Xena Magazine #10 - Rob Tapert gives his views on series 5 and more

Joe Nazzaro chats to executive producer and Lucy`s husband, Rob Tapert

Author: Joe Nazzaro
Source: Titan Official Xena Magazine #10
Date: August 2000

There`s a revolution taking place in the world of fantasy television, and Rob Tapert is one of the soldiers leading that mythical charge. In 1994, Tapert and his long time partner Sam Raimi took on the moribund genre with a series of TV movies featuring Kevin Sorbo as the legendary strongman Hercules. The combination of contemporary dialogue, cutting edge FX and Hong Kong inspired action turned out to be extremely popular and soon lead to a weekly Hercules series. A season later, an equally successful spin off followed, featuring Lucy Lawless as Xena, a former Warrior Princess turned heroine.

Cut to the present day. Hercules: The Legendary Journeys has ended an amazing 6 season run and Tapert has filled the gap with 2 new half hour series: the post apocalyptic SF drama, Cleopatra 2525 and Jack of all Trades, a comedy action adventure starring Bruce Campbell as a turn of the century swashbuckling hero. And Xena: Warrior Princess is starting production on its sixth and quite possibly final season.

On this particular Saturday morning however, the producer is currently devoting his attention to his latest success: the infant son born to Tapert and Lucy Lawless, his wife. "Hold on, I`ve got a screaming baby here", he apologises, stating the obvious. "Mom is at the doctor, and I`m playing baby sitter with a teething baby."

Despite Julius Bay Tapert`s demands, Xena`s leading light has agreed to talk to us about the recently ended fifth season, as well as his plans for season six, which has just started shooting in New Zealand. Needless to say, the conversation is punctuated by gurgles from the younger Tapert, who decides to make his presence known from time to time.

The fifth season of Xena: Warrior Princess marked a number of landmarks for the series, incuding Xena and Gabrielle`s return from the dead in Fallen Angel, Xena`s pregnancy, (which not surprisingly co-incided with Xena`s own real life situation), the birth of Eve, and a season ending trilogy that featured the death of the Olympian Gods.

"I can look at the fifth season and say there were some things that I really liked and was proud of, but I think that in some ways it was a disappointing season," notes Tapert, offering his opinion on the year as a whole. "There were many personal positive notes associated with season five. And the end of it, due to the nature of my relationship, I ended up with a baby!"

There`s a gurgle of agreement from young Tapert, although it could just be wind. "In terms of the show itself, I actually thought we made some really new and unusual stories in terms of what got produced. It was weird - there were individual accomplishments, meaning Fallen Angel and Them Bones had some truly ground-breaking special FX that we did in terms of television, and I thought they were both interesting stories. I think we set ourselves up to go into the future with season five, and to do some fun stuff.

"If you had asked me the same question at the end of season four, I would have been slightly hard-pressed to give you a different answer, meaning you always try to make something as good as you can. Did we accomplish our overall goal of entertaining the audience throughout the year? At times we failed, and I know why we failed. At times we succeeded. We failed because of what originally made Xena work, which was taking a chance that could have failed."

Tapert isn`t afraid to admit that season five had its share of problems, many of them caused by a major shake-up in the writing department early on, with Steven Sears leaving Xena to work on his own series and co-creator R. J. Stewart going off to launch Cleopatra 2525. Although Stewart would later return to the series, in some ways the damage was already done.

"Here`s what it is," says Tapert. "I`ll damn everyone in one foul swoop! When R.J., Steve and all those people were leaving, I had some scripts that went through that just sucked, and because I was launching Cleo, no-one was watching the fort on the China episodes that went through and I was incredibly disappointed in that. And then I made some really bad judgement calls in doing Punch Lines, for which I had absolutely the wrong director. I knew it was a bad script going forward, and nothing could ever fix it. Everything in my mind after Them Bones to Antony and Cleopatra was such an uneven mish-mash of stuff that I personally can`t say I was satisfied with it.

"There was a bunch of stuff that I`ll cop all the blame for: Lyre, Lyre, which I still personally like a lot: that was a tremendous disaster in terms of ratings and in terms of fan interest. That surprised me a lot. I actually liked God Fearing Child, Eternal Bonds and Amphipolis Under Siege, but the fans didn`t rate them particularly well. Married With Fish Sticks was also a huge fumble on my part. I had to cover an episode with Xena not being there and I wanted to try to create a Simpsons-like world against the background of live-action Florida kitsch, which just exploded."

It`s hardly surprising that the biggest event of season five turned out to be the birth of Xena`s baby, a storyline that resulted in endless discussions between Tapert and the writing staff as they tried to hammer out the beats for the rest of the season. "We first had to make a determination as to whether to play the pregnancy out or not, and since there was no way to hide it, we kind of put together a rough guideline. When Alex [Kurtzman] and Bob [Orci, who came over from Hercules] were there, as we were getting closer to working out the end, they were adamant that we should do a Rumplestiltskin-style story [think he means Rip Van Winkle] with Xena and Gabrielle going to sleep for 25 years, and the daughter being an adult.

"We were originally working towards the impractical thing that we could never get to, which was moving Xena, the baby and Gabrielle in the direction of [the Japanese Samurai warrior adventures] Lone Wolf and Cub." Tapert pauses as he recalls a very different direction that season five could have gone in. "I just remembered a whole thing I pitched: once upon a time we considered playing this giant separation between Xena and Gabrielle, who couldn`t accept the fact that Xena`s baby wasn`t evil like hers. So when Xena had her baby, she spun out of control, went off and kind of followed up in Xena`s footsteps as an ultimate mercenary. So it was Xena and her baby travelling alone, following in the bloody footsteps of Gabrielle, which is what we eventually did with Eve growing up.

"We finally decided we didn`t want to drive a wedge between Xena and Gabrielle and play a whole season on Gabrielle being pissy about losing," he explains, "but I often wonder what it would have been like if we had done that. Everything that season would have been a guided missile, but people would have hated us for forcing Gabrielle to be petty, and Renee, very much in character, says she has put Eve behind her and never thinks about those things. It`s interesting to think about those things, but once you make those decisions you go forward and it all evens out somewhere."

Despite the fact that Xena`s pregnancy played a major part in the season`s story arc, the producers never made a big deal about the baby`s father, According to Tapert, the answer can be found in the fifth season opener; viewers just have to look closely. "We were faced with a very tough decision, which was, who should the father be?" Tapert recalls. "There weren`t many candidates; Hercules and Ares were all we could come up with, but in our own minds, we knew who it was. "In Fallen Angel, we played this little tiny beat at the end where Callisto goes up and touches Xena at Michael`s behest, and if you ever see it again, watch closely. We were saying, `Okay, Xena is going to have this baby, and it came from an immaculate conception, so to speak.`

The birth of Xena`s baby Eve took place in the epic God Fearing Child, which also featured the unexpected guest appearance of Hercules. "I`m really glad he did the episode," notes Tapert of Kevin Sorbo`s return. "I can`t tell you how much I think of him for coming back to do that episode. It wasn`t all that hard. He also wanted the chance to be a part of that story."

That said, some of the more dedicated Xena-philes criticised God Fearing Child for being more of a Hercules episode featuring Xena than vice versa. "I`ll cop to that," Tapert admits, "and R. J. feels very strongly that it`s not a Xena episode. It fulfilled an important function, and I can`t underestimate how this played into the season. Lucy was only available for half the episode, so we couldn`t make it a Xena-driven story. It had to have a big B runner, and what bigger B runner than Hercules and the beginning of the twilight of the gods? That was a very minor balance, but at the end of the day, I kind of liked it. There were aspects of it that were torturously manipulative, but I liked the death of Zeus at the hands of his son, the birth of Xena`s baby, and the way this huge melodrama got set in motion."

That melodrama would soon take on an even deadlier dimension near the end of season five, when Xena and Gabrielle are believed dead and placed in any icy tomb by Ares. When they awaken 25 years in the future, Xena discovers that the adult Eve is now a Roman conqueror named Livia, setting the stage for an epic showdown between mother and daughter.

"I`ve got to give Bob and Alex proper credit," notes Tapert. "When they were first coming aboard, some of those early discussions were about what to do with Xena, so it was decided during that time period. It was all kind of sketchy, and the truth is, those stories never even got assigned to be written until R. J. came back later in the season.

"In retrospect," Tapert muses of the closing episodes of the fifth season, "I liked Looking Death in the Eye because of the storytelling device we used [which involved the future Joxer] and there were some subtle things in it that I personally liked. Livia had some torture bugs for me, but I really liked Eve, and I like Mark Beesley as a director. And I really liked aspects of Motherhood, as well."

By the end of Xena`s fifth season, the series had undergone a number of major changes. Would Xena and Gabrielle remain trapped 25 years in the future? Which Olympian gods survived the final battle? What was the final fate of Eve? Those were just some of the questions that would be answered in the months to come.

Rob`s views on the subtext were also in a side section of this article.

One of the most hotly-contested topics of Xena-related conversation is the relationship between the Warrior Princess and her companion, Gabrielle. Although the show`s writers have always teased viewers with the sexual subtext, Tapert has been careful not to deal with the topic in any definitive way.

"I don`t know where you would go," he elaborates. "Once you do the episode where they start making out, and you consummate their sexual relationship, I don`t where you could go with that storyline under the guise of an action show. Are we afraid to say that they`re lesbians? Well, Xena has certainly had an endless string of male lovers."

The executive producer is quick to quash rumours that the episode Kindred Spirits originally dealt with the Xena-Gabrielle relationship in a more definitive fashion before being heavily rewritten. "Not really," he declares. "There was never that. Because it was an episode without a fight until the very end, it was meant to be more of a relationship episode, just because we had to shoot a five-day episode. But it did go through an endless amount of changes.

"As far as the definite on their relationship, if you ask me, all of season four was one giant confirmation of them as soul mates, whatever the hell that`s worth. And all that happened was the ratings continued to drip along as the entire syndicated market did.

"The people I deal with at the studio have an expression which they call the `Ellen effect`," he explains. "You get a curiosity, and then after that, you see people turn off the show in droves. They come in, they see the show, they`re with it for a while, and then they hail on you and they don`t think they ever have to go back to it.

"We had a famous episode a long time ago, The Quest, which was our highest-rated episode, and after that we started to go downhill, and then there was A Day in the Life, which was the girls in the hot tub together playing hide the soap. After that, our executives put a great deal of pressure on us to stop, to not go down that road because it could only lead to ruin."

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