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 first part of the third season, the year in which Xena overtook Hercules in popularity. However, this season has fewer duds than the previous year, and the storytelling is more consistently able to illustrate complexity. While the battle between lighthearted kids’ fare and darker more adult narratives continues, the show doesn’t shy away from the latter. The removal of John Schulian as head writer allows for a freer flow of creativity, but the first half of the season still lacks any overarching themes or major character arcs (and the episodes are, not surprisingly, hit and miss). I appreciate the episodic storytelling, but in these binge-watching times, I know that non-serialization is a foreign concept. To those who need serialization, the second half of the year may have more to offer…
38. Season 3, Episode 1: “Mercenary” (Aired: 09/30/96 | Filmed: 04/10 – 04/19/96)
A storm at sea maroons Hercules on an island where he deals with pirates, sand monsters and a wanted killer he is transporting to Sparta.
Written by Robert Bielak | Directed by Michael Hurst | Production No. V0102
Michael Hurst makes his directorial debut with this knowingly darker episode that finds Hercules battling for his life alongside a murderous captive, played by the always dependable Jeremy Roberts (who filled several guest roles on Xena), whom he helps reform. “Mercenary” is one of the few installments loved by both the audience and the cast/crew. Unfortunately, while I find the outing well produced and gripping, I am unimpressed by the easy premise and the incorporation of tangential conflicts — namely the inexplicable sand monsters — that have no bearing on the narrative, and worse, aren’t given an explanation for existing. While monsters are always a part of Hercules, there’s usually a reason for their inclusion (often it’s Hera). Beautifully shot and acted, but not a perfect script; it’s good, but not the classic that some fans might lead you to believe.
39. Season 3, Episode 2: “Doomsday” (Aired: 10/07/96 | Filmed: 05/15 – 05/23/96)
King Nikolos forces grieving inventor Daedalus to make weapons.
Written by Brian Herskowitz | Directed by Michael Lange | Production No. V0105
Of all the installments from the third season, this is the only one I hadn’t remembered seeing before watching it in advance of today’s post. As it turns out, it’s one of the least memorable shows of the year, and it’s surprising, for the incorporation of the Icarus/Daedalus myth seems like primo fodder for the series. Part of what bogs the episode down, I think, is the inclusion of Katrina, a pestering reporter who’s supposed to evoke the feeling of 1940s screwball comedy, but doesn’t manage to be anything more than an annoyance. Furthermore, the use of the Megaliths as insurmountable forces for destruction steers Hercules away from the mythical origins of Daedalus’ inclusion, negating the premise’s inherent potential. Middling installment and very easily forgettable. (Anyone want to stick up for this one? I’d love to change my mind!)
40. Season 3, Episode 3: “Love Takes A Holiday” (Aired: 10/14/96 | Filmed: 07/23 – 08/01/96)
Aphrodite decides it’s time for a career change; a plot is afoot to kidnap Iolaus’ grandmother.
Written by Noreen Tobin & Gene O’Neill | Directed by Charlie Haskell | Production No. V0113
Season Three’s best Sorbo-lite episode (or sans-Sorbo episode), this offering is supreme in its ability to further our understanding of Iolaus, for whom the story was explicitly written, and his origins, as his grandmother’s frozen-in-time town makes for one of the coolest stories of the year. Meanwhile, the episode takes on another fascinating dimension with the incorporation of the blossoming romance, which again finds its roots in the mythology, between Hephaestus and Aphrodite, who, in her second appearance, is rendered with an exciting multi-faceted depth. (The working title for this episode was “Beauty And The Beast.”) With a great script, an original story, and legendary motifs, “Love Takes A Holiday” is one of the few Herc installments that works — without Herc. In fact, it’s one of the year’s most memorable — especially for Xenites.
41. Season 3, Episode 4: “Mummy Dearest” (Aired: 10/21/96 | Filmed: 06/12 – 06/20/96)
Herc gets mixed up with a Pharaoh’s seductive daughter, a hungry mummy, a dead king’s ghost and Salmoneus’s “House of Horrors.”
Written by Melissa Rosenberg | Directed by Anson Williams | Production No. V0108
With a mummy as a monster-of-the-week, this installment runs the risk of turning into a childlike cartoonish horror flick (a la Scooby Doo, which though delightful, is geared for a different audience). Thus the wonder of this episode, directed by Anson Williams (Potsie on Happy Days) is its ability to combine the classic creature-feature elements with a dark and dangerous story that employs fresh characters and frenetic cinematography. This episode is emblematic of what the third season of Hercules is on its best days, presenting mature mytho-historical stories with edge-of-your-seat action and cool monsters: bridging the obvious age gap among the core audience. It’s a fine line to walk, and this episode almost manages to do it. Unfortunately the script becomes a little too distracted, forcing the perfumers to overcamp to overcome.
42. Season 3, Episode 5: “Not Fade Away” (Aired: 10/28/96 | Filmed: 05/24 – 06/04/96)
Iolaus will remain forever in the afterlife unless Hercules makes good on his deal with the god of the underworld to destroy Hera’s latest assassin, Enforcer II.
Written by John Schulian | Directed by T.J. Scott | Production No. V0106
Given the success of last season’s Terminator inspired “The Enforcer,” it’s no surprise that the series would turn to the aforementioned film’s sequel to craft a follow-up of its own. In this episode, Hera sends a new Enforcer (whom we’ll call Enforcer II; her element is fire) to defeat Hercules. In the process, Iolaus is killed. So Hercules ventures down to the Underworld (usually a recipe for dynamite drama) and makes a deal with Hades that Iolaus can go free if Hercules can defeat Enforcer II. But he’s given back up, the first Enforcer (her element is water), whose fate in the afterlife is undetermined. While the installment boasts great action, the script makes use of two strong emotional undercurrents — Iolaus’ underworld confrontation with the father who abandoned him and Hercules’ teaching the Enforcer what it’s like to be human. A lot of really beautiful moments in this classic episode.
43. Season 3, Episode 6: “Monster Child In The Promised Land” (Aired: 11/04/96 | Filmed: 04/22 – 05/02/96)
Hercules helps the monster Echidna and the giant Typhon find their kidnapped child.
Written by John Schulian | Directed by John T. Kretchmer | Production No. V0101
After two well executed installments from the previous season that incorporated the legend of Echidna, the “mother of all monsters” with a delightful self-awareness about Hercules’ penchant for monster slaying, this final episode in the trilogy attempts to find conflict in a new child, whom Hera hopes to position as the next great monster. Unfortunately, given the happy resolution previously allowed for Echidna and Typhon, this installment never manages to recapture the sense of imminent danger as the two prior installments, forcing an undermining tone of lightheartedness. This is exacerbated by the physicalization of the baby, who will remind Xena fans of Baby Rue on the unspeakably rotten “Married… With Fishsticks.” (The cast and crew liken this “rubber beast” to a muppet.) Sure misfire (surprisingly by the usually solid Schulian).
44. Season 3, Episode 7: “The Green-Eyed Monster” (Aired: 11/11/96 | Filmed: 05/03 – 05/14/96)
Hercules and Cupid get caught in the middle of a plot by jealous Aphrodite to marry off a mortal female whose beauty is drawing attention away from her.
Written by Steven Baum | Directed by Chuck Braverman | Production No. V0103
Karl Urban makes his debut as Cupid alongside a returning Aphrodite, whose characterization picks up from where we left off in last season’s “The Apple.” (Interestingly, “Love Takes A Holiday,” which aired earlier, was actually filmed AFTER this episode.) This installment works because it returns things to square one: Hercules stepping in when the petty gods interfere in mortal lives. And this offering makes use of its story magnificently, incorporating moments for the series’ trademark sense of humor and giving Hercules a vested interest in the proceedings (by making him fall for Psyche, who’s also the object of Cupid’s affection). This fun, solid, episode exists as a sort of companion piece to Xena‘s “For Him The Bell Tolls,” which aired later in the season and explores a similar dynamic between Aphrodite and Cupid.
45. Season 3, Episode 8: “Prince Hercules” (Aired: 11/18/96 | Filmed: 06/21 – 07/01/96)
Queen Parnassa strikes Hercules with amnesia so he will believe she is his mother and agree to lead her army.
Story by Brad Carpenter | Teleplay by Robert Bielak | Directed by Charles Siebert | Production No. V0110
One of the remarkably masterful facets of this episode is its ability to work in spite of a relatively inactive hero, who’s been stricken with a bout of amnesia, and is being manipulated into pledging his allegiance to Hera. Usually, when Herc isn’t able to drive the narrative forward, the show feels stagnant and off balanced. But this installment works around that by not only giving plenty of worthy material to Iolaus, but also in its emotionally-driven narrative, which finds Hercules developing an attraction to the guilty Princess (played by the future Mrs. Sorbo, who will soon be the Golden Hind), who begins to regret her agreement to go along with the Queen’s scheme. A lot or beautifully played scenes and although the quietness may seem out of place on the series, I would argue that it’s a welcome departure.
46. Season 3, Episode 9: “A Star To Guide Them” (Aired: 12/09/96 | Filmed: 07/12 – 07/21/96)
A mysterious dream sends Iolaus north (accompanied by Herc). Meanwhile, an evil king and queen order their soldiers to round up all male babies.
Story by John Schulian | Teleplay by Brian Herskowitz and John Schulian | Directed by Michael Levine | Production No. V0111
As I’ve mentioned in some of my Xena posts, episodes that find their source material in Biblical stories rarely work. The same goes for Hercules. And it’s not because the Bible doesn’t have great stories — it does — but it’s always a challenge to find ways to incorporate our heroes and reappropriate the narrative in a way that makes the characters seem imperative to the proceedings (without contradicting that which has been definitively recorded). Of course, this installment features a story that tries to keep things in the realm of the Greek myths (by keeping Hera as the main villainess) and only uses elements of Christian theology, most notably Christmas, which Xena also quasi-celebrated with “A Solstice Carol” on the same evening. But it simply doesn’t feel like an authentic Hercules episode.
47. Season 3, Episode 10: “The Lady And The Dragon” (Aired: 01/13/97 | Filmed: 07/02 – 07/11/96)
A young dragon starts killing warriors and destroying villages at the same time a warlord returns from exile seeking revenge on his enemies.
Written by Michael Berlin & Eric Estrin | Directed by Oley Sassone | Production No. V0107
While dragons are almost a cliched fantasy trope, this installment actually features a solid story and strong direction. On paper, it seems like a good old-fashioned Hercules episode. Unfortunately, the execution is quite different, and much of the blame should be directed to the person who cast the voice of the dragon. He’s played by a non-menacing (but particularly annoying) child, which works against the potentially powerful drama. Yet there’s some smart storytelling going on, for although dragons are a potentially campy beast to include, the script does allow us to sympathize with the creature — in a major way — as the episode’s real villains become some of the more despicable we’ve seen yet on this series. On the whole, however, the installment simply doesn’t work as well as it should.
48. Season 3, Episode 11: “Long Live The King” (Aired: 01/20/97 | Filmed: 10/21 – 10/29/96)
Iolaus joins his look-alike cousin, King Orestes, on a dangerous diplomantic mission to ask a power-hungry ruler to support a new league of kingdoms.
Story by Patricia Manney | Teleplay by Sonny Gordon | Directed by Timothy Bond | Production No. V0114
Another sequel, this follow-up to last season’s successful Sorbo-lite “King For A Day” doesn’t come close to reaching the same levels of entertainment. While the Xena lookalike episodes got campier and broader with each passing entry, Hercules takes the once lighthearted beat and tries to use it in aim of a deeper, more nobler drama. Ordinarily, this would seem like an effective course for the story to take. Unfortunately, in addition to being less enjoyable, the removal of the comedy means that we, the audience, actually care less about the characters — despite the more obvious emotional vulnerability. And by making this a drama in which Orestes is killed, the opportunity to make this dynamic a recurring feature is all-but-nullified. (Although Hurst speaks on the DVD about an idea for a third episode, which would have been perfect during Sorbo’s illness in Season Four.)
MVE (Most Valuable Episodes): “Love Takes A Holiday” and Not Fade Away”
Come back next Thursday for more Hercules! And tune in tomorrow for another Pre-Code film Friday!