Between the obvious relish she had in fighting the priests and the whole "stone in the river" metaphor at the end, it reminds me that a significant part of her not only can't get rid of violence, but enjoys it.
And there's no such thing as an ex-drug addict, only a drug-addict who is in control of their cravings, whose body will always be susceptible to a relapse. The same goes for Xena and her dark side – she'll always be tempted to return to her old ways, so even though she's channelling her gifts to a good end, it's like she says: the stone is still there.
I confess I couldn't quite follow the character-arc of the mystic. He was an acolyte of Morpheus but...got kicked out? And lost his sight? And then became one again at the end? And somehow regained his sight? Ah well, he was more of a plot device than a character anyway, and I'm sure the actor enjoyed dripping oil all over Lucy Lawless's body.
Also, there were some pretty funny moments in this one.
"Time to run?"
"It would take months..." (feels Xena's biceps) "...days..."
*words of eternal gratefulness* "Take ten percent off everything."
Also, I loved the gag at the beginning when the shop-keeper refuses to sell the mystic a halter, and Xena suddenly decides that's what she wants. Like the kid with the food in the pilot episode, it's these little acts of kindness that mean the most, especially as Xena doesn't stick around to take any credit.
Weird nitpick: the guy that she kills at the beginning recognises Xena after he sees her sword. Really? He recognises the sword, but not the giant gorgeous woman who wields it? How's that even possible?

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