Originally screened: September 1995
It’s assumed viewers are at least somewhat familiar with Xena’s background, as she is first seen burying her armour in an effort to bury her past. Of course, this is about as successful as it usually is in fiction, and it’s not long before she’s saving villagers, including Gabrielle, from slavery. That includes an aerial battle atop platforms, which is the first sign of the show’s strong influence from Hong Kong action films; it was using wirework, in a way that predated its popular arrival in Hollywood. Similarly, the stunning New Zealand locations foreshadow Lord of the Rings, to the extent that I kept expecting to see hobbits gamboling along in Xena’s wake.
There is a sense that the makers were still feeling their way to some extent, not quite certain how the relationships would work out, and the characters develop as the actors grew into them. The same goes for the action; especially early on, the doubling is clunkily shot, and Lawless is obviously not doing as much of her own work. The improvement over the course of the season was palpable, and by the end, both Xena and the stunt players had got a much better handle on the subtleties required. That said, I always had to wince when Xena would cartwheel her way into a situation – wouldn’t, oh, running have been quicker?
There are some good guest appearances; Tim Thomerson plays a mercenary on the downside of his fame and career [think True Grit in ancient Greece], and we also see Karl Urban, who’d go on to play Bones in the Star Trek reboot. The best of these, however, is Bruce Campbell in “The Royal Couple of Thieves”. Show producer Rob Tapert was one of the producers of The Evil Dead, so has known Campbell for years, and used him to play Autolycus, the self-proclaimed King of Thieves. Xena demands his help to recover a potentially lethal religious relic, stolen from its owners, so the two have to pair up. The dialogue and coming timing here is great, and the same goes for “Warrior… Princess…” which sees Lawless play both Xena, and her look-alike, flighty princess Diana. It’s a startling demonstration of Lucy’s genuine talent as an actress.
The best episode, however, is about as far from comedy as the show gets. I write a good deal more about it over on the forum, but it centers on Callisto, who watched her family die in a fire during a raid by Xena’s army, back when she was bad. Now, Callisto has set out to destroy Xena from the ground up. Featuring an amazingly psychotic performance from Hudson Leick as Callisto, it goes to prove that every great hero needs a great villain, and Callisto is the Joker to Xena’s Dark Knight. They play two sides of the same coin, Callisto pointing out that Xena has never been brought to justice for all her past crimes.
Callisto is much further gone into the insanity abyss, as this speech she gives to Xena shows. “You let me go, and I will dedicate my life to killing everything you’ve loved: your friends, your family, your reputation, even your horse. You see, I am being so honest with you, because the idea of your pity is worse than death for me. You created a monster with integrity, Xena. Scary, isn’t it?” The show builds to a great battle between the two (above), inspired by a similar fight Jet Li had in Once Upon a Time in China. Watching this again… Yeah, I see why I loved the show!
Season 1: Top 5 episodes