Gladiator Meets Fury Road: The Xena Reboot That Could Have Been

In 2015, TV writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach (LostThe 100The Middlemanwas tapped to write the pilot for NBC’s reboot of Xena: Warrior Princess. He would serve as an executive producer alongside original series co-creator Rob Tapert and EP Sam Raimi to develop not a revival, but a retelling of Xena and Gabrielle’s adventures. In 2017, Grillo-Marxuach left the project, citing “insurmountable creative differences,” and the reboot was effectively shelved.

The most prominent detail during the 18 months that Grillo-Marxuach was attached to the project was the implication that he would have explored Xena and Gabrielle’s romantic relationship in a more overt way. Not much else is known about his take on the series—until recently, when Grillo-Marxuach was a guest on the Xena Warrior Business podcast and laid out his season-long plan for the reboot.

While ostensibly the Xena Warrior Business episode was supposed to revisit the season 2 episode “Blind Faith,” cohosts Chris Sims and Allison Stock had much more fun hearing Grillo-Marxuach explain how he would approach retelling Xena and Gabrielle’s first meeting and early relationship in a series whose tone would be “somewhere between Gladiator and [Mad MaxFury Road.” That is, harrowing action, life-and-death stakes, and a 12- or 13-episode first season that takes its time in actually making Xena and Gabrielle a team.

And what would the new Xena and Gabrielle be like? Grillo-Marxuach described their dynamic as “what happens when you team up one of the Gilmore Girls with a Klingon”—yep, into it. Instead of a naïve farm girl, Gabrielle would begin the series as part of the nomadic Scythian tribe. By contrast, Xena would begin the pilot working alongside the villainous Hercules to complete his mythical twelve labors, the joke being that she was responsible for most of them and he was taking the credit. But after Hercules betrays her and leaves her for dead, Gabrielle nurses Xena back to health. In return, Xena trains Gabrielle so that they both can head to Athens—the latter in her pursuits as a bard, the former for sweet revenge.

Then in rolls the Scythian king, who points at Gabrielle and says she’s the spitting image of their princess. Not the actual princess, mind you, but enough of a lookalike to marry off to the leader of a rival tribe so that the Scythian king can create a coalition to fight off the massive enemy army laying siege to their capital.

Xena lets Gabrielle go fulfill her duty to her people, only to discover that that rampaging army is headed by none other than Hercules. After invading the Scythian capital and murdering its inhabitants, he takes Gabrielle as a hostage—giving Xena no choice but to round up some fallen soldiers and chase after them. She says she’s doing it for the king’s sake, but fans will recognize it as the first step in Xena’s redemption.

Xena’s quest to save Gabrielle—not to mention the return of familiar faces like Callisto, Joxer, and Autolycus—would have taken up at least the first half of the season, in a more serialized storyline than the episodic take of the original series. In contrast to the campiness of the original series, Grillo-Marxuach envisioned a narrative in which problems were not necessarily solved by the end of every episode, and where the stakes were much greater:

“That was a kind of camp that played well because the show was a first-run syndicated show, because obviously their budgets weren’t gonna allow them to recreate ancient Greece with any kind of fidelity, and I think that they embraced the camp because of a lot of necessities. […] I really wanted the show to be a little more… grounded is the wrong word, I just wanted it to live in a world where the stakes felt really high, where there was violence.”

Of course, one of the biggest questions surrounding the Xena reboot was how it would have approached Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship. In 2016, Grillo-Marxuach addressed this question on his Tumblr, writing, “Xena will be a very different show made for very different reasons. There is no reason to bring back Xena if it is not there for the purpose of fully exploring a relationship that could only be shown subtextually in first-run syndication in the 1990s.” On the podcast (around the 16-minute mark), he expounded on wanting to address their romance as early as in the pilot:

“If this were a television show about a dude, the story would be about how this knight errand winds up going after a princess and rescuing her, and they fall in love. There was a time when […] I actually had Xena kiss Gabrielle at the end of the pilot, when she tries to rescue her before Hercules takes her away. Or Gabrielle kisses Xena because Xena has made her first real selfless gesture by coming back to rescue her. And the note was ‘well, that needs to be earned,’ and my note back was ‘hey, if this were a show about a dude, it would be considered earned by now.’ […] So the real thing would be to have done a love story between two women over the course of 13 episodes, and then by the end of the 13 episodes, they would have finished this adventure, sort of walked off into the sunset, and it would have been open for more.”

It’s worth noting that in 2017 Grillo-Marxuach clarified that the Xena/Gabrielle relationship did not contribute to the reasons that he left the reboot.

All of this is just scratching the surface, so be sure to listen to Xena Warrior Business and follow Javier Grillo-Marxuach on Twitter for fascinating insights into the television industry. While we mourn the Xena that could have been, take hope in the fact that he’s currently helming another beloved property’s return: the Netflix prequel series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, coming in 2019!

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