It’s been over 20 years since Xena: Warrior Princess first came to our screens, but the love of Xena (and Gabrielle) burns as bright as ever. Now Xena’s coming back, in a big way. We asked Javier Grillo-Marxuach, showrunner of the new Xena TV show, and Genevieve Valentine, writer of the new Xena comic book, to interview each other about the love of Xena. The results were even better than we had hoped!
Javier Grillo-Marxuach created The Middleman and has written for some of our favourite TV shows. Genevieve Valentine wrote the novels Persona, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club and Mechanique, and recently wrote the Catwoman comic. They have both written for io9 before, and we’re huge fans of their writing — so were thrilled to put the two of them together, to ask each other questions about what makes Xena such an epic hero.
Genevieve: OK, let’s just begin at the beginning. Xena was a guest star on Hercules who was marked for death four episodes after she first appeared, but she had her own spinoff before the year was out. What do you think it is about Xena that makes people want to keep telling stories about her?
Javier: There’s two reasons. One is that Xena and Gabrielle represented something that just plain did not exist in TV at the time… it’s hard to imagine that 1995 was before the phrase “The Bechdel Test” was part of the mainstream critical vernacular, and that single-female-led shows like Alias were still some six years away for the major networks. Even for someone like me (and I can’t say that at the time “feminism” was the first thing I looked for in my first run syndicated action-adventure-fantasy) it was clear that this was something different, and that it offered not just the thrills and sex appeal, but also a genuinely different and, frankly, enlightening relationship at its core. Xena helped a lot of people — myself included — finally embrace the potential of female-driven shows in the genre space.
The second reason is that the TV landscape was a lot different in 1995, and if you loved genre, first-run syndication was the place to be: The networks were still running these bloated, very elementary level sci-fi shows like seaQuest, and they never went to the interesting places that genre shows can go for fear of alienating the mainstream audience. A show like Xena could go to the weird places — and the more successful and longer-running it got, the quirkier and more willing to just try interesting narrative concepts it became. Those shows were a refuge for people like me, and I think it’s cool to be able to bring it back and remind people of how awesome those characters were.
Javier: You get to play in the classic Xena universe: of all the items in that massive toy box, which are most excited to play with, and how are you giving them your own spin?
Genevieve: I considered keeping things minimal, building up slowly. But that show never did a minimal thing in its life, and so this story is more like that person at the buffet whose first plate is nine layers deep. I have surprisingly few regrets. It helps that you’re absolutely right about the show’s fearlessness; it was definitely casual about stuff like squashing disparate pantheons of gods into a documentary, or repeatedly killing its leads, so it rewards practically anything you want to try.
The thing I might be most excited to centre in my story is the tension between Xena’s past and Gabrielle’s future. They meet one another when Xena’s trying to shake off a loaded lifetime full of people and events that shaped her so she can make amends, and Gabrielle’s just trying to live a life at all. As they grow together over the course of the series, it’s interesting to see how each of them tries to negotiate the oncoming world. On the one hand, you have a penance-ready Xena flashback for every occasion, which is great, and means I can include a lot of characters while honouring a 25-year time jump. But Gabrielle’s the Queen of the Amazons, she has visions, and she’s a bard — someone trying to shape the future with stories. Xena’s essential question at that point is “How can I help?” and Gabrielle’s is “What can I do?”, and often those work in sync — but sometimes they absolutely don’t, and that’s something I’m looking forward to digging into. (Also I’m desperate to have them infiltrate a casino, obviously.)
Genevieve: I'm working within the existing framework of the show, which means there are some things (say, recognisable costume elements) that are going to stay the same despite my personal secret dreams. With a brand-new canon in front of you, what are some of the things you're looking forward to playing with? I'm fascinated equally by the big picture (how do you balance pulpy vs. practical?) and the small things. (Won't someone look out for Gabrielle's midriff? She fights a lot and it is very vulnerable!)
Javier: I'm really looking forward to remixing the canon a little bit. One big thing is that we are telling a much more serialised story than the show ever tackled -- so formally we are already treading some very different ground -- and while the characters will occupy roughly the same thematic spaces they did in the original, some of their backstories will be changed, and some of their morality will be tweaked so that we can tell a long-arcing story in which every episode leads directly into the next. It's a delicate balancing act: You want to please the fans of the old and attract a new audience, who maybe only know the name of the show, with a story that will draw them in, regardless of their frame of reference -- and one of the things I really insisted on in my pitch was telling an epic story that would be bingeable -- but still feature several of the legacy characters in a way that makes sense to the totality of the story. So in answer to your question, that's the one thing I REALLY wanted to mess with.
Still, it's interesting because the communications I get from the fans make it sound like we are going to throw everything out and make it into the Jem and the Holograms version of Xena. People have been asking me if it's going to be set in the modern day (if that were the case, I wouldn't have signed on or come near the thing) and whether or not Xena is going to have a Chakram (to which I always reply "Of course she's gonna have a Chakram, what am I, a monster?"). As you mentioned, a great deal of the appeal of the show lies in certain pulpy elements -- like Gabrielle's bare midriff, Xena's leather miniskirt, Callisto's amazing and gravity-defying... well, you get it -- and it's hard for me in the post-Brienne of Tarth era to reconcile with the idea that Xena and her friends can meet every challenge in such skimpy outfits. I think we are going to have some very lengthy discussions about how to bring those elements into the present day without missing the boat on what makes Xena exactly what she is; and how to have our cake and eat it too. There are a few things that are sacrosanct: the Chakram and the quarterstaff, of course, Gabrielle's ambition to become a bard, and -- most importantly -- that Xena and Gabrielle be soul mates. Like I said, I'm not monster.
Javier: Is there anything you are excited about doing in comics with this character that could not be done in television?
Genevieve: One of the things I'm really excited about re: comics as a medium (which will probably come as no surprise to you, given The Middleman) is that if all goes well, a comic book gives you a story you love in a world with zero budget restrictions. When a group of bad guys attacks our heroine, they're attacking in whatever numbers you'd like, with perfect lighting, flawless combat skills and exactly the framing that works best to highlight the stakes and physical impact. And when someone's looking sadly out a window as it rains (not so much in Xena, but in general you can never have too many sad people standing near rainy windows), everything's just so. Obviously economy and necessity still win out, and comics have limits; as a lifelong TV and movie nerd I love watching actors way too much to think that you can get the same effect on the page. But when it all works, comics are a really great balance between collaborative and control-freak tendencies, and everybody automatically knows exactly how to ride a horse full-speed while shooting arrows.
Javier: You know, it's funny -- when I started doing comics work, I thought "OOH, now I can have all the huge battles I never got in TV," but the truth of the matter is that in TV, it's the little things that you never do get -- like if you write someone looking out wistfully through a rainy window, the line producer calls you and tells you how much it's going to cost to retrofit your standing set to have a rain bar and "Do you REALLY need that for one shot?" and you wind up cutting it for time and budget. So now, when I do comics I just enjoy having things like rainy windows.
Genevieve: So this is more of a general set of questions than a Xena set at this point, I expect, but it's something I've been thinking about after reading your 11 Laws of Showrunning: When you're breaking a story, if several equally good plots emerge from a single decision point, what's the procedure for chasing them down until there's a winner?
Javier: You know, one of my friends, Robert Hewitt Wolfe (who developed Andromeda and was a writer on Deep Space Nine, and now works on Elementary) did a nice run on Twitter about how the writers room is a lot like an RPG -- or maybe more like a collective storytelling game like Microscope -- and how as the person running the room you are like a game master trying to maximise the fun. It's not unlike that, in truth, you can go through most of the iterations of any given story very quickly, especially when you know where the season is going and who the characters are: the real fun is once you have picked a direction, figuring out the ways of making that direction the most surprising it can be.
Genevieve: Are there times you hit a plot so good you've made major alterations to what you intended for an arc?
Javier: Constantly! A good example of this is when an actor turns out to be so good that you wind up making them a big part of the show, even if that wasn't in the plan. I worked on this show, Helix, and we hired an actor named Neil Napier to originally play a supporting role in the pilot as Billy Campbell's brother. Anyway, his character was supposed to die in the first episode, but he brought some very nice craft and inspiration to his role, so we decided to kill the character in the next episode… and then he did more stuff, and we really liked what he was doing… and then we kept not killing him, and then he kind of became a series regular through the first and second seasons. As a creative in TV, where you have so much real estate to fill, you really need to be open to all the nice surprises that come your way.
Genevieve: Has there ever been a plot point that got away that you still think about?
Javier: Yes but it's not the big ones that hurt… just yesterday I was taking a walk and thinking about this show I worked on called The Chronicle about reporters in a Weekly World News-like paper where all the outlandish stories were real. So there was a running gag in which the reporters kept having to put off an interview with "the guy with the exposed brain" in order to mind that week's A-story. Then between episodes they eventually got to interviewing the guy with the exposed brain, but they couldn't print the story because they couldn't get around to do a follow-up because the guy got a girlfriend with an exposed liver. Literally this could have gone on for years, but the show got cancelled… and that makes me sad.
Javier: You've been writing about a female thief/villain who has a flirtation with heroism with your Catwoman -- how do you work out new ways of confronting Big Thematic Questions with these long-running legacy characters?
Genevieve: Man, I always feel like an adult on Peanuts when I try and talk about Big Thematic Questions, but we'll see how this goes. I got lucky from the outset, in that when Mark Doyle called me up, they had already decided to take a big risk and drop her into the world of crime as a major player (which had been happening in Batman Eternal), and so I already had an incredible jumping-off point for a story. Selina works so hard to stay out of stratified power systems -- whether that's an unbreakable superhero code of ethics or the Mafia's hierarchy -- that putting her in the middle of one was bound to both make her extremely uncomfortable and give her unprecedented institutional power. (Most of the issues incorporated quotes from women in history who had also held positions of institutional power, because that ambivalence seems to transcend space and time.)
I also introduced Eiko Hasigawa, a new character who had been operating as something of a shadow Catwoman when Selina tried to give up the mantle. Catwoman's relationship to a younger woman in a similar position, but who was slightly more idealistic and had different loyalties, was going to create a lot of push and pull -- Selina resented her position when she saw Eiko's freedom in the Cat-suit, but she also knows the cost of wearing that suit in a way Eiko only discovers over the course of the arc. Whether the story answers any of those big questions feels like something I can't claim for myself, but I really enjoyed writing her as she dealt with it all.
Javier: What's the one thing you always wanted to see Xena and Gabrielle do (or not do) and are you getting to do it in your series?
Genevieve: I'm genuinely excited to tackle this slightly bizarre point in the show's timeline, and make Xena and Gabrielle deal with the repercussions of this giant time jump to a degree beyond what they had time to do in the show. I completely understand why the show's momentum had to handle Eve's story as fast as possible and then move on to something new, but I also thought it was really rich ground, and as soon as I started thinking about where in the chronology I wanted to set this story, I knew I wanted to explore the idea of Xena and Gabrielle in a world that's left them behind. In some ways, it even puts Gabrielle in the same position Xena was in for a long time -- that sense of obligation, of having to make amends -- but because it wasn't their choice, there's also that sense of loss that accompanies it; they would have helped if they could have, but people may or may not believe that. It's a nice crossroads to plant a story in.
Javier: On a more general level, are there any big narrative swings you have always wanted to take that you have had a chance to take with this kind of franchise work?
Genevieve: Honestly, any pantheon you get to deal with after one of your heroines has killed a third of them is a good day, as far as I'm concerned. It's the kind of thing you always want to do in an epic story, metaphorically -- kill the gods who make the rules, and make people handle the fallout -- but I'm perfectly happy nerding around in the rubble of the Greek pantheon whose ranks Xena thinned.
Genevieve: You've already talked about elements of the characters and their overall arc that you consider indispensable to the core of the show, but what about the formal elements that go into a season's architecture? Musical episodes, tomb raider reincarnations, documentaries: Xena was meta as hell. When incorporating meta about something with so much to draw from (and assuming you haven't decreed None At All), how do you handle a show with such a famously permeable fourth wall?
Javier: I am of the strong opinion that you earn all of that stuff... and this being a reboot, the first order of business is to create a discrete narrative universe in which life-or-death stakes matter. I think if you jump in with the full meta as if you were picking up where the original left off, you are inadvertently undermining the universe for everyone who doesn't already understand its rules intuitively. Even something as simple as magic and gods, which is baked into the DNA of the Xena canon is something I plan on working in very deliberately. As for the meta… well, it took them several seasons of 22 episodes for the original series to get to the meta -- even if it was very matter of fact about the gods and magic -- and, with things like that, the real question becomes, how do you earn it, not whether you should do it. I had a teacher who once told me that "good writing is whatever you can get away with", and I took that to heart -- and to mean that there isn't any one rhetorical gesture that I'd dismiss out of hand, the real question is how do you, and can you earn it.
Genevieve: Obviously you're a longtime fan, but equally obviously, separation is necessary for the sake of the larger story you'll be telling. Are there things you know you'll be leaving behind? Anything that disappoints you as a fan but you know, as a showrunner, has to be done for the greater good?
Javier: The obvious answer is that Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor are not going to be Xena and Gabrielle. That already has a lot of people in an uproar. The question of reboot vs. revival is a very relevant now that The X-Files has been revived with the original cast, and so has Star Wars… and because the die hard fans want to see their beloved actors in the role. And look, I love these actors in these roles as much as I love Shatner as Kirk, Connery as Bond and Lynda Carter as Diana Prince -- so why does this need to be a reboot and not a continuation? The answer for me is that the reboot is not a repudiation of the classic show, but rather a compliment to it. I want for Xena to be a cultural icon for longer than my tenure in the entertainment industry, or that of anyone else involved with the project. If, in some far future, people assume that Xena is a character from the Greek mythological pantheon alongside Hercules, and that's why so many people have played her over so many years? That right there would be success.
Top image credit: Sam Woolley