7 Ways to Successfully Reboot “Xena”

Several months ago, I wrote about the ambivalence that myself and many people feel towards NBC’s reboot of “Xena: Warrior Princess.” Although the idea of a reboot had inspired complex, mixed emotions for “Xena” fans since the idea was first discussed years ago, the majority of fan unease may be boiled down to a single question: can the new show do justice to the old one? Of course, the view of what that “justice” entails is not universally shared: for some, justice would be nothing short of the return of Lucy Lawless and Renee O’Connor to their original roles. For others, justice might be a wink wink, nudge nudge cameo by Lucy and Renee amidst a totally new conceptualization of the characters.


Rebooting any franchise can be difficult, but the box office success of the “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” franchises, which have fan bases even larger than “Xena” and equally committed, proves that with a deft touch, new fans can be brought into the fold and longstanding fans mollified. Even the Drew Barrymore/Cameron Diaz/Lucy Liu reboot of “Charlie’s Angels” was successful enough to garner a sequel. Predictably, the danger in a reboot is in miscalculating the audience or the approach. Why did the 2011 David E. Kelley “Wonder Woman” TV reboot fail before it even premiered a single episode, for example, while “Supergirl” — not a reboot but in the same genre — was renewed for a second season (albeit moved from CBS to The CW)?


Sci-fi and fantasy fandoms can be some of the most forgiving but also the most critical audiences because of their deep and abiding attachment to series. One reason that JJ Abrams was successfully able to reboot not just “Star Trek” — an admirable feat in itself — but also “Star Wars” was because he understood what underpinned those franchises. He understood what the characters meant and who they were and how the mythology of the franchise worked.


I worry that Javier Grillo-Marxuach, the writer and producer of the “Xena” reboot, is slightly overconfident in his understanding of why the original show was so successful. He has stated there will be a tweaking of characters, backstory, and morality, a change that I tentatively support as a way of differentiating the new from the old … but the fact that Lucy has not been contacted at all seems a bellwether of a bullheaded Hollywood approach that says, “I have a vision, and I’m going to do it my way,” rather than to acknowledge that the creative process of a successful reboot requires collaboration on all sides: producers, writers, actors, and fans. It is now, in the planning stages, when it is most critical for Grillo-Marxuach to reach out to “Xena” fans and ask what they believe the heart of the show is.


In the meantime, here are seven ways to boost the reboot’s chances of success:


  1. Cast for acting ability and chemistry, not looks


Three years ago or so, American viewers were amazed by the quality of shows like “Game of Thrones,” “House of Cards,” and “Orange Is the New Black.” Was it higher budgets that enabled better production quality? No, it was better scripts and better acting than what had been found for years on American broadcast television. And it’s no wonder; a review of the credentials of the cast of “Orange Is the New Black” alone shows that many of the actresses went to Juilliard and other quality theater programs.


Xena is an iconic role whose recasting is about as easy as recasting Chuck Norris. Lucy Lawless IS Xena. From her piercing gaze to her comedic chops to her deep emotional empathy, the character worked because of what Lucy brought to the role. The next Xena doesn’t have to be as funny, sing as well, have a raspy voice, or even know how to ride a horse, but she has to be extraordinary in her own way. She must have a magnetic, credible charisma and a convincing physical presence or the show will fail. And she must be mature. Xena is not a teenager with a sword; she’s an adult with half a lifetime of experience. Similarly, no one could have played Gabrielle as Renee did. It’s hard to imagine any actress so successfully playing Gabrielle’s maturation over six seasons from occasionally naive and frivolous young adult to wise and mature woman. Recasting cannot be primarily based on who looks good in skimpy costumes; it must be based on genuine acting ability.


It’s almost too obvious to mention, but dedicated fans know the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle is the real heart and soul of the show. As a result, not only must the new Xena and Gabrielle be good actresses individually, but more importantly, they must have chemistry with each other. Xena and Gabrielle are “soul mates.” Viewers must believe that the two love each other so much that they would die for each other — repeatedly — without hesitation. Because in the original, they did.

Credit: NBCUniversal Television Distribution
  1. Tell us how Xena and Gabrielle fall in love


The average broadcast TV series has 22 episodes a season. The “Xena” reboot will therefore have 22 episodes to draw out an extended love story. In the original at least, Gabrielle is an inexperienced young country girl who latches on to passing warrior Xena because it’s a way to find adventure and meaning and get away from backwater Potedeia. Xena is a reformed warlord on a mission to do good to atone for her sins. How do these two completely opposite people begin to feel the first prickings of love? How do they handle those feelings? What do furtive, bashful glances look like and who makes the first move? If the reboot is going to commit to taking subtext mainstream, then it can afford to move the relationship forward at a leisurely pace that nevertheless reaches some sort of apex by the season finale.


  1. Determine in advance the show’s tone and prepare viewers for it


The original “Xena” ranged from high melodrama to slapstick, and even had two musical episodes. One week Xena was pontificating about the greater good, the next she had a lice infection and Gabrielle had eczema. Don’t get me wrong: almost all of my favorite episodes are the silly, funny ones. However, that type of genre-jumping seems to have died out in the early to mid-2000s. The idea now of a show like “The 100” throwing in some pie to the face jokes every few episodes seems incredible. That said, if the tone is set in advance so viewers know to expect occasionally zany episodes, then there’s no reason it can’t work. What is likely to fail is if the first five episodes are dark as “Game of Thrones” and the next episode watches like “The Three Stooges.” While longtime fans will understand the tone shift, new viewers are likely to be put off by it. Grillo-Marxuach has stated that the new series will follow a serialized format to enable long-term story arcs. This seems like a good idea, but it may mean the new version will eschew the more over-the-top comedic aspects of the original.


  1. Design functional costumes


Grillo-Marxuach has already gone on record saying the costumes will be different. Good. Xena’s “leathers” are iconic, but would also kind of suck in a fight because they leave open some vital points. Her thighs are vulnerable to a cut to the femoral artery, her neck (home to the jugular vein and carotid arteries) is completely exposed, her kidneys and entire back are unprotected, and is she supposed to deflect swords with those biceps things? More to the point, it’s basically a leather swimsuit that’s exploitative for the male gaze (I don’t even want to think about what hours in the saddle would have felt like). And don’t get me started on Gabrielle’s shrinking costumes, which ended season 6 looking like a Christmas napkin tied around her waist. Xena’s costume doesn’t have to cover her head to toe, but it has to make some sort of sense beyond accentuating her womanly figure and long legs. One way to test fan reactions to the new costumes is to release promotional images well in advance and implement tweaks based on the response.


  1. Keep the Greek gods and the Amazons in the picture…and Joxer?


Xena fought many enemies on the show, but her most consistent foil was Ares, the ambitious, arrogant, scheming god of war. Ares and Xena had an ambivalent, sexually charged relationship, with Ares constantly pursuing Xena (who resisted with greater or lesser commitment). The relationship symbolically represented the allure of the dark side that constantly beckoned Xena. Meanwhile, the generally clueless yet benevolent Aphrodite made sporadic appearances for hilarious comedic effect. Even the Fates made an appearance to spark discussion about the role of destiny and predeterminism versus free will. (Additional kudos to the steely-eyed, cold Athena. If only she’d been incorporated in earlier seasons!)


The gods’ presence in the original show symbolized a variety of themes, such as humanity’s defiance against factors generally outside its control. I can see a reboot both with or without the gods. If Ares is included, however, the impossibility of a Xena-Ares pairing should be made explicit off the bat. The continuation of the romantic interplay between Xena and Ares risks the network making the decision to ditch the Xena/Gabrielle relationship in favor of a heteronormative relationship between Xena and Ares. There could be no less infuriating a development in the “Xena” reboot than the reversion to a heterosexual OTP after promises of a Xena/Gabrielle pairing. So, this door must be closed well before anyone thinks to go through it.


In an alternate universe, maybe Xena and Gabrielle would have eventually settled down to old age in an Amazon tribe, telling war stories and training young women to be fierce fighters. While in popular culture “Amazons” have all too often been depicted as scantily clad man haters, in the Xena-verse they are natural allies and an occasional safe haven for Xena and Gabrielle. They absolutely should be included in the reboot as additional female role models. Imagine a tribe full of Lexas; that’s a stylistic component worth having. And since Danielle Cormack is no longer on “Wentworth,” I know just the person to play Ephany…


I personally am on the fence about Joxer’s return. Will the show need a male buffoon with pie plate armor to be a comedic foil? This is a case where viewers might be split on the answer. Perhaps a slightly different incarnation of the character is the answer: a self-styled hero who needs occasional saving, but without the original Joxer’s more flamboyantly slapstick aspects.


  1. Keep Alti and Callisto…in theory but not in name


The new “Xena” can’t just reduplicate the plots and characters of the original; it must forge a new path. Alti and Callisto were fan favorites and presented excellent (female) adversaries for Xena: Alti was evil and powerful; Callisto was unhinged and wrathful. The new Xena needs new villains worthy of her. They must be woven through the series over time and speak to different aspects of Xena’s past: Alti called to Xena’s dark period as the Destroyer of Nations, Callisto was a consequence of Xena’s past warlordism. The new Xena can have an evil shamaness and a deranged female warlord, but their names probably can’t be Shmalti and Nabisco or else it will draw too much (unfavorable) comparison with the original roles and actresses.


  1. Figure out who Xena is


Xena is dead. Long live Xena! The new “Xena” isn’t just a reboot, it’s a re-imagining. By nature, the next actress playing Xena will embody a different physicality, a different presence and, apparently, a slightly different backstory. Perhaps the new Xena isn’t a reformed warlord. Perhaps she’s an avenging crusader haunted by the memory of the death of her family at the hands of warlords (sound familiar?). Perhaps she’s an active warlord who Gabrielle must reform. The backstory of the new “Xena” will drive the overarching themes of the show. The old Xena was about redemption, the greater good, and the lure of the dark side, among other things. What drives this Xena to do the things she does?


Many “Xena” fans want the reboot to succeed so they can see their old favorite on screen again, but caution seems to still be warranted for now. Information about the reboot is limited and there have been no recent updates. Until more comes in, I, at least, plan to keep a skeptical