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?"|
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."|
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.|
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.