Hercules: The Legendary Journeys Season One 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. 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. 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 warm and likeable leading man, both heroic and noble with a laidback 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.

Alas, as fun as the series was the original TV movies are a mixed bag when it came 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 Daniel Jackson a run for his money). ‘The Lost Kingdom’ is much better with a feisty performance by a young Renee O’Conner and a great sea monster yet 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 while, as Herc's wife, Tawny Kitaen proves that her acting talents clearly don’t extend beyond her cleavage.

The first season of the series proper are as equally hit and miss as the movies. Without a doubt the standout episodes were 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 these 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. Favourites like Autolycus (Bruce Campbell), Jason (Jeffrey Thomas), Aphrodite (Alexandra Tydings) and Nebula (Gina Torres) wouldn’t be introduced until later seasons. 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.

The first season of Hercules is hit and miss to be sure but even at this early stage the series remains immensely enjoyable with some strong hints laid in of the series true potential. At the end of the season, after Xena rides off into the sunset (and spin-off glory), Hercules and Iolaus are left alone to continue their adventures together. Proving once and for all, that even in ancient Greece, bros always came before hoes.

Rating: * * *

Ashes to Ashes Season Two DVD Review

Ashes to Ashes will never be as good as Life on Mars. It’s a sad fact but one we can’t escape. It’s a sequel for starts, which automatically makes it less good than Mars. It will always feel like an inferior retreat no matter how good it gets. And it certainly got good this series.

After a hit and miss first series that saw modern day DI Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes) shot in the head and sent back in time to the 1980s where, like Sam Tyler, she finds herself working for that mighty dinosaur of policing DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), this series has the writers finally finding their footing and gave us the worthy spin-off that Mars deserved.

The first series centred around Drake’s quest to save her parents and get back to her daughter. Series two expands the scope onto the more complex topic of police corruption, a recurring theme in both Ashes and Mars. Corruption personified here in the form of Detective Superintendent Charlie ‘SuperMac’ Macintosh (Roger Allam), a character in the same vein as Captain Dudley Smith from James Ellroy’s LA Quintet, warm and friendly on the outside but rotten to the core.

However, Mac is not the main villain of this series. That would be the enigmatic Martin Summers (Adrian Dunbar), a bent copper who, like Alex, is also from the future. With the Bowie clown now retired, Summers becomes Alex chief tormentor and nemesis throughout the second series. But Summers is too enigmatic and mysterious to be a credible adversary to Alex and his storyline becomes tiresome after a few episodes only to explode back to life after he commits one hell of a head twisting paradox.

After that we get a betrayal from within the team that isn’t as earth shattering as it should’ve been followed by a cliff-hanger ending that defiantly is. If John Simm hadn’t decided to jump ship I’m willing to bet this is how the second series of Mars might’ve ended.

Despite a quality dip in the middle the second series is defiantly stronger overall than the first. Gene Hunt is no longer the cartoon caricature of the first series. He’s a changed man, old and if onlyperhaps a little bit wiser. Forced to fight corruption within his own department as well as criminal scum. Alex Drake has improved and become a less annoying character, while the new hairstyle make Keeley Hawes even more gorgeous than ever. In fact everyone is given substantial character development this series with the exception of Shaz (the ever adorable Montserrat Lombard), who continues to be underused to the point of criminal neglect.

But I digress. If the writers can maintain the same high standards for the third and final series next year than maybe, just maybe, Ashes to Ashes will finally be as good as Life on Mars.

Rating: * * * *

Torchwood: Children of Earth DVD Review

Wow! Now that is more like it. After a muddled first series and an improved second Torchwood has finally become that great sci-fi thriller we all hoped it would be. This is not the work of the same Russell T. Davis who gave us farting aliens in Downing Street, Kylie on the starship Titanic and flying double-decker buses. This is the Russell T. Davis that wrote The Second Coming, Touching Evil and Doctor Who’s darkest episode ‘Midnight’.

After the devastating events of ‘Exit Wounds’ everything is business as usual back in the Hub. Gwen and Rhys are looking for a house while Jack and Ianto get used to being a couple. Then things get eerie as all the children, everywhere in the world, stop and start chanting in unison (and English) “We Are Coming! We Are Coming!” over and over again. The Torchwood team begins to investigate. Or they would if only the British government didn’t want them all dead for some mysterious reason. Seems the past has come back to haunt Captain Jack again.

The new five episode mini-series format works amazingly well giving us further insight into the remaining members of the Torchwood gang. With the team slimmed down to three (four if you include Rhys) the focus is tighter and more intimate. We get to know more about Jack and Ianto in the first episode alone than we did in two series, while Gwen and Rhys have become one of TV’s most adorable couples. All the flaws from the previous series have been carefully ironed out. No more smutty innuendo, pointless swearing, inconsistent characterization and adolescent daftness. The stakes are higher than they’ve ever been before so the time has come to grow up. Children of Earth also works as an exceptional political thriller. Some of the best scenes of entire serial are just politicians, generals and civil servants sitting around tables talking to each other. Of course, there are still the requisite shootouts, explosions and punch ups to keep all the action junkies happy.

The alien threat, the ominous 456, is kept mostly in the shadows for the duration. We get glimpses here and there at what they actually look like but never a fully picture, which only adds to their unsettling presence. What we do get to see of them is horrifying enough, especially when we finally discover what they intend to do with 10% of the children of earth. Meanwhile, the scenes on the council estate with Ianto’s family help ground the story in the real world, something Davis has always been very good at.

By the fourth episode Children of Earth has become something truly special to behold. The chilling scenes of cabinet ministers rational planning the rounding up of 10% of the nation's children recall the casual horror the Wannsee Conference as the Nazis calmly planned their final solution. The final episode comes as a massive punch to the stomach swiftly followed by a serious kick to the face. Hard decisions are made, lives are lost, and victory comes at a terrible price.

Throughout John Barrowman, Eve Myles, Garth-David Lloyd and Kai Owen all give exceptional performances, with Barrowman especially really giving it his all in the final episode as Jack is forced to make a harrowing choice. Unquestionably, through, the star of the show is Peter Capaldi as John Frobisher, a civil servant as far from Malcolm Tucker as you can get. His story is the most tragic of all and if there is any justice in this world Capaldi won’t be going away empty handed when award season comes around. Also of note, Liz May Brice brings just the right amount of icy bitchiness to the role of Johnson, the government assassin tasked with eliminating Torchwood, while Ian Gelder is delightfully slimy as Mr. Dekker. In fact there’s not a single bad performance from anyone. Even the kids are quite good.

Thrilling, exciting, bleak, brutal, harrowing, disturbing and emotionally shattering, Torchwood: Children of Earth is without a doubt one of the finest television productions you are likely to see this year and proof that sometimes good things do eventually come to those who wait.

Rating: * * * * *

Robin of Sherwood

“Nothing’s forgotten. Nothing is ever forgotten”

With the news recently that the BBC has decided to finally pull the plug on its current (rubbish) version of Robin Hood I decided to take a look back into the distant past, to the decade that style forgot, and remember another take on the legendary bandit, Robin of Sherwood.

Forget what you think you know. This is the definitive interpretation of the popular English myth, reinventing all that came before and influencing everything that would follow. Even the BBC’s naff version, which basically just rips-off the Kevin Costner movie that in turn ripped-off Robin of Sherwood.

Created in 1984 by Richard ‘Kip’ Carpenter (creator of Catweazle) , on the surface Robin of Sherwood seemed like just another run of the mill version of the Robin Hood, chronicling the adventures of Robin of Loxley (Michael Praed) and his merry band of thieves, Marion (Judi Trott), Little John (Clive Mantle), Will Scarlet (Ray Winston), Much (Peter Llewellyn Williams) and Fairer Tuck (Phil Rose) as they robbed from the stinking rich and gave to the poor. Added to the mix was the Saracen warrior Nasir (Mark Ryan), not a traditional part of the myth but the producers and cast were too amazed by Ryan’s performance not keep him around. As a result now every future version of Robin Hood would include a token Saracen character (something that still irritates Carpenter). As always the big guys were the Sheriff of Nottingham (Nickolas Grace), his brother, the corrupt Abbot Hugo (Philip Jackson) and their ever so blond lackey, Sir Guy of Gisburne (Robert Addie).

Beside the inclusion of a Saracen warrior, what really set the series apart from all the other Robin Hoods through the years was the way Carpenter presented us with a world that was a perfectly balanced mixture of authentic medieval dirt and grime, historical fact and pagan mythology. This was a Robin Hood who, when not battling Norman soldiers or vengeful Templer Knights, nattered with ancient forest spirits, was the chose one of Herne the Hunter (John Abineri), fought evil sorcerers, witches, satanic nuns, demons and even Lucifer himself. All with total conviction and sincerity, no room for hokum and cheese.

Amazingly all the fantasy and magic never clashed with the series' medieval realism. Carpenter was eager to avoid all the usual clichés of previous Robin Hood series and show a realistic and historically accurate 13th century England. Unlike the writers of the new Robin Hood Richard Carpenter actually bothered to read a history book and not just watch all the old movies. In this series, Richard Cœur de Lion was no longer the kind and noble king but an arrogant brute, more concerned with foreign wars and claiming territory than with the well fair of his own people. His return didn't end the merry men’s troubles only prolonged them. His death only allowed for his brother, Prince John, to became king. The series would latter chronicle key events of John’s reign including the dispute over the throne with Arthur of Brittany, his marriage to the 12 year old Princess Isabella of France, and the build up to the Welsh uprising of 1211.

No casino heists for this band of robbers, that for sure.

Above all else the series was propelled by an exceptional cast. Michael Praed made for a heroic and decent Robin, trading cocky bluster for an ethereal grace. This Robin was not a disgraced nobleman nor a veteran of the Crusades, he was a simple peasant, an orphan of Norman tyranny. A genuine man of the people. Plus, unlike some other Robin Hoods he could speak with an English accent. Along with Praed's Robin there will never a Marion as gutsy and bewitching as Judi Trott, a woman who didn’t need to dress up as a ninja to prove how tough she was. Elsewhere, Clive Mantle, later of Casualty fame, made for a kind and gentle giant as Little John and Mark Ryan proved that less is indeed more as Nasir. But the real standout was Ray Winston was Will Scarlet. Yes, that Ray Winston! Winston said he based his entire performance on football hooligans and you believe him. His Will Scarlet is a vessel of barely controlled rage, a borderline psychotic one step way from snapping.

While the series had many great villains, including Anthony Valentine’s demonic Baron De Belleme, Rula Lenska’s satanic nun Morgwyn of Ravenscar, Phil Davis’s unhinged King John and Richard O’Brien’s bog-eyed Gulnar, it was Nickolas Grace’s deliciously Machiavellian Robert de Rainault, Sheriff of Nottingham that rained supreme. This Sheriff never became a hammy caricature or shameful scene-stealer easily putting both Alan Rickman and Keith Allen to shame.

It may seem like a cliché to say this but you do get the sense that these people really did enjoy working together and took pride in making the series. Everyone plays it absolutely straight, no ham or cheeky winks to the camera. Despite all the mysticism and magic this felt real and genuine. Good people died. Episodes didn’t always end with a freeze frame of our heroes looking smug at having foiled another of the Sheriff’s plans.

Along with the excellent acting and some terrific scripts by Carpenter, the series was always brilliantly shot and directed. Just look at the opening scenes from ‘The Swords of Wayland’ as the Hounds of Lucifer ride out of the morning sun and prepare to be completely wowed. The soundtrack by Irish band Clannad may seem dated by today’s standards but a lot of it still stands up and is not cheesy as some would have you believe.

Sadly all things must eventually pass. At the end of the second series Praed decided to depart for Broadway and, later, Dynasty. Rather than call it quits Carpenter decide to incorporate the other myth of Robin Hood, that of the nobleman Robert of Huntington, into the series and introduce a brand new Robin. In a move motivated more by media buzz than common sense Jason Connery (son of Sir Sean) was brought in to take up Praed bow and arrow. The producers all but admit he was cast due to his famous name rather than thespian ability. Connery, despite his nice hair, often came across as stiff and lifeless, he was fine with the action sequences but the romance scenes with Marion could be excruciating. Along with the inferior leading man the third series also suffered a downturn in overall quality. Carpenter took a backseat, handing much of scripting duties over to other writers. As a result the third series was more uneven than the previous two, dodgy episode such as ‘The Inheritance’ and ‘Cromm Cruac’ clashing with classic like ‘The Sheriff of Nottingham’ and ‘Herne’s Son’.

After one series with Connery under the hood the show was cancelled due to Goldcrest, one of the key financers, being forced to pull out of the venture after one cinematic flop too many. But Robin of Sherwood remains a lyrical, elegant and emotional series. A true unsung classic of our times. It has not been forgotten, it will never be forgotten.