Welcome to another Xena Thursday! Following our 22-week stint covering my 60 favorite episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess, both this week and next week are dedicated to my eight least favorite episodes of the series. We’ll be covering four today and four next Thursday. If you’re unfamiliar with Xena, it was a spin-off of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and aired in first-run syndication from 1995 to 2001. Taking place primarily in Ancient Greece, the show focused on Xena (Lucy Lawless), a reformed warlord seeking redemption for her evil past by helping others. She traveled with her best friend, Gabrielle (Renée O’Connor), an aspiring bard and the chronicler of Xena’s adventures.
I have chosen the worst eight of the 134 produced episodes. Of course, these are all subjective. For those who are familiar with the series, I hope my points-of-view will prove fascinating and perhaps inspire you to reexamine your favorite, or perhaps least favorite, episodes. For those who are unfamiliar with the series, this list might spark your interest and give you some places to start. Even though these are MY least favorite episodes, since the series did so many different things over the 134 episodes, Xena is the type of show that requires multiple viewings to be properly assessed. The ranking is subjective. (Some of these episodes may be another fan’s all-time favorite!) So, newbies, if a particular story strikes your fancy, I encourage you to give it a try! In fact, contact me and I will be able to hook you up.
With all that said, let me tell you about four of my eight least favorite episodes. (They are listed here in chronological order. Notice that none of my picks come from the first three seasons — even though there are episodes I don’t like during those years, all of them have a purpose.)
01. Season 4, Episode 10: “The Key To The Kingdom” (Aired: 01/11/99 | Filmed: 04/20 – 04/28/98)
Joxer, Autolycus, and Xena-lookalike Meg team up to search for a lost crown. At least that’s what Meg and Joxer tell Autolycus.
Written by Eric Morris | Directed by Bruce Campbell | Production No. V0602
There are some Xena fans who only like the dramatic installments and turn their noses up at the lighthearted comedic episodes. I’m not one of those fans — I appreciate the series’ incorporation of all different genres. Similarly, I’m a fan of Joxer, Autolycus, and Meg, and usually — especially with the last two — their presences are able to elevate any episode. But that’s not the case with “The Key To The Kingdom,” an episode that, while featuring Lawless as Meg, only uses Xena for the last two scenes. Additionally, it’s the only episode of the series without Gabrielle. (In both “Sin Trade” episodes, she provides either her voice or brief clips.) So, without Xena and Gab, already the episode is going to have to work extra hard to prove its worth. Unfortunately, the comedy is some of the series’ STUPIDEST, and the attempts to introduce pathos to the Meg character reek of desperation. The entire thing is a bust. One of the most embarrassing episodes of the series.
02. Season 5, Episode 6: “Purity” (Aired: 11/08/99 | Filmed: 06/25 – 07/06/99)
When Xena returns to Chin to recover Lao Ma’s book of power, she must defeat one of Lao Ma’s twin daughters, who wants to acquire the power for her own evil purposes.
Written by Jeff Vlaming | Directed by Mark Beesley | Production No. V0907
Because the China episodes from Season Three proved so successful, it was only natural that the producers decide to bring Xena and Gabrielle back in Season Five — thinking that the location and connection to prior stories would automatically guarantee a pair of successful episodes. Well, they ran into the same problem that they did when casting Ming T’ien: the lack of Asian actors in New Zealand. It’s even worse here with an actress doing double duty as Lao Ma’s good daughter and Lao Ma’s bad daughter. It’s campy, but not in an entertaining way. Truthfully, this episode isn’t quite as bad as the one that follows, but it’s the principle of the matter. “The Debt”s are almost sacred episodes, and this is a cheap attempt to capitalize on the brilliance of that two-parter. But the problem is there’s no real emotional connection here, and if there is, Lawless isn’t focused enough to portray it. But it’s really not her fault. She’s given substandard material — making the entire affair another embarrassment.
03. Season 5, Episode 7: “Back In The Bottle” (Aired: 11/15/99 | Filmed: 07/07 – 07/16/99)
Xena must master Lao Ma’s powers to save Gabrielle, Joxer and the people of Chin from a militia led by the evil spirits of Pao Ssu and her brother, Ming Tien.
Story by Rob Tapert & Steven L. Sears | Teleplay by Buddy Williers | Directed by Rick Jacobson | Production No. V0909
This episode is even worse than the one that came before — over-indulging in more manufactured drama that’s never given enough space to play in an honest or meaningful way. There are a lot of special effects and while they’re not poorly handled, spectacle is never enough to compensate for a story that’s problematic. Apparently this episode went through so many rewrites and so many different writers, because nobody could make it work. (Tapert later considered this one of the biggest letdowns of the series.) Steven L. Sears even took his name off of the teleplay credit! The series goes even further by trying to use Xena’s emotional connection with Lao Ma to its current dramatic benefit, and then (cringe-worthilly) brings back the ghost of Ming T’ien. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of little things going on in this episode — a vision of death, Gabrielle’s connection with a Chinese man, the whole army turned to stone thing — that never really pay off. They never connect, and as a result, it never works. Travesty.
04. Season 5, Episode 8: “Little Problems” (Aired: 11/22/99 | Filmed: 08/26 – 09/03/99)
Gabrielle and Aphrodite have until sundown to save Xena’s soul from being trapped inside a young girl forever.
Written by Gregg Ostrin | Directed by Allison Liddi | Production No. V0913
Even though this installment aired after the last two, it was actually filmed a few episodes later. In fact, it was the last episode filmed before Lawless’ maternity leave. Okay, so I understand that they needed to produce an episode that had little Xena. Or, like “The Quest,” allowed her to do voice-overs. But why did they have to concoct a predictable story involving a little girl? Kids are rarely good television. Especially on an action show like Xena. No offense to the capable young lady, but it just doesn’t work. Aphrodite is mildly amusing here, but the whole story hinges on her stupidity, contradicting her prior image as a conniver. The silly moment of Aphrodite and Gabrielle as Scandanavian twins is not enough to save this incredibly blah and ultimately unnecessary episode. It’s almost as if the series didn’t care what kind of material it was churning out at this time. Fortunately, the next couple of episodes are an improvement over this string of duds. This one gets “the dullest episode of the series” award.
I hate being so negative — but I’m just telling it like it is! And eight awful episodes out of 134 is a pretty good record. So come back next Thursday for the other four episodes that I’ve deemed the worst of the series! And tune in tomorrow for a new Vivien Leigh Film Friday post!