The Cancelled Xena Script and Why I’m Glad it Failed

CW: mentions of abuse, violence

It’s been a while since the script was leaked, but here I am spending more time and energy on it than anyone actually needs, for my own masochistic curiosity and entertainment. Without further ado I present my opinions on the Xena: Destroyer of Nations script.

XENA: …I will lend you my steel.

HERCULES: [A cynical chuckle] As long as the King’s gold lasts?

XENA: You sell yourself short. I would follow you to Hades and back.

– an excerpt from the script by Javier Grillo-Marxuach

 

Despite what I’ve said before about the strengths of the original show that likely couldn’t be captured by a modern take, I’m not one of the Xena purists who never want to see the concept done by a new set of actors and writers. I’d be interested to see what a new generation would do with the show, a generation of queers that grew up on it, who had their values and imaginations informed by it.

Javier Grillo-Maxuach is not one of those young minds. As a producer and writer who was already into his 30s and working in the industry when the show aired, perhaps he was seen as a safe bet for a quality script. His resume in sci fi and fantasy tv shows probably looks relevant to some. But personally, for a ‘revival’, a word that supposedly implies breathing new life into something old to allow it to continue on into a new era, I would have thought that he would be a dubious pick for that energy from the start. Still, I’ve read the cancelled script with as much of an open mind as I could, and I can’t deny that some of his dialogue has some character. It’s hard not to read Xena’s lines in Lucy Lawless’ commanding tones. The relationship between Gabrielle and Xena is, as we all knew it ought to be, acknowledged right from the get-go.

But if that’s all that the writer thought needed to be contained to truly do the legacy of Xena and Gabrielle justice in a new era, it is no surprise that the revival efforts split quickly after reading this script. This text lives in the shadow of Hercules and there it dies.

Perhaps it was meant to be a clever meta-textual reflection on the fact that Xena as a show wrangled itself out of the shadow of the show Hercules. The original did so both in terms of its cultural success as well as within its own plot, where Xena literally kills off the Greek Gods she doesn’t like as soon as Hercules stops airing and the writers were no longer obligated to play with the original show’s mythos. To have the new series start with the new Xena also living in the shadow of Hercules as some kind of underling in his band of mercenaries, ready to break free, sure, it meets a certain kind of on-the-nose logic. But honestly, this is a weak place to start from and reeks of someone’s first baby attempt at a feminist response to media and far from the mature, nuanced take that I feel an industry veteran is expected to produce.

Xena: Warrior Royalty, downgraded to someone who’d let a man take all the credit for her plunder? I don’t think so…

The Xena revival would be the perfect time to simply let the show stand on its own at last, the way that it always could, without paying heed to some ‘greater’ figure. Instead, we have a script where Xena starts out following Hercules as a loyal fighter. He pushes her around. He grabs her wrists. In this retelling, they’re canonically in an abusive relationship, where Xena professes her deep loyalty to Hercules while he takes the credit for all her work and constantly misjudges her, assuming all her loyalty is nothing but greed, perhaps as a projection of his own greed on all around him.

It’s a strange shift too, given that in the original series, Xena and Hercules could often fight side by side as equals. Often, this is just because of Xena’s characterisation as exceptionally skilled, but a few times the show does play with the idea that Xena is a demigod herself, descended from Aries. She’s a power fantasy in her own right, a woman who would never be pushed around – to have such a power fantasy placed in a relationship of abuse is not in itself the wrong decision to make, but it’d be a controversial move even if done perfectly, and I can’t say that this is from the script.

And I do wonder that this choice of villain and hero dynamic places the writer in the exact same shoes as Hercules, snatching the credit for Xena’s past triumphs from her and rewriting her as a man’s fantasy in a man’s world. Unlike the unstoppable Chosen of War that we knew her as in the original series, a rebel who would barely give the time of day to the orders of any man she partnered with, as we saw when she was partnered with Borias – here she constantly plays to the tune of Hercules’ ego, right up until he turns on her and has his band of mercenaries nearly beat her to death. In this reboot, she refers to him as ‘like a God’, and the script insists she is the ‘equal’ of him – she’s shown as capable of taking any man down, except perhaps for Hercules, even though she apparently excels at everything he tries and fails to do. It’s inconsistent, and it makes this sense of ‘equality’ between Hercules and Xena very much a situation that we’ve been told about rather than shown in a meaningful manner.

HERCULES: You made me look weak. I should take your head right here and now.

XENA: When I’m worth so much more whole? 

It’s clear from Hercules’ expression that he doesn’t know whether to slap or kiss her. He splits the difference: 

HERCULES: Your conceit insults me. 

Xena dries her hands and turns to her commander, knowing now that she has to stroke his ego to insure peace between them:

 

All of this certainly paints Hercules in the most unquestionably villainous lights. Which can’t have made the Hercules fans happy.

And for the Xena fans – Hercules is not and could never be the most interesting villain of the Xena franchise. Callisto takes that title, across multiple seasons and mythos. The only reason I can think of why they wouldn’t want to start on their best foot and bring Callisto back is because her impact was so phenomenal that those shoes are almost as impossibly big to fill as Lucy Lawless’. Hudson Leick is, after all, the only actress other than Lawless to play the character of Xena on screen successfully.

tumblr_p6b58b2zne1u2ragso4_500

Callisto: probably the core reason why so many sapphics who grew up on this show are obsessed with the idea of being destroyed by a woman with a sword

So in conclusion to the Hercules decision: total snore-fest. Sacrificing the interesting villain choices for some desire to be, on the surface, rooted in Xena-lore; whilst in the undercurrents of the text, ignoring what it is that Xena fans actually care about in regards to the series.

And this continues in many other regards.

Xena always had a dark side. She was a character who knew what it was like to do the wrong thing for selfish reasons, who knew the value of finally turning away from short-term rewards for long-term spiritual growth. She was a character with wisdom earned, through being helped over many years by amazing women all throughout her own personal history. It helped her redeem others where no one else could.

Xena having a gay old time with Lao Ma, one of the most impactful relationships in her life before Gabrielle

In this script, she’s late to the redemption game, although the start of the script has given her some backstory as a slave to seemingly justify why she would choose to be a ruthless warlord and try to play her off as sympathetic. Which is needless, given the success of Xena’s original characterisation. It’s odd, how the script seems to be afraid of painting Xena in any sort of unrelatable light as it performs the set-up, then jumps right into Xena using her infamous nerve-pinch as a method of killing later on, in some awkward attempt to force Xena to fit into a ruthless, stone-cold-killer, post-Game-of-Thrones era of fantasy – something which the script also does with its liberal use of sex workers as set dressing, especially for the villains. Because we haven’t already had enough of treating sex workers like voiceless objects denoting debauchery in the media, and isn’t going to seem ethically inconsistent at all from a show which is supposedly trying to be more “feminist” by cutting down on skimpy outfits /sarcasm. I’d spend more time on unpacking this if there was any more, or if I felt equipped to do so, but I think all I can do for now is just acknowledge that this trope is used and it feels predominantly thoughtless in its execution.

Xena turns away.
Remember how – in the original series – Xena would always
take the nerve pinch off after getting what she wants?
This ain’t that.

Ahh, so edgy, so different from all the other increasingly-violent edgy reboots.

 

It does feel a lot like Xena’s wisdom, strength and maturity as a starting characteristic of the original series is undermined for the sake of giving her a weaker starting point emotionally, purely so that she can be built up later on – which is a popular way of pacing emotional conflict for a series, but in my opinion, can be formulaic and uninspired, sometimes creating this idea that people must be bad or incomplete in order to grow, instead of growth simply being natural and good no matter how mature you are. Xena did of course grow with Gabrielle’s support, but that nuanced back-and-forth conversation and mutual growth that originally took place over years felt forced in this script, even with the fact that this script added in time skips of months to give Xena and Gabrielle time together in montages.

Here’s a thought: maybe viewers might actually want to see Gabrielle and Xena together on screen, growing their relationship there, instead of pressing the fast-forward button on months of development. No? Too unrealistic?

Gabrielle’s characterisation also felt strange, with her dialogue varying wildly from childish and naive to wise and self-sacrificing – not that Gabrielle was incapable of containing such dichotomies, each different point was clearly drawn from Gabrielle’s original characterisation – but to have the “ready to run away from home to Athens for her dreams” side of Gabrielle crammed into one episode with “sacrificing her own identity and freedom for the greater good and also an Arranged Marriage” Gabrielle felt… crowded. I’m not exaggerating – before Gabrielle can complete discussions with Xena about her goals or arrange to leave for Athens, a King rocks up at the doorstep of Gabrielle’s family to beg her to take the place of his lost daughter for the sake of a political alliance, a request to which she immediately acquiesces, citing her dead mother’s emphasis on the ‘greater good’ as the deciding factor. Side note… Yes, Gabrielle and Xena both appear to have dead mothers in this reboot! Fridging the mother-daughter relationships neatly, making it very tempting to wonder on this writer’s level of competency writing inter-generational female relationships, if he must consistently remove so many of them before the show has even begun. Why was a cis man chosen to lead this project, again?

There were potentially interesting ideas about sacrifice for family and culture within the end of the episode, but instead of giving those ideas time to breathe and be explored with the sincerity and curiousity that the original Gabrielle was capable of, these ideas were almost completely skated past with a montage – including such dramatic turns as Gabrielle going for full-body ‘heraldic marking’ tattoos to pass as the princess within a single day of making this decision – for the sake of placing Gabrielle and Xena into a fast-paced plot momentum that separated them by the end of the episode, with Gabrielle the New Princess being carted off by Hercules as a prize to be sold, and Xena running after her to the rescue.

As the maidens DISROBE Gabrielle and ease her on the table:
IN A SERIES OF DISSOLVES
The tattooists CLEAN NEEDLES and ARRANGE PIGMENTS.
The Handmaidens GENTLY HOLD GABRIELLE’S WRISTS to the table,
their faces the model of compassion as…
The needles BURROW into Gabrielle’s flesh and…
Lila AVERTS her eyes in fear as Gabrielle CRIES IN PAIN…

Honestly I think tattoos are rad and like the idea of a tattooed Gabrielle and this writer still managed to write this in a way that felt uncomfortable to me – making an emphasis on-screen of parading women’s on-screen pain for an audience’s entertainment, of a woman changing her body to suit the needs of the men (aka the ‘needs of the nation’) around her, causing her own body to become ‘alien’ to her… I’m struggling to find the narrative of empowerment of the original series, here…

 

There’s a fair bit to unpack in the huge amount that’s dumped within the last few pages of this script – the princess identity looks like a rewrite of the ‘Amazonian Queen’ element of Gabrielle’s plotline, although it manages to do so in a way that is less actively compassionate as that original story, where Gabrielle becomes a princess-then-Queen after instinctively protecting a stranger on the road from arrows with her own body and then being elected to a position of royalty by that stranger. It also manages to do so in a way that, once again, removes the female characters of the Amazons from the equation and makes it mostly about the political machinations of men – including a King using his daughter as a political tool to ensure the cooperation of another man who she is now betrothed to. Now, writing out the Amazons is probably something of a smart move given the cultural appropriation that was common in their themes, but that doesn’t mean that women in positions of power, women as leaders and Queens and Warriors and recognisable agents of history – should suddenly disappear from the seeds of this world altogether.

Of course, I suppose, there’s always room for that ‘later’, maybe that would have been the argument if that question were raised around this script, though I haven’t found it – but again if we’re going to see a reboot I would expect a strong foot first, properly showcasing the incredible women the original series and their relationships. This feels very much like a show that cares more about being like other tv shows on air right now than it cares about being Xena. And, while Gabrielle often played the part of a damsel in the original series, especially towards the start, to end the episode with the pair separated and Gabrielle damselled once again feels disheartening and uninteresting. Honestly – TV is ready to move on from damsel tropes. TV is ready for complex on-screen sapphic relationships and an emphasis on what lesbians maybe actually want to see from TV. And a show that puts relationship-building exploratory scenes to the side for the sake of action scenes is not a show that caters to the interests of sapphics, who are supposedly – in brand if nothing else – the main intended viewership.

In my honest opinion: it was painful forcing myself to read this script to the end. There’s not a satisfying point to end this. So long as thoughtful and peaceful relationship building on screen time is seen as irrelevant and out of date storytelling to a series about a supportive and healthy sapphic relationship, in-depth and varied sapphic representation will not be possible on TV. So long as women being beaten half to death by abusive men is considered plot motivation and entertaining screen time, there will be women who love women who disengage emotionally from television. I don’t think any one thing must be all things to all people and obviously I don’t represent the thoughts and feelings of an entire community, just myself, but I feel pretty confident in saying that Xena: Destroyer of Nations offered our culture and our ongoing needs for representation nothing but paltry scraps that we’re better off without.

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