Saturday, April 15, 2017

5 Thoughts on "The Xena Scrolls"

I don't know that I'll be doing every recap episode, but man, season 2's clip show picks up and develops the thoughts from before in a neat way. It's nowhere near as good as "Athens City Academy of the Performing Bards," but most things aren't.

  1. Up to this point in the series, it almost feels like the writers are more interested in characterizing by inversion. From Hudson Leick's two-episode stunt as Xena to Lucy Lawless' role as Xena, Dianna & Meg in "Warrior...Princess...Tramp" to Gabrielle's bloodlust in "Ten Little Warlords," there's a lot of it. Including "The Xena Scrolls," it's almost at the point where it feels as common as any of the characters acting like they're "supposed to" act, even though that obviously isn't strictly true. Even Joxer gets it here, to an extent.

  2. Where "Athens City" was a recap episode that largely focused on structure but allowed for some very clear, good moments of character development, "The Xena Scrolls" is very structurally focused on character while allowing for a couple moments of what we'll call worldbuilding. Nearly all the clips in "The Xena Scrolls" give a moment of character rather than re-tell a story, which makes sense given that it would be pretty weird if the centuries-later descendants of Xena, Gabrielle and Joxer did a lot of character work for any of the ancestors. The thing about this, though, is that up until now it's clear that Xena: Warrior Princess is set in a sort of mythological time; Xena herself invents CPR in Ancient Greece -- which would have been anachronistic even in "The Xena Scrolls" -- and hops happily through histories of Grecian, Roman, and Biblical origin as though they were separated by a few miles and weeks. "The Xena Scrolls" not only positions itself during World War II with explicit references to Nazis and Hitler, it ends with a sting saying "Fifty Years Later" with a fantastical version of the show being pitched to Rob Tapert (executive producer on Xena: Warrior Princess) by a thoroughly 90s 'descendant' of Joxer. It's the first episode, in other words, that puts Xena: Warrior Princess definitively in, if not our own timeline, then one that is self-contained.

  3. I'm glad they reused the trope of not just using clips from Xena: Warrior Princess, although the way they did it this time (Joxer tries to take credit for what look like some old Universal Horror pictures & gets called on it) is significantly reduced from "Athens City."

  4. The anti-Nazi stuff, which when I watched a few years back I probably kind of balked at, feels embarrassingly more relevant. I wonder how it felt a year and a half ahead of Saving Private Ryan; probably trendy?

    Even more than that, though, it feels strange coming just two episodes after "Ten Little Warlords," which is Ares, God of War's big coming-out-as-a-character episode. In that he loses his godhood and has to go through the tribulations of being human, until Xena ultimately helps him win his sword, and so powers, back. A (really very bad) Christmas episode later and we're here, where Ares gets out of his tomb and immediately talks about how dope he thinks Hitler is and how much he wants to help him. And, as previously mentioned, one of the big points of "Ten Little Warlords" is that Ares' absence causes folks who aren't used to harnessing anger to completely lose control, which goes completely unaddressed here. I wonder what that looks like in the Xena universe.

  5. For all the shitting on Hitler this episode does, there is a bit of a feel of equivocation on whether biology is destiny. There's an obvious alternative version where Lucy Lawless is a descendant of, say, Gabrielle, Renee O'Connor of Joxer and Ted Raimi of Xena. They didn't go that route, though, even as they largely change the characters of the descendants (Lawless' Mel is meek; O'Connor's Janice is swashbuckling; Raimi's 'Jacques' is ... pretty much Joxer). Around half of the way through the rest of this season is where I stop rewatching and start seeing a show for the first time, so part of me hopes that they went along with the idea here and dug through it: this episode takes place in the 1940s and 1990s; why not have The Xena Scrolls II in the 2040s? Make Lawless Joxer's great-great-great-etc. granddaughter.

    I'm sort of just doing fandom work here (decades late), but the point is that the show opens itself up to the possibility of not conforming in this way. Which isn't to say it's a radical show -- it closes itself off in a million others -- but the constant inversion of characters, the contextualizing work of non-Xena: Warrior Princess properties in the clip show, the myth-time of it, and much more makes Xena: Warrior Princess a peculiar thing that I hope gets explored as much as it could.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

5 Thoughts on "Athens City Academy of Performing Bards"

Calling "Athens City of Performing Bards" (Xena: Warrior Princess Season 1, Episode 13) one of the best clip shows of all time would be talking out of my ass -- the only other clip show episode I can think of is "The Prince Who Runs Through the Night" from Revolutionary Girl Utena -- but it's still an impulse I have. And I think it's worth saying, at least, that it's a wildly successful recap episode that manages to successfully develop characters and themes and to produce great moments. The rest of this post will be a quick rundown of some of the cool shit in this episode.

  1. The storytelling advice is kind of garbage, but makes sense for Gabrielle. The points are basically: Your story needs a moral, and it needs to be visual. These are things that I think are self-evidently the kind of craft garbage that can be useful for the inexperienced but is ultimately harmful; and I like that it's coming from Gabrielle here, who is the most autodidact of the bunch. She's a very empathetic character but she's also super gifted in a way that leads to cockiness (see "Hooves & Harlots") in the fiction, and this kind of misguided helpfulness genuinely feels like it develops the character.

  2. The show to this point is surprisingly interested in systemic problems; two of the dozen prior episodes feature scenarios in which war is on the horizon, and the culprit is quickly rooted out as the financially interested party (an arms dealer and a ('neutral') warlord. So when this episode stages its central conflict -- Gabrielle's not being properly registered -- as a story of organized power of students/workers against an administrative/owner class, it works pretty well. It's also tied into the Spartacus usage, which brings us to the next point.

  3. It's a recap episode that's actually pretty necessary, and done in a way that provides not just wrap-up but context. The others who are trying to get into the Academy tell stories that pull from old Hercules movies and the Kubrick film Spartacus, situating Xena in the context of a history of period pieces. It also pulls from the episodes of Hercules: The Legendary Journey in which Xena the character was created, providing backstory that the show itself has largely only gestured toward to this point. On top of that, it has Gabrielle tell these stories from the position of being someone insistent on a moral and visual focus, so it reinforces that the conflicts to this point are not just the development of Xena's character but an attempt at an education of a sort.

  4. The last time I watched this episode was around three years ago, and I think we had decided that we were going to make an EP about this first season (you can find that here). When we were making that, I was writing a short essay (as a sort of liner notes) putting Xena: Warrior Princess into the frame Malcolm Harris developed for his essay "Upping the Antihero" -- what he called a "consultant procedural." The argument wasn't that it fit perfectly, but that it was surprisingly apt for a show that significantly predated the shows he was discussing, especially given that he was arguing for a specific reading of it as a collusion of genre and material developments. The stories that Gabrielle tells in "Athens Academy of Performing Bards" reinforce just how much Xena's deeds (to this point in the series) rely on governmental stability -- whether that's a town council, a druidic cult, or a king -- that gives episodic stability to her adventures while simultaneously allowing her to act outside of the law. Each set of clips more or less boils down to: a thing happened; we consulted a pseudo-governmental body which reacted in X or Y fashion; Xena won the day through cunning and prowess. I still think there's something to that connection, anyway.

  5. Two little pieces of character development also make this a pretty great episode. The first, at the very beginning, is for Xena: when Gabrielle wants to go to the Academy, she first makes sure that Gabrielle at least thinks she's doing it for the right reasons, and then unconditionally supports her. The second is in Gabrielle's relationship with Orion/Homer: he's maybe the half-dozenth love interest she's had, and the first that signals that she's aware of this happening. Rather than go full bore on the romantic elements, she takes a role more typical of Xena to this point, except with her skills. She reads the situation and supports him through his troubles with his dad, and ends with him as something between a potential lover and a friend. It's a nice way to acknowledge that the show has relied on certain structural pillars and that it feels confident enough to shake them a bit, while at the same time giving Gabrielle precedent for not having to rely on them to make sense as a character.

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