Reading XENA: The Topps Series (Post IV of V)

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 studied 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 to be worthy of consideration, I thought it would nevertheless be interesting to examine ancillary Xena stories — not fan fiction, 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.

This month, we’re continuing our five-post look at the Topps Comics series, many editions of which were scripted by Roy Thomas, who is co-credited with crafting the story for the twelfth episode of Xena‘s first season, “Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts.” (You can read an account of his involvement with the series here.) Running from the summer of 1997 to the fall of 1998, these comics coincided with Xena‘s third season, and because they not only came during the series’ Golden Age, but also had a genuine connection via Thomas, you’ll notice that a lot of the dialogue is more in the spirit of the show (as opposed to Dark Horse’s scripts, which were more narratively mature, but perhaps written too much in-keeping with their brand). Of course, the storytelling — some of it familiar, most of it juvenile — might not be as faithful… As usual, we’ll be looking at these books with an emphasis on examining how or even if the premise could have been utilized by Tapert and his crew for television. (See the Timeline — T/L — for when I think a story, no matter how usable, could have fit.)

Now we’re looking at the next two Topps series, which ran from March to June 1998…

 

19) Xena: Warrior Princess – “The Orpheus Trilogy (I)” (March 1998)

Chakrams: 5.5/10      T/L: Between “The Debt (II)” and “Maternal Instincts”

With a cool premise that, as usual, combines Greek mythology with the show’s own history, this is one of my favorite narratives from the Topps series. However, it’s loaded with plot holes. For starters, while it’s good to see Orpheus again (introduced in Season Two’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” which is mentioned) and I like that Xena’s past with Eurydice is also addressed (I always thought that expanding more on that period in Xena’s life would have been beneficial), there’s no way that Xena would agree to go down to the Underworld to bring someone back from the dead (she didn’t believe in that — unless it’s Gabby), and she certainly wouldn’t be blackmailed into doing it while Gabrielle remained in jeopardy. However, I think the premise still works, with a fix: Xena saves Gabrielle and turns Orpheus down, but then Gabrielle persuades Xena to go with him so that she can show him, along the way, that erasing the past and fighting against fate isn’t wise. This would redirect Xena’s objective (making it more character-driven) and solve the issue of Gabrielle, who could agree to stay back (for now).

There are some other story points that grate, too. First, the depiction of the middle Fate doesn’t jibe with how she’d been portrayed on the show (in “Remember Nothing”). However, I still think the premise is cool and workable, and the sequence where the Fate tries to seduce Xena and then presents “alternate” Xenas in a fight sequence is really gripping. So, I think it could have been massaged… What’s less negotiable is the characterization of Persephone, who appeared twice on Hercules and was lovely — not the social-climber seen here. Frankly, I don’t think the story even needs her. Hades, although he and Xena have a good relationship, would still be opposed to intruders in his realm and wouldn’t need Persephone’s convincing. So, with some tweaks to those story points, the premise becomes usable.

 

20) Xena: Warrior Princess – “The Orpheus Trilogy (II) – Descent Into Death” (April 1998)

Chakrams: 6/10      T/L: Between “The Debt (II)” and “Maternal Instincts”

A rarity for these three-part stories, I think the middle entry is the most satisfying — because of the issues that exist in the story established in Part I, which otherwise presents a terrific (and utilizable) premise, and the problems with the ending in Part III. (See below.) Here, the narrative can simply play out — Xena and Orpheus are in the Underworld, ostensibly to find and rescue Eurydice, so that she can come back to the living, or — with the above fix — so she can show Orpheus the power and strength it takes to live and move forward with the pain of the past. (Also, I think in order to smooth this premise over, Orpheus would have to insist that Hades owes Xena several favors — because of “Death In Chains” and “Mortal Beloved” — and that would be part of the reason that Orpheus needs Xena as a guide.)

There are more good decisions made here — Marcus’ appearance, the choice to have Gabrielle get free and then follow Xena into the Underworld (with the above story fix, she’d just need another reason to go down — maybe to warn Xena about a potential threat), and forcing Xena to battle the souls she’s damned, which is always a potent source of drama (every time it’s used). Also, I love Xena’s lecture to Orpheus about why she let Marcus go; that’d be a vital moment in a teleplay: convincing him against the idea of resurrecting Eurydice… However, there are still some story points that need some help. First, I don’t think Xena would gladly mutilate dead souls. She’d be creative and find a way to detain them. Also, the inclusion of the Furies is troublesome. Like the Fates, they don’t look like they do on the series (in “The Furies”), and I think it’d be unwise to split our focus between two trios of menacing women. It’d be better to drop the Furies and instead give Hades another female minion, or someone working with the Fates — maybe a warlord or someone we meet earlier — to steal Orpheus’ lyre and provide more Underworld conflict. Other than that, Part II is pretty good… for Topps.

 

21) Xena: Warrior Princess – “The Orpheus Trilogy (III) – Descent Into Death” (May 1998)

Chakrams: 5.5/10      T/L: Between “The Debt (II)” and “Maternal Instincts”

Part III has a big problem with its ending — even with the above fixes — as it’s anticlimactic for Xena to be teaching Orpheus throughout the story about why she doesn’t fight to rework her fate and erase her past sins, and then have Eurydice and Orpheus reunite, alive. Either they both die — Orpheus decides to stay down there to be with her — or, as would work best for a story where Xena is trying to impress upon Orpheus the strength it takes to more forward with pain and regret, he gets Eurydice back and then decides to let her go. I think, with the story tweaks we’ve made thus far, that beat would be an easy add, and it would elevate the entire story… Also, I think the Fates make more sense for the big Act Three moment where Xena is given the chance to erase her past misdeeds (which is great for the Xena/Orpheus story), and, again, we don’t need the Furies at all. As for other notes, I like how Gabrielle is used — it’s a great fourth act wrinkle that keeps her involved, and the arrangement Hades makes with Xena (after another appearance from the helmet) is a nice mythical turn in the plot.

Now, as for where this story would work on the series, let’s start with the obvious. It comes after “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Also, I think it comes before “Maternal Instincts,” when Solan supplants Marcus as the dead person that Xena would most like to see in the Underworld. If we do away with the Furies, then we don’t have to debate whether or not this comes before or after their appearance in “The Furies,” but regardless of whether or not they’re included, I’d agree that the baggage surrounding Xena and Gabrielle in early Season Three makes any story about death infinitely more loaded, and unless this narrative wants to play with Rift undertones, which is a possibility, you’d expect this to be in the latter half of Season Two…. Nevertheless, I think Rift undertones could be valuable here (just a line or a look or something), and so, I think this self-contained drama would have been a nice break within that stretch of three goofy comedies that came between “The Debt (II)” and “Maternal Instincts.” That’s where I’d want this story.

 

22) Xena: Warrior Princess – “Bloodlines (I)” (May 1998)

Chakrams: 4.5/10      T/L: Between “The Bitter Suite” and “When In Rome…”

This arc features two great characters from the Xenaverse, Autolycus and Cleopatra, who met in Season Three’s “The King Of Assassins,” which is referenced several times in this two-parter (thus ensuring that it definitely comes some time after that episode). And, because it’s much simpler and straightforward, it has fewer holes than many of the other Topps books — despite some mystic mumbo jumbo and one particular story point that I would challenge: I don’t believe Xena would be completely unsuspicious of her “old friend” Judacus, the former pirate. Don’t get me wrong; I like that he’s included — it’s important to give Xena another personal stake in what happens — but Tapert and Stewart wouldn’t allow her to be this fallible, and also, in this case, it doesn’t make sense that she would be so unaware that he’s conspiring against the queen. Aside from that, both Xena and Gabrielle behave logically (although, I’m tired of Gabrielle getting captured — it seems to happen in almost every comic).

I also appreciate that more of Cleopatra’s back story is included, and if a narrative like this would have been used, it would have marked the first time the series went to Egypt. Additionally, there’s a mention of Cleopatra’s relationship with Julius Caesar, who, of course, was another important figure in Xena’s world, and the leaders’ shared history was a glaring omission from the show’s treatment of the famous Egyptian queen, both in Season Three, and again in Five with “Antony and Cleopatra.” (Note, however, that he’s erroneously referred to here as the “emperor.”) Speaking of that episode, I think the existence of that story precludes this book (even though it was written two years earlier) from being able to use the beat where Gabrielle dresses up and stands in for Cleopatra, as that’s too familiar. (Gabrielle would have to be captured in another way.) But that’s not the only thing giving me pause about this idea…

 

23) Xena: Warrior Princess – “Bloodlines (II)” (June 1998)

Chakrams: 4.5/10      T/L: Between “The Bitter Suite” and “When In Rome…”

This entry’s mummy madness — a classic horror monster that I’m sure Tapert and company would have relished including on Xena — doesn’t strike me as being ideal for this series. Not only was Xena best when dealing with human foes and forcing its lead to deal with inner demons and the consequences of her own actions (like in the above Orpheus trilogy) as opposed to goofy rubber villains and external threats, but also, Tapert actually did get to relish having some fun with mummies in the third season Hercules episode, “Mummy Dearest.” And although the particulars of both stories are very different — in fact, “Bloodlines” bares more similarities to Hercules‘ sixth season entry “City Of The Dead” than “Mummy Dearest” — the use of this monster may have been too repetitive for Renaissance Pictures’s audience.

As for where this story could fit, assuming that the show were to find a place for it, it definitely has to come after “The King Of Assassins” and before “Antony And Cleopatra.” Naturally, given the way Gabriele is depicted — both in physical appearance and in attitude — this comes before she cut her hair and went on a spiritual journey, thus narrowing it down to somewhere between mid-Season Three and mid-Season Four. Ultimately though, if Caesar and Rome came up in Season Four, it would automatically invoke the drama and trauma surrounding Xena’s vision of death, and that would have taken the narrative in an entirely different direction. Thus, this must come in the latter half of Season Three. And since Autolycus was seen in both “Tsunami” and “Vanishing Act” (back-to-back — not the wisest scheduling choice, by the way) at the end of the year, I think this belongs well before it… However, let’s say after the end of The Rift (just so Cleopatra’s appearances aren’t so close together) — between “The Bitter Suite” and heck, before Xena again goes to Rome and sees Caesar in “When In Rome…”

 

 

Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post — and look for our next Xena article in January! Also, tune in Monday for our monthly Musical Theatre post!

Advertisements