Welcome to another Xena Thursday! Today, we’re beginning 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.
01. Season 1, Episode 1: “Sins Of The Past” (Aired: 09/04/95 | Filmed: 06/26 – 07/05/95)
Xena journeys homeward determined to make amends for the sins of her past, but her efforts to begin a new life are challenged by the vengeful warlord Draco.
Story by Robert Tapert | Teleplay by R.J. Stewart | Directed by Doug Lefler | Production No. 876901
I featured this episode as #23 on my list of the 60 best episodes. Read my thoughts here.
CAST & CREW COMMENTARY:
Lucy Lawless (Actor, Xena): “We didn’t really know what the show was and so we were all thinking on our feet. I had been a little overexcited and not quite centered enough heading into this episode. But the night before the first day of shooting I had terrible diarrhea, and it took everything out of me, which was exactly what was needed for going into the series. So I might have been a lot more hyped, a lot less natural had I not had that inauspicious beginning!” (The Official Guide To The Xenaverse by Robert Weisbrot – 1998)
R.J. Stewart (Writer/Producer): “The great thing about Xena was that dark past. I recognised [sic] right away that there’d never been a hero on television who had such a dark past. Xena was, as portrayed in the Hercules episodes, a war criminal. She was a monster. And now, she’s had this major conversion to good, and I wanted the pilot to be about the ramifications of that. Not about the actual conversion – because that happened on a three-episode arc in Hercules – but about the consequences of that to her life. If you notice, in the first scene [of “Sins Of The Past”], she’s burying her weapons, and the subtext of that to me was that she was giving up. I won’t go so far as to say she was committing suicide, but she was giving this up because she had looked back on what she’d done in the past and realised [sic] it was a horror, what she did, and she was burying her weapons to just walk away from the whole thing. Then the next thing is she hears the cries of people in distress and something clicks right there: ‘Waitaminute [sic]… I know how to make this pain go away inside me, or at least to channel it, and this is doing good, dedicating my life to doing good. So, for Rob [Tapert, Executive Producer] and I, that opening scene was really central to the transition of the bad Xena to the good. Then once we’d got there, we had this great, great backstory for her. Once again, I don’t know of any other hero on television who has such a dark past, and I’ve always said that the biggest monster Xena fights is the one inside of her. The opportunity to revive that – the idea that the dark Xena is still inside her, and could come back – gave a great tension to the series. So the pilot was about setting those things up, and then establishing the relationship between her and Gabrielle. And that, of course, evolved into the heart of the whole series.” (Titan: The Official XENA Magazine, Issue #1 – November 1999)
Renee O’Connor (Actor, Gabrielle): “I remember [the first] scene [with Xena]. I remember being in this room and filming this in front of the crew and being nervous because we were all new and you didn’t know who anyone was yet. It takes time to get in sync with a new production. You eventually lose that fear and it becomes a family environment. But this was one of the first scenes we filmed and Lucy and I were a bit nervous. At least I was… I knew this character was staying a while and I was trying to figure out who she is and establishing the relationship with Xena… I had just come from the Hercules telefeature before I did Xena. The style on Hercules was much more comedic… I came to Xena thinking that show was the same. It’s really interesting to watch how I started off playing Gabrielle and then how Lucy was so complicated and complex as Xena. And dark, really, really, dark. It took me most of the first season, maybe not that long, but it took me a long time to come to Lucy’s level of where she was playing the show in terms of style…. You see how animated I am in the scene trying to talk the villagers out of stoning Xena? I’ve got the hands going. That was who I thought Gabrielle was and I thought the style of the show was animated and comedic. But Lucy was so still, I had to balance that. Make it more realistic. I had to come to play in her field.” (The Chakram Newsletter: #21)
Lucy Lawless (Actor, Xena): “Xena’s only defense is violence, and that’s why we needed Gabrielle to come in and [do the talking – talk her way out of it].” (“Sins Of The Past” Commentary, 10th Anniversary DVD Set)
R.J. Stewart (Writer/Producer): “The great awakening that Xena had in ‘Sins of the Past’ can be stated thus: ‘I’ve lived a life of a death maker. Now, I’ve had an epiphany, a revelation, a vision. I see what I’ve done, the consequences, the suffering I’ve caused. Perhaps, I’ll destroy myself so I can hurt no one else. Wait, people are in trouble. I’ll help them. That’s it! I’ll give my life to protecting innocent people against people like me. And will that redeem me? Maybe, if I do it long enough, but really it’s up to someone else to decide that. I must keep working to help people. I don’t want to be “forgiven” in a ceremonial way so I feel better about myself. Did the people I killed for greed and revenge ever get a chance to feel better about themselves? I must continue to protect the innocent and any time I see a way to make up for the Sins of the Past, I must embrace it. How it all ends, a higher power will decide, but I know my mission and I will give my life to it.’” (Xena Online Community Interview – March 2008)
Jay Laga’aia (Actor, Draco): “I wanted Draco to be as dashing as Errol Flynn. He and Xena had a thing going. I wanted him to be charming and adventurous, but a character who would sacrifice his own mother at the drop of a hat in order to advance himself. He was someone who, if you worked with him, people would say, ‘why are you with this person? He is so evil!’ He was a character who would [show no mercy to] anybody who crossed him. If he had to decide whether to kill a whole town just so that his horses could eat, he would kill the whole town and not think twice about it. For that first episode, I let the director [Doug Lefler] say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but he basically liked what he saw. I didn’t want Draco to be the stereotypical evil guy all the time. What I wanted was for the audience to see that he was a charming character and that he and Xena not only shared a love of battle, but there was also an intimacy there. So there was an element of affection. But at the same time, as soon as Xena left the room, he would be thinking, ‘Right, how can I use this to my advantage?’ That was the great juxtaposition from my point of view, because I knew characters like that and I pulled them all together. I wanted Draco to have the face of Tom Cruise and the mask of Hannibal Lecter, a combination that made him like honey on steel – it was sweet, but if you licked it you would cut your tongue. So Draco was this barbarian because he would much rather clean his knife in your innards than have to talk and reason with you! He was also very unpredictable in the sense that he was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He would lure you out with a bouquet of flowers, but as soon as you grabbed them they would turn to poison ivy. I knew I needed this character to have longevity. I also needed him to have more than one dimension, so that I would be able to play him as vulnerable in a comical as well as a dramatic sense…. We did the scene where my army is about to beat up the townsfolk of Amphipolis in a barn and the door opens behind me and Xena is standing there. I grab the leader of the townspeople and I’m about to beat him up, when I suddenly hear, ‘Hello, Draco’ and I turn around to see Xena at the door. Lucy was still trying to get used to her costume, so we did rehearsals wearing robes. So the first take was the first time I’d seen her in the full outfit, and when the door opened I just stood there and went ‘hmmm… I know I have to stand here and say something but how about… WOW!’ The director was laughing in the background and said ‘Cut, we’ll go again..’ But I was totally gobsmacked. Lucy looked absolutely stunning, and it was an image that’s been implanted in my brain ever since.” (Titan: The Official XENA Magazine, Issue #14 – January 2001)
Doug Lefler (Director): “I’m sure one of the reasons I was hired for [“Sins Of The Past”] was the climactic fight on top of the characters’ heads. I’d like to think there were other reasons too, but it was a complex and ambitious episode with a lot of action and forced perspective sequences and a bunch of things of that nature. I believe the first episode was shot in 16mm instead of 35mm and we were given the marching order to work a lot faster than on Hercules and get a lot more set-ups, because they wanted it to be more like a Hong Kong film. We took inspiration from the Jet Li film The Legend Of Fong Sai Yuk for that climactic battle, which was one of my favorite films. So I loved that scene so much that I jumped at the opportunity to do a sequence like it for the Xena pilot.” (Titan: The Official XENA Magazine, Issue #13 – December 2000)
Gary Jones (Second-Unit Director): “Doug Lefler [the main-unit director] had shot the extras only at a distance. He had Draco and Xena on top of platforms from view so it looked like [the fight] was on their heads. But all the close-ups where stunt doubles really were on the extras’ heads was all second-unit… And it was kind of funny, because I said, ‘Doug, how do you want these extras to react?’ and he goes, ‘Well, Gary, I left you the hard part. I was able to just do all the stuff from behind, and I had them on the platform, so I didn’t have to worry about it.’ … The main unit had forty extras for the fight scene. Our [second] unit started with twenty or so extras, but on the second day I was only allowed twelve to fifteen, and the third day I only had eight or nine, because of the way the budget works. So, by the time we got to shoot the close-ups on the third day, we had lost most of the extras. To pad it out, I grabbed all my second-unit crew and put them in front of the camera as villagers. When Xena pole-vaults on a villager’s head, that’s Karin, who did the makeup… Xena does a handstand on top of Kirstie’s head, who’s our art director. And Rod, who does props, he’s the guy whose hat gets spun around on his head when Xena’s on top… [and] when Draco is standing on the head and shoulders of the villager, trying to balance himself before he gets knocked off, that’s Rob Tapert wearing a fake beard.” (The Official Guide To The Xenaverse by Robert Weisbrot – 1998)
02. Season 1, Episode 2: “Chariots Of War” (Aired: 09/11/95 | Filmed: 07/06 – 07/18/95)
After being befriended by a peace-loving homesteader named Darius, Xena takes on a blood thirsty warlord and his son, who have mercilessly pillaged Darius’s community.
Story by Josh Becker & Jack Perez | Teleplay by Adam Armus & Nora Kay Foster | Directed by Harley Cokeliss | Production No. 876902
This episode’s biggest fault (and it’s a forgivable one since the series has yet to establish its footing) is that it doesn’t properly utilize Gabrielle. Sure, it manages to tie Gab in by having her launch a “romance” with the warlord’s son, but since the premise of the installment keeps Xena and Gabrielle apart for the majority of the 43 minutes, this episode does little to continue the necessary development of the series’ most important and (at this point) only established relationship. Thus, “Chariots Of War” is narratively a weak choice for a second episode. However, the installment does feature a cool (and apparently grueling to shoot) chariot sequence — one of only three in the entire six seasons — continuing, from the first episode, the series’ reputation for wickedly cool action scenes.
Meanwhile, Lawless is at her most reserved as Xena, and though the portrayal doesn’t work for the series as an entire entity, it’s functional in this episode, which also has the character acting perhaps more feminine than ever. The budding relationship between Xena and Darius is predictable and not compelling, but I like what the script says about the Xena character — she actually yearns for a simple life of farming and family, but due to her mission to fight evil and atone for her sins, she is unable to allow herself that happiness. In this regard, the episode’s major strength (aside from the action) is the slight humanization of the Xena character. But we still have a long way to go…
CAST & CREW COMMENTARY:
Josh Becker (Director/Writer): “… [T]hey needed an episode on the air with barely enough time to get the whole thing written and shot, and everybody at Renaissance went into a total panic thinking, ‘How do we make a Xena episode? What the hell is it about?’ Meanwhile, I had written a number of Hercules stories… but I went uncredited on [them]…. [T]hey couldn’t figure out how to write a Xena episode, nor did they have a writing staff so I took one of my Hercules stories and changed Hercules to Xena – it doesn’t have Gabrielle in it, because the character hadn’t been created yet! So I took this story and handed it to Rob, who said, ‘This works,’ and they bought it!” (Titan: The Official XENA Magazine, Issue #7 – June 2000)
Renee O’Connor (Actor, Gabrielle): “This [opening] scene was tough because it was my first introduction to a hard TV schedule. The director had spent all his shooting hours on other scenes and was running out of time. So he had to shoot all my stuff in one setup – with the camera in one position – all at one time. If you notice, there’s only one angle. He didn’t have time to turn the camera back around and get my response to the bartender. The director told me, ‘Renee, I need you to turn around as much as you can to the camera. Try to find a way to play it to us.’ I probably could do a better job now knowing what he meant, but I didn’t really understand how to do what he wanted and make it natural… I could have learned back against the bar and talked over my shoulder. There are ways you can do it and make it seem natural. At the time, I was so green. I was thinking, it has to be truthful. I was thinking I would talk to the bartender the way I normally would and that wouldn’t be over my shoulder. I didn’t understand playing the scene for the camera. I’ve learned since. Lucy was always good at that…” (The Chakram Newsletter: #21)
Robert Field (Editor): “[This] was an interesting show, in that Gary Jones, who was second unit director for the first season… [shot] the bulk of that chariot race because the main unit director shot just enough of the principles during those pieces of action and said, ‘Hey, I’m done.’ Second unit stepped in and provided about 75% of that entire sequence. As you might imagine, a sequence like that requires a lot of footage to cover because there is so much going on… They were having bad weather, as well. I know that Lucy [Lawless] herself has referred to that episode as being the most difficult and unhappy experience she has had on the show because she was wet and cold and in and out of the chariot and freezing her rear end off. They had rain problems, and the second unit took three or four weeks to complete on that show altogether because of the various delays and difficulties they had. But it ended up being a good show. It was my first show, so it was a nail-biter for me. But, it turned out well.” (Whoosh! Interview – August 1997)
Lucy Lawless (Actor, Xena): “[I remember] the cold! It wasn’t actually the coldest day of the year, but it was the coldest shoot, because we were on water, we were getting water blown up into our faces, the wind as we charged through it on these real chariots was just horrendous. And I just remember huddling down in my coat – because we didn’t have those big Michigan goose-downs at the time – and saying, “This too shall pass, this too shall pass.’… People may guess that I was remembering childbirth [during the arrow removal scene], and the not submitting to the pain because there’s no other choice than to get through this. You know, these things have got to be done. So I just drew on that experience for that scene.” (The Official Guide To The Xenaverse by Robert Weisbrot – 1998)
Come back next Thursday for the next two episodes! And tune in tomorrow for the start of a new new series of posts on an all new Film Friday!