Xena Takes The Wrong Path

So what happened to our warrior princess, then? ...

 

As far as television is concerned, quality and longevity seldom go together. I think few would disagree that series like The X-Files or Babylon 5 ended as pale shadows of their former selves, and sadly, such was also the case with The Warrior Princess.

All began well, and in her first few episodes the character of Xena blossomed into something special. Here was a 'heroic' character that had a very dark side, who retained something of her evil past - she was as likely to beat you up as help you, and often only took the side of good due to the influence of her newly acquired sidekick. Gabrielle was a village girl who saw in Xena a way to a life with more excitement than she could foresee in her own village. She had a strong moralistic outlook on life, believing good would always prevail, and this often led to clashes with the more realistic Xena, who saw the world in shades of grey.

As time went on, almost all the Greek Myths were played out, though usually in a twisted form. We got to meet a parade of Gods and demi-gods, villains and heroes, the good, the bad and the downright ugly. The show veered from witty humour ("Royal Couple of Thieves") to gritty drama ("Is there a Doctor in the House?"), from farce ("A Day in the Life") to swashbuckling adventure ("For Him The Bell Tolls").

By the middle of the Third Season, the show was pulling in large audiences worldwide, even in Saudi Arabia (though there they insisted that all 'cleavage' shots were removed!). Sadly though, like The X-Files before it, the characters were starting to become bogged down by ever-increasing histories that made it impossible for the casual viewer to keep track of events. Xena was turned from having been just an ex-warlord into someone who had been the most evil and famous warlord in the world.

It seemed that there wasn't an event in history that Xena didn't have a hand in. Every storyline had to be of earth-shattering importance, rather than just affecting a small group of people, and after a while it becomes a bit stale. One person threatening another makes for drama; one person threatening the world becomes melodrama, though the Xena writers couldn't see this. If there was a famous man in history, Xena either had a love affair with him or had killed his Brother/Father/Mother. If there was a famous woman in history, chances are it was Xena/Gabrielle in disguise.

By its closing season the show was floundering in a mire of complicated back story, unsubtle attempts to lure audiences with more titillation, and confusing storylines. Each episode would try to top the previous one for spectacle, but sadly the show's budget could in no way stretch to meet these demands. When we visited Rome it was a small sandpit. When Bodicia drove the Romans out of ancient Briton, it was depicted as a fight between ten people.

Timelines were mixed and matched at will; the birth of Christ, the Roman civil war, the rise and fall of Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra, the fall of the Greek Gods, they all happened at roughly same time. This isn't a bad thing in itself, after all Xena was never meant to be a History lesson, but it was painfully obvious that these events and characters were being used to shore up weak scripts.

Xena and Gabrielle started to roam the Ancient World, going from Greece to Britain, to India, to China, etc, but sadly all these places looked remarkably similar to New Zealand on a wet afternoon. The only way to tell one from another was the way the extras were dressed. If the guards wore coolie hats, must be China; see a lot of white folk in turbans? Must be India.

Rapidly running out of ideas the writers hit on the idea of having Xena and Gabrielle frozen in ice and thawed in the future. This could have been a way to wipe the slate clean, to ditch the horrendously over complicated baggage the show was carrying round with it and start afresh, but they wasted the idea by only moving Xena 20 years into her future. This was mainly so Xena could battle her now grown-up baby daughter. They were still saddled with the complicated plotlines but now couldn't use the family of characters they had carefully built up. As the whole Xena/Daughter saga lasted only a few episodes, it seemed a bit pointless, especially as it was all a very watered down rehash of the original Callisto plot in any case.

I wish I could tell you it all ended on a high, but sadly it didn't. The final season was like meeting a once healthy friend who had become a sick, enfeebled person. Even the diehard fans were deserting in droves, mainly for a new, fresh show called Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but that's another story. I did purposefully watch the very final episode, mainly for old times sake, but also to see if they could pull one last rabbit out of the hat.

What I viewed was a dull mishmash of martial arts movies, incoherent plot and pious dialogue. I was glad when it ended, it was like a mercy killing, and that's a shame for a fan of the show to have to say.

I still think the first three seasons of Xena are some of the most watchable, funny, risk-taking television around. They have stood the test of time and are as enjoyable today as when they first aired; they combine excellent acting, witty and clever scripts, and two of the most charismatic lead characters on TV. What a pity it didn't end on a high note, but dragged on when the show was clearly past its sell-by date.

Poor Xena, why did it all go so wrong?


SPIKE

 

Soaps - For Girls Only?

Are all these daily dramas of any appeal to men? ...

 

In the beginning, man created soap operas … a cheap and cheerful way to hook housewives into a continuing serial, a format that would give washing powder manufacturers the chance to constantly harangue such poor defenceless creatures of the 1950s into submission. Almost brainwashed, these women would go out shopping and subconsciously pick up the brand whose money had been put into their favourite fix of escapism.

To this day, it's interesting to note that it's only women who get transfixed into the plotlines of soaps and actually believe they are watching real slices of life (I should note that not all women are like this - just the chattering majority, it would seem). Us gents, however, see jobbing actors in a piece of fluff designed to fill space between the news and the next big sit-com. Men were never really a target market of these shows - we don't buy the right stuff for the advertisers concerned, so we were never pandered to by the formats.

Only, this seemed to change at some point in the 1990s. Exactly when is a little more difficult. It was definitely post-Kylie. In fact, it may well have been the success of Australian Soaps that made British Production Companies rethink their strategy. Suddenly, us blokes were being courted to stick with Sud Arias due to the high Babe quotient suddenly injected into these tired programmes. And there we are, us guys, who have better things to do with our telly viewing hours, suddenly paying a passing interest to the soaps just because of the female eye candy being paraded in front of us.

Aren't we just shameful? You can tell we're not interested in the shows or their paper-thin repetitive plots. Why? Well, we're more likely to know the actresses by their real names than their character names. If a market researcher asks us who we'd like to go on a date with, it's the real artist, not the fictitious woman, that we plump for. The soap opera is unable to suspend our disbelief - we'd rather talk actresses than made up hairdressers, café assistants or barmaids.

Meanwhile, pity those poor unfortunate women hooked into their thrice weekly doses of made-up life, so valuable these days as neighbours no longer gossip over the back fence - there must be some reality construct to take this activity's place. They shake fists at the actors who play the villains when they're down their local Tesco's, they give stern advice to the less-than-chaste women who they cannot realise are thespians, not harlots or lesbians.

Us guys don't buy into these soaps. Give us action, adventure, and some well-crafted and unusual storytelling that's as far removed from reality as possible. We all live real life to the max, and would prefer others not to do so for us! Problem is, it seems there aren't enough like-minded women to go around!

 

Multi-Channel Revolution

The multi-channel TV era is with us - but for how long will we still be able to catch our cult favourites, wonders Alex J Geairns ...

 

“Resistance is futile”, or so the phrase goes, as used by one unhinged megalomaniac or another. Some would say that such is the reaction of the converted to the resistance to the tidal wave of channels, and programming, that the era of cable and satellite is bringing to the UK.

The good news, you would think, to those who appreciate what is now being described as “archive television” is that there are so many more outlets now demanding content of whatever form they can get. Even the cheapest of new programme production can be beaten to the lowest price by deals being done by archive owners.

However, the market, it would seem, has ground rules which mean many gems from years gone by will continue to fade into obscurity. The first is the ratings evidence to suggest that any TV show in monochrome will simply not get watched. Granada Plus shelved the black and white episodes of “Hadleigh” from its screenings, after stats showed that the monochrome episodes of “Upstairs Downstairs” made viewers switch off in serious numbers (the fact that these episodes lacked colour due to a strike at the time of production, with earlier episodes having embraced the advancement, meant nothing to viewers, it would seem).

It’s insane to suggest that colour is really that important to an audience. Film classics like “Citizen Kane” and “Casablanca” are still monumental, and those get shown whenever possible. Turner Classic Movies (“TCM”), a relatively new satellite channel, shows nothing but old movies, a huge proportion in black and white, and its audience figures are massive. So, while it’s perfectly acceptable to screen movies minus colour, TV series from this bygone age struggle to nurture an audience.

The exception to this would seem to be the comedy genre. Hancock, Morecambe and Wise, Dad’s Army, Steptoe and Son - established classics all, still find a home on terrestrial telly in monochrome.

So, is it the fact that the content of the dramatic programmes has become dated? Certainly, when you watch a show like Department S, you know that it was contemporary for its time, and therefore thirty years on we are watching a period piece. You wouldn’t expect mobile phones, desktop computers or internet research to be part of them. It was suggested that the brand new episodes of “Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)” from the BBC differed from the originals in that they were far more fast-paced.

I recently compared the pilot episodes again on an equal footing - that’s the benefit of Carlton’s spruced-up DVD releases of the 1960s series - and pacing didn’t come into it. The difference was that one show was set 30 years ago ... and that’s about it. Which set of actors gave the better performances is a matter of taste. That’s why it’s legitimate to call them entirely different series - they don’t share the same universe, and the characters are separated by three decades of contemporary evolution, even though their names might be the same.

The other consideration is the nature of the audience for such archive programming. Logic would dictate that those into exploring programming which is now considered off the mainstream would actually embrace technologies that allowed them to access a greater range of TV series from both the past and present. The market research carried out amongst delegates of the Cult TV Festival would suggest this is far from the case. There are as many enthusiastic fans of television who continue to resist the lure of Murdoch’s dishes as there are those who graze on the more traditional TV fodder. In fact, recent research by the big guns shows that those who have never bought into cable and satellite delivery of TV are now even more entrenched in their view that it is something to steer clear of.

For less than the cost of a chart DVD or video, anyone can access on a monthly basis the general entertainment channels present on Sky. No movies, no sport, I grant you, but TV fans wouldn’t necessarily need these high cost premium services anyhow. You can sample far more on the airwaves and find all the really sought-after cult series with a dish and/or a set-top box. So, maybe it’s the case that in general fans of cult shows actually only want specifically one or two shows each - which in fact have enough supporters to justify a commercial video or DVD release. Not for them the great exploration adventure which many of us have in terms of finding out about all the TV series which excite pockets of viewers, united by having found what they consider is a mis-understood and mainly missed gem. In which case, even television fandom in general is not in a position to support repeats of long-lost series from days gone by.

So, does that mean that endless channels will show exactly the same stuff, just starting at different times? Dozens of Sky Channels in their movie “Box Office” do exactly that, staggering start times so that every 15 minutes you can catch the start of the same film throughout the day.

Not exactly variety. Sky would say that they are just giving customers what they want. Which, in effect is more of the same. And if there’s not a sizable audience for a repeat of a show considered “old gold”, then maybe they’ve been proved correct.

The moral of the story? If nothing else at this Cult TV weekend, take time to watch an episode of a show you’ve never watched before. There’s plenty to choose from, and your enthusiasm might just make all the difference (if you like what you see .....).

For old TV never dies, it just fails to find an audience. And without an audience, so many of those archives will have their doors locked forever and programmes within forgotten.

 

Rage Against The Screen: 0001

The Wrath of Fans ...

 

It’s only television, right?

You sit down. You watch. Hopefully you enjoy what you see. And if you don’t you either watch something else or do something else. Few things in life are that simple. But in this instance, that’s the way it is, so enjoy.

It’s the very definition of the unspoken contract. Which is this:

1. The programme makers make the programmes.
2. The audience watches the programmes.

Okay? That’s as far as it goes. A lot of people who get this already. The problem is there are many out there who don’t.

By all means enjoy your favourite shows. After all, there’s a fair chance that’s what the programme makers want. Be enthusiastic celebrating them in whatever way you see fit. Just don’t take it too far. Which some do. Not all fans. Just the ‘avid fans.’ The obsessives - a.k.a. The Real Whack Jobs. And those sons of bitches are the ones giving us all a bad rap.

Not the faction that dress up in their Starfleet uniforms or have their own home-made Cybermen outfit. They’re about as harmless as natural radiation. Although the dobbers that come in a fancy dress that involves knives and swords and stupid replica firearms have some serious issues they need to address. (The words very, tiny, and penis may be involved).

No the real goofs are the ones who think because they are fans of the programme they have some kind of ownership of the programme. They are the ones who have their tiresome form letter campaigns. They are the ones who send the networks items in the post.

Which meant that The WB found itself the recipient of bottles of Tabasco sauce when it looked like the plug was going to be pulled on the teen alien nonsense Roswell and TNT were inundated with Pez dispensers when the little oiks set out to save Witchblade. And then they dance and cheer when they get another year or whatever temporary victory they can claim as their own.

It could be worse. Of late The Sci-Fi Channel has been getting a drubbing for knocking Farscape on the head and then having the audacity to remake Battlestar Galactica without asking permission first. Well, gee whiz.... Shame on them!

I saw a couple episodes of Farscape once. Given the choice of watching more and having a pissed-off weasel sewn into my colon, I’d have gone straight for surgery. Even the VCR refused to record one of the final shows while I was out. As for the Battlestar Galactica remake, I’ll get around to that another time, but my opinion for now is the whining little pricks should all be beheaded. Slowly. With a sharpened table spoon.

The Farscape cancellation was pretty obvious. It under-performed. Not enough people were watching the show and the outgoing didn’t warrant the returns. It happens all the time in television and most normal people have enough sense to accept it. Networks don’t simply toss away tried and tested programmes like so much used Kleenex. Not without a good reason, anyway.

Then there was the hullabaloo over Stargate SG-1. I would have thought everyone would be up in arms because they’re still making the damn nonsense. It’s like letting UNIT take over Doctor Who’s Tardis and then removing any interest and excitement.

And the cause of the demented rage? One of the actors left because he wanted to get on with his career. Without him around all the female fans got their sofa cushions all hot and moist in an altogether different fashion. Even with him back, after a year of waiting for the telephone to ring, they still hassle the production company, bitching if he’s not in an episode.

The best advice for these pent-up harridans is to hook up with a guy and get some serious deep dicking. Otherwise they’re going to be first ones called when some studio needs to recast the Kathy Bates role in a remake of Misery.

The strange thing is the connection here. I haven’t come across fans bursting with abject fury because Aaron Sorkin is leaving The West Wing. The unfathomable, inarticulate rage always comes from science fiction fans.

What a bunch a sad, scary twists they are. For once Shatner, back when he hosted Saturday Night Live, was right on the money.

 

Losing Our Grip On Reality

Alex J Geairns confesses he prefers Star Trek to Coronation Street - but he doesn't dress in Federation uniform to do the dishes ...

 

We're lonely.

Go on. Admit it. We venture outside our cocoons to work or play, and we're surrounded by TV experts. Not experts with interests like our own, of course. These are the great viewing public... you know 'em well. They're employed in the same office as you. They frequent the local pub that you do. And they can tell you exactly what everyone should be watching.

They think they know us well. The stuff we watch is weird. Incomprehensible. Crazy. To appreciate the dumb stuff we do, you can guarantee we had an unhappy childhood. We`re social outcasts.

Why? Because watching this kookie sci-fi/action-adventure crap gives us no time to watch soap operas. My word - fancy not knowing who bit the bullet on last night`s Eastenders, which new ale has just been introduced at the Rover's Return, or who's having a new patio in Brookside Close; which rare disease the sheep have contracted in the Emmerdale neighbourhood, which bimbo is just about to make her exit from Neighbours, or what type of surf-board grease is "in-vogue" with the characters of Home and Away. Heaven help you if en-masse you can't say who's sleeping with who, or which personal crisis the luckless character of the week is presently smack-in-the-middle of.

Sound familiar? We've all been there. For some reason, we have to defend our interest in The X Files, Babylon 5, Star Trek, The Avengers, you name it. "What do we watch that crap for?". It's obvious, really - so pond slime can ridicule us ad infinitum.

Despite my own reservations about the decay these "slices-of-life" are causing in our culture, they are necessary evil. They cost little to produce (standing sets, no strange costumes, pedestrian writers), bring in high revenue from advertising for non-BBC establishments, and therefore assist in some small measure in offsetting high cost series that may be in our own area of interest.

What I cannot accept is the sanctimonious attitude the viewers of these detergent arias impart on nonconformists like you and I. How dare they make value judgments on programmes they have no knowledge of, have no interest in, and have only decided not to watch because their friends and colleagues don't. Perhaps it is time war was declared.

 

DOWNTRODDEN

 

A subculture like our own can stay inert for only so long while the masses metaphorically kick our heads in with steel-capped bovver boots. We can follow the Trek edict of IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations) to allow their existence, but do we really need to bleat Biblically inspired notions of forgiving these people for them not knowing what they do? I was once interviewed by a local newspaper reporter about my interest in TV fandom. Would I dress up in costume for the piece? After previous experiences, I'm affraid I told her to go to hell - rabidly! It took her by surprise, me having been so genial and articulate up until that point in our conversation. How come I was getting so worked up about it? Quite simply because such images were always manipulated by the media to prove that the likes of me were completely and utterly whacko. You've no doubt seen such slices of editorial inspiration - "Hey, everyone, look at these silly childish Star Trekkies... aren't they sad?"

That's why these pond slime think that it's compulsory to dress up at a convention - the only images in the media focus on such costumery. No people just having a good time in their "civvies." The camera crews seek out the costumes because, their words, it's the only way to make the story interesting.

Which just goes to prove the walnut-sized creativity of our media. It's almost like we're still living with the SF film attitude of the 1950s - if it's different from us, kill it. And just who's stupid if they get hoodwinked into letting themselves be manipulated like this? For instance, photos taken of you doing the dishes in Federation uniform. How exactly are they going to make that image respectable? If you let them, of course they'll paint you as cranks.

Wouldn't it be absolutely peachy if these soap viewers, the Sud-Sods, could accept that it's okay to watch other genres to the exclusion of soaps? They will not, though, and I'm with the military-minded on our next step in the call-to-arms: the best form of defence is attack. Just what exactly have they to be proud of? Allowing TV to replace real-life gossip between neighbours over the backyard fence? Well, that's terrific if you're into segregated communities, where we're not even sure who our neighbours are anymore. No wonder society's breaking down with so much crime, vandalism, and general all-round nastiness.

How about telling us Cult TV fans that we're lost our grip on reality? That's rich coming from people who at times lose the ability to distinguish between actor and character. Hey, guys and gals, soap characters aren't real either, and maybe we have swapped phasers for pint glasses, shuttlecraft for sierras, and teale spandex for grey suits, but it's all still fiction. Zoe Tate, Annalise Hartman, Jack Duckworth, Cindy Beale - you won't find these people in the phone book! Just like Ivanova, Picard, Riker, and Steed - they don't exist!

Cue scenes of ritual suicides, people jumping off high-rises, and others putting their heads in gas ovens. Nothing original, mind, bound to be inspired by something they've seen in a soap. Those who are in a state of shock will mutter something about their soaps being just like real life, not like our fantasies littered with silver suits and ray guns.

 

OFF DOWN THE PUB!

Time for the thermide bomb. If real people, connected by bloodline, friendship, or direct geographical location, actually suffered the relentless tirade of relationship problems, accidents, personal tragedies and acts of God as are paraded through the on-going storylines of soaps, they'd need on-hand trauma teams from Social Services to mop up the despair and depression such chains of events inevitably cause. In the real world.

Yes, SF is all about worlds of fantasy, possible futures, alternate pasts and presents. Except we fans know the difference. We know it's not real. Listen to the debriefing in the office or pub the day after a major event in a soap. They gather in packs and relate the story to each other, trying to work out what will happen next. They lose themselves in it all, the line between fiction and reality finally being traversed.

The only way we can have such interchange is at conventions. And aren't we enthusiastic when finally we can meet people who know what we're talking about, and treat us as equals? But it's not just story and second-guessing further developments that is on the menu. We talk of good and bad performances by the actors. The continuity errors. The science that certain gizmos rely on. The quality of scripting and direction. The other acting work we have seen the stars take part in. The allegories within plots.

And the reason we can do this? Because we know it's only a TV show!

 

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