Welcome to another Xena Thursday! Today, we’re continuing our chronological coverage of every single episode of Xena: Warrior Princess — both the episodes that I have previously highlighted AND the episodes I’ve yet to feature. Complementing my thoughts are the thoughts of those who worked on the series: mostly actors, writers, directors, and producers. I have done months of research for the acquisition of the quotes you’ll see over these next 67 weeks (as there are 134 episodes and I’ll be covering two episodes per week). They come from a variety of sources, including the original special feature-laden DVD releases, The Chakram Official Newsletters, both the Topps and Titans Official Xena Magazines, the fan kits, and other assorted print and video interviews. So in addition to sharing my thoughts, these posts will also contain information and musings from the Xenites that matter most — the ones who brought this exciting series to the small screen.
65. Season 3, Episode 19: “Tsunami” (Aired: 04/20/98 | Filmed: 02/19 – 02/27/98)
The eruption of Mount Aetna produces a tidal wave that submerges Xena, Gabrielle and Autolycus inside a sinking mining vessel.
Written by Chris Manheim | Directed by John Laing | Production No. V0414
I featured this episode as one of the 18 honorable mentions that narrowly missed inclusion on my list of the 60 best episodes. Read my thoughts here.
CAST & CREW COMMENTARY:
Robert Gillies (Production Designer): “I was walking around with [this] script for quite a while and it was sort of there, and they were always threatening, ‘We’re going to make this show.’ And I used to say, ‘This? You just can’t make this show. This’ll be one that can’t be made.’… There were different sets and it was a standard old procedure, which is where you build the set like a box. The set in the studio was like a box within a box. And so this one was like a box within another box, and that box was full of water. And we just lowered the set progressively into it to get the water to rise…” (“Tsunami” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Three DVD Set)
Donald Duncan (Director of Photography): “When I first read the script for [this episode] and got together with Rob Gillies, and looked at the designs—the drawings, my heart actually sank. I went, ‘Oh, my God, he has me in a shoebox and it has five sides.’ It had a roof, and a floor, and three walls, and one open side to shoot in. No windows, no practical lights because when your ship’s overturned, all the lights go out. And I thought, ‘Man, I am screwed here. What am I going to do?’… [When] the ship was slowly drifting down the water… I thought, ‘I’ve got to get some type of watery light effect in there, otherwise, I mean, literally, it would be dark.’ All the practical lights had gone off because of water going everywhere, and they would have burned up the oxygen, so they would have turned them off anyway… [One day] the engineer was sent for to come down [to the stage] as quickly as possible. Before the engineer had even arrived, something went horrendously wrong and 20,000 leagues of water burst out the tank like a freight train… Talk about life imitating art. It was incredible. A great tidal wave swept around the studio, picked up camera cases and sent them bobbing out the door. And I think 20,000 leagues of water I think let themselves out of the tank in ten seconds.” (“Tsunami” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Three DVD Set)
Lucy Lawless (Actor, Xena): “…[O]n the first day [of shooting] we had a cold snap and all our bodies went into shock. It was very depressing getting into that tank. But the water was low then. We hadn’t flooded it that much. It was just dripping down and the water was heated – sort of tepid. However, when it was diffused through small cracks in the ceiling, it was just like standing under a cold shower. It was the most miserable, bloody experience… And then we were sitting in this soup because there were cabbages floating around that were just stinking. Renee couldn’t stand them more than anyone. She hated that – rotting cabbages floating around. So we would push them over toward her. We’d stand during the shot when the camera was on her and float them over her way. Her character couldn’t get rid of them, of course. So if you see Renee in the frame with any cabbages, you’ve gotta know she’s in pain.” (The Chakram Newsletter: #4)
John Laing (Director): “I think [this episode] was particularly hard for the cast because they were literally under water all day. We’d go in there in the morning at call, and they would be in the water all day. You know, I don’t know how they didn’t melt. We’d get them out in between set ups…when we were re-lighting and whatever, but there wasn’t a lot of change. Once you’re in the boat and it’s filled with water and it’s overturned, it’s going to stay that way the whole time, so we pretty much kept shooting the whole time. And it was very difficult for them. The crew were wearing wet suits as well. We were all—if I wanted to talk to an actor, I had to crawl through the tank and wade through it. It was difficult. Working with water is always… It’s very tiring working [and] wading around in water. I mean it’s tough enough being on your feet all day but when you just were working against the force of water all day, it’s very, very tiring… The important thing is that morale during [this] shoot stayed there… stayed right up there… [But] just moving a camera around in water is very, very difficult. Just keeping it dry, you know. We wanted tracking shots and moving shots and so on and so forth, steady cam shots – all of that through debris in the foreground. It was difficult, especially as the water level got higher, and higher, and higher and there was less air supposedly that got pushed up towards the roof. As the boat filled with water it got much, much more difficult… [One day during a shoot] suddenly [we heard] a sound like a pistol shot followed by a rapid series of others that sounded sort of like machine gun firing…. If [the tank bursting] happened the next day when we had had a crew and actors there, it could have been very dangerous… It was a surreal experience. It took a long time to clean up. When we did get back to work, I remember the slightest noise—if somebody dropped something, the whole crew would just jump. People were really twitchy for weeks afterward. [But] I think it’s one of my favorites of the episodes… I directed… I liked the claustrophobic nature of it. It was kind of more like a stage play than anything cause it’s such a limited set. There’s so little room, that it just kind of condensed… the relationships between the various people and the frictions and the tensions between them.” (“Tsunami” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Three DVD Set)
Chris Manheim (Writer/Producer): “I thought everyone was going to get that [this episode was an homage to The Poseidon Adventure]. People in their 20’s didn’t remember it. But yes, that’s definitely what it was… [Macon] was fun to write. It was a fun show to write. I don’t think it was anyone’s favorite episode to work on because of the conditions. Here I was thinking I was doing everyone a big favor because it was the height of their summer and I thought, ‘It’ll be hot, they’ll like getting in water.’ Yeah, right. It was cold and nasty, so it wasn’t hot. And being wet all day is no fun… Fortunately they weren’t shooting on that stage [where the accident occurred], they were shooting next door. There was one carpenter or plumber working there, and he ended up getting pushed into a bathroom by the force of the water. I think he was banged up but otherwise unhurt.” (Whoosh! Interview – February 1999)
Lucy Lawless (Actor, Xena): “When we shot [this episode] they… built this big tank with like, I don’t know, 40,000 gallons of water in it. We were [in a] boat at the bottom of the sea. Are we submerged? I can’t remember how it goes, but anyway, I’m on set and they’re filming something and I decide I’m going to do leg exercises, so I’ve got leg weights on – so like three pound leg weights, four pounds, I don’t know – quite heavy actually. And we hear this, ‘Pop. Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop.’ And all the rivets exploded on this freaking tank and you just see it in slow motion—the edge of the tank opening up. It’s like plywood. What were we thinking?… And it was so funky that you see this wall of water coming toward you. The episode’s called “Tsunami” and I’m trying to run with these leg weights cause you think, ‘Everyone’s going to be electrocuted.’ And nobody was. Nobody was hurt in the end. But it was a pretty extreme moment on set.” (Archive of American Television Interview – 2013)
66. Season 3, Episode 20: “Vanishing Act” (Aired: 04/27/98 | Filmed: 02/05 – 02/13/98)
Autolycus’s reputation as “king of thieves” is at stake when a 20-foot statue turns up missing—and he didn’t steal it. So he vows to steal it back.
Written by Terence Winter | Directed by Andrew Merrifield | Production No. V0421
Contrary to the opinions held by many members of the cast and crew, I don’t think this episode is anywhere close to being the worst of the series. As I’ve already covered what my selections for the worst are, I’ll just say that this silly and insubstantial episode doesn’t try to be anything more than silly and insubstantial. (Sure, there’s the whole subplot involving Autolycus and his late brother, and while it does feel like a desperate attempt to inject some pathos, the episode wouldn’t really work without it. So no complaints there from me.) But because the episode doesn’t proclaim itself to be brilliant (like many Season Three episodes), the fact that this one is comparatively lacking doesn’t make the installment a failure.
As I’ve said before, Season Three has a few episodes that don’t work as well as they should, but there really aren’t any duds. The series is at its creative peak, and every installment has something to enjoy. This one is silly — the accents, the disguises, the low-budget feel — and it’s quite amusing. It sort of feels like a companion to Season One’s “The Royal Couple Of Thieves,” but updated to the sensibilities that the series has, by this time, adopted: the decision to make Gabrielle an equal participant in the action, and the determination to make the comedic episodes as wacky and goofy (to counteract the surrounding darkness) as possible. So, this episode can be very entertaining — if you don’t take it too seriously. It’s a nice change of pace. But don’t expect brilliance.
CAST & CREW COMMENTARY:
Lucy Lawless (Actor, Xena): “Oh! What a stinker. Oh, my gosh… [This episode] had to be the stinker of all time…” (“Vanishing Act” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Three DVD Set)
Rob Tapert (Executive Producer/Writer/Director): “[This episode was] one of the biggest losers, at least in my mind… Due to all kinds of circumstances, every single department from the actors through the director through everything—even… the script, let us down…. And the final insult was, if you watch the episode, the very last shot where the thing that was stolen is back in place, the visual effect is so crummy we can’t even see that what was stolen has been replaced.” (“Vanishing Act” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Three DVD Set)
Andrew Merrifield (Director): “The implausibility of a statue being toppled and dragged out to sea and taken somewhere to be melted down for its gold… I hate to say it but I thought the script was a bit sort of ‘make it up as you go.’…The crux of the whole episode seemed to be about melting a gold statue down and the furnace not working… It sort of had narrative flaws and… just sort of didn’t have it’s own life. Didn’t run it’s way… It’s just a little bit [of] a quantum leap for the audience to accept… [Meanwhile] Lucy was interested in becoming a New York real estate saleswoman and her accent and her performance is sort of molded on somebody that I think she’d met in New York, who was trying to probably sell her an apartment forever… I had some input in it, but Lucy had a very specific idea of what she wanted this character to be. And I let her run with it, and I thought it was very funny.” (“Vanishing Act” Interviews w/ Cast & Crew – Season Three DVD Set)
Lucy Lawless (Actor, Xena): “Who directed [this]? I remember Bruce [Campbell, Autolycus] did not get on with the director.” (The 2003 Pasadena Xena Convention)
Come back next Thursday for more Xena! And tune in tomorrow for another Pre-Code Film Friday!