This episode might look like it’s all about Xena – her decision to try to single-handedly end a war and the consequences of that, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find it’s just as much Gabrielle’s story.
Up to this point Gabrielle has been left behind in every passing village when things start to hot up. In Death Mask, the previous episode, she actually refuses Xena’s request for the first time to be dumped like cold leftovers. Xena seems to have accepted that decision but now in Is There A Doctor In The House, we see what happens when you sign up to be with Xena 24/7 – the good, the bad and the ugly.
First the good – Gabrielle’s is the first name Xena calls out when she realises she needs medical assistance. This is a big deal and a new deal for Gabrielle but she copes well when confronting buckets of blood and butchered blokes. She shows herself a quick learner and a valuable resource to Xena. You can actually see her grow, deal with and process what she has seen. She’s a little shaky of course, but the girl from Poteideia shows she’s made of stern stuff and is prepared to come back for more.
The bad – the very traits that give her such a wonderful bedside manner prove Gabrielle’s undoing. She puts her compassion ahead of common sense. She will go out into a war zone to rescue a lone stranger rather than stay and help a room full of them. Some might call this brave. In this episode, and only this episode, I will refrain from calling it totally idiotic and choose instead "naïve". At this point, one could argue, she simply didn’t know any better. It doesn’t make her a bad person of course, just a brave and compassionate one who doesn’t (now or ever) think things through.
The ugly – the ‘sin’ of pride is one of the few character flaws Xena still has that she makes no effort to change. In Is There A Doctor In The House she has to deal with the consequences of it in the worst possible way. While she, Gabrielle and Ephiny should have been miles from that temple, well and truly in safety, Xena just couldn’t resist the challenge to her ego to meet Gabrielle’s unintended dare and stop a war she has no business interfering in. The irony of a former warlord declaring herself the peacemaker in this fight is obviously lost on her. Or maybe she thinks that makes her ideally suited.
For whatever reason she offers herself no internal argument at all in getting involved, despite dragging Gabrielle and a very pregnant Ephiny into it with her. That’s not good leadership. Her decision nearly had catastrophic consequences for them all. As Xena finally confesses: "My pride may have killed my best friend."
Which leads us to, bar none, the best scene in all of season one Xena, and a moment of character development, dramatic elevation and revelation. Many fans were hooked forever more.
The look on Xena’s face as the full horror hits home is incredible. Even though she tells Hippocrates earlier that "it’s up to Gabrielle now" to save herself, she never at any stage seemed to believe the bard would do anything but pull through, and bounce back to her old self. And then…
Look at all the emotions criss-crossing her face, and there are quite a few, and the overriding one she settles on is one of panic. Panic. Suddenly, as if in a brief, chilling moment of realisation, her life without Gabrielle has flashed in front of her eyes. And she understands completely she cannot go on. Not she doesn’t want to. But that she can’t. She realizes what her life has been with Gabrielle, and without her – you can see the actual moment – she just sees an abyss of emptiness.
So what’s a warrior princess with many skills to do?
The only thing she can do: refuse to accept facts, and change the rules. "She is not dead. I wouldn’t let her," Xena spits out with a restrained rage at herself and/or the gods.
Remember that ‘sin’ of pride again? Sometimes it really can work in your favour. Having a belief in oneself so strong as to refuse to believe someone will die on you is a powerful thing – and it would save Gabrielle’s life. Xena, distraught, raging against death and the incomprehensibility of it all, simply will NOT take it. And she thumps Gabrielle, and shakes her, and gives her the almost intimate gift of her own air, the very air she breathes. And she holds her and hugs her and brings her companion back to life.
It’s interesting to contrast the scene to how Gabrielle dealt with Xena’s "death" in The Greater Good – there she is tender and gentle with Xena’s body, a soft kiss, a brush of the hair, and her displays of agony are left to a tree outside, away from Xena’s sightless eyes. She might have been different of course had Xena died right in front of her, but I suspect the gentleness that weaves through her spirit would have always been the main emotion from Gabrielle.
Xena however is fire and tempest, she is brute force and incredulousness, and she is tossing about Gabrielle’s body as if her soul will return to it by Xena’s sheer willpower alone.
And then it happens: Gabrielle lives.
It is one of the most powerful things I have ever seen on television, the moment where Gabrielle sucks in her first breath after an interminable amount of angst, tears, threats and pleas of "don’t die" from Xena – in the performance of Lucy Lawless’s life.
While everyone else around would have given up, only Xena, the one who loves her, hangs in there as she has nothing else to live for. Few of those gathered around watching would have come away with any other opinion that day than Xena the all-conquering Warrior Princess of Amphipolis loves Gabrielle the bard of Poteideia.
The reason so many fans love this episode really comes down to just these few minutes. The payoff is so exceptional, and the performances so moving it puts the show just briefly into a whole other stratosphere.
You’re left thinking: How can this just be some silly, cheeky, cheesy girl buddy-show? It seems so inconceivable in that scene to realise we are not watching emotions in some A-list Hollywood production or some darkest tale of Shakespearean angst.
If the character of Gabrielle turned a corner in this episode, going from tagalong to full apprentice to Xena, the show itself turned its own corner in establishing itself as having the capacity for sheer dramatic brilliance.
As for the rest of the episode – well it barely merits a mention.
I was glad to see they finally had a guest star (General Marmax) who could actually act, and who leant a few knowing subtleties in his scenes with Xena. It was clever to have her paired up with a fellow fighter/leader who would know all too well about her issues, like not involving civilians in your fight, and becoming the very thing you are fighting against.
Ephiny was a surprise arrival – and the writers cursed her with the show’s worst dialogue, ranging from exposition girl – "They gave you the right of caste…" (as if Gabrielle or Ephiny could ever forget that) to the most coherent mother-to-be while in the throes of childbirth – "I’m so tired my soul feels like it’s been sliced open by a razor."
By far her funniest line, poor, poor woman, was to say, Simpsons style "You’ve got to think of the children." Oh my god, I thought only holier-than-thou politicians ever said that line with a straight face.
Meanwhile this episode yet again reminded me not to think too hard about the, ahem, romance between Ephiny and Phantes. Don’t make me say it. I think "ewwww" sums it up more than enough.
Speaking of Phantes, Xena offers the most insensitive line in history by urging the new mother to think of her husband when she’s having the baby. Um, gee, don’t you think the fact he got "ripped to pieces" only a few days back might not traumatize her somewhat? That’d be the last person you’d be wanting her to think about.
And please explain, and Xena – wouldn't a pain-numbing pinch for Ephiny be faster than
OK hammiest line of the whole episode was by the knickers-in-a-bunch whiney old priest who reacts somewhat comically to one of his temple lads being shot up by an arrow. "What am I to do?" he shrieks, not unlike Mr Smith from Lost in Space. What am I to do?! Um, get an acting coach would be my best advice.
Now, all hail Xena’s latest medical breakthroughs – from lung inflation and "Look ma, here’s a tracheotomy I prepared earlier" to My Little Pony C-sections and CPR for beginners. She truly has many skills. Also an extra thumbs up for using the breast dagger as a scalpel and the sly introduction of the Hippocratic Oath. Cute.
And then we had the final scene of the hero and her bard hobbling off together arm in arm as Gabs remembers to thank Xena for saving her life again. I do like how Xena plays it down – like bringing someone back from the dead is no big deal. Boy would Xena ever be embarrassed if Gabs could have seen the emotional roller coaster the big lug had gone through while Gabs was dying. But that’s so much part of Xena’s charms, keeping those emotions tucked away – and why it’s so wonderful to watch when they seep out.
In sum: the feel-good factor for this episode is off the scale. If the writers had found a way to bypass the largely predictable ER episode feel to it, the clunky dialogue and one or two really bad actors, this could have been the best Xena episode ever. As it was, Is There A Doctor In The House slips easily into the top 10 best Xena eps of all time, and shows once and for all why fans were really latching on to this remarkable new show.
It’s easy to see why it was being seized on. Through the good, the bad, and the ugly it all comes down to one thing - these two friends really do love each other (be it romantic or platonic is not the point) and it shows. How rare is that to even see in any TV show anywhere between a pair of friends? No sarcastic digs, no competing for dates, no bland friendship where it feels like they’re just hanging out for convenience but would not sacrifice a fingernail let alone a life for the other, it’s just deep loyalty, adoration and admiration.
In essence Is There A Doctor In The House is all about the love. We could all feel it – and, by the gods, it was beautiful.