“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: * * *