Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday and the latest installment in our bi-monthly series on the best syndicated action show of the ’90s, Xena: Warrior Princess! We’ve examined Xena at length years ago (along with Hercules: The Legendary Journeys), and while I’m not one to ever regard anything that wasn’t officially produced by the show itself to be worthy of much consideration, I thought it would nevertheless be interesting to examine ancillary Xena stories — not fan fiction (although some of this stuff may read like it), but comic books, novels, and even unproduced scripts. Again, I don’t ever consider this material when I think of the show or these characters. However, as someone who’s always been drawn to Xena for its storytelling, I want to examine these additional tales and see, despite different authors and a weakened understanding of the leads, if they could play on the actual show.
We’re kicking off this new series with the comic books (note: I won’t be doing the Evil Dead crossovers — they obviously wouldn’t work on Xena), and while I’d usually go chronologically, for the sheer fact that I picked them up first, we’re starting with the 14 installments that comprise the Dark Horse Comics run, released between 1999 and 2000, during the show’s final two seasons. I’m nerdy enough to have purchased them all contemporaneously, but for those who are late to the game, you can actually pick up an Omnibus (released by Dynamite Comics) that contains all 14 offerings. This month, I’m sharing my thoughts on the first seven — again, with an emphasis on examining how or even if the story/idea could have been utilized by Tapert and his crew on the television show. (See the “Timeline,” which pinpoints when I think a certain story, no matter how usable, could have potentially fit.)
*PARDON THE LOPSIDED SCANS!
01) “The Warrior Way Of Death (I)” (Released: September 1999)
Disguised as Zeus, Callisto persuades a dying Xena to eschew her violent fate in favor of a second chance at ruling the world.
Chakrams: 5/10 Timeline: Between “The Ides Of March” and “Fallen Angel”
The opening Dark Horse installment grants us its own version of the fifth season premiere, which turned out to be “Fallen Angel” (an episode about which I have my own issues; Xena’s already abandoned her “atoning for past misdeeds” premise and the Christian motifs are a hinderance to the show’s creativity). But it’s written in such a way that it could theoretically exist before the events of the year’s actual opener. In fact, it hits many of the same themes, for Xena also returns to her evil ways here… but this time, not because she’s assuming Callisto’s sins (literal atonement), but because she wants to spare herself and Gabrielle of this horrible pain and make the world a better place — peace through conquest.
Naturally, this requires much more of a leap than how the television series handled this notion, and even though it makes use of the Greek mythos in Zeus (who’s really Callisto in disguise) and ties well into Xena’s past (we get to go back to “The Gauntlet,” which would have been cool to revisit on Xena), the character motivation isn’t there. Thus, the sexy idea loses its cachet.
02) “The Warrior Way Of Death (II)” (Released: October 1999)
Xena’s crusade for peace involves killing a lot of innocent people – until she meets Gabrielle and learns of Callisto’s deception.
Chakrams: 4/10 Timeline: Between “The Ides Of March” and “Fallen Angel”
In a continuation of the above, this installment finds Xena back leading her army and killing innocent people who won’t submit to her will, which she maintains is going to bring about peace on earth. It’s an inherently delusional way of thinking and one that really doesn’t make sense — I truly don’t believe Xena would ever go back to killing innocents in order to bring world peace. This simply can’t be motivated… At any rate, she comes to her senses when she encounters Gabrielle, who once again (as in almost every alternate timeline we see) confronts corruption wherever she finds it. And by the time of (what would be) the fourth act fight, Xena’s learned of Callisto’s scheme, and returns to the cross — just in time for “Fallen Angel.”
I find the same issues with believability in this offering as I do in its predecessor, but because it continues the same story, this should come as no surprise. Once again, I like both the history — seeing Xena in her Hercules outfit should have happened more often — and the less aggressive adoption of Christian thematics, with which the last years were (I think) too involved.
03) “In Hell” (Released: November 1999)
In Hell, Xena’s new Lord commands her to recruit Norse god Thor for their crusade against the archangels in Heaven.
Chakrams: 2/10 Timeline: In the middle of “Fallen Angel”
Taking place in the middle of “Fallen Angel” — after Xena’s assumed Callisto’s suffering and is in Hell, but before she leads the revolt against Heaven — this odd excursion has Xena taking orders from her new Lord, who commands her to go recruit the Norse God Thor for their fight against Heaven. She successfully brings Thor down, but he breaks out before the eventual rebellion. Gabrielle does not appear; there’s too much Thor (a character on Hercules, but not Xena, despite her own history with the Norse gods); and Xena seemed much more in charge of the demons in “Fallen Angel” than she does here.
Needless to say, this kind of story would never have happened on the series. It would be a distraction from the episode’s theme, take Xena out of the figurative driver’s seat, ignore Gabrielle (and Callisto), and force the series to make use of Norse mythology, which it wasn’t yet interested in doing — especially because Hercules had, only the year before, already done so. It’s the weakest of Dark Horse’s first trilogy.
04) “Slave” (Released: December 1999)
Xena and Gabrielle conspire to save a pregnant girl from being won in a slave auction by a group of sinister Egyptians.
Chakrams: 6/10 Timeline: Between “Animal Attraction” and “Them Bones, Them Bones”
We’ve seen this kind of story before — our heroes save (or attempt to save) a woman either being sacrificed or sold into slavery (either way, something obviously not good), only to learn that she actually doesn’t want to be rescued. Perhaps this familiarity is beneficial though, for it makes the adventure seem like something that could happen on the series — especially because there’s a fair amount of action and some slightly improved character-rooted dialogue. (And this entry’s comparatively well-paced.) Yes, the plot gets a little less character-motivated with the emergence of the story’s Egyptian cult angle, but in this first entry, it all just adds to the intrigue.
Also, note that this installment makes clear mention of Xena’s pregnancy (which is one of the reasons she’s drawn to the slave girl, who’s also pregnant) and puts her in a variation of her maternity wardrobe. Thus, if it were to fit in the show’s timeline — and it’s one of the few Dark Horse stories that maybe could — it would be after “Animal Attraction”… but probably before “Them Bones, Them Bones,” where Xena is further along.
05) “The Slave Trail” (Released: January 2000)
Xena and Gabrielle learn that the re-captured girl is to be sacrificed in a ritual that will restore Egyptian rule to Cleopatra’s kingdom.
Chakrams: 5.5/10 Timeline: Between “Animal Attraction” and “Them Bones, Them Bones”
A continuation of the above, this installment takes our heroines to Egypt, where they learn that the slave girl’s unborn child was fathered by Cleopatra’s dead brother, whom some think the queen had killed. (Remember: this was something that was touched upon in “The King Of Assassins.”) The cult thread is followed through as we learn some of Cleopatra’s subjects want to sacrifice the girl and use her child in a ceremony that will release an evil Egyptian god and restore the country’s supremacy. So, Cleo is still a “good guy,” and despite the mystic mumbo jumbo that again distracts from solid character-driven stuff, the story remains engaging — after all, it would have been nice to see Xena in Egypt more often.
Now, although I think this trilogy has a better chance of working within the show’s legitimate timeline, there are a few small details that aren’t right. For instance, Cleopatra and Xena don’t seem to have met… even though we know they did in “The King Of Assassins.” This noted, the book does address the Cleo/Caesar history, which the show erred in neglecting.
06) “Sacrifice” (Released: February 2000)
Xena and Gabrielle stop the sacrifice and save Cleopatra’s Egypt from a resurrection of the evil god Set.
Chakrams: 4.5/10 Timeline: Between “Animal Attraction” and “Them Bones, Them Bones”
The weakest of the Egyptian slave girl sacrifice story, spread out over three installments, this is the most action-based of the trilogy, with (what would be considered) the fourth act fight, as Xena has to rescue the girl from her death and stop the resurrection of this evil God. Thus, there’s much more of what I referred to above as the “mystic mumbo jumbo,” which I think the series attempted to eschew whenever possible (and generally when they didn’t, unless it was motivated by character — like Alti — it wouldn’t work). As a result, this one doesn’t satisfy like the two above. However, because the premise itself would have fit okay on the show, the entry still hits better than its other Dark Horse peers.
I also think it’s interesting to note that by the time this edition was released, Xena had just given birth on the show. Remember, this trilogy was the first in the Dark Horse series to mention the pregnancy — and actually drew her in a way that made this clear. But as this arc has progressed, the artwork has moved Xena slowly back to her original design, and made her thinner, too.
07) “A Day At The Circus” (Released: March 2000)
Xena and Gabrielle return to Rome and discover that Domitian is throwing Eli’s followers to the lions as part of his circus.
Chakrams: 5/10 Timeline: Between “When Fates Collide” and “A Friend In Need (I)”
While the latter half of the Dark Horse series, which we’ll save for our March Xena entry, is generally weaker than this first half, this is one of the few entries — the first of a two-parter — that I really don’t know where to place. For starters, it deals with territory that’s actually familiar, for in May of 2000, the show would actually go back to Rome and do a story about Eli’s followers being persecuted… by Xena’s daughter. But this entry, which clearly would have to follow Eli’s death in “Seeds Of Faith,” makes no mention of Eve or a baby. Now, I’m glad about this — I consider that whole storyline to have been a figurative albatross for the show. But if we’re trying to find a place it could have fit, this makes things difficult. Perhaps it could have come, despite Gabrielle’s wardrobe, in Season Six?
The case for Season Six makes more historical sense (if that should ever be a concern to us) because the ruler here is Domitian, who was LONG after Caligula. This would mean that Xena, who’s now back in her iconic wardrobe (only for this and the story’s sequel), wouldn’t have to deal with a baby (although she still might have, you know, mentioned her daughter, Eli’s disciple)… Nevertheless, Rome is always good for a weighty Xena story.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post — and look for our next Xena post in May! Tune in on Tuesday for more of the best episodes from Frasier!