9. The Xena Quadrilogy, Part 1: The Name Game

"Xena, Warrior Princess", the tv series, was a spin-off of a character who appeared towards the end of the first season of Hercules. We know she played a significant role in the creation of "Hercules", because there's only thirteen episodes in the first season of "Hercules", yet the story of Xena takes up four of them towards the end. Now, you're probably thinking: "Wait a second! There's only three Xena episodes in season one: a trilogy! Everybody knows that! There was even a dvd released with just these episodes alone." In fact, there is a fourth one, but we don't recognize it because Xena's name has been changed; the story, however, remains the same. If we can decipher the thinking behind the creation of "Xena" series, then we can guess which one it is.

Brigitte Lin

Xena's genesis is a bit murky, according to the interviews, but we know that "The Bride With The White Hair" helped inspire "Hercules", and Hong Kong actress Brigitte Lin, its star, was long a favorite of Rob Tapert's; if it were possible, he would have done a film with her had she not retired from movies, and this was his chance to model a character on her01. Given that the dark subject matter of "The Bride With The White Hair" looks to have influenced "Xena"'s vision far more than "Hercules"', it was clearly only a matter of time before a similar female antihero made her appearance on the show. From the beginning, Tapert had wanted to incorporate that kind of character into "Hercules", and used an idea by head writer John Schulian to introduce her. Whether they had any hopes of a spin-off or not, the story of Hercules would not have been complete without her, and indeed, after Xena left, Hercules would be paired with another female antihero, Morrigan.

Strangely enough, no one seems to know where Xena's name came from. According to to Weisbrot's account:

"They called the new character Xena, though memories fade over just why. Tapert said, 'I have no idea how [Schulian] came up with the name Xena. But an old sales agent who helped us tremendously in the film business and was very much our mentor told us, 'Anytime there's an X in the title, it gets people's interest." But John's own account is equally murky: "'I don't know where the name Xena came from,'he adds, 'but I knew I wanted her name to start with an X. Later I was at my dry cleaners--and by this time Xena was a cultural phenomenon--and one of the guys behind the counter said, 'Xena is a very popular name for women in Russia.' I had no idea, I just thought it was a cool brainstorm.'"02

Looking at these statements closely, side by side, they don't seem to add up. Rob's statement seems to defer the naming of Xena to John. Yet he mentions an old suggestion by his mentor about using X in a name, but doesn't connect the two. Is he saying it's a just coincidence, or is he implying that he passed this advice along to John, and got back "Xena" in return? If so, did he have any curiosity about where it came from, and whether it had any resonance with Greek myth? For seven years he pored over the contents of Graves "The Greek Myths," searching for the tiniest details to mine: did the name Polyxena, which appears fifteen times, in chapters that were clearly used as sources for the show, not jump out at him even once? Did he not feel any vindication knowing his heroine did in fact have a genuine Greek name, grammatically correct for her gender, and that she reflected a theme appearing on the first Hercules movie? She's the daughter of the Trojan king, and according to Euripides, was suggested by Ulysses as a sacrifice to ensure the Myceneans' return to Greece. If it was obvious to him where it came from, then why wouldn't he remember, since he seems to have a pretty good memory in general, on the dvd commentaries? If we're to take his statement at face value, then he must have already combed "The Greek Myths" for names containing the letter X. The only names that start with X in those volumes are Xanthus, Xenoclea, Xisuthros, and Xuthus. Looking at female names containing an X: Alexirrhoe, Amaxo, Auxo, Iynx, Myrmex, Plyxo, Praxithea, Sphinx, Syrinx, Zeuxippe...and Polyxena. Of all the ones I mentioned above, Polyxena is by far the most prominent, and given her nature as a sacrificial figure, and given Rob's interest in "Black Orpheus", and the many depictions of sacrificial women in "Xena" and "Hercules", and given that the first film conceived for the Action Pack, "Hercules and the Lost Kingdom," centered around a woman's willing sacrifice (just as Polyxena was willing to sacrifice herself), it's much more likely that this character played a significant role in Xena's naming. In fact, it's hard to imagine a better reason. That being the case, why not say so?

We'll come back to that question in a bit. Let's look at John's statement. He doesn't seem to remember anything about it either, except that he had the same desire to come up with a name beginning with X. He talks about "brainstorming", which implies some sort of process of coming up with a name, then switches to an anecdote which almost seems to imply that the name "Xena" was floating around in the atmosphere, and his antennae just unconsciously picked it up somehow. As with Rob's statement, this is a curiously scattershot answer to a very simple question. Logically speaking, unless he happened to have the same agent as a mentor, we can assume he got his idea to pick a name with X directly from Rob Tapert. Since Rob apparently saved this bit of advice from his mentor for just the right time to grab people's interest, we can also assume he had big plans for this character. Otherwise, why was he so concerned about the marketability of a guest character only appearing on a single episode?03.

To me, the only way to make sense of all this is to step back and look at the bigger picture of what was going on. At the time he was preparing the Hercules movies, Sam Raimi was working on a film with the Coen Brothers, "The Hudsucker Proxy". It was their first collaboration since "Crimewave", when Raimi and Tapert got the chance to make their first 'legit" feature with a big studio, due to the success of their self-financed effort, "Evil Dead". "Crimewave" was to feature Bruce Campbell and composer Joe LoDuca, but the studio overruled the filmmakers' judgment on many key areas, and the result was horrible to watch. I went to a sneak preview of it, when it was called "The XYZ Murders", and when we were asked to record our opinions, I wrote a scathing review of it--I was one of many who did so. In fact, I stopped going to sneak previews altogether after that. Looking at it now, I can recognize many of the elements that Sam Raimi and the Coen brothers would use to greater effect later on, once they had the freedom to make their own choices, so history has vindicated their artistic judgment (though the movie is still painful to watch). It nearly ruined the careers of Raimi and Tapert, however, and it's because of that Rob suggested they go into television instead, a producer's medium. In the meantime, they went back to the "Evil Dead" franchise, and eventually, moved into television in 1994, ten years later. At this time, Raimi reteamed with the Coen Brothers for an homage to the golden age of screwball comedies, which doubled as a commentary on the current Hollywood system which had lost its connection with the audience. "Hollywood" became "Hudsucker", a company that invents the hula hoop (dreamed up by a lowly maintenance man), only to become its own worst enemy when it takes over the marketing process. Their teaming up for a subject like this would make sense, given their shared history.

There's a couple of scenes in "The Hudsucker Proxy" that stand out, for our purposes, both having to do with coming up with marketable names. A roomful of executives brainstorm every possible variation on "Hudsucker" as a name for what will eventually be called the hula hoop, whose slogan is "You know, for kids!" Of course, the hula hoop turns out to be a dud thanks to inept marketing, but after a kid figures out how to do more than just "hula" with it, it becomes a big hit. From maintenance man with a dream, to a kid who lives the dream: the big corporation in between just gets in the way. Later on, we'll see head honcho Paul Newman brainstorming with all kinds of silly names for the company after he engineers its takeover, banking on the hula hoop's failure. All of the names he considers sound even worse than "Hudsucker". "Hudsucker" was also a corporate name in "Crimewave", and the significance is not hard to figure out. Rob Tapert himself confirms the connection in Whoosh04.

Now, going back to the sales agent who advised Rob Tapert to pick a name with an X in it: as I recall, this same agent advised him to make sure there's plenty of "blood on the screen", while making "Evil Dead". While Rob and Sam love all kinds of grotesque horror, "blood on the screen" doesn't seem to be their style. Their response to this advice was tongue-in-cheek: in one of the film's scarier moments, they included an actual home movie screen playing an old movie, with blood literally splattering on it; a visual pun, in other words, and also an act of defiance. They're not interested in making slasher pics, but would rather draw upon classical traditions of movie storytelling, with a clever twist that makes it their own. While it seems Rob took the agent's advice on X names seriously, I can't imagine him taking it blindly. In other words, I think he applied it to his own process, using it to pick from a number of names for the warrior princess.

I also think this X name theory came in handy early on. Earlier, I wondered why Rob wouldn't just say where he got the name, if I believe its origin was so obvious--especially since we know he was asked this by Robert Weisbrot during the filming of the second season of "Xena", so it wasn't ancient history. In fact, I assume he would have been asked this long before that, particularly by the studio, when it greenlighted the spin-off. They'd probably want a say in what the character was named, how she'd be presented, the whole ball of wax. I think if we look at the bigger picture, we'll see that Tapert and Raimi didn't fare well with the studios on "Crimewave,", on the final "Evil Dead" installment05, their first successful attempt at a tv series, "M.A.N.T.I.S." was reshaped by the studio, and ruined when they didn't "protect the hero", as Rob as put it06. The two original leads, Bobby Hosea and Gina Torres, were removed (as Bruce Campbell was in "Crimewave"], and Raimi and Tapert were dismissed as well07 (they would all reunite on "Xena" and "Hercules"). Finally, they originally wanted to do a "Conan" series, but were told by the studios it would have to be "Hercules", instead. So a "Xena" series would be Tapert's first one conceived entirely on his terms, and I'm guessing that "protecting the hero", and the vision, was a big priority. When the time came to explain the background of Xena to the studio (which was quite nervous about whether it would succeed or not08, therefore, it would have been much easier to simply say that her name was a marketing decision, up front, and end the discussion right there. No Hudsucker hula hoop brainstorming sessions would be required, because no executive would even try to come up with a better rationale than "X sells"!

Once the show was given the green light, there's the not-insignificant concern that revealing the methodology behind her name while the series was underway would only tip the magician's hand to the audience: merely the fact that the name had any meaning at all would invite scrutiny of all character names henceforth. Some shows invite that kind of inspection as part of its intellectual appeal, such as "Lost," but others don't want to make the storytelling process only that much harder by revealing its workings and risk letting the audience getting ahead of them. Given how often "The Bacchae" or "Black Orpheus" was borrowed from, how would the audience have reacted had they known about it from the beginning? Each reference would be met with a groan, getting in the way of the story instead of providing an important, but invisible, guideline for the producer. We are given the sources, but it's up to us, not the producers, to use them to connect the dots.

So, whether Rob wanted to do a series based on Xena, or simply have her, or someone like her, play the dark counterpart to Hercules on a recurring basis, there were big plans from the beginning and they needed to be protected. I mentioned before that "Xena" was probably a name picked from a group of names. I'm fairly certain that regardless what happened, Xena's character would appear in one form or another. One of the patterns on both shows is that nothing happens only once: alternate versions of ideas that were accepted were also used as well. If we look at what was almost certainly the alternate name, we can discover the identity of the alternate, hidden version of "Xena, Warrior Princess." Let's take a look!

01Xena - Warrior Princess: The Official Guide to the Xenaverse, by Robert Weisbrot,, p. 6
02Hercules X-Posed: The Unauthorized Biography of Kevin Sorbo and His On-Screen Character, by Ted Edwards and Ed Gross, p. 55
03Xena - Warrior Princess: The Official Guide to the Xenaverse, by Robert Weisbrot, p.6: David Eick says he was the one who suggested the trilogy, not Rob.
05Rob Tapert Interview
06"MCA muscles in on action hours; on strength of 'Hercules,' producers add 'Xena.' ", Broadcasting and Cable Magazine
08Xena - Warrior Princess: The Official Guide to the Xenaverse, by Robert Weisbrot, p. 19


The Types and Patterns of All Things Xena  > Free To Be Euripides: Chapter Index

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