- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2000

AUCKLAND, New Zealand - As usual for the offbeat "sisterhood is powerful" show that overlays Greek mythology with a modern sensibility and computer-graphic imaging, the babes in bustiers are back busting heads. "Xena: Warrior Princess," syndicated TV's highest-rated first-run drama, recently aired its 100th episode.

Weapons are drawn, Xena hurls her emblematic chakram, bodies flip and corkscrew cartoonishly through the air. Xena and best girlfriend Gabrielle have stumbled upon a squabble, this time in the North African desert. Yet, after the swordplay, Xena chastises her sister-in-arms: "You've become too violent," she warns. Gabrielle protests, reminding her that in days of old she had to haul Xena off anyone who so much as squinted at her.

Something's amiss even in the ever-kooky Xena-verse conceived by Renaissance Pictures and brought to you by Studios USA. The sands of time seem to be shifting. The snarling, leather-clad, warbling warrior Xena was first introduced in 1995 as an unconscionable killer on "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys."

Even after her conversion into a justice fighter for a "Xena" spinoff, the heroine still struggled with her dark side. For four TV seasons she belonged to the ancient world, despite scriptwriters' formulaic predilection for irreverently blending historical eras.

Lately, though, she's been acting kinder, gentler, very A.D. Why, she's even wearing that more forgiving fabric, Lycra, and a coat trimmed in sheared lamb over her Iron Age, never-say-die breastplate.

"I guess," Xena explains to Gabrielle, "I'm starting to think like a mother."

All this fifth season the fearsome, fearless woman warrior has battled the misanthropes of mythology along with the myths of motherhood and morning sickness. As Xena's belly has swelled, so too has the stomach of the series' star, Lucy Lawless.

Also growing ever more grandiose on "Xena" are moral dilemmas and archetypal portrayals. Recent episodes have been set more often in Christian hell than ancient Greece, with plot lines plundering more from Dante, John Milton and the New Testament than Homer, Edith Hamilton and Carl Jung. Xena and Gabrielle are championing a prophet named Eli, who sounds a lot like John the Baptist. God of war Ares is worried about his future and berates Xena that "the decisions you make don't affect just you anymore, Mom. They affect your child."

"We are going into larger, conceptual, almost theological issues as backdrops for our characters," said co-executive producer Eric Gruendemann. "Successful shows have to grow and evolve and mature, and you need to do something different. The fabric of our show is anything goes, and the best dramas in history are within political or religious arenas."

Soon, before the end of this TV season, the first pregnant superhero in television history will give birth, as Miss Lawless herself did in October. Husband Rob Tapert, one of the creators and executive producers of "Xena" and "Hercules," is the boy's dad.

The father of Xena's child, however, remained a mystery. Not even Xena knew; she insisted that she dwelt in a "love-free zone." A woman who has never needed men in a man's world, Xena recently learned who impregnated her and why.

"It is the adventure of heaven and hell where this baby comes from," said "Xena" executive producer and head writer R.J. Stewart.

Miss Lawless is more down to earth. Her own pregnancy was an extenuating circumstance that "Xena" producers embraced for story lines. "Let's face it," Lawless said in August on the series set in New Zealand, "14-year-old boys don't want to hear about pregnancy, and I don't deny it detracts from the 'eye-candy factor.'

"But at a certain point, I can't hide it anymore," she said. " 'Xena' is an action series, and you can't shoot action with tight shots. It's about movement and choreography."

The costumes department went to work, giving both Xena and sidekick Gabrielle make-overs. But Miss Lawless' first maternity outfit of leather didn't expand with her stomach. Verboten on "Xena" are modern fabrics along with glass and mirrors, if not contemporary dialogue and story anachronisms but eventually the benefits of spandex beat out production integrity.

"I've never been comfortable before. And no more iron underpants. The baby has been the greatest gimmick to get out of all the harness work," said Miss Lawless, who normally performs her own flips. "I'm even warm. Usually I'm wearing just a corset and now I get a coat. It's been the cruisiest winter."

The saga of monotheism vs. polytheism, peace vs. war, love over might crescendoed to the birth of Xena's miraculously conceived baby. Yet the show carries no message, Miss Lawless insisted: It's entertainment and fun.

"We may deal with big issues, but we want to make you feel something, not make you think, not change your mind," she said. "I realized some time ago that we have to deliver on our mandate, which is humor and action and stories with heart. Contrary to public opinion, we are not a vehicle for social change."

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