Call me a clueless jerkwad or label me a cinema snob if you like, but I never once caught a single episode of Xena: Warrior Princess when it was on television. And now that I think back on it, that seems pretty weird, since I'm a huge fan of A) action-packed adventure stories, B) tongue-in-cheek goofball humor, and C) very attractive women. Yes, Xena: Warrior Princess offers all this … and quite a bit more, depending on whom you're asking. Some see this series (itself a spin-off from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys) as a witty deconstruction of classical heroism, others see a joyously straightforward (and therefore fairly rare) celebration of lesbianism … and all the 12-year-olds of the world see a whole lot of ass-kicking done by a pair of totally hot babes.
Xena is lots of things to lots of folks … and after enjoying the 17 episodes included in Anchor Bay's 10th Anniversary Collection, I can plainly see why this lovable little series has such a devoted and loyal following.
The set-up is pretty darn simple: The formerly quite-villainous warrior woman known as Xena has decided to change her stripes. She vows to battle only for the side of all things good, decent, and clad in a leather bustier. Her sidekick / friend / kinda-eventual-lover is docile young blondie of a bard known as Gabrielle. As the 134 episodes and 6 seasons ticked on by, X & G would end up on the giving end of numerous butt-whippings, meet up with a colorful collection of recurring characters, and enrapture an entire generation of enthusiastic genre geeks.
Yes, lots of what goes on in Xena: Warrior Princess could be aptly described as broad or corny or silly or (occasionally) outright stupid. But while some choose to see a scattershot and goofy approach to this sort of material, I choose to see Xena as a bunch of folks who really dig the classic old adventure tales, and (week in and week out) found new ways to turn the genre onto its ear. You didn't care much for the oh-so-serious episode in which Gabrielle courts a gloomy demise? Just tune in next week for a joyously bizarre musical episode in which everyone behaves like a lunatic!
And on it went for six happy seasons. Sometimes smart, sometimes silly, and always displaying an affection for the characters and material, Xena turned out to be precisely what the loyal fans adore: A genre stew consisting of equal parts sincerity and snark, populated by enthusiastic performers with twinkling eyes and tongue-filled cheeks, parading through a series of cockeyed adventures that could only work on a relatively low-budget, non-network series. Basically, Xena is a whole lot of good, giddy fun, and if she'd been on the air back when I was, say, 12 or 14 years old, then the gal would have been adorning my walls, my TV, and probably my dreams.
But enough blather. You're reading this review because you're already a fan of the show, and you want the answer to one very important question: "If I already own all six of the individual season sets, do I really need to own this new box?" And my answer to that is simply this: "Depends on how big a fan you are." Aside from the 17 episodes, which you (probably) own already, there's an absolute treasure chest of all-new material here. Much as I hate it when studios "double-dip" the loyal fans into parting with their hard-earned cash, I must admit that Anchor Bay has done a fantastic job of giving the Xenites a pretty stellar package. Hell, I own all four of the Futurama seasons, and if Fox decided to unleash a 10th Anniversary Collection on par with this Xena release … I'd be a pretty happy geek indeed. But let's get on to the individual platters!
Sins of the Past (season 1; pilot episode; 9/4/95)
After vowing to change her evil ways, Xena decides to head back to her village, but first she must face off against an immoral warlord who's determined to keep her on the wrong side of the law.
Audio Commentary -- Lucy "Xena" Lawless and Renee "Gabrielle" O'Connor sit down for the first of several audio commentaries, looking back on their very first adventure with much fondness, good humor, and lots of anecdotal trivia.
Callisto (season 1; 22nd episode; 5/13/96)
Xena is once again reminded of the sins of her past when a malicious female warrior, whose family was killed by Xena's former army, exacts her revenge on the Warrior Princess by impersonating her.
(No extra features are offered with this specific episode.)
Is There a Doctor in the House? (season 1; 24th & final episode; 7/29/96)
Caught in the middle of a fierce war, Xena and Gabrielle aid the wounded inhabitants of a healing temple, then try to mediate talks between the warring factions.
(No extra features are offered with this specific episode.)
A Day in the Life (season 2; 15th episode; 2/17/97)
Xena has 24 hours to prevent a warlord from plundering one village and the world's biggest giant from destroying another. Ah, all in a day's work.
Video Commentary – Lucy Lawless, Renee O'Connor, and Rob Tapert sit back for just over 19 minutes and watch their favorite moments from "A Day in the Life." It's a fairly laid-back and uneventful sort of commentary, but it's a cool little novelty for the fans.
Audio Commentary - Here's a longer version of the video commentary, only it's just audio. Obviously.
Been There, Done That (season 3; 2nd episode; 10/6/97)
Xena realizes her day is repeating itself so she can break a cycle of death that hinges on two lovers' warring families.
Interviews with Cast & Crew – An 8-minute visit with various cast & crew members as they reminisce over this challenging little episode.
The Bitter Suite (season 3; 12th episode; 2/14/98)
The conflict between Xena and Gabrielle comes to a head in this lavish musical-fantasy episode set in a tarot-card dreamworld called Illusia.
Video Commentary – Lucy & Renee coo and chuckle for 21 minutes as they enjoy some of this episodes best musical moments.
Audio Commentary – A long version of the above commentary, only without the video footage of the two cuties.
Interviews with Cast & Cre – An 8-minute recollection with the creators, in which it's made remarkably clear how difficult this particular episode was.
One Against an Army (season 3; 13th episode; 2/21/98)
Xena must hold off an entire Persian army single-handed---and also tend to Gabrielle, who's been struck by a poison arrow.
Video Commentary – Lucy & Renee stop by once again (for about 19 minutes) to pick through their favorite moments of this particularly action-centric episode.
Audio Commentary – Same drill as before: It's an episode-length track with the ladies, only without the added bonus of, y'know, watching the gals as they recline barefoot on a couch.
Interviews with Cast & Crew – 7 minutes' worth of interview segments with cast & crew, focusing mainly on the more emotional aspects of this specific episode. (And if this had been the only episode of Xena that I'd ever seen, I'd walk away swearing that Xena & Gabrielle were lovers, plain and simple.)
The Ides of March (season 4; 21st episode; 5/15/99)
Callisto returns from hell with a double mission: corrupt Xena and make Julius Caesar emperor.
Video Commentary – 20 more minutes with our lovely leading ladies as they look back on several highlights from this episode.
Audio Commentary – And again, a considerably more informative audio track with Ms. Lawless and Ms. O'Connor.
Interviews with Cast & Crew – Same ol' geeky drill: 15 minutes of chit-chat about this episode, with a special focus on editing, and the return of the scantily-clad troublemaker known as Callisto.
Fallen Angel (season 5; 1st episode; 9/27/99)
After Xena and Gabrielle are crucified by the Romans, an archangel takes the warrior princess to heaven, while a demon spirits Gabrielle to hell.
Video Commentary – 22 minutes with executive producers RJ Stewart & Eric Gruendemann, as they casually look back and enjoy this Milton-esque episode.
Audio Commentary – Same as above, only twice as long and without the video clips.
Interviews with Cast & Crew – 13 minutes with of insights and anecdotes regarding this specific episode, this time with a focus on the lovely Hudson Leick and her character, Callisto.
Lyre, Lyre, Hearts on Fire (season 5; 10th episode; 1/17/00)
A musical episode in which Xena is reunited with her mother, Cyrene; Joxer is reunited with his twin; and Gabrielle meets Draco.
Interviews with Cast & Crew – The actors have a good chuckle over the fact that Ms. Lawless was a solid seven months pregnant while this musical episode was being shot. Episode writers Kay Foster and Adam Armus also stop by to share their thoughts and inspirations in this 10-minute featurette.
Amphipolis Under Siege (season 5; 14th episode; 2/21/00)
Xena's hometown, Amphipolis, is attacked by Athena's warriors in an attempt to get Xena's child.
(No extra features are offered with this specific episode.)
Motherhood (season 5; 24th & final episode; 5/22/00)
With the lives of Gabrielle and Eve hanging in the balance, Xena faces the gods in a final showdown.
Video Commentary – The leading ladies sit down with producer Rob Tapert and dig through about 19 minutes of this fan-favored episode.
Audio Commentary – The same trio chimes in with an episode-length audio track for "Motherhood."
Interviews with Cast & Crew – Episode director Rick Jacobson kicks the 14-minute discussion off with an explanation as to why "Motherhood" was so difficult, and that's because Xena slaughters a half-dozen gods -- and it's pretty tough to juggle such a heavy ensemble. A handful of the lovely supporting actresses pop up to detail how much trouble they had with this action-heavy episode.
Deleted Scenes – A 27-minute block of extended, deleted, alternate, and rough-cut sequences from "Motherhood." Each scene is displayed along with its corresponding sequence from the final cut, which helps you to notice what was snipped (and why.)
Old Ares Had a Farm (season 6; 10th episode; 1/20/01)
To protect Ares from a gang of revenge-seeking warlords, Xena brings him to her childhood home and disguises him as a farmer.
Interviews with Cast & Crew – Tapert and a few friends reminisce over this admittedly goofy little episode for about 8 minutes.
When Fates Collide (season 6; 18th episode; 5/12/01)
Xena finds herself empress of Rome when Caesar chains the three Fates and cuts the strands of time.
Video Commentary – Tapert, Lawless, and O'Connor sit down to enjoy 20 selected minutes from this episode, which features Karl "Eomer" Urban as Caesar!
Audio Commentary – The trio deliver an episode-length yak-track.
Interviews with Cast & Crew – A few of the Xena-makers sit down to explain how this particular episode was meant to give our heroine a "full-circle" redemption. Episode writer Katherine Fugate and editor Robert Field spend about 12 minutes discussing their roles in creating "When Fates Collide."
Many Happy Returns (season 6; 19th episode; 5/20/01)
Gabrielle and Xena prevent a group of religious fanatics from sacrificing a virgin and teach her the ways of the world.
Interviews with Cast & Crew – Episode writer Liz Friedman explains how "Happy" the adventure was meant to be, what with all the practical jokes between Xena and Gabrielle. The actresses pop up and describe this episode as "the calm before the storm." The "storm" being the series finale, of course. All told, this featurette runs just over 13 minutes.
A Friend in Need Part 1 & 2 (season 6; 21st & 22nd episodes; series finale; 6/16/01 & 6/25/01)
Summoned by a long-lost spiritual soulmate, Xena heads for Japan with Gabrielle on a daunting mission to save the city of Higuchi from destruction and make amends for her past. Xena battles to defeat the evil Yodoshi while trapped in the spirit world, and Gabrielle ascends Mount Fuji to perform a ritual that will free Xena from her bondage. (Note to the fans: This two-parter is designated as the "director's cut," which means it's probably longer than what you originally saw in syndication. Reports indicate that the "director's cut" versions did, once upon a time, air on the Oxygen Network – so maybe you have seen 'em after all!)
Final Episode B-Roll – Here's a rather entertaining 31-minute series of bloopers, blunders, interviews, behind-the-scenes clips, wistful memories, and general silliness from the final episode's production. It's a sweet little goodbye that fans will be sure to enjoy.
Fan Tribute – First up is footage from the 10th Anniversary Xena Convention, which was held in Burbank, California, on January, 22nd, 2005. Here you'll get 9.5 minutes of fan interviews in which the attendees vote on their very favorite Xena episodes. Also included is a 13-minute series of Xena Fan Videos & Reenactments, both of which were winners of a "who's the biggest fan?" video contest.
Comic Relief – Goofball sidekick character actor Robert Trebor, who played "Salmoneus" in Xena, sits down for a lengthy-yet-colorful interview segment. Bob rambles on in entertaining fashion for 45 rather verbose minutes.
Xena's Hong Kong Origins – Four of the Xena-makers (executive producer Rob Tapert, director Doug Lefler, producer Liz Friedman, and action consultant David Pollson) sit back and discuss the various Eastern influences that inspired the series. From Chinese Ghost Story to Supercop to Butterfly and the Sword to Drunken Master 2… and a whole lot more in between. This 42-minute chat & clip session should prove quite enlightening to fans of Xena and/or Asian cinema in general, and it's rather cool to hear the producers freely admit where their various inspirations came from. Plus it's just hilarious to learn that Xena's favorite weapon was inspired by the Patrick Swayze movie Steel Dawn!
Mythology vs. Xena – Here's a 31-minute breakdown between legendary Greek mythology, and the way in which those stories were used in Xena: Warrior Princess. Aphrodite herself (Alexandra Tydings) shares some rather insightful thoughts on her character, while scholars Sheila Briggs and Amy Richlin compare the old-school mythology against liberties taken within the Xena-verse. This is a great little featurette, but I'd have liked it a whole lot more had the producers decided to include analyses of some of the other Greek Gods used on the series. It's pretty much all Aphrodite … but considering that she IS the goddess of love and sexuality, I won't be complaining all that much.
Seeing Double – If you've ever seen the rather excellent documentary entitled Double Dare, then you've already been introduced to the lovely and talented young stuntwoman known as Zoe Bell. She got her big break doubling for Ms. Lawless after Xena's third season before moving on to both chapters of Kill Bill, and here she stops by for an 30-minute interview. Nice to see the stuntpeople getting their fare share of the credit, plus Ms. Bell certainly does make for a charming subject.
Extras: A Documentary – Here's a 24-minute mini-movie that pays some well-deserved attention to the faceless and random villagers, soldiers, prisoners, and background citizens of Xena. Some do it for the fun, some do it for the 50 bucks a day, but the extras are generally overlooked and underappreciated … until now. Director Ida Gearon introduces us to some of the names behind the "human props," and fans will also enjoy a few choice moments with the director's own hubby – good old Bruce Campbell.
"B" is for Bruce – And speaking of Bruce Campbell, that demi-god of the movie geek universe, here's a great little 46-minute featurette that focuses on every fan's favorite knucklehead. Bruce covers a wide array of topics, from Hercules & Xena to The Evil Dead & Bubba Ho-tep, stopping also to mention his career as an author, director, and professional fan-magnet.
Video: The fullscreen (1.33:1) transfers look pretty darn excellent, all things considered. I'd read that the early season sets of Xena looked fairly unimpressive, so fans should be happy to know that the picture quality on all seven discs is quite good! Sure there's some of that syndicated-series sort of grain here and there, but I say it just adds to the charm of the show.
Audio: Also quite impressive is the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio treatment. Dialogue is delivered in clear and crisp fashion, the Saturday-afternoon matinee musical cues are loud and exciting, and the ultra-clangy mega-brawl sound effects really pack a nice wollop.
Yes, it seems pretty silly to drop 40-some bucks on a box-set full of episodes that you already own – but you're buying this set for completely different reasons. The episodes are included only as a support structure for a truckload of all-new features that even the mildest Xena-freak will want to devour. The episodes look and sound better than ever, the commentaries are informative and casual, and the numerous featurettes are pretty damn great.
Heck, this collection would probably work just as well for the Xena newcomers; it costs about the same as one season set, it offers a true "greatest hits" collection of episodes, and you'll get more behind-the-scenes doo-dads than you can handle in three sittings.
A hearty thanks to Whoosh.org for the official plot synopses, original airdates, and all sorts of terrific trivial tidbittery. If you're a Xena-freak, you absolutely have to stop by and dig through this massive source of Warrior Princess Paradise.