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 episodes are 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!
Today we’re covering the second half of the second season, which aired concurrently with the first season of Xena. The series is still trying to figure out what it wants to be and to whom it’s primarily playing, so there’s a mixed bag of offerings. While the latter half of Season Two sees more of Hercules and Iolaus’ relationship, we get a bit more mediocrity in some episodes. We’re picking up with the 13th episode of the year…
26. Season 2, Episode 13: “The Enforcer” (Aired: 01/15/96 | Filmed: 10/11 – 10/20/95)
Hera’s old hit woman, Nemesis, is on Herc’s side when Hera sends a new hit woman, who’s known as the Enforcer, to do in Our Hero.
Written by Nelson Costello | Directed by T.J. Scott | Production No. 876815
Nemesis returns in this clear homage to The Termintor, which sees Hera creating the Enforcer, a robotic female whose sole task is to… you guessed it… take down Hercules. The episode works not only because of the personal pull provided (as usual) by the guest appearance of Nemesis and the success of episodes involving Hera as the masterminding threat (she is, after all, the series’ overarching foe, tied in directly to the show’s core premise), but also the titular villain who displays a strength uncommon to most of the baddies Hercules is forced to face. The strange mix of humanity and cold, hard, machinery makes her an oddly compelling villain, and she spends a good part of the story seeming like a formidable opponent for Hercules, which means that the conflict really works. Really strong episode.
27. Season 2, Episode 14: “Once A Hero” (Aired: 01/29/96 | Filmed: 09/28 – 10/10/95)
Herc and Iolaus are in Corinth for an Argonaut reunion when a Hera-worshipping “masked demon” steals the Golden Fleece from a down-and-out Jason.
Story by Rob Tapert and Robert Bielak & John Schulian | Teleplay by Robert Bielak & John Schulian | Directed by Rob Tapert | Production No. 876818
Everything about this episode feeds into its intrinsic epic sensibilities, which combines the myth of Jason and the Argonauts with a really human story about what happens to heroes after their heroic deed is done. It’s a really interesting tale for the series to explore, especially since it helps build a backstory for both Hercules and Iolaus, which inevitably helps to flesh out the characters and their relationship — even more than it had been in the past. It’s a real action-packed installment, with a marvelous CGI-skeleton fight scene (predating “Them Bones, Them Bones” by several years). Contributing to the episode’s elevated pedigree is the direction by executive producer Rob Tapert, his only directorial credit for this series. Also, Xena fan will delight in seeing Gabrielle’s sister Lila as Phoebe, an honorary Argonaut.
28. Season 2, Episode 15: “Heedless Hearts” (Aired: 02/05/96 | Filmed: 12/06 – 12/15/95)
Herc is in for both love and war when he falls for the leader of a rebel band that’s fighting a tyrant.
Written by Robert Bielak | Directed by Peter Ellis | Production No. 876819
With a story that excludes divine intervention (like Hera as the puppeteering villainess) or a mythological foundation, this is one of those installments that seems tailored to a more discerning, which means older, audience. While this is the storytelling that I generally prefer, this only works for the series when Hercules, as is often the case for Xena, is allowed to have a direct emotional investment in the journey and its trajectory. The script attempts to do that by hinging some of the conflict on a potential romance that develops between our hero and Audie England as the female half of a pair rebels leading a revolt. Unfortunately, one episode romances don’t make sense in anything other than comedies, because it’s difficult to believe them, so like “The Warrior Princess,” it ends up not working — because it’s not fully logical.
29. Season 2, Episode 16: “Let The Games Begin” (Aired: 02/12/96 | Filmed: 11/09 – 11/20/95)
Hercules promotes peace by organizing an athletic competition between the warring Spartans and Eleans, thus creating the Olympic Games.
Written by John Schulian | Directed by Gus Trikonis | Production No. 876808
Atalanta returns, as does the always welcome Salmoneus, in this marvelously fun outing that credits Hercules with establishing the first ever Olympic games. So this episode is built on a tongue-in-cheek premise and because it commits wholeheartedly to a lighthearted (but not obnoxiously silly) tone, it works a lot better than some of the overly earnest stories that demand incorporating some social relevance. No, this episode is good, clean, fun — a couple of lowbrow sex jokes notwithstanding (the one involving Falafel and his invention of the hot dog is choice) — and Hercules forms a good team with the gung-ho Atalanta and the lascivious Salmoneus. Although I appreciate darker episodes when they’re done right, it’s hard to deny that this is the type of episode that Hercules is, at this point in its run, doing best.
30. Season 2, Episode 17: “The Apple” (Aired: 02/19/96 | Filmed: 01/08 – 01/17/96)
Iolaus is used as a pawn by the scheming love goddess Aphrodite to prevent a marriage between the children of two feuding kings.
Written by Steven Baum | Directed by Kevin Sorbo | Production No. 876824
This episode works for all the same reasons that the above one does: there’s a wry sense of humor that runs concurrently underneath this original script based on a mythological story — this time, the infamous golden apple contest — giving us introductions to Aphrodite, Artemis, and Athena (the latter two of whom will be recast before they’re seen again — on Xena). But Aphrodite clearly makes the most impression and Tydings surfs onto the scene with a fully formed major attitude. Meanwhile, Kevin Sorbo makes his directorial debut, necessitating that a lot of the story be thrown to Iolaus, who does a marvelous job of driving the action. (But Hercules is still given way more to do than you’d expect.) It’s another fun, well-written, fast paced episode; one of the best and most memorable from Season Two. Classic through and through.
31. Season 2, Episode 18: “Promises” (Aired: 03/04/96 | Filmed: 11/21 – 11/29/95)
Hercules and Iolaus get caught in the middle of a love triangle when they volunteer to help a king rescue his kidnapped fiancee.
Written by Michael Marks | Directed by Stewart Main | Production No. 876809
I think this episode is reminiscent of “Heedless Hearts,” in that we’re given a mature premise that’s not only original, but roots itself in humanity, and yet ultimately doesn’t work because it’s another routine adventure of the week — doing nothing to make itself impact Hercules (or our understanding of him in a major way). Sure, the characters are given a bit of a history with our two heroes, but the stakes are really low compared to some of the really dangerous missions the pair go on in other episodes of the season. The most interesting thing about the installment is the casting of actors whom we’ve seen elsewhere in bigger roles: Jo Davison, Joel Tobeck, and Marton Csokas. Otherwise, this is a mediocre episode from a mixed bag of a season. Middling.
32. Season 2, Episode 19: “King For A Day” (Aired: 03/18/96 | Filmed: 01/18 – 01/26/96)
Iolaus plays king for a day (and saves the kingdom from an evil general) when his lookalike cousin, a crown prince, is drugged the night before his coronation.
Written by Patricia Manney | Directed by Anson Williams | Production No. 876816
Although Hercules only appears in the first scene and the last scene, this episode ends up being one of the year’s most entertaining. Of course, because it has no bearing on the series’ primary raison d’être (Hercules helping others and defying the gods in the memory of his deceased family), the episode won’t show up on any “best of” lists, but it’s an excellent episode for developing the Iolaus character and properly displaying the seemingly unlimited talents of Michael Hurst. As Lucy Lawless did on a Xena episode a few weeks earlier, Hurst does double duty playing Iolaus and the drunken King Minos. With a fresh story and great performances, “King For A Day” ends up being an incredibly entertaining offering, and unlike some of the Herc-lite installments of later years, a nice change-of-pace.
33. Season 2, Episode 20: “Protean Challenge” (Aired: 04/22/96 | Filmed: 02/23 – 03/05/96)
A friend of Hercules and Iolaus is accused of theft when an angry god distorts reality by making people appear to have performed acts they didn’t.
Written by Brian Herkowitz | Directed by Oley Sassone | Production No. 876825
This installment features an interesting figure from mythology, Proteus, a gremlin-like creature who’s able to morph his shape upon will, and crafts an easily enjoyable story and conflict from the premise — namely that an innocent man is sentenced to death for a robbery he didn’t commit. What kills the episode is that intense moralizing that really ruins a handful of shows from the second season. It’s a creature episode, and thus geared for kids, but the cool story is lost in another anti-bullying message: a humorless one at that. (If it was a comedy with a message, it might be a more organic experience.) So the result is another installment that ends up weaker than it could have been, and thus, is not one that I can genuinely recommend to potential new fans.
34. Season 2, Episode 21: “The Wedding Of Alcmene” (Aired: 04/29/96 | Filmed: 01/29 – 02/07/96)
King Jason plans to wed Herc’s mother Alcmene, but a law barring the king from marrying a commoner is just one of the hitches they face before they can be hitched.
Written by John Schulian | Directed by Timothy Bond | Production No. 876822
Like “The Mother Of All Monsters” from last week, this episode throws in everything that makes the series great and blends it together to make a shockingly satisfying installment. The list of guest stars is mind-blowing — everyone from Dirce (“The King Of Thieves”), Deric the centaur, the Argonauts, Amphion and his wife (“The Sword Of Verocity”), and Iphicles and Rena. (Not to mention Iolaus, Salmoneus, and, obviously, Alcmene and Jason.) Also, Hera returns as our main villainess and she resurrects the terrifyingly menacing Blue Priest from the second of the telemovies. In addition to an army of waiters-turned-killers, we have another sea monster! As you can see — everything except the kitchen sink. And the most surprising thing: it works. Love this episode; it is all of the second season in a nutshell.
35. Season 2, Episode 22: “The Power” (Aired: 05/06/96 | Filmed: 03/06 – 03/14/96)
Hercules intervenes when a young man with divine powers is manipulated by a relative into using his gift for villanious purposes.
Written by Nelson Costello | Directed by Charlie Haskell | Production No. 876823
What appeals to me most about this episode is the premise upon which its built: a seemingly weak fisherman has the bizarre ability to command others. Unfortunately, after a visually exciting teaser set on the beach, the episode continually goes downhill as the narrative loses both credibility and momentum. The primary reason for this dysfunction is the explanation given for his powers: he’s the son of Aphrodite. But since we’ve already met Aphrodite, it’s really strange for the show to bring her up and NOT have Hercules bring her into the story. Although it may be argued that the premise has nothing to do with her, the fact that she is revealed to be the boys’ mother naturally necessitates something to come from that detail. Otherwise, it should have been another heretofore unseen and unreferenced goddess.
36. Season 2, Episode 23: “Centaur Mentor Journey” (Aired: 05/13/96 | Filmed: 02/13 – 02/22/96)
A dying centaur asks Hercules for help when a centaur group’s struggle for equal rights with humans takes a violent turn.
Written by Robert Bielak | Directed by Stephen L. Posey | Production No. 876821
Yes, another centaur episode, which means another civil rights episode. Because Hercules has an established affinity for the centaurs and specific relationships with several of them (including his mentor), these episodes usually do a good job of keeping things emotionally resonant. But the problem is that it feels like this story has been done before — earlier in this season, yet! While much has been made to blame the lack of a fourth act fight for the episode’s inferiority, I actually found the non-violenct march a unique and cathartic disrupt to the status quo. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen before, the intense preaching — in which the entire audience is spoken to like a disobedient child — kills any of the narrative’s potential power. Moralizing, trite, and unnecessary.
37. Season 2, Episode 24: “The Cave Of Echoes” (Aired: 06/24/96 | Filmed: 11/30 – 12/05/95)
Herc and Iolaus venture into a cave to rescue a young woman from a monster, accompanied by an intrepid writer, who pumps the dynamic duo for details of past exploits (seen in flashbacks).
Written by John Schulian & Robert Bielak | Directed by Gus Trikonis | Production No. 876820
The second season ends with perhaps the most boring clip show in the Hercules and Xena cannon, as the wraparound story that separates the clips is neither character-developing or particularly clever. I do think it’s interesting, however, that the clips are pretty much centered around Hercules’ battles with monsters; is this a signal that in the unspoken creative battle of monsters vs. humans that the second season has been implicitly chronicling, the monsters (i.e. sophomoric storytelling geared mostly towards kids) have won? We shall see what next season has to offer next week…
MVE (Most Valuable Episodes): “Once A Hero,” “The Apple,” and “The Wedding Of Alcmene”
Come back next Thursday for more Hercules! And tune in tomorrow for another Pre-Code film Friday!