As the episode title suggests, it's somebody's birthday, and that somebody happens to be Gabrielle. As we join (in Aphrodite's words) our 'favourite girl crew', Gabrielle and Xena have just rescued the young and innocent Genia (played by Katie Stuart) and have taken her to meet Aphrodite on their way to Thebes for Gabrielle's "surprise" birthday treat. When the excited Aphrodite spills the beans, we finally hear mention of an ancient Grecian celebrity, whose presence in the series is something many fans have been longing to see...
Many Happy Returns happens to be guest star Alexandra Tydings' (and consequently Aphrodite's) last episode, so that's a pretty big deal. Lying across the gigantic bed, Tydings looks just about as happy as one would expect the Goddess of Love to be. "Isn't this the coolest set?' she says happily. Of course, that might have something to do with the fact that the actress is draped between two particularly wellmuscled young men in sparkling gold shorts.
The two young men aren't quite in frame, however, so director Mark Beesley suggests they all move in a little closer. "She won't bite," he says as the boys shuffle across, and Tydings gets a mischievous look in her eye...
To set the scene completely before Xena, Gabrielle and Genia enter, it's time to get out the smoke machine. Shafts of light stream in from ornately decorated windows, but even though it's all artificially-produced sunlight, further provisions have to be made. "We need the smoke for this set because smoke makes the
light visible," Beesley explains. "You can't see a shaft of light without the smoke to shine it through." He smiles. "This is the last time we're going to be in Aphrodite's temple, so I want it to be this beautiful tableau. And of course you have to have atmosphere for Aphrodite's temple."
That effect has certainly been achieved here; it's a memorable set (which briefly becomes even more memorable when Tydings takes off her robe and becomes momentarily tangled in the pink folds of her multilayered costume). The crew are continuously setting and resetting lights, camera angles and marks for the actors, not to mention a beautiful flickering candlelight effect again, created by the lights - on to the pink corridor outside the inner chamber.
During a pause in shooting, while there is more altering of the set before the next slew of shots, Beesley offers a detailed account of his view of this particular episode and the impending end of Xena. "Part of this show is modelled on an earlier episode, 'A Day in the Life'," he reveals. "But we didn't want to do it exactly the same way.
"The first act of Many Happy Returns is about a novice young girl who is being shown the ways of the world by our now road-hardened warriors. So by using the character of Genia who is not very worldly-wise, has been raised in a convent and is a virgin - we kind of parallel the Gabrielle that Xena first knew. Plus this episode takes place on Gabrielle's birthday, so it has a nice resonance to it.
"It's interesting to look at what's happened in the last few months," continues Beesley. "For example, looking at what this particular episode might have shaped up to be. At one stage it was going to be a musical. Then there was quite a dark script floating around at one point, and all sorts of other things were suggested.
"Regarding the end of Xena, first and foremost I can't help but think about what Auckland is losing in terms of lucrative business. In terms of the show, the business is that you shoot, you wrap, it's over and you move on to the next thing. But we are having moments now where someone will say `This is the last chakram fight' or, `This is our last chance to do this sort of action'. We knew, for instance, that there would always be a fight in an episode - it's a certain formula. So there have been images and events that we could always do that we can't do now. We recently realised that there are a lot more stories that could have been done, which is a tribute to the characters and the actors, and to the series as a whole."
Filming is about to resume, so Beesley turns back to the task at hand: another short scene that, as in most cases, takes a lot more time to film than its eventual few minutes of screen time. While the beautiful pink expanse undergoes a few more alterations, Beesley comes back with a couple of final comments. "In this season in particular, the shows that I've seen and the shows that I've worked on have been very impressive," he acknowledges. "The plan has always been to deliver something entertaining to the screen that we haven't seen before. As of right now, we're still doing that, and it's going to end that way too."
When pressed to reveal more about how the show ends, Beesley does admit that 'A Friend in Need' doesn't necessarily tie up every loose end, but says that it's a fitting finale. "There are a lot of questions left unanswered," he reveals, "and I think that's the way it should be."
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