Anchor Bay // 1995 // 1062 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // May 26th, 2003
"Ai-yei-yei-YEI-yei-yei-YEI-yei-yei-YYYEEEEEIIII-A" -- Xena, Warrior Princess
Xena, the statuesque raven in a leather WonderBra who hacks apart rogues and gods, makes you:
D) All of the above
Whatever your answer, you cannot deny that Xena: Warrior Princess is one of the most distinctive shows of the 1990s. Xena's sardonic snarl and icy eyes counterbalance the absurdity of impossible stunts and high-pitched war yodels. This mythological soap opera is pure camp. Blithe and boldfaced, Xena: Warrior Princess's quest is to entertain despite the slings and arrows of scathing, sardonic criticism.
The series details the adventures of Xena (Lucy Lawless), a warrior woman who has recently shifted from conqueror to vigilante wanderer. The series begins with Xena moving through a village she destroyed, surveying the carnage and desolation wrought by her army. Her remorse evident, she turns from the warrior life. She goes into the woods to bury her weapons. How soon she will need them! Xena overhears a group of villagers being threatened by thugs. Her nature is undeniable: she walks right in to take control of the situation. When she dispatches the thugs (in graphic detail), her honor wins the devotion of a restless farm girl. Xena's new companion, Gabrielle (Renee O'Connor), provides conversation, support, and the occasional mishap. The world they frequent is loosely based on Greek mythology, with gods, demigods, and mythic creatures in abundance.
Let's get right to the point. There's no doubt that some of the action in Xena is stupid. In the first episode she battles to the death by walking on the heads of the onlooking crowd. This is ludicrous, and you may feel the urge to simultaneously roll your eyes, laugh out loud, and change the channel. But ask yourself this: don't the producers of the show, particularly campmeister Sam Raimi, know these scenes are absurd? Did these scenes of utter implausibility somehow slipped through quality control?
The scenes are there for a reason. My impression of Xena from the TV days was of a frivolous show with attractive window dressing. Watching it now, I am struck by how absolutely dark and violent it is. Xena tries to be good, but she maims, mauls, and slaughters countless villains. Throats are sliced open, torsos impaled, necks snapped, and heads conked. Without the veneer of unreality and humor, the show would collapse under the weight of its own darkness. The camp factor is there to provide a layer between the viewer and the meaning of the action.
Xena is easy to dismiss, but there is more to the show than preposterous battle scenes. I submit to you exhibits A, B, C, and D: Knight Rider, The Incredible Hulk, The Fugitive and Kung Fu. These shows are kindred spirits to Xena. They have sad heroes with checkered and mysterious pasts, fundamentally misunderstood by those around them. They go through life helping people then fading away to pursue a neverending quest, fueled by the knowledge that they are different from those around them. They have high camp factors with an undercurrent of darkness and the brutality of common humanity. Heck, I can't watch MacGyver without a sense of indignation and copious eye-rolling.
Xena immediately establishes what kind of show it is going to be: a dark melodrama with an unflappable, mysterious icon holding the center. Make no mistake, Xena is an icon. She's the television embodiment of every warrior woman myth. Like Morgaine in Gate of Ivrel (by CJ Cherryh), Xena walks through the world alone and resolute. She melts a little when her heroism attracts a follower, and the two journey together stronger than they were alone. I'm impressed with how quickly Lucy Lawless asserts menace, charm, fire, grace, vulnerability, and impassivity. Like Botticelli's Venus, her screen presence springs from the shell fully formed. Her icy gaze and menacing snarl turn on a dime to sparkling warmth and dazzling smile.
The show uses emotional and situational shorthand to convey meaning. Whether you write that off as chicanery or style will determine how you feel about the series. For example, in the episode "Dreamworker," Xena navigates a dream pathway to reach Morpheus, god of dreams. Before she can reach the other side of the dream passage, she must fight a battle with a dark Xena. On the surface this entire concept is ludicrous. But the symbol of Xena fighting her own past and using it to accomplish her current goals is actually quite powerful, even Jungian.
And that is the heart of the matter. Xena is mythology lite, a celluloid spin-off of archetype and legend. Practically every episode introduces some comely actor portraying a staple of Greek mythology. Ares, Hades, Pandora, Hera, Hercules, the Titans...a veritable who's who of legends parade through the episodes, unaware of the audacious irony. You have to swallow a very large red pill to accept the premise.
So, you're a believer, or at least willing to give Xena a chance. What does the season one boxed set have in store for you? Welcome to the cornucopia, because it will take you forever to work through this feast.
The fun begins before you even pop in the DVD. There is a trivia booklet, a gold token, and a foldout portfolio with lots of pretty pictures. The token is somewhat childish, as though Aladdin's Castle has been bought out by Xena Entertainment Enterprises. But hey, free coin. I love the menus because they remind me of playing Baldur's Gate till the wee hours. The ominous rhythm of the music set to dramatic Xena screenshots puts you in the proper frame of mind. I'm a firm believer that good DVD authoring can enhance the viewing experience, and the menu authoring here is great.
As for the viewing experience, it will last you nearly 18 hours. Depending on your perspective, the season is either a bland gauntlet of repetitive sameness or remarkably creative with a constant flow of new ideas. I fall into the latter camp, but a case can be made for the first viewpoint. Virtually every episode has Xena fighting off a mob of grungy, homogeneous ruffians led by a man with a black beard and winning smile. People are always losing their composure while Xena stands steadfast and aloof, saving everyone's hide. The steady trickle of mythological figures tends to drain awe from ensuing legends. The whole thing feels formulaic.
Sure, there are repetitious elements that carry over from episode to episode. But I chalk it up to the structure of storytelling. Xena is based in mythology, which was famous for tenets of structure. Each episode reinforces the heroism of Xena like a comforting lullaby. The unwashed masses are depicted so facelessly because they aren't the true players in the tales. Xena shouldn't much fear the knaves that assault her, because her fight is more epic in scope. The defense presents episode six, "The Reckoning." Xena faces a skillful fighter whose prowess matches her own. He disappears and leaves her to face the anger of human enemies. It turns out that he is Ares, god of war, and he wants Xena's energy back in his fold. (The fast-forwarded action in the battle between Ares and Xena is twice as convincing as the action scenes in The Bourne Identity.) By the time the episode ends, you realize that Xena's battle is not so much with the people but the temptation of Ares. When the episode ends, Ares threatens Xena with a simple proclamation: he will not give up on her. You realize that Xena will walk the earth to the end of her days with the weight of Ares' temptation plaguing her. It casts her subsequent ventures in a new light. Her subtle looks of pain and wisdom are born of strife with the gods. Is Ares going to let some two-bit hood whack Xena when he so desperately wants her to lead his army? In this light, the unconcerned joy with which Xena dispatches her foes seems plausible.
The anchor of the series is Lucy Lawless as Xena. She has become a worldwide sensation for both men and women. Her screen presence is powerful, her charisma abundant. The writing allows Lucy to express a kaleidoscopic array of moods. Sometimes Xena seems light, almost jovial, and others she is as black as a storm cloud. She is both confident and uncertain. She is always struggling with the path she has chosen. For an icon, Xena is given remarkable complexity. It reinforces her humanity when you watch Xena cruelly deride Gabrielle's naïveté, then tenderly embrace her as a true friend.
Yes, Xena embraces Gabrielle. And flirts with her. In "The Titans," Xena has a fit when Gabrielle lies down next to a young man. In "Altared States," they even skinny dip with each other. Erotic tension creeps in as early as season one. You know it's there, don't deny it. As Gabrielle dreamily murmurs to Xena, "you're beautiful."
Renee O'Connor's Gabrielle is a deceptively simple character. Like everything is the world of Xena: Warrior Princess, the details of Gabrielle's character are glossed over or abstracted. But her journey is in some ways more remarkable than Xena's. Gabrielle is a farm girl with a scholar's bent and an explorer's curiosity. She is sweet, talkative, and naïve. But Gabrielle is smart enough to realize that her life is in constant danger as long as Xena is nearby. She also knows she doesn't have the skillset or experience needed to survive on the road Xena will take. Thus, Gabrielle's fundamental trait is bravery, her quest is friendship.
The world of Xena is one of pretty faces, outrageous costumes, and absurd action. Sam Raimi takes the tricks of his B-movie masterpieces and makes them accessible to the mass TV audience. For example, forced perspective, trembling cameras, and other cheesy tricks do a fair job of depicting the massive Titans. (But what's up with the Titans' hairdos? Is glam metal back in now?) Prometheus is bound in writhing shackles that reach up and clasp his arms. Like the vine rape scene in Evil Dead, this effect is simple "played in reverse." Some of the effects, such as the CGI dragons and gods, are less than enjoyable. However, you must admire the ambitious world that is depicted with such a modest budget. The best thing is that the episodes don't rely on the effects to tell the tale, which makes occasional duds forgivable.
Are soap opera stars acting? How about pro wrestlers? If you don't consider them acting, you won't much enjoy the acting in Xena. Aside from Lucy and Renee, the acting is functional character acting. The villains are hammy, the henchmen are slimy, the mystics mysterious. Occasional performances break out and reach true pathos (Bobby Hosea as Marcus comes to mind), but in general the acting is a means to convey the message of the moment: pained scowls to represent frustration, or slack jaws for surprise.
The audio is pleasing in 5.1 surround. The mix is not crystal clear by any means, but the surrounds are used occasionally and the subwoofer kicked in during the thunderstorms. I had no trouble discerning dialogue, and the fitting score was smoothly integrated into the mix.
"Digital mastering" has cleaned up the crudest TV transfer issues, but I can't say the episodes look great. Grain is strong and the image looks blotchy. The blotchiness is due to bad MPEG encoding (you can tell by the blocks, which are different from grain). Blacks are uneven and the color saturation is hit or miss. Compared with other TV series I've seen on DVD, Xena compares poorly. There are no persistent tics such as combing or digital clouds, but there isn't a uniformly clean image either. The poor image is likely compounded by the 16mm film stock used, because Xena started out with a pretty low "late night TV" budget. I can say that the video quality was never awful enough to distract me from the episodes, but that is due to the strength of the material.
There is a comprehensive multimedia CD with a dizzying array of Xena paraphernalia. The best of these extras is the Xena Chronicles, a thorough look at the first season. The CD is fine and dandy, but the only DVD extra is a photo stills gallery. For those who either have no DVD drives or prefer not to clutter their hard drives with CD-ROM content, this approach is less than ideal.
What did she just say? Hope you can read lips, because there are no subtitles nor closed captioning. Funny...didn't the original series have CC? While we're on the subject of what this boxed set doesn't have, it doesn't have cast interviews, behind the scenes, or commentary of any kind. This modest late night show gained worldwide attention. Surely the producers, director, or cast have something to say about it?
Xena is hammy, melodramatic, and campy. But the adventure and action are truly epic in scope. Each episode writes another page into Xena's book of heroic exploits. At times, Xena achieves true pathos and poignancy. Themes of friendship and loyalty supplement the central theme, a warrior who travels the world to right the wrongs she has inflicted. The gods that try to intervene only make things more interesting. The bottom line is that Xena is late night entertainment with a surprisingly human heart. And you have to admire the unrepentant schlock.
If you are a fan of this series, you'll have to weigh the poor video quality and lack of subtitles into your purchasing decision. There is a VHS version out there. Given that the video quality is actually better in the VHS version (no bad MPEG encoding) and there are no real DVD extras to speak of, this is a case where the VHS is a viable alternative.
Lucy Lawless, Renee O'Connor, and Sam Raimi are excused with the good graces of the court. I'm ordering an investigation into who was responsible for the DVD production; they are in contempt of court. Xena, you may have at them.
Review content copyright © 2003 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 1062 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Photo Gallery
* Gold Coin
* The Xena Chronicles (CD-ROM)
* Cast/Crew Bios (CD-ROM)