Best TV Shows You’ve Never Watched: THE QUEEN OF SWORDS

Earlier this month it was announced that Sofia Vergara was teaming with Robert and Rebecca Rodriquez to produce a new ZORRO TV series for NBC. The twist is that this wouldn’t be the classic version of the character:

Zorro centers on Sola Dominguez, an underground artist who fights for social justice as a contemporary version of the mythical Zorro. READ MORE

Predictably there are critical comments online from some who object to a male character being rebooted as a female character, calling that “pandering” and even “sexist.” Especially with the idea that she’ll be fighting “for social justice”, oh Heaven forbid, they’re turning Zorro into a dreaded SJW! Of course, that’s what the character has always been. A wealthy man who disguises himself to fight the greedy rich landowners and protect the oppressed poor citizens. 

Anyway, for me, speaking as someone who has always loved the character of Zorro, I also have some trepidation about this new proposed series, but not because it’s starring a woman, it’s because it’s set in the modern era. To me, Zorro only really works when he’s set during his original time period of the late 1700’s to mid-1800’s, when California was ruled by either Spain or later Mexico. This is back when people rode horses for transportation and swords were the most common handheld weapon. If this new series is set in 2021 or later, is Zorro going to be riding a motorcycle and using a gun? A sword certainly wouldn’t be much effective against most armed criminals today. So, see, if you take away the sword-fighting, then the character just isn’t “Zorro” anymore. Then he or she just becomes any other typical costumed vigilante character, I mean we already have a BATWOMAN TV show. That’s your modern-day female Zorro series.

Still, I’ll reserve final judgment until I see some shots from the show, should it actually come to pass. Nevertheless, this story reminded me of the time that there was a “female Zorro” TV series.

The Queen of Swords was a syndicated TV series that began airing in October 2000. It was an hour-long action-drama set in the early 1800’s in Santa Helana, California (I’m not sure if that’s meant to be a fictional city or the actual city of St. Helena, California). The story focused on Tessa Alvarado, the only child of a wealthy California landowner who was attending school in Spain. During this time she’d also taken up fencing as a hobby, becoming an extremely skilled sword-fighter. This was something she’d done in secret, knowing her father wouldn’t approve of a respectable young lady engaging in such an activity. Her mother was already long-dead when the show began, and when her father was murdered, she and her loyal Gypsy guardian/servant Marta moved to Santa Helana to take over her father’s land and investigate his murder. While there, she sees that a corrupt military man named Col. Montoya has been installed as the Governor of Santa Helena and with his army he rules the town with an iron fist, exploiting the peasants to the benefit of himself and his allies, the wealthy local landowners. With a vision from her father and some encouragement from Marta, who takes inspiration from the Queen of Swords tarot card, Tessa adopts the costumed identity of the Queen of Swords, using a sword and occasionally a whip to oppose Col. Montoya’s schemes, and standing up for the people of Santa Helena, while in her public identity behaving like a spoiled and careless rich noblewoman.

Yes, that’s basically the traditional origin and status quo of Zorro, just with some names, locations, and genders switched.

The show ran for a single season of 22 episodes. I used to watch it on Saturday afternoons on one of my local TV networks, I believe it was either KCAL Channel 9 or KCOP Channel 13
I don’t recall if I caught it from the beginning, but whichever episode it was on when I saw it first, I was immediately hooked. And I used to tape every episode on VHS until I’d had them all.

Most episodes involved Col. Montoya’s latest attempts to kill the Queen of Swords, either by himself or with the help of new assassins or bandits who arrive in town, or the Queen of Swords foiling some scheme of Col. Montoya’s. Over the course of the season, the show did have some notable guest-stars and tackled some serious historical issues.

In one episode BO DEREK appeared as a wealthy noblewoman and former pirate whose son has been arrested for the murder of a peasant woman.

Tessa happened to be the sole witness to the murder, and with her testimony, the son is sure to be convicted and hanged. So Derek’s character shows up with her gang of armed men and threatens Tessa against testifying. As the Queen of Swords, Tessa investigates the murder and learns that there may be more to it than what she thinks she saw.

The Late David Carradine shows up as a notorious bandit who crosses swords with the Queen in one episode. And Sung-Hi Lee starred in an episode as a Japanese warrior (although Lee is Korean) who is tricked by Col. Montoya into believing that the Queen of Swords is responsible for her Master’s death, and tracks her down to kill her.

One episode dealt with the topic of slavery, as two Black slaves, who are brother and sister, have escaped from their sadistic British owner with the help of the owner’s wife, hiding out on Tessa’s land, where Marta discovers them. The owner arrives in town to recapture them all and The Queen of Swords must face him. Interestingly, we’re shown that as evil as Col. Montoya is, even he is personally disgusted by slavery, but he does temporarily ally himself with the slave-owner in order to gain access to some weapons the slave-owner offers him as a reward for his slaves (and wife’s) recapture.

Another stand-out episode to me was one in which Elizabeth Gracen played a woman who came to town impersonating the Queen of Swords and is used by Col. Montoya to rob peasants, thereby ruining the Queen’s reputation among the population who have come to worship her as a hero. Tessa has to face this impersonator in a sword fight, to prove her innocence.

Strangely I’ll note that, even though it was supposedly her main motive for staying in Santa Helena, the show didn[t really have Tessa doing much to look into the murder of her father, although it was heavily implied that Col. Montoya had something to do with it. I only recall one further episode after the pilot where it was the main plot, a man claimed to secret information about it and went to Tessa seeking a bribe for it. But he turned out to be a liar. Perhaps this something was being saved later on in the series. Certainly if Col. Montoya was meant to be the killer, that confrontation would likely be saved for the series finale, as he was the main villain. 

But, sadly, one season was all we got. I don’t recall exactly how long the season continued to air in reruns, but I’d say within a year after the final episode aired it was off the air locally. And this was pre-internet for me, so I didn’t have any easy ways for looking up information about the series. But the fact that it vanished from the air so soon and I couldn’t find a proper DVD release lead me to assume that it may have been taken off the air due to legal pressure from the estate that owns the rights to Zorro. But upon researching the show for this post, I see that Wikipedia states otherwise:

On January 24, 2001, Sony Pictures Entertainment filed a lawsuit in United States District Court, Central District of California, Western Division, against Fireworks Entertainment Group, the producers of Queen of Swords. Sony alleged copyright infringement and other claims, saying the series “copied protectable elements from [the] ‘Zorro’ character and ‘Zorro’ related works”. On April 5, 2001, U.S. District Judge Collins, denied Sony’s motion for a preliminary injunction, noting, among other points, “that since the copyrights in [Johnson McCulley’s 1919 short story] The Curse of Capistrano and [the 1920 movie] The Mark of Zorro lapsed in 1995 or before, the character Zorro has been in the public domain”. As to specific elements of The Mask of Zorro, the judge found that any similarities between the film and the TV series’ secondary characters and plot elements were insufficient to warrant an injunction.

So that’s not it. I can’t find any specific reason why the series canceled, perhaps it just didn’t make enough money for the production company to continue it, nor why it still hasn’t gotten a proper release. A couple of years later I did manage to find a French-made DVD boxset of the series, which I could play on my Region Free DVD player without the French dubbing. But unfortunately, it’s out of print now. So copies can be quite expensive.

Tessie Santiago was just 25 at the time and this was her first professional acting role, which is something that I only discovered as I was looking up information about her to write this review. That’s something I never would have guessed from watching the show, she seemed like an experienced pro who carried the show very well. She had to be believable as the shallow Tessa and as the brave Queen of Swords, and she pulled it off.

Paulina Gálvez played Tessa servant Maya, she was the “Alfred” to Tessa’s “Batman”, so to speak. The two actresses had definite chemistry in their scenes together that helped sell their onscreen roles.

And Valentine Pelka was pitch-perfect as the evil and ruthless, but occasionally charming, Col. Montoya.

Rounding out the main cast was Anthony Lemke as Montoya’s right-hand man, Captain Grisham, an American military deserter, Elsa Pataka as Vera, the young trophy wife of one of the local landowners who was secretly having an affair with Grisham, and Peter Wingfield as Dr. Helm, the town doctor, an Englishman who was set up as a potential love interest for the Queen of Swords, whom he often felt drawn to (while dismissing Tessa as a spoiled rich girl), despite him being a pacifist who hated the Queen’s violent methods. The second to last episode of the series had the Queen of Swords and Dr. Helm trapped in a sealed cave, with the air slowly running out, as the two of them reminisced at previous adventures, which were shown in flashbacks from previous episodes, as they debated their philosophical differences. At one point when the Queen had fallen asleep, the doctor was tempted to remove her mask but chose not to out of respect.

I loved this series, and feel that if Sofia Vergara and company want to do a “female Zorro” show, I’d rather that they bought the rights to Queen of Swords and rebooted it, keeping it set in the 1800’s where it belongs.

But If you want to check out the series yourself, you can look it up on YOUTUBE, where several full episodes and various scenes are currently available for free.

Mary-Jo Sawyer interviews Tessie Santiago The Queen of Swords.

Q&A: with Tessie Santiago

The Queen of Swords: A TV SERIES REVIEW by Michael Shonk

The Queen of Swords: Behind The Scenes And on The Set With Anthony De Longis

Getting To Know Tessie Santiago-The Queen Of Swords

Interviews with Peter Wingfield and Valentine Pelka


3 comments

  1. I am soooo tired of reboots… but this series, the queens of swords, as you have described it seems interesting. I have never heard of it but it seems to me to be something that you would have been found on the USA network back in the day. I might just go look at those episodes available on youtube.
    As for the new rebooted series that will be featured on NBC, i’ll let you review it first and tell me about it.

    Liked by 1 person

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