Hercules: The Legendary Journeys Series Review

“Wherever there was evil, wherever an innocent would suffer, there would be... Hercules!”

This is the story of a time long ago. A time of myth and legend. When ancient TV producers were petty and cruel and they plagued mankind with increasingly drearily programming. Only one show dared to challenge their power... Hercules!

Back in 1994, long before the Spider-Man films catapulted him into the Hollywood A-List, director Sam Raimi, along with his producing partner Robert Tapert, produced a collection of action-adventure TV movies for Universal Media Studio’s syndicated Action Pack series. Starring Kevin Sorbo and shot in New Zealand, these movies portrayed a more light-hearted and often tongue-in-cheek take on the adventures of that classic hero of Greek mythology, Hercules.

The five Hercules TV movies soon proved hugely popular with audiences (unlike William Shatner’s Tekwar) and eventually a full series was ordered. Hercules: The Legendary Journeys debuted in 1995 and proved a massive success, going so far as to dislodge Baywatch as the No. 1 show in the world (fact). Seems even the Hoff was no match for the son of Zeus. The success of Hercules led to a mini revival of fantasy programming in the late 90s with (mostly crap) shows like Sinbad, Conan, Beastmaster and The Adventures of Robin Hood popping up all over the place. Oh, and it also managed to spawn a spin-off series, Xena: Warrior Princess. You might’ve heard of it.

In an age dominated by cop shows, medical dramas, legal dramas and even more cop shows, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys was a welcome breath a fresh air. It was light-hearted fun for all the family and unapologetically proud of it. True, a lot of the time it could be exceptional cheesy, but luckily the series also possessed a brilliantly knowing sense of humour that helped you to overcome the b-grade special effects and the occasional blunt moral lesson for the kiddies.

Hercules and his one true love, Iolaus.

Hercules was essentially Greek myth remoulded into comic book heroics. It was a bright and colourful series, with a light-hearted tone and goofy, knowing sense of humour that helped you get past the show’s unquestionable cheesiness. This show's Hercules was a Superman of the ancient world equally adept at fighting giant monsters and evil gods as he was getting kittens out of trees. He was an old fashioned do-gooder. The kind of hero television no longer seems to have any time for. Makes one almost feel nostalgic for that simpler time when not all good guys came with a side order of darkness or moral gray.

In the wrong hands the role of Hercules could’ve been nothing more than a bland hulk of muscle, a vacant tough guy with sawdust between his ears. Luckily Sorbo turned out to be a warm and likeable leading man (on screen at least), both heroic and noble with a laid back and friendly charm. He was amiably supported by Michael Hurst as Iolaus, Herc’s best friend and sidekick. Their affectionate bromance was defiantly the heart and soul of the entire series.

As fun as the series was, the original TV movies are a mixed bag when it comes to quality. ‘Amazon Women’ is pretty dire, notable only for an early appearance by one Lucy Lawless and the first death of Iolaus (he could give Rory Williams a run for his money). ‘The Lost Kingdom’ is much better with a feisty performance by a young Renee O’Connor and a great sea monster, yet it still feels a little ropey around the edges. ‘The Circle of Fire’ and ‘In the Underworld’ remain the best of the lot while ‘Maze of the Minotaur’ is just a great big clip show with some serious plot holes. Throughout Anthony Quinn is permanently on autopilot as a randy old Zeus.

The first season of the series proper is as equally hit and miss as the movies. Without a doubt the standout episodes are the Xena trilogy (‘Warrior Princess’, ‘The Gauntlet’ and ‘Unchained Heart’) that introduced everyone’s favourite butt kicker from Amphipolis. Apart from Xena we saw Hercules battle all sorts of enemies over the 13 episodes, including monsters, war lords, demons, slave traders, centaurs, giant beasts, gladiators, the odd misunderstood Cyclops and, as the voice-over man reminds us every week, the minions of his wicked step-mother Hera, the all powerful queen of the gods. However, unlike later seasons the Olympian Gods are kept strictly in the clouds, operating mainly through their lackeys and minions. At this early stage in the show's development it had yet to fully establish its wonderful array of supporting characters. Iolaus and Salmoneus (Robert Trebor) are both present and correct but the blind seer Tiresias (Norman Forsey) didn’t work out and was ditched after a few episodes.

After a successful freshman year the series went into its second season with greater confidence. The slightly darker tones of the first season had been ironed out and transferred over to spin-off, Xena: Warrior Princess. The series had found its niche and never once looked back. At least, not until the dark days of season five. Like most TV shows of its time the series was predominately episodic rather than arc driven. There isn't even so much as a two parter this season. The only recurring element linking many episodes together remains Hercules tiresome ongoing struggle with Hera. This plotline continues to go nowhere and just feels like its dragging on and on with no hope of ever reaching any sort of conclusion.

"I'm sorry, could you make that apology for Andromeda a little louder?"
Standout episodes include season opener ‘The King of Thieves’ which, rather obviously, sees the introduction of Autolycus. Hercules journeys into the underworld in ‘The Other Side’, the series own take on the legend of Persephone and Hades. And ‘Once A Hero’ sees Herc and Iolaus team up with King Jason and their fellow Argonauts to go after the Golden Fleece again and battle some nifty skeleton warriors that would make Ray Harryhausen proud. Rather disappointingly after such a strong run of episodes the season ends in low key fashion with a rather limp clip show (seriously, a clip show!). ‘The Wedding of Alcmene’, a reunion special that brought together almost every supporting character from the show’s first two seasons, would’ve made for a much more suitable finale. It had a giant sea monster and everything.

This was also the season that the show’s wonderful supporting cast began to finally take shape. We got to meet Bruce Campbell’s dashing Autolycus, the king of thieves. Kevin Smith (no, not the chubby filmmaker) made his first appearance in ‘What’s in a Name’ only not as hunky bad boy god of war Ares, but rather as Hercules other resentful half-brother, Iphicles. And ‘The Apple’ sees the arrival of Hercules' shallow but adorable sister, Aphrodite, played with full Valley Girl ditzy cuteness by Alexandra Tydings.

By its third season Hercules: The Legendary Journeys had fallen into the shadow of Xena. While Herc continued to do perfectly respectable business, the Warrior Princess was enjoying better ratings, more critical acclaim and a stronger fan base. Viewing this season it’s clear that the Hercules producers were eager to cash-in on the growing success of Xena and boost their own show’s ratings. Crossovers became increasingly frequent between both shows. Besides Lucy Lawless and Renee O’Connor making an appearance, Kevin Smith popped up regularly as Ares while Hudson Leick (Callisto) and Ted Rami (Joxer) also guest starred. At the same time more of the Hercules supporting characters began appearing regularly on Xena, most notably Tydings’ ditzy goddess of love, Aphrodite, and Bruce Campbell’s dashing King of Thieves. Bar the main cast members everyone else was now effectively pulling double duty on both shows.

Did it make much difference? Not really.

Season three continues the strong run of season two and includes some of the series’ best episodes including ‘Mercenary’, ‘Surprise’ and ‘Atlantis’. After two seasons on the sidelines Michael Hurst was finally promoted to star status and was now even carrying entire episodes solo whenever Sorbo felt like a week off. Sometimes the writers would indulge their crazier impulses and produce episodes that were utterly bonkers. Hercules fell in love, gave up his powers, got married, and became a widower all in the space of three episodes. Later he goes back in time and changes things so none of this nonsense ever happened.

"We're here to boost ratings and chew bubblegum. And we're all out of bubblegum."
During production of the fourth season Kevin Sorbo suffered from a near fatal blood clot which put him out of action for some time. With the leading man out of action for the majority of the season the producers had to find new ways to continue the show minus the star. They eventually made an episode out of the ordeal, the hilarious ‘Yes Virginia, there is a Hercules’ where the supporting cast played the real life production crew as they went round the bend when actor ‘Kevin Sorbo’ goes missing. It’s also notable for featuring a scene where a row of men urinate while whistling the show’s theme tune. Truly, the show's finest hour.

To compensate for Sorbo’s absence the producers used many (agonising) flashback episodes with young Hercules (not yet played by Ryan Gosling), gave more screen time to supporting characters and even turned Hercules into a pig for an episode. Yes, a pig. Plus there’s the required clip show. This is the season they did a Strictly Ballroom tribute (no, seriously), Callisto tried to go back in time and kill Hercules before he was born, Autolycus and Salmoneus re-enacted Some Like it Hot (no, seriously), Iolaus visited an evil parallel world where Hercules was the bad guy (with a goatee) and Ares was the fabulous god of love (boy, do I wish Xena had met that Ares), and Hercules finally brought his ongoing battle with Hera to a long overdue conclusion.

He's a lover, not a fighter.
Hoping to boost ratings, the first half of the fifth season saw the writers take the show in a darker direction as they hijacked the Dahak storyline for their sister show. Surely Hercules deserved better than Xena’s sloppy seconds? Shockingly, Iolous was killed off. Again. But they meant it this time (yeah, right). Herc was more broken up by his best friend's death than he ever was about his family's.

The action moves away from the oddly New Zealand-looking land of Ancient Greece to the oddly New Zealand-looking land of Ireland, where Hercules goes to brood about his best friend's latest death. Cue dodgy Orish accents as Hercules gets mingled up with druids and Celtic gods. He even pops up to Sweden to hang around with the Norse gods and marvel at their even dodgier Swedish accents (this was the season for dodgy accents). Once Hercules has saved us all from enduring another year of this Dahak rubbish it’s back to business as usual. Herc even gets his best mate back. Well, his best mate’s twin from an evil parallel universe. But even that soon gets rectified as Iolous 2 goes to sleep with the fishes (not how you're thinking) while classic Iolous returns from the dead (told ya) to help his buddy save the world from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Hercules was all but over in 1999 as Kevin Sorbo was ready to pack up his bags and move on (sadly to Canada to make Andromeda). But thanks to some contractual thingamajig the studio wanted eight more episodes from Sorbo before he left New Zealand forever. Even at only eight episodes Season 6 doesn’t feel like a final season, just a random selection of episodes featuring some of your favourite characters. There is no real sense that things are coming to an end and in fact they don’t. Come the final episode Hercules and Iolous, after a brief retirement, continue to do what they’ve always done: fighting monsters, saving people, hunting things, the family- sorry, that’s Supernatural. But you get my drift. Life would go on for our dynamic duo, even if we weren't there to witness it.

Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011. More Mark Greig.


mazephoenix said...

Aww now I miss Kevin Smith even more..he was brilliant as Ares. Also-yay Xena. I wonder if she and Gabrielle had the loudest subtext or if that was Iolalus and Hercules. It's a tie really.
Also-Bruce Campbell was great here-and on Xena. This show was such fun at its best. And so campy at its worst.
Thanks for a great overview.

Billie Doux said...

Mark, what a terrific review. I laughed out loud several times. You reminded me especially of how much I loved Callisto (who mostly hung out over on Xena) and Kevin Smith as Ares. So sad that Kevin Smith died so young! And it's such a shame Kevin Sorbo turned out to be such a jerk in real life because I really enjoyed Hercules.

I don't think I saw all of the episodes, although I'm sort of foggy about when I stopped watching. Certainly before this: It’s also notable for featuring a scene where a row of men urinate while whistling the show’s theme tune. Truly, the show's finest hour. I wouldn't have forgotten that one.

I have a Callisto story! Dan and I were in a cafe once and he nudged me because Hudson Leick was at the next table. :) We didn't approach her or anything, but it was fun to see her. We learned later that she was a yoga instructor or something at a place in the neighborhood we were visiting.

Laure Mack said...

Kevin Sorbo isn't the kitten-saving-type in real life? That hurts.

Thanks for the review, Mark. I liked it so much that I read it twice. :)

If you tell me that Lucy Lawless doesn't have the skill to kill with a frisbee, I might pass out.

Billie, why was the sociopathic character so popular? I remember trying to convince my parents that my name should be changed to Callisto.

Billie Doux said...

Laure, maybe it was because Callisto was just hot as well as cool. :) Dan got a refrigerator magnet of her. It was our first refrigerator magnet. It kind of got lost among all the Buffy magnets later on, but hey, it was still first.

mazephoenix said...

Sorbo was in a dreadful movie called "God is nor dead" in which all atheists are evil and eat puppies or something-and he's a jerk too I seem to recall.
Ohh Callisto-she was uberhot. Still remember the awkard time when she swicthed bodies with Xena. Now I want a magnet with her on it.

Ellie said...

Hi, I'm admittedly more familiar with the Xena canon than with Hercules right now, so my response is half tongue-in-cheek and half genuine, curious questioning:

Also-yay Xena. I wonder if she and Gabrielle had the loudest subtext or if that was Iolalus and Hercules. It's a tie really.

Does Hercules/Iolaus then progress to the point where once you get to the final season the people claiming they aren't actual-canon-no-seriously-this-is-no-joke-the-show-is-SCREAMING-it-at-us(-though-censorship-still-exists-ofc) lovers are the ones facing a major uphill battle in terms of textual support?

From what I have seen, Hercules/Iolaus is definitely majorly slashy, but it's been more or less on par with a lot of m/m "bromance" media out there which you can be 99% percent sure would never ACTUALLY go there. IMO Xena/Gabrielle was, by the end at least...somewhere on the next level entirely.

Mark Greig said...

Hercules and Iolaus had more than their fair share of slashy moments, even some major homoerotic ones, but it was never ever more than subtext. Xena and Gabrielle left subtext far behind by the time their show entered it's final two season. Hell, in one episode Gabrielle was woken from a magical deep sleep by Xena's true love's kiss. How can anyone consider that subtext?

mazephoenix said...

You are both right, It's been a while since I watched the shows. I still dislike how Xena ended..she and Gabby should have gotten to bliss off into the sunset like Herc and Iolaus.. while fighting the good fight.
Sigh, memories.

Ellie said...

Xena and Gabrielle left subtext far behind by the time their show entered it's final two season. Hell, in one episode Gabrielle was woken from a magical deep sleep by Xena's true love's kiss. How can anyone consider that subtext?

RIGHT?! (Not to mention another woman fell in love with Gabby in that arc and wanted to prove herself to her over Xena and the show directly had someone say to said female guest star that "you've fallen in love with [Xena's] partner"). Also the episode where Julius Caesar escapes hell and alters reality so Xena is his Empress but then she literally falls in love with playwright!Gabrielle at first sight, complete with loaded conversations about Love, throwing roses, longing gazes across balconies, blatant innuendos, Grand Acts in the name of Love, etc. I'd actually be kinda interested in hearing someone try to give the non-"subtext" interpretation for that one, because seriously HOW.


I still dislike how Xena ended..she and Gabby should have gotten to bliss off into the sunset like Herc and Iolaus.. while fighting the good fight.

What really killed me was finding out that this was only the ending because the producers decided to change the order of the final episodes. The one I was talking about above was originally going to be the Xena finale and boy could I write an essay about just how much more fundamentally right and sense-making it would have been. UGH forever.

mazephoenix said...

I had no idea. I assumed that was the ending they wanted. Ugh indeed. So unncessary. I'll just do what I always do, and pretend it didn't happen that way. I'm sad about Joxer too..a little bit.

Gavrielle said...

Great review, Mark! Poor Kevin Smith. He lived in my street (yes, New Zealand is very, very small) and he was a lovely guy. Hercules really kicked the New Zealand TV/film industry up a gear, and we're still benefiting from that today. Shame about Kevin Sorbo though! The local stories were legendary....

Ellie said...

I had no idea. I assumed that was the ending they wanted. Ugh indeed. So unncessary.

Well, obviously ~someone decided they wanted but it's documented that wasn't the initial plan, and IMO it's not only happier but the themes and character throughlines really are massively more coherent in the original order, as admittedly quirky and unusual a choice ending on something like When Fates Collide would have been. This is getting pretty OT for a comment on a Hercules post so I'm trying not to go into too much detail, but it would've 1) finally, definitively "come out" beyond any nominal ambiguity whatsoever (the script actually had a "Gabrielle realizes that Xena is her soulmate and then just MACKS on her for the few precious seconds they have" kiss that was then cut once it wasn't going to be the finale), 2) brought Xena to a place that (imo) feels like real peace, whereas the standing ending just comes across way more as "Xena gets manipulated through her guilt and everything sucks forever" no matter what anybody claims they were going for, and 3) Gabrielle's trajectory: it's incredibly difficult to believe that she would have made the decision she does in FIN after what she does in WFC, whereas reversing it and imagining that her actions in WFC are instead on some level also being informed by what she'd gone through there...it's just SO very right for her, tbh.