Welcome to a new Xena Thursday! Today’s post continues our 11-week series on the show from which our beloved Xena: Warrior Princess was spawned. While these posts aren’t set up like the Opinionated Episode Guides with quotes and articles about the making of the show, I’m covering my thoughts on every episode — some of which I’m watching for only the second or third time for these entries. Thus, they are designed as a starting point for Xena fans, like myself, who are interested in FINALLY taking the time to get into the “big brother” series, and I’ve personally invited all my Xena readers to join me in this 11-week marathon! Most every episode is on Netflix, and for anyone who doesn’t have access to the series, contact me and I’ll be happy to point you in the right direction. If a marathon is too much of a commitment, these posts can be used to help you choose which episodes to watch, because as a Xena fan, although I will do my best to appreciate Hercules: The Legendary Journeys for the unique show that it is, my allegiance is still to Xena — and I know what the Xenites (particularly this Xenite) like!
With this post, we begin coverage on the television series itself, which began production in late 1994 and premiered in first-run syndication in January 1995. These formative episodes remain some of the series’ most interesting, as the show attempts to figure out its tone, tries out several sidekicks (Iolaus wins), and introduces the Warrior Princess…
01. Season 1, Episode 1: The Wrong Path” (Aired: 01/16/95 | Filmed: 09/05 – 09/14/94)
When his stepmother destroys his family, Hercules is so consumed by hatred that he loses sight of his purpose to help people in need.
Written by John Schulian | Directed by Doug Lefler | Production No. 76601
To transition Hercules from the settled down husband and father of the telefilms to the weekly adventurer and world traveler of the series, the show literally bursts his family into flames before the opening credits. (That darn Hera!) This is the inciting incident that cements Hercules’ commitment to helping others in need. But first there’s some anticipated — and much needed — grief-wallowing, in which Herc sets his sights on taking down his wicked stepmom (whom Zeus refuses to cross, thus altering the relationship between father and son, which was much closer in the telefilms). But an evil snake She-Demon is turning men, including Iolaus, to stone, so Hercules comes to his senses and saves the day. What makes this a strong debut episode are the darker moments; Hercules in emotional torment allows the series to explore the character’s imperfections: this hero rejects being a hero and its surprisingly powerful. However, the rendering of the She-Demon is abundantly campy, and she doesn’t provide a worthy enough foe for Hercules as he starts his adventures.
02. Season 1, Episode 2: “Eye Of The Beholder” (Aired: 01/23/95 | Filmed: 10/24 – 11/02/94)
When Hercules sets out to rescue a town from an evil Cyclops, he finds he doesn’t see eye-to-eye with how events have been portrayed.
Written by John Schulian | Directed by John Kretchmer | Production No. 76605
In Robert Weisbrot’s first book on the series (he did two and I recommend them both highly), it’s noted that this episode was a favorite among the cast and crew, for it was the first one to adopt that more lighthearted tone for which the series would come to be known. However, although the stakes aren’t as high as they were in some of the films, there’s still a nice dramatic weight to the episode — as Hercules comes to battle a cyclops (Richard Moll) working for Hera and terrorizing villagers, only to learn that the poor one-eyed creature has been bullied by the townsfolk. Yes, there’s some mild moralizing (remember, the show was always conscious of its appeal to kids, even in these early “darker” days), but the story is unique enough to make it work. What I enjoy most about this episode is the running gag (literally) with the 50 horny daughters of King Thespius and the introduction of Salmoneus, who proves himself a welcome addition to the series, and a good source of comedy, as the interplay between Sal and Hercules drives the episode.
03. Season 1, Episode 3: “The Road To Calydon” (Aired: 01/30/95 | Filmed: 09/27 – 10/05/94)
Hercules accompanies a town’s citizens, cursed by Hera because of a theft at her temple, on a perilous journey to a city offering safe haven.
Written by Andrew Dettmann and Daniel Truly | Directed by Doug Lefler | Production No. 76602
The first episode written by Dettmann and Truly, the team that helped pen four of the five telefilms, this middling installment sort of personifies what Hercules is all about: saving people from CGI monsters and vengeful gods. Normally I enjoy episodes that connect directly with the series’ core premise, but this one just seems so ordinary, never really distinguishing itself as an episode of great merit. Perhaps part of my aversion to the installment is the inclusion of a blind seer, Tiresias (whom, if you know Greek mythology, is a familiar name), as both a tool in the story and a potential recurring sidekick for Hercules. (Note that he appears in the next Dettmann and Truly script as well.) Although he’s played by a charming actor, best known to Xena fans as Princess Diana’s father, King Lias, the character isn’t strong or vital enough to be paired directly with Hercules on a mission. It works for this individual episode, in which the stakes are comparatively lower, but his presence isn’t a blessing. (You’re left wondering: Where’s Iolaus?)
04. Season 1, Episode 4: “The Festival Of Dionysus” (Aired: 02/06/95 | Filmed: 11/03 – 11/11/94)
Hercules uncovers an elaborate plot calling for the murder of a king during a celebration honoring the god of wine.
Written by Andrew Dettmann and Daniel Truly | Directed by Peter Ellis | Production No. 76609
While I commended the first episode for the dark place it took Hercules, “The Festival Of Dionysus” is the first episode in which that darkness is allowed to permeate both the story and the cinematography. This visually dusky installment involves Hercules stepping in when an annual festival, in which a gaggle of virgins drink the wine of Dionysus and if displeased with the leadership, kill the king and queen in a hazy stupor, is threatened by an outside force that intends to take the royalty down. That force is the oldest prince, who’s working with Ares and enchants the wine so that when the virgins drink, they are possessed by the war god. It’s a dangerous story, and while Tiresias (a comedic force in the prior episode) is present, he’s used as a more foreboding plot device — and I think he actually works better here. (Also note that this is the first time in the series in which Hera isn’t the villain, it’s Herc’s half-brother, Ares.) But because Hercules’ investment isn’t quite so personal, the drama doesn’t reach the same comparative heights as future Ares episodes.
05. Season 1, Episode 5: “Ares” (Aired: 02/13/95 | Filmed: 10/06 – 10/14/94)
Hercules confronts his half brother Ares, the god of war, in his attempt to prevent a teen-age boy from becoming one of the evil deity’s soldiers.
Written by Steve Roberts | Directed by Harley Cokeliss | Production No. 76603
Depictions of Ares in these early episodes as a beast/non-human presence (not played by the talented Kevin Smith) usually become laughable and disappointing with hindsight. The drama between Hercules and Ares works much better when they’re both in human form, as their rivalry and resentments translate into a more effective dynamic. So this episode, built around Ares again, is hampered by our prior knowledge of what’s to come. But there are several interesting elements within this episode. First, it’s built around a really threatening premise that has Ares herding up little boys for an army. And since Hercules won’t kill a child, it makes for a great conflict. Also, Hercules is given his first female sidekick in the muscular Atalanta (subject of her own action figure), who makes her first of three guest appearances — and her only stint in the first season. Meanwhile, the dark subject matter of the episode makes it an inherently more exciting watch, even if the interpretation of Ares hinder the proceedings.
06. Season 1, Episode 6: “As Darkness Falls” (Aired: 02/20/95 | Filmed: 11/14 – 11/24/94)
Hercules attends a friend’s wedding where Nemis the Centaur arrives and kidnaps the bride and her maid of honor.
Written by Robert Bielak | Directed by George Mendeluk | Production No. 76607
This episode is my pick for the best of the entire first season. The script revolves around Nemis, the centaur brother of Hercules’ friend Nessus, who allied with Hera, attacked Deineira and was killed by Hercules in the fourth telefilm, Hercules In The Underworld. Nemis prays to Hera for the love of a human, Penelope, but she charges him with a duty: avenge his brother and kill Hercules. At the wedding of Penelope, Hercules is poisoned by a woman working with Nemis named Lyla (Lucy Lawless), temporarily blinding him. Nemis and his centaur friend (Lyla’s boyfriend) ambush the wedding and kidnap the bride. A sightless Hercules, aided by Salmoneus, go after Nemis, and with the help of Lyla and her beau, who come around to the good side, Hercules saves the day. In addition to the appearance of the always appreciated Salmoneus and the layered performance of Lucy Lawless (three episodes before she becomes Xena), this episode is blessed with personal drama that connects the series back to its telefilm roots. Furthermore, Hercules losing his sight is a great and original obstacle. Wonderful episode — the series’ first standout!
07. Season 1, Episode 7: “Pride Comes Before A Brawl” (Aired: 02/27/95 | Filmed: 11/25 – 12/02/94)
Hercules’ friend Iolaus fights for his life when Hera decides to punish him for an act of pride.
Written by Steve Roberts | Directed by Peter Ellis | Production No. 76604
Installments with original non-formulaic stories generally have a better chance of becoming more memorable, and this episode proves exactly that. The story begins with Hercules and Iolaus engineering a contest to see who can get to Thrace first. On Hercules’ way, he’s visited by an old girlfriend (see this personal connection — the writers are getting wiser), Nemesis, the goddess of retribution, who reveals that Hera has charged her with killing Iolaus because of his pride. As Hercules tries to interfere, Iolaus and a young woman encounter all the obstacles that Nemesis has to offer. What makes this episode special is that it’s the first time we get to know Iolaus’ character, as his hubris drives the story and the development of his personality exists as the episode’s purpose. And once again, as Iolaus’ life is in jeopardy, Hercules has a vested interest in the action. Great storytelling. (Note that Nemesis, the first god on the TV series to appear in human form, will be played by two other actresses over the course of this series.)
08. Season 1, Episode 8: “The March To Freedom” (Aired: 03/06/95 | Filmed: 09/15 – 09/26/94)
Hercules saves a woman from slavery and then must help to free her fiancee from the slavers.
Written by Adam Armus & Nora Kay Foster | Directed by Harley Cokeliss | Production No. 76606
Lucy Liu guest stars in this installment, the second one produced, as a slave girl whom Hercules rescues from captivity. In addition to the exotic sensibilities provided by the guest actors, “The March To Freedom,” which also features Iolaus, is the first episode of the TV series in which the villains are entirely human. Thus, it’s already a more interesting episode than some of those other earlier scripts, which fall into a sort of routinized rut. Unfortunately, the installment isn’t a great one — the pacing is slower, the morals are obvious, and the drama lacks that oft-mentioned personal connection for Hercules. What the episode does have, which increases its value in my eyes, is the continuity it provides to the pilot and death of Hercules’ family, as the hero visits the graves of his loved ones for the first time. In these moments, that emotional pull that makes Hercules a fully realized character comes to life, and the episode is blessed as a result. Otherwise, this is an average first season installment.
09. Season 1, Episode 9: “The Warrior Princess” (Aired: 03/13/95 | Filmed: 01/03 – 01/12/95)
The “perfect woman” is waiting for Iolaus. Unfortunately, she’s an evil, power-hungry warrior princess, who’s using him to get Hercules out of the way.
Written by John Schulian | Directed by Bruce Seth Green | Production No. 76608
As the episode that first introduced television audiences to Xena: Warrior Princess, I featured this episode in a series of posts on the Herc/Xena crossovers. (You can read that here.) In the Xena cannon, this episode is important (obviously) because it’s her debut. But because her presentation doesn’t jive with what we’re told and shown in the spin-off about her wicked days, watching “The Warrior Princess” after knowing Xena makes this installment fall short. In the Hercules cannon, this episode is exciting because it pits Hercules against his best friend, Iolaus, who’s proven himself, by this point, to be the main sidekick. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to believe and invest in Iolaus’ behavior, because, despite Xena’s obvious charms, his ability to turn on Hercules so quickly defies everything we’ve come to understand (since even the first telefilm) about their friendship. So, whether you’re a Xena fan or a Hercules fan, this isn’t a great installment because it’s difficult to believe. But, as mentioned above, it’s essential viewing for all fans — especially Xenites.
10. Season 1, Episode 10: “Gladiator” (Aired: 03/20/95 | Filmed: 02/02 – 02/10/95)
Herc and Iolaus get themselves enslaved in order to reunite an aging gladiator with his wife and son.
Written by Robert Bielak | Directed by Garth Maxwell | Production No. 76611
Regular director (of both series) Garth Maxwell makes his debut on this, the final episode produced for the first season of Hercules. Everything works about this episode — from the original story to the exhilarating action and the gripping performances of the guest stars. The premise has Hercules and Iolaus infiltrating a prison where the captives are forced to fight in the arena for the pleasure of the corrupt governor and his dominatrix wife, played by Alison Bruce (a regular face on Xena), who orders Hercules beaten after he refuses to become her sex slave. (Yes, this is undoubtedly a more adult episode, folks!) But the award for best performance in this installment goes to Tony Todd (you’ll remember him best, Xenites, as Cecrops), who plays the prisoner whose wife and child have summoned Hercules and Iolaus for help, and is forced to fight Hercules to the death in the arena. The turns that the scripts take are unpredictable and make room for nuanced characters and intense action. It’s one of the best episodes of the entire series — gripping from start to finish. Another first season standout!
11. Season 1, Episode 11: “The Vanishing Dead” (Aired: 04/24/95 | Filmed: 12/05 – 12/14/94)
A civil war pits brother (he’s the king) against sister, and someone– or some nasty god– is stealing the bodies of their dead soldiers.
Written by Andrew Dettmann and Daniel Truly | Directed by Bruce Campbell | Production No. 76610
This is the final episode written by Dettmann and Truly, and like their last script (“The Festival Of Dionysus”), we have a deliciously dark premise that has Ares inhabiting the body of a fallen soldier to engineer a war between two siblings so that he can feed the bodies of the dead to his menacing dog, Graegus. So right away this episode gains points for its cool story. Where it loses points is in some of the slow pacing, the campy effects (the CGI dog, the ghost of Jarton — which I actually think is elegantly scary, just a bit distracting), the underuse of Iolaus, and the simple logic that breaks down the concept: why exactly was Hercules necessary in sorting things out; couldn’t Jarton’s ghost have appeared to the siblings and sorted it out himself? Regardless, I have a fondness for the installment, which has some fine action, and some appropriately murky visuals by the future King of Thieves himself, Bruce Campbell, who makes his directorial debut with this episode. Not a great (or even good) episode, but not without its merits.
12. Season 1, Episode 12: “The Gauntlet” (Aired: 05/01/95 | Filmed: 01/13 – 01/20/95)
Warrior Princess Xena joins forces with Hercules when her troops turn on her under the command of the cruel and ruthless Darphus.
Written by Robert Bielak | Directed by Jack Perez | Production No. 76612
The second of Xena’s appearances on Hercules, I featured “The Gauntlet” in a series of posts on the Herc/Xena crossovers. (You can read that here.) It’s the best of the character’s Hercules appearances for a variety of reasons. Most notably, it’s the only one that shows Xena as a multi-dimensional character: her transformation from villain to hero is motivated and believable. Furthermore, the Warrior Princess is allowed a previously unseen complexity, as she reveals a surprising moral code that shades the character and helps illustrate what a viable protagonist she’ll soon be. Meanwhile, the episode stands well amongst other first season Hercules scripts because, while the stakes are quite high (given the violent nature of Xena and her army) — and the personal investment afforded to Herc by the inclusion of his cousin, we also have moments of genuine comedy, provided mostly by the returning Salmoneus, who establishes a nice repartee with evil Xena. It’s a great episode, no matter which show you choose through which to filter your understanding.
13. Season 1, Episode 13: “Unchained Heart” (Aired: 05/08/95 | Filmed: 01/23 – 02/01/95)
Herc and Xena team up to stop the evil Darphus, the mortal lieutenant of Ares, the god of war who’s intent on ruling the world.
Written by John Schulian | Directed by Bruce Seth Green | Production No. 76613
As the final Xena episode before her spin-off, I featured this episode in a series of posts on the Herc/Xena crossovers. (You can read that here.) For Xena fans, it’s the weakest of the bunch, because instead of taking the opportunity to examine — and challenge — Xena’s resolution to fight for justice, the episode gives us both another non-human villain and another mythical (read: CGI) beast. Furthermore, she loses her edge and becomes a much more emotional (and traditionally feminine) character than she’ll ever be on either of the series. So for her character, “Unchained Heart” is a bust. As a Hercules episode, it has everything that this series is built upon: the gods, the beast, the action, the romance, and it works quite well — especially for the Hercules character, who is surrounded by the first season’s three best characters for the first, last, and only time: Xena, Iolaus, and Salmoneus. They have an interesting dynamic, especially Iolaus and Xena, who must come to terms with their past rendezvous. So it’s a fine Hercules episode, but not if you’re a Xena fan.
MVE (Most Valuable Episodes): “As Darkness Falls,” “Gladiator,” and “The Gauntlet”
Come back next Thursday for more Hercules! And tune in tomorrow for another Pre-Code film Friday!