Scribe of the Sword
By Joe Nazzaro
For the last three seasons, Xena has been lucky to have Gabrielle at her side, chronicling their adventures. Several writers behind the scenes share the task of creating the weekly legend, including story editor Chris Manheim, who began scripting Xena: Warrior Princess as a freelancer during its first season. Manheim has now written or collaborated on nearly a dozen Xena episodes ranging from the sublime ("Maternal Instincts," "The Bitter Suite") to the semi-ridiculous ("Here She Comes, Miss Amphipolis" and "A Comedy of Eros").
Manheim has just finished her final script for the third season, which, after writing a number of the show's "smaller" episodes, has a more epic feel. "It's a real adventure show," she explains, "but it's also very much a character piece. I'm falling back on something I love to do, which is conflicting human dynamics. This piece is largely about that. The title is 'Tsunami,' so that gives away what it's about."
Xena: Warrior Princess is very different from the family fare that Manheim was writing when she originally broke into the business. Her early résumé includes shows like Eight Is Enough and the Afterschool Specials, notably Have You Ever Been Ashamed of Your Parents? which was nominated for an Emmy. "We had Jennifer Jason Leigh, a good cast and a good director, so I credit them for its success," Manheim notes. "Up to this point, I preferred freelancing because my threshold for boredom is so low, especially given many shows where you're only dealing with one or two characters. I got lucky with Murder She Wrote, because even though it's still one character, you could surround her with new characters each episode, so I ended up doing about eight of those, went on staff for a while, and found my way into the mystery genre. I did a Columbo, and working with Peter Falk was interesting. From there, I stumbled my way over here. [Then supervising producer] Steve Sears read a spec script of mine for Picket Fences--a show I admired tremendously, and based on that had me come in and pitch, and that's where it started."
As Manheim soon discovered, her first assignment offered a special challenge. "When I first came in, they were looking for a 'Xena-lite' episode. They would only have Xena for one day, and the rest of the story had to be Gabrielle's, so that was my assignment. Everybody seemed pretty pleased with it, but then the question was, 'OK, she can write Gabrielle, but can she write Xena?' The first one was a toughie, because they gave me a 'Bible' episode to do, which is always a bit difficult, but it worked out very well."
Like many episodes that depend heavily on a single guest star, the success of "The Prodigal" rested on the talents of Tim Thomerson, who played the broken-down Meleager. "Tim brought a lot to that part; he hit it right on the head. For me, that character was very much like the Lee Marvin character in Cat Ballou. That's who I wrote him as, and Tim did a great job. I liked that episode; I was very pleased with it."
Manheim's next entry was "Altared States," an assigned premise that the writer adamantly refuses to take credit for. "It was not me, trust me!" she laughs. "I don't look to the Bible for too many stories; actually, I think that was [executive producer] Rob Tapert's area. He always thought it would be interesting to do the story of Isaac and Abraham, and that's what I was told to do for Xena."
When Manheim joined the series as a story editor in the second season, one of her first tasks was resurrecting a story created by Sears. "Remember Nothing" was a "what if" idea, in which the three Fates grant Xena another opportunity to return to her pre-warrior life. "That was a premise hanging around from the previous season which had never been worked up into a script. I thought it was such a great premise, to turn around that whole amnesia thing, and instead of the lead forgetting who she is, everybody else forgets her. I can't tell you how thrilled I was to be able to work with that concept."
Although Manheim concedes that it was a foregone conclusion that Xena would eventually return to life as a warrior, her concern was that Xena's relationship with her brother not be slighted. "Because I had experienced the death of my younger brother," Manheim says, "it was important to me that I make that a really tough place for her to get to, and only when she realizes it is actually better for her brother as well as everyone else in her life that it gets to that point. It simply couldn't be, 'Between Gabrielle and my brother, I choose Gabrielle.'"
After dealing with heavy emotional issues in "Remember Nothing," Manheim got to provide a Xena-fied slant on a well-known Christmas story in "A Solstice Carol." "When I came on, I was told, 'You'll be writing the Christmas episode.' One of Rob's favorite movies is the Alastair Sim A Christmas Carol, which is also my favorite version, and when we talked about it, I said, 'We could do the Ghost of Christmas Past; we can use the Fates.' R.J. [Stewart] remembered a story he had heard as a child, The Little One, about this donkey, and that ended up in our Christmas show as wall, so it has everything you can imagine in it. That will probably be our only Christmas show. We'll be showing it at Christmas every year."
If Manheim was surprised by the prospect of writing a yuletide yam, her next assignment was less than inspiring. In "Here She Comes, Miss Amphipolis," Xena and Gabrielle are forced to infiltrate a beauty pageant produced by their old friend Salmoneus in order to expose a criminal. "When they told me, 'You'll be writing the beauty pageant episode,' my heart sank. It was over lunch and Rob said, 'I think we should do a beauty pageant.' It took me a while to get a handle on it, because I really didn't see Xena in any way connected to a beauty pageant, so that took a lot of thought. I was glad to have a murder mystery background since we were supposed to keep the real villain a secret. It started out being very nebulous for me, but it turned out pretty well."
No one was more surprised than Manheim that the episode was recently nominated for a GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Award. "We were actually alerted by the fellow who played the transvestite. His agent or publicist called us and asked if we knew the episode was nominated, and actually we didn't. Because it was such a different kind of Xena episode, it was hard to get a handle on it. Again, it probably came out the best it could be, but believe me, it's nobody's favorite episode."
Manheim teamed up with producers Sears and Stewart on "The Quest," where Autolycus is forced to steal Xena's body back from the Amazons. At the time, the show was in the middle of an unexpected crisis following Lucy Lawless' injury. "If it wasn't the next day, it was the following day after the accident, because we knew we had to throw something in the breach, and begin to deal with 'How come we're not going to be seeing Lucy in any of these episodes?' We threw a story together, each of us taking an act, went off on a weekend and wrote it, and then Steve made sure the whole thing conformed and did several passes to make it into one good episode."
Lawless eventually recovered, and Manheim finished the season with a change of pace. "A Comedy of Eros" was an out-and-out farce, as Cupid's baby steals his father's arrows with amusing and sometimes unexpected results. "It started off very light, but got a little darker because of Draco, who was introduced way back in 'Sins of the Past.' He was a very strong, formidable character, and I think the chemistry between Draco and Xena was so good that everybody thought, 'Let's bring Draco back,' and the actor was available, so we want for it.
Manheim's first story for the new season was originally going to return her to the Old Testament, but for various reasons, the idea never reached fruition. "This one was going to be based on Jonah and the Whale, so you can see right away the possibilities for special FX and an interesting monster, but that one got shelved. It was a really big show, and at that point, we needed to stretch our budget, and that precluded any big monster shows. I don't know if it'll ever see the light of day. It never got past story point anyway, but I'm guessing that we're probably moving away from that area now."
Instead, Manheim wrote "Maternal Instincts," arguably one of the darkest episodes of Xena to date. The writers had outlined a long-term storyline well before the launch of the third season, although some of those episodes would take months to play out. "That arc took them to Britannia and Gabrielle's impregnation with the monster baby. I'm fairly sure we had the season mapped out pretty thoroughly, and I know we've done that with the fourth season as well. It's great because everyone knows what to expect, and subconsciously, you could be working on a story today and thinking, 'I know where we're going and I can set it up,' so once you know the season's arc, it feeds even into the stand-alone episodes."
"Every episode has its own challenge, whether you rise to it or not, but 'Maternal Instincts' has to be my personal favorite, just because it's so thick with stuff going on. There are so many levels they're playing on, and I like anything that rich with emotional dynamics a lot."
In order to repair the now-violent rift between Xena and Gabrielle, Tapert decided that an unusual resolution was needed. Those issues were resolved in "The Bitter Suite," a ground-breaking musical episode that tested the limits of the show's format. "I have to credit Rob with wanting to do a musical Xena," says Manheim. "Because I come from theater and musical comedy, my first reaction was, 'Oh my God, he wants to do a musical comedy to resolve this intensely emotional upset between the two women?' When I found he wasn't thinking musical comedy at all, then it began to make sense and I could wrap my mind around the concept.
"At the end of 'Maternal Instincts,' you wonder how they're ever going to get back together, so we knew we had to have an episode that brought them back together. Falling short of intensive therapy, we thought maybe a musical, because it was such a strange way to go and that would actually work for us in getting them together from these polar opposite places."
Manheim and Sears were assigned to write "The Bitter Suite" together, so the two writers split the assignment into acts, getting together to discuss the episode as a whole. "The teaser was mine, and the first and second acts, so Steve had the really difficult part because both of his acts were pure music. At least the first act--although it was certainly a violent act--was dialogue and stuff like that, and we didn't launch into music until the second act."
When we wrote something, we had one vision in mind and Rob and [visual FX supervisor] Kevin O'Neill and everybody else responsible for getting that vision on screen may see something else, so it's always amazing, especially when this musical is flung out there. You have to credit Rob for getting all the reins in one hand and coming up with a cohesive show. Even having been on Xena a few years, I was bowled over by the look that episode achieved."
After the heavy emotional content of her two previous episodes, Manheim's next effort. "King Con," was meant to be a change of pace. After Joxer is badly beaten by thugs from a local gambling den, Xena and Gabrielle enlist the aid of two con men to get even. "It's a fairly light-hearted show, although certainly not from Joxer's point-of-view, because he gets pretty beat up. I remember seeing the dailies and thinking, 'Wow, I didn't know they were going to get that violent!' I can tell you the movie I patterned it on, but it's obvious by watching it."
The Xena writers are already plunging ahead with season four. Manheim remains close-lipped about her next story, explaining that the title would once again reveal its premise, but agrees to a few hints about the fourth season's overall direction.
"I would say there's pretty much more of the same, although the characters are also expanding spiritually. I doubt it will be as dark as this season. I don't know if our fans would follow us if we got any darker. It's so hard to say without tipping our hand as to what's going on next season, but we're moving in a very interesting direction."
For Chris Manheim, whose self-confessed boredom threshold is usually extremely low, working on Xena: Warrior Princess is still as exciting as when she first joined the series. "I do occasionally check in and say, 'OK, am I getting bored, am I getting stale, am I still contributing?' I've gotten to like this show more and more; I've just signed on for another two years, so I had better!
"When I first came on board, I had to make a decision between Xena or doing Dr. Quinn, and given the two shows, I clearly made the right choice. The show is so varied. I love the fact that you can do comedy or drama, you don't have to stick with one genre, so it was the variety that appealed to me, and the epic scope of it too. You can tell big canvas stories, or get much more personal and tell emotional stories, and that's what makes Xena so special."