Welcome to another Xena Thursday! Today, we’re beginning a three week sojourn into the crossovers that Xena: Warrior Princess made with her big brother show, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, from which the character of Xena was initially spun-off. These next three posts will cover all the times that Lucy Lawless, Renee O’Connor, and/or Hudson Leick appeared on Hercules as Xena, Gabrielle, and Callisto respectively. (Note that I will not be covering the times in which these actresses portrayed other characters, as those aren’t crossovers.) I’ll also cover the one episode in which Hercules and his sidekick Iolaus appeared together on Xena, while the other two Hercules crossovers on Xena (“The Quest” and “God Fearing Child”) have already been covered here and will not be repeated.
Today’s post looks at the three pre-X:WP episodes that established the Xena character and primed her for the spin-off.
HTLJ: Season 1, Episode 9: “The Warrior Princess” (Aired: 03/13/95 | Filmed: 01/03 – 01/12/95)
The “perfect woman” is waiting for Iolaus. Unfortunately, she’s an evil, power-hungry warrior princess, who’s using him to get Hercules out of the way.
Written by John Schulian | Directed by Bruce Seth Green | Production No. 76608
Viewers who tune in to see this episode, in which the world is introduced to Xena: Warrior Princess, after becoming acquainted with the portrayal developed during her own series, will be shocked by what they see. The Xena here, though evil, is nothing like the Xena of the first season. It’s difficult to enumerate all of the ways in which she’s foreign — but perhaps it’s easiest to say that she’s presented as much more feminine than the butch incarnation of Xena that Lawless played in Season One. (Of course, this was a seemingly stiff over-compensation that, while heightening the character’s intrigue, did little to help her become fully realized. No worries though — that changed near the end of the first year.) Additionally, the Xena we find here does not seem at all capable of the atrocities attributed to her during the last four seasons of X:WP. But, this episode wasn’t written with that foresight, and all we can do is forgive the inconsistencies. Truthfully, the character is functional — especially for the necessities of this particular installment.
So, after moving beyond our initial disturbance over the character’s incarnation, we can turn our attention to the episode — in which Xena seduces Iolaus and drives a wedge between he and Hercules, hoping to spark an opportunity in which she can kill Hercules following his slaying of his best friend. It’s a much more cliched storytelling than we’ll usually find in Xena — or even in Hercules — and the rift between the two heroes here seems incredibly forced. It’s not that Xena’s not sexy enough to steal Iolaus’s affections, but the action happens too quickly and unconvincingly for us to BELIEVE that Iolaus would behave in this way. It’s a little embarrassing to watch.
Meanwhile, though it’s fascinating to see Xena for the first time, she isn’t the strong baddie that we’re hoping her to be (with our knowledge of the future revelations about her past, of course), and thus the episode never manages to be excellent. Part of this can be attributed to letdown expectations, but part of it is shoddy storytelling that is hampered by a premise that calls for out-of-character machinations by its two leads. More a curio piece than anything else, this episode comes recommended for viewers who are out of Xena episodes to watch but need a quick Warrior Princess fix — just understand what you’re in for here.
HTLJ: Season 1, Episode 12: “The Gauntlet” (Aired: 05/01/95 | Filmed: 01/13 – 01/20/95)
Warrior Princess Xena joins forces with Hercules when her troops turn on her under the command of the cruel and ruthless Darphus.
Written by Peter Bielak | Directed by Jack Perez | Production No. 76612
The middle part of the arc in which Hercules meets Xena, reforms her, and then falls in love with her is undoubtedly the best. I think the reasons for its comparative success are many. First of all, the episode is much darker than the other two — an eventual trademark of the Xena series. Additionally, the episode has moments of great humor, especially involving the interactions between Xena and Salmoneus (who was only used sparingly on Xena). The variations in tone are handled skillfully and make the installment a more enjoyable and organic ride than Xena’s debut. This is imperative because this episode marks a quintessential moment in the Xena character’s trajectory: this is the moment in which she changes from villain to hero.
So, with that figurative weight going in to the script, how does the episode live up to its obligation? Quite well, actually. And I think a lot of this has to do with the presentation of Xena as a more multi-dimensional character. The show opens with a thrilling sequence in which Xena and her army raid and sack a village. The gleeful joy in her eyes coupled with the brilliantly bloody chakram makes for an awesome moment. But we see — even in this teaser — that she’s not ALL evil. She doesn’t like killing the unarmed, and she is later throughly pissed when Darphus kills women and children when she isn’t looking. Of course, we could argue that most of her indignation has to do with his commandeering of her army. But there’s a humanness afforded to the character that is essential in setting her up as a viable main character. (And her protecting of the infant we can later ascribe to latent feelings about her abandonment of Solan.)
The gauntlet sequence itself is appropriately tense, but I think the most interesting moments here come between Xena and Herc. It’s almost cathartic to see her swoop in during the final fight to take on her former army, officially allying herself with Hercules. And while the character isn’t fully fleshed out by “The Gauntlet,” the presentation here is MILES ahead of the character’s debut. So in addition to its importance, this episode is a good watch — further developing Xena and providing moments of both light and dark. I’d recommend this episode, and ONLY this episode, for new fans who have never seen Xena, but are gung-ho in starting with her Hercules appearances.
HTLJ: Season 1, Episode 13: “Unchained Heart” (Aired: 05/08/95 | Filmed: 01/23 – 02/01/95)
Herc and Xena team up to stop the evil Darphus, the mortal lieutenant of Ares, the god of war who’s intent on ruling the world.
Written by John Schulian | Directed by Brian Seth Green | Production No. 76613
This is probably the most formulaic of the “Xena Trilogy.” Hercules and his buds go up against Darphus, who has been resurrected by one of Hercules’ main nemeses — Ares (but in a form that isn’t as talented as Kevin Smith) — who provides him with one of those infamous CGI beasts. The conflict isn’t nearly as engaging as it was in the other two Xena episodes (Darphus just isn’t menacing enough, and comes off even campier here), and without that tension the comedy also falls flat. Salmoneus is here again, and both Lawless and Sorbo are given a few lighter moments to play, but again, it’s nothing spectacular. The episode (predictably) has Xena and Hercules falling into bed with one another. I’m conflicted about this. On the one hand, it’s climactic to see them hook-up — especially since they’re “Hercules and Xena,” everyone’s favorite syndicated action heroes. On the other hand, the romance diminishes the gravitas of Xena’s conversion and makes both characters look silly.
Examining this episode with a focus on Xena, “Unchained Heart” is most disappointing because its conflict is misplaced. The only beat that actually has merit is Iolaus having to forgive Xena. (He isn’t in the previous episode.) That has a human element that the Darphus stuff lacks. But coming so close after the — pardon the overused word — EPIC conversion of the Warrior Princess, it’s unfathomable to me that this episode doesn’t display some sort of struggle in which Xena considers reverting back to her old ways. I’m just supposed to believe that Xena quits evildoing cold turkey? Where’s the fun — and the drama — in that? This episode becomes a pure adventure show in which Hercules gets a little romance — from an already out-of-character Xena.
Interestingly, Xena was supposed to die at the end of this episode, and in the context of “Unchained Heart,” that would have been a much more satisfying development: Hercules falls in love with a reformed baddie who dies heroically. Nice drama. But when the spin-off was developed, this ending was changed to a faux-dramatic final scene in which Xena decides to leave the man who “unchained her heart” to go off on her own adventures. And while this episode is considerably inferior, I’ll always be eternally grateful that instead of getting killed here, Xena battled on for six seasons of fun. This episode is recommended only to fans who have already seen the entire Xena series and have watched the two preceding episodes in the Herc trilogy.
Come back next Thursday for more Hercules and Xena crossovers! And tune in tomorrow for another 1935 Film Friday post!