Movie: Shows based on ancient mythology have been common over the years, both in the written form and other media. The myths were a way for people to deal with the uncertainties of their lives, much like religions help people today. Nearly ten years ago a television show, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, became the latest in this long line of tributes to age-old stories, albeit with a certain modern flair. The show didn't stick very close to the original material and updated the language, mannerisms, and sensibilities in order to make the legendary strongman more palatable to modern audiences. After all, there wouldn't be a big market for a show centered on a demi-god that rapes women, enslaves them, killed his family, and solved problems with brute strength alone (at least I hope not). No, this was a kinder, gentler guy who was as politically correct as anyone coming out of a Southern California ACLU meeting. The series itself started off with this little monologue: "This is the story of a time long ago. A time of myth and legend, when the ancient gods were petty and cruel, and they plagued mankind with suffering. Only one man dared to challenge their power, Hercules. Hercules possessed a strength the world had never seen, a strength surpassed only by the power of his heart. He journeyed the Earth, battling the minions of his wicked stepmother, Hera, the all-powerful Queen of the gods. But wherever there was evil, wherever an innocent would suffer, there would be Hercules."
Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Season Four followed the spotty Third Season with a host of problems, the worst of which was lead actor Kevin Sorbo's extended illness. Let's face it, Kevin WAS Hercules so getting a replacement wasn't an option and the result was that he wasn't able to participate very much in this season. The extensive use of the Young Hercules concept, using a younger actor to portray the hero (much like Smallville revises the Superman mythos) was painful but the biggest saving grace for me was the extra episodes using Autolycus (Bruce Campbell). The season even had fewer episodes as a whole, something not lost on rabid fans of the show and the various parodies/homage's to movies of the past were a mixed blessing too.
As one of the most popular shows in syndication history, the show was somewhat preachy in terms of morality, but a fun ride on the camp wagon, if you catch my drift. After season one, a spin off series, Xena: Warrior Princess, found a huge audience and both shows had large followings (Xena was a bit darker most of the time, but that was in line with the character's past), outlasting all the critics predictions about the campy, quirky humor used to draw in audiences all over the world. Episodes for both shows play on the Sci-Fi Channel, and you can find very detailed information about those episodes there or on the official Hercules website:
Episode 1: Beanstalks And Bad Eggs: (September 29, 1997):
Like many of the later episodes of the Hercules/Xena Universe, the writers took a classic story, Jack And The Beanstalk in this case, and updated it with the usual wacky humor of the series. In the episode, Hercules and Autolycus, The King Of Thieves, played by Bruce Campbell, pair up to fulfill the request of an old woman (well, Autolycus had his usual motives).
Episode 2: Hero's Heart: (October 6, 1997):
In a slight takeoff of It's A Wonderful Life, Iolaus ponders what help he really is to Hercules when he can't save a woman from dying. Fortune takes his pleas to heart and erases his memories. He ends up on the wrong side of the law and only Hercules can save his sidekick from himself.
Episode 3: Regrets… I've Had A Few: (October 13, 1997):
Hercules, after running into an old friend of his, Jaris, gets Celesta to give him an extra day to put his life in order before she claims him. Hercules, in flashback form, remembers the day the two met and how rocky the meeting was. This was one of the many Young Hercules episodes of the season, with Ian Bohen as the younger version of our hero.
Episode 4: Web Of Desire: (October 20, 1997):
Hercules and his crew get stranded on a desert island full of treasure. Knowing something to be wrong, the crew mysteriously dies off one by one as they attempt to wait out a storm. They meet the hot female pirate, Nebula (Gina Torres), who starts flirting with Iolaus until there are only the three of them left (or not).
Episode 5: Stranger In A Strange World: (October 27, 1997):
When Ares and Hercules fight, Zeus intercedes to stop them by throwing a powerful series of lightning bolts that open a dimensional rift to a parallel universe where all the characters have doppelgangers to the usual universe. Ares is the god of love and Hercules is a cruel, petty tyrant (The Sovereign) there, with Iolaus caught in the middle. This was one of those episodes that were designed to be a comedy but had serious overtones (and some recurring characters).
Episode 6: Two Men And A Baby: (November 3, 1997):
Nemesis, an old flame of Hercules that was formerly known as the Hitman to the gods, protects her baby from a horde of warriors following the orders of Ares. When she leaves to draw their attention, Hercules and Iolaus must care for the unusual infant, whose father may or may not be Hercules.
Episode 7: Prodigal Sister: (November 11, 1997):
Hercules attempts to reunite a young blind man with his kidnapped sister, now an Amazon with a thirst for blood after years of conditioning by her captors.
Episode 8: …And Fancy Free: (November 17, 1997):
In yet another takeoff of a mainstream movie, Hercules and Althea enter a dancing contest with coaching from the Widow Twanky (Michael Hurst in drag) with all the intrigue you'd expect. If you liked the movie Strictly Ballroom, you'll love this parody of it.
Episode 9: If I Had A Hammer: (January 12, 1998):
This episode featured recurring guest Atalanta (Cory Everson-yum!) as she pines for love while Discord lives up to her name.
Episode 10: Hercules On Trial: (January 19, 1998):
In a compilation episode, Hercules is put on trial by a shyster when another man dies in an attempt to emulate the hero. This was somewhat of a generic episode that has been done in other series to death.
Episode 11: Medea Culpa: (January 26, 1998):
In another episode centered on Young Hercules, the young hero is joined by some of his friends to slay a mythic beast, The Ghidra. If you were one of the half dozen fans of the spin off show, Young Hercules, you'll like this one more than I did.
Episode 12: Men In Pink: (February 2, 1998):
Autolycus (Bruce Campbell) returns with Salmoneus as the two run from the law for something they actually didn't do. If you've seen the classic comedy, Some Like It Hot, you'll know everything that happens here as the duo go in drag with a dance troupe run by everyone's favorite sidekick in drag (Michael Hurst), the Widow Twanky.
Episode 13: Armageddon Now, Part 1: (February 9, 1998):
Ares latest scheme to dominate the world involves using Callisto to free The Sovereign from his inter-dimensional prison and take his Hind's Blood. Callisto, changing alliances mid-stream with Hope (from the Xena series), goes back in time to kill Hercules before he's born. Iolaus follows her to stop the plan but things don't work out too well. This was the first episode where a god died in the series.
Episode 14: Armageddon Now, Part 2: (February 16, 1998):
With Hercules dead, Xena is now empress of the known world and Ares happy with how things have turned out, much to Iolaus' chagrin. Callisto's past revisited might show why she turned out so poorly but Xena's cruelty left unchecked amounts to a far darker nature.
Episode 15: Yes, Virginia, There Is A Hercules: (February 23, 1998):
With Kevin Sorbo still ill (as he was for much of the season), the writers wrote a contemporary story that parodies the crew of the show, using cast regulars that surprisingly mimicked them quite well. This was actually a nice change of pace from the show but became somewhat overdone as the series progressed.
Episode 16: Porkules: (March 16, 1998):
In a send up to the movie Babe, Autolycus steals the magic bow of Artemis and it falls into the hands of Discord, who promptly changes Hercules into a pig. Autolycus and Iolaus fight to save the day (albeit for different reasons) with hilarious results. I liked seeing more Bruce Campbell although the episode (and the following one) were kind of weak.
Episode 17: One Fowl Day: (April 4, 1998):
In what amounted to a second part to Porkules, Ares chastises Autolycus and Iolaus for interfering in his plotting. Discord also got her comeuppance but this was even worse in terms of forced humor and a low point for the show in general.
Episode 18: My Fair Cupcake: (April 13, 1998):
Yet another parody of a mainstream movie, this time My Fair Lady, had Autolycus trying to steal a sapphire with the assistance of an unwitting cutie that he fell for in Men In Pink (Cup Cake). As war sweeps the countryside, will Autolycus and Cup Cake be the only way to stave off the war?
Episode 19: War Wounds: (April 20, 1998):
Nebula and Hercules attempt to save his half brother, Iphicles, when the king is captured by war veterans disgruntled at their treatment by his enforcers.
Episode 20: Twilight: (April 27, 1998):
Fans of Young Hercules rejoice, another episode centered on this failed attempt at a spin off. Hercules finds out that war stinks, finding it isn't all glory and games, in a series of flashbacks that lead towards the season finale.
Episode 21: Top God: (May 4, 1998):
Alcmene, mother of Hercules, dies and he sees to her funeral. Zeus, apparently watching her all these years, offers Hercules the chance to help mankind even more by elevating him to godhood, an offer he considers accepting (he's turned it down previously) at the prodding of Iolaus. The episode had more of the Young Hercules flashbacks I came to hate this season.
Episode 22: Reunions: (May 11, 1998):
Hercules decides to accept the offer and manages to help some people before Zeus' true motivations become clear. Hera finally gets to fight him head on and the results were pretty interesting, even if the plot loopholes were numerous.
I'm a fan of the show's ability to combine the cheesy good humor of Bruce Campbell, the mythology of old, and the recurring themes you'd expect of a morality play. While the acting, particularly by the extras and secondary cast, was pretty weak, the direction of the show and the writing (with a few notable exceptions) were decent enough. It wasn't as dark as the Xena show but it had it's own merits and was cute enough for me to enjoy over the years. I think the limitations of the season were enough for me to lower my rating to just Recommended, but fans will really enjoy seeing the uncut episodes looking better than ever.
Picture: The picture was presented in its original 1.33:1 ratio full frame color. It looked surprisingly good for its age and while there were moments with a soft focus, some grain, and minor mosquito noise, most of the time it looked like it just aired on television. A few of the episodes looked somewhat weaker than others, even to the point of having some artifacts and compression noise, but it seemed pretty solid for this type of show.
Sound: The sound was remixed into a 5.1 Dolby Digital English soundtrack with most of the audio coming from the center channel. It wasn't a bad mix, with the vocals as clear as I've ever heard on the show, and the music well handled. The distortion of earlier seasons was gone and some effort was noticed in the improvement made. There were closed captions for the heard of hearing but no other subtitles or languages.
Extras: The boxed set had 9 discs altogether, 8 DVD's and 1 CD-Rom. The CD ROM had Director and cast biographies, a trivia game, a database of trivia called The Hercules Chronicles. The best extra for me this time were the multitude of interviews with the cast and crew for selected episodes. In each case, they outlined some of the problems and some of the funnier moments shared on the set, as well as background information on the episode. The audio commentaries were a bit mixed this time, with the pleasing return of Michael Hurst (Iolaus) to some of them but a lack of detail by Kevin Sorbo on his. That there were only three commentaries didn't help either but I suspect the fans have heard it all by now and most of the time, I got the feeling that Sorbo wanted to move on with his life rather than participate on the extras here. The audio commentaries were on: Hero's Heart (Michael Hurst), And Fancy Free (Michael Hurst and Kevin Sorbo), and Yes, Virginia, There Is A Hercules (Michael Hurst and Erik Gruendemann). The interviews included lots of cast and crew members and were located on: Beanstalks And Bad Eggs, Stranger In A Strange World, If I Had A Hammer, Hercules On Trial, Armageddon Now Part 2, Porkules, Twilight, and Reunion. The other extras included a photogallery, a featurette called Bringing The Monsters To Life at K.N.B. EFX Group where the various creatures used for the show were made, and the dailies from Stranger In A Strange World.
Final Thoughts: The technical aspects were pretty solid, the extras pretty good, and the show fun enough to enjoy over and over again so it's easy to see why I think it's worth a rating of Recommended. Other than Kevin Sorbo's limited amount of air time in the season, due to illness, it wasn't bad although most people would notice that the third season of Xena: Warrior Princess (the one airing at the same time) had already eclipsed it in terms of content quality. If you really want to enjoy the show, check it out from the first season but see it nonetheless.
Other seasons and shows taking place in this continuum:
Hercules: Season One
Hercules: Season Two
Hercules: Season Three
Xena: Warrior Princess Season One
Xena: Warrior Princess Season Two
Xena: Warrior Princess Season Three
Xena: Warrior Princess Season Four