Yes This Really Happened

Yes, This Really Happened: Xena Convinced Emperor Caligula To Kill Himself

The first rule of appreciating the “Xenaverse” established by Hercules: The Legendary Journey and Xena: Warrior Princess is to just go with the flow. This is especially important if, like me, history is your bag and/or you’re a bit of a mythology buff. Oh boy, is it important. Honestly, not that long ago, I had to have a chip installed in my brain to keep my head from exploding because of cognitive dissonance watching Xena‘s take on Greek and Roman history.

I write a lot, maybe too much, in this space about the significant changes in the entertainment of my youth and the entertainment of today and how these seismic shifts in the culture can be both good and bad. I really do think (with, of course, huge exceptions) that television and movies geared toward kids in the last decade or so are smarter and more well-crafted on a basic storytelling level than what I usually had when I was still a pre-teen. I mean, I love old-school Transformers, but compare that to, say, Gravity Falls or Steven Universe. By the same token, in our hyper-referential, irony-driven culture, I’m not entirely sure you could do a show like Xena. Yes, it did have its postmodern-y, self-referential episodes (including one where Xena and Gabrielle and the entire cast are bothered by a modern-day tabloid reporter interviewing everyone in character and in-universe), but there was also an earnestness about it in the midst of the camp that I don’t think could survive for long today. In a sense, it was both ahead of its time but also could only exist in that brief magical era in the mid-late ’90s when ironic referential culture was beginning to form but was far from its global conquest.

Hence we get a show where Xena faces off against one of the infamous rulers in history that also ends in a somber reflection on whether the means justify the ends. And still has lots of fan service for people of all sexualities.

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Now your first question if you’re not familiar with the show is, “How could Xena fight Caligula? Isn’t she in pre-classical Greece or something? Did she time travel or what?” Don’t be ridiculous. In reality, it’s just that in the Xenaverse Ulysses, Hercules, Julius Caesar, Helen of Troy, and Homer all co-exist in roughly the same time period. But at the very least the show did have an almost three-decade time skip where Xena and Gabrielle pull a Rip Van Wrinkle in an icy cavern. Please bear with me and turn on your own anti-cognitive dissonance chips, if you have them.

It’s also important to note that Christianity also exists in the Xenaverse, but only sort of. They’re the Elijans, followers of an Indian magician named Eli who became a faith healer and preached a message of love and peace (and was unjustly killed, just not by Romans, but by Xena’s great frenemy, the god Ares) and who worship a “God of Love” who has angels and archangels working for it. “Wait”, you interrupt again. “How does this cosmology with what’s heavily implied to be the Christian monotheistic god but also all the various pantheons of gods who are explicitly referred to as gods work exactly?” To which I say, “If you want to spend your whole afternoon researching this stuff on the Hercules and Xena fan wiki, have at it. I’ve got better things to do like making my ramen and Rice-a-Roni meals for the week eventually.” The rest of the Cliff Notes version is that Xena has an adult daughter as a result of the aforementioned time skip who was named Eve but became Livia of I, Claudius and “being the real-life wife of the first emperor of Rome, Augustus” fame (!) and who is now basically the St. Peter to Eli’s Jesus (?!?) and is also the reincarnation of Xena’s archenemy Callisto who was also an angel for a while (?!?!?!). Oy, writing up a last season episode of continuity-heavy shows like this definitely is a job.

With all that out of the way, what happens is that the archangel Michael (just roll with it) enlists Xena to take out Rome’s new emperor, Caligula (played by the late Alexis Arquette), since 1) he’s not only claiming to be a god, but is becoming a god, 2) he’s persecuting the Elijans, and 3) Xena has to be the one to strike down Caligula since she still has the power to kill gods given to her by the God of Eli so that she could pull a Kratos before there was a Kratos and slaughter the Greek pantheon except for Ares and the goddess of love Aphrodite (definitely just roll with it). Xena, who isn’t exactly on the warmest terms with Michael, only agrees when she learns that her daughter Eve is leading the Elijans at Rome and is intent on confronting Caligula and trying to convert him. (Xena’s also hilariously unimpressed with Caligula’s track record: “He’s a pscyho, a sex addict, and a murderer. Your run-of-the-mill Roman emperor.”) Investigating the root cause of Caligula’s godhood, Xena and Gabrielle find that their friend and goddess of love Aphrodite had gone downhill since her brother Ares lost his divinity. Because their influences on the world balanced each other, with Ares no longer a god, Aphrodite has lost her self-control and Caligula somehow seduced her in her confused, weakened state and is slowly absorbing her divinity (JRWI). Pretending to be a Celtic god of sex, Xena seduces Caligula into allowing her to challenge him to a chariot race (which, due to the show’s budget limitations, ends up taking place on a dirt road through the countryside). Unfortunately, Xena picked this one mission of deicide to threaten to drown Michael when she discovers that he decided to fix the problem by trying to force Xena’s hand by placing Eve in danger and then attempting to murder Aphrodite directly. This provokes the God of Eli into revoking Xena’s deicide abilities. Taking plan B, Xena convinces a now fully divine Caligula to go ahead with the chariot race, with Eve’s life as the prize. She takes her victory as an opportunity to turn the Roman crowd against Caligula (which, because this is Hollywood Caligula, isn’t that hard to do) and convince him that the only way he could become truly immortal and win the respect of future generations is by killing himself. He does so, leaving a depowered Aphrodite and a regretful Xena, who tells Gabrielle that Caligula was never evil, only “broken.”

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Honestly, it would take at least 400 pages to cover all the historical inaccuracies here, but I do want to say I kind of wonder if the screenwriter confused Caligula with his nephew and later emperor Nero. There’s references to Caligula “killing his family” but that was more Nero’s thing given that he had his cousin/stepbrother, two cousins/stepsisters, and his own mother killed (Caligula actually had a better track record in this regard; while he did have a cousin of his murdered, even though two of his sisters were involved in a conspiracy to kill him, he only exiled them). Also there’s the Elijans/Christians being persecuted and having to hide out in the catacombs thing. And there’s a scene where Caligula is haunted by the taunting voice of his mother, who implies that he had murdered her. I guess it’s possible the script was written with Nero in mind but it was changed to Caligula for unknown reasons. Whatever they were, I like to think it was because the show’s producer Sam Raimi thought it was too incredulous to have Xena around to meet Julius Caesar and Augustus and then Nero. That’s just silly.

Also, while Rome’s second emperor and Caligula’s predecessor Tiberius is brought up very briefly, the fact that if Livia is Xena’s daughter, Tiberius should be Xena’s grandson is not. I can understand why, but there is a missed opportunity in making Xena not only the inventor of CPR and Santa Claus, but also a direct ancestor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

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So does Alexis Arquette measure up to the role? Well, not really, but, after all, she’s up against the likes of John Hurt and Malcolm McDowell. And, really, there isn’t much you can do with Hollywood Caligula on a PG rating, although she is clearly having a great time with the role and at least they give us a pretty blatant suggestion that Xena is trying to win over Caligula with the suggestion of a bisexual four-way. The interesting thing, though, is that Alexis brings out a sympathetic look at Caligula’s madness, which builds up to Xena’s disgust at what she has to do to take the god-emperor down: talk him into suicide. They probably didn’t have all the recent scholarship on how Caligula was probably not literally insane in mind, but seeing the idea that Caligula should be an object of sympathy in this story of all places was a pleasant surprise that made me wish Alexis Arquette’s Caligula got to be a recurring member of Xena’s rogues gallery.

So, while this isn’t the best Caligula story by far nor the best Xena episode, I believe it does give a good look at the heart of the show. Xena is a compassionate and benevolent hero, no doubt, but she also nearly derails her own plans as a result of her rage against Michael, which leads her to rather explicitly torture and nearly kill him. The fact that she’s also able to cause Caligula’s own downfall via his own insecurities while also having sympathy for him despite his crimes says a great deal about why the show, unlike its sibling show Hercules, managed to strike such a powerful chord despite its campiness.

And, yes, indeed, there is a homoerotic scene of Xena and Gabrielle giving each other a bath. Seriously, did people ever doubt that this was intentional?

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Doctor Who Write-Ups, Uncategorized

Doctor Who and the Silurians (1970)

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Oy, I promise I’ll try to do these more often than just twice a year…

At Wenley Moor Research Centre, which is located in a vast system of caverns in northern England, UNIT and the Brigadier are investigating mysterious power outages impacting experiments with a new proton accelerator, the cyclotron. When initial investigations go nowhere and it turns out that members of the centre’s staff are either disappearing in the caverns or having violent breakdowns, the Brigadier orders the Doctor and Liz to come to northern England. The Doctor grumpily says, “I never report myself anywhere, particularly not forthwith”, but Liz convinces him to go if only as an excuse to test drive his car, Bessie.

At the centre, the Doctor finds himself up against two tense authority figures, the head of the project, Dr. Lawrence, and the security chief, Major Baker, who are both determined to see the experiments continue no matter the cost since they both staked their careers on the cyclotron’s success. At the same time, a scientist couple on staff, Dr. Quinn and Dr. Dawson, know the cause of the power outages, but keep it to themselves. Meanwhile the Doctor sets out to explore the caverns, only to come across, to his shock, a dinosaur. The creature threatens him, but it withdraws when it hears a musical note from deeper inside the cave. Major Baker theorizes that the dinosaur is a machine, set up by saboteurs acting à la “Scooby Doo”. However, the Doctor deduces that the creature was not only real, but being controlled by another being who was not hostile. Still, Major Baker, while exploring the caves on his own, has a violent run-in with something unknown.

Later, Dr. Quinn goes into a secret chamber. There he argues with a voice coming over the announcer. The voice demands that he find the voice’s companion, who was injured and lost on the surface after the confrontation with Baker. Dr. Quinn counters with a request that the voice stop draining so much power from the cyclotron, since that’s exactly what has caught UNIT’s attention, but the voice refuses until it’s ready to generate its own power and threatens to not give Dr. Quinn access to its technology. With that one threat, Dr. Quinn reluctantly agrees to find the voice’s injured comrade and accepts a summoning device. The said wounded and missing being is hiding out in a local barn, where it surprises a farmer who, after a brief struggle, dies from a heart attack. While investigating the barn for evidence, Liz is also set upon by the injured being. When she revives, she claims that her attacker was a reptilian humanoid.

As UNIT scours the area, Liz notices that Dr. Quinn’s behavior has gotten suspicious. Without alerting the Brigadier, the Doctor visits Dr. Quinn at this house and, without giving away what he knows, subtly offers to help him, but Dr. Quinn refuses. While snooping through Dr. Quinn’s office, Liz and the Doctor find a miniature globe that resembles the Earth before the Great Continental Drift during the “Silurian era”. Dr. Dawson catches them, but before she can rat them out to Dr. Lawrence, the Doctor quickly tells her that he knows Dr. Quinn is hiding something. Unfortunately, the Brigadier accidentally interrupts before the Doctor can get anything out of her.

Dr. Dawson beelines for Dr. Quinn and insists he confess, but Dr. Quinn has become quite unhinged by his experiences and believes that the Doctor is out to steal the Silurians’ scientific knowledge from him. To make sure that doesn’t happen, Dr. Quinn plans to hold the wounded Silurian hostage until the others tell him everything he wants to know. Although the Brigadier slaps down Major Baker’s insistence on an all-out military expedition in the caverns, under pressure from Dr. Lawrence he does agree to send more UNIT troops into the caves, despite the Doctor’s frantic warnings.

Desperate to prevent a violent confrontation, the Doctor follows his only lead and goes to Dr. Quinn’s house, only to find him dead and come face-to-face with a Silurian. The Doctor extends a hand in friendship and asks the Silurians how they can be helped, but he runs off as the Doctor shouts a warning that the humans will try to destroy them all unless they make their agenda clear. In the meantime, the Brigadier tries to put an increasingly paranoid Major Baker under lock and key, but he escapes into the caverns where the Silurians capture him. The Doctor does not report finding Dr. Quinn’s corpse, instead demanding that the Brigadier call off all military excursions into the caves and instead send in a scientific team. Following a map the Doctor found in Dr. Quinn’s house, the Doctor and Liz follow the directions into a hidden chamber in the caverns which the Doctor is able to unseal using the device Dr. Quinn was given. Inside they find a room full of mechanical devices and Major Baker being held in a prison. He informs the Doctor he’s been asked logistical questions about human society as if they were planning an invasion. The Doctor also observes that the Silurians are using power from the research centre to revive their own numbers from a hibernation state. Unable to do anything, even rescue Baker, the Doctor and Liz withdraw to the centre.

The situation deteriorates even further when Dr. Lawrence’s own superior, the Undersecretary, arrives and threatens to have the government shut down the research centre unless the experiments resume. Back in the Silurians’ base, their leader insists that humanity should be studied peacefully, but another Silurian angrily calls “the apes” “dangerous and hostile.” This is the same conclusion reached by the Brigadier and the Undersecretary about the Silurians. Just when the Doctor is about to convince them otherwise, though, a grief-stricken Dr. Dawson appears at the worst possible time, reporting that Dr. Quinn had been killed by the Silurians and admitting that he had been working for them the entire time.

The Doctor rushes back to warn the Silurians, but they imprison him. Also they tell him that Earth “always has been” their planet. They fled underground and went into hibernation when a “small planet” came into Earth’s orbit and seemingly threatened to rip away Earth’s atmosphere, which the Doctor figures was just the moon getting captured in Earth’s orbit. When the Brigadier and a UNIT squad set out to find the Doctor, the hostile Silurian traps them in an underground chamber and attempts to kill the Doctor, but he is stopped by the leader, who insists on negotiating with the humans. Back in UNIT headquarters, Dr. Dawson argues for the extermination of the Silurians. Liz puts forward an argument for compromise, but accidentally brings the Doctor’s absence to the attention of Dr. Lawrence and the Undersecretary and they force her to admit that he had gone to the Silurians. Meanwhile the Doctor convinces the Silurians to make peace with humanity, proposing that the Silurians can co-exist with humanity by building cities in the parts of the planet that are too hot for normal human habitation.

Just when peace seems possible, the militant Silurian infects Major Baker with a bacterium that was once used by Silurians as pest control when “apes” would raid their crops. A sick Baker, whose skin appears to be literally falling apart, shows up at the centre, exposing nearly everyone there to infection. Worse, Dr. Lawrence without the Brigadier’s permission sends Baker to a local hospital, spreading the contamination further. Despite the Brigadier’s best efforts to contain the bacteria through quarantine, the Undersecretary returns via train to London. Before too long, the Undersecretary becomes a victim of the disease and the bacteria spreads across the city, to the point where people are literally collapsing on the streets. Back at the centre, Dr. Lawrence and Dr.  Dawson also succumb to the disease and die. Still, Liz and the Doctor find that they can inoculate themselves with conventional antibiotics and set to work on a cure for those already infected. Just as the Brigadier receives word that the plague has spread from London to France, the Doctor finally works out a cure.

Before he can no doubt brag about his achievement, he is attacked and abducted by the Silurians, who plan to force the Doctor to help them switch back on the centre’s power resources and revive the entire Silurian population. Then they intend use the cyclotron to essentially cause accelerated global warming to decimate the human race and make the planet more hospitable for them. But the Doctor has Liz overload the cyclotron, causing a chain reaction that will flood the entire area with radiation and forcing the Silurians to flee.  Unfortunately, the plan backfires. The elevators to the surface have been sabotaged by the Silurians, so there’s no way for the Doctor and the humans to escape the centre either. Instead the Doctor manages to short-circuit the cyclotron, preventing an explosion.

While the Silurians return to hibernation, the new leader volunteers to sacrifice himself by staying behind and making sure sure the hibernation process is complete. Just as he does so, the Doctor appears and confronts him. The leader viciously attacks, but is shot down by the Brigadier. With the remaining Silurians in hibernation, the Doctor plans to revive them one by one, so they can be more easily reasoned with, and heads off with Liz on Bessie to get equipment and find scientists needed to investigate the Silurians. Just as Bessie breaks down on the countryside, though, the Doctor is left to watch in horror as explosives ordered by the Brigadier detonate, destroying the Silurian base and everyone inside.

Sign of the Times

The Brigadier and the Doctor gently forbid Liz from joining them down in the caverns, despite Liz complaining that she’s supposed to be “liberated”.

Choice Quotes

The Undersecretary: May I ask who you are?!
The Doctor: You may ask.

Continuity Notes

Obviously, it’s the first appearance of the Silurians, one of the most iconic races in the franchise that has appeared largely as villains, albeit much more sympathetic ones than, say, the Cybermen, but also as allies (Madame Vestra from the “new” series).

The Third Doctor’s car, although it did appear before in “Spearhead from Space” , gets its name “Bessie” in this episode and its iconic yellow paint.

It’s heavily implied that human beings have some kind of intense, primal reaction to the very sight of the Silurians, but needless to say, this hasn’t really carried over to their later appearances. Nor has the psychic powers they exhibit here carried over to their more recent appearances. Presumably the fact that their appearance has radically changed over the course of the series has been explained by the fact that the Doctor has encountered different sub-species of the Silurians. I haven’t been able to confirm it, but I think the redesign of the Silurians in the “new” series is also meant to retroactively imply that the Silurians here are wearing elaborate helmets.

In one of the series’ most famous science goofs, the use of the term “Silurian era” is incorrect. The Silurian era is the geological period when the first terrestrial animals appear, not when dinosaurs were widespread. In fact, reptiles didn’t even evolve until the next geological period, the Devonian, which was still 24 million years away, give or take a few million.

Another big one is the cause for why the Silurians went underground and into hibernation. They mistakenly believed that a “small planet” heading toward Earth would have torn away the atmosphere, but the Doctor figures out they’re referring to the moon. Not only has the hypothesis that the moon was a planetoid that got caught in Earth’s orbit largely been discarded in favor of the proposal that the moon formed out of the Earth’s mass during the planet’s formation after a celestial collision, but the moon formed about 4.5 billion years ago, inconceivably long before life on Earth could exist. (I should be fair and admit that this might have been a prevailing hypothesis around 1970. I honestly couldn’t verify that, so it might be too cruel to call it a goof.)

Comments

Oh, boy, I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that the Third Doctor era represented a darker turn for the show. Here you have (somewhat) morally complex villains and a conclusion where one of the recurring heroes of the show essentially commits genocide. In the novelization, it’s instead said that the explosions only sealed away the Silurians’ base. Here, though, it’s made abundantly clear what the Brigadier does with the Doctor saying he “wiped out” the Silurians.

The Brigadier better be glad he was working with the Third Doctor and not the Tenth! He’d mess up your life for way less than that.

Anyway, this episode does a fascinating job of being a kind of deconstruction of the Second Doctor era and even “Spearhead From Space”. Instead of an innately violent and hostile species like the Daleks, you have a species that is alien (at least in the sense that they’re non-human, but not extraterrestrial) but composed of individuals with different assumptions and agendas. Granted this is mostly in the implication; there’s pretty much just one “good” Silurian and the rest are either just grunts or are mostly bad. I say “mostly” bad because even the worst of the Silurians, the one who murdered the more reasonable leader, is willing to sacrifice himself to secure the well-being of his people. Granted it was in response to a false threat, but still, while it may be shallow characterization by the modern standards of the show, it’s leaps and bounds over what we’ve generally seen from the show regarding its alien villains as well as most of its human villains so far.

And as if that’s not enough, we also have the Brigadier killing the entire remnant of the species (well, so everyone believed at the time). Even knowing what was coming, it still came across as a shocking climax for me. The show pulls no punches in either making the magnitude of what the Brigadier has done clear or in depicting the Doctor’s sincere optimism at one day reconciling humanity and the Silurians turn to despair. And this is only the second story of the season!

Anyway, this is simply one of the best stories in the franchise’s history, which hasn’t lost much of its original boldness even decades later, and it’s just in general a good case study of how you can do a strong story that deconstructs the show’s past well without undermining your basic premise.

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