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 fourth season, which includes two episodes produced for the third year, but held over. This turned out to be a blessing, for Sorbo suffered a series of strokes on hiatus that severely limited his ability to work in the last two thirds of the season. In today’s entry, he’s heavily featured in all but the last episode, which was the first produced after his illness. Also, note that the Young Hercules movie had been produced prior to the start of the season, but aired during the second half. Several episodes this season, including two in today’s post, offered viewers a pre-telefilm glance at the young versions of Hercules, Iolaus, and Jason (who later got the spin-off Young Hercules). As for the quality of these early Season Four installments… mostly middling.
60. Season 4, Episode 1: “Beanstalks And Bad Eggs” (Aired: 09/29/97 | Filmed: 05/22 – 06/03/97)
Hercules and Autolycus climb a giant beanstalk to a castle in the clouds, where they chase after Harpies and battle the giant Typhoon in an effort to rescue the kidnapped Lianna.
Written by Melissa Rosenberg | Directed by John T. Kretchmer | Production No. V0304
With such a wealth of Greek myths and legendary characters off of which stories can be drawn, it makes little sense for the series to turn its sight to classic fairy tales. Sure, the show has always relished in being a little goofy, but given the success of last year’s darker episodes, this seems like a strange choice to launch the season. While Campbell and Sorbo have great chemistry, it’s not enough to carry this bizarre, mediocre episode, which forsakes its one chance for genuine danger — the harpies — in favor of gremlin-like troll dolls, further illustrating why the series got pushed into Xena‘s shadow: the inability to commit to the harder (and darker) motifs. There’s something to be said about the ease of this series’ lighthearted installments, but it would be unwise to let this one do the talking.
61. Season 4, Episode 2: “Hero’s Heart” (Aired: 10/06/97 | Filmed: 06/04 – 06/13/97)
When Iolaus is unable to save a woman from falling to her death, Fortune, goddess of luck, attempts to relieve his anguish by taking away his memory of everything, including Iolaus.
Written by Jerry Patrick Brown | Directed by Philip Sgriccia | Production No. V0305
The premise of Iolaus feeling guilty after being unable to save a woman from falling to her death is the perfect kind of psychological dilemma that this series, about what it’s like to be a hero, is best designed to explore. However, after the initial sequence, it’s difficult to shake the feeling of disappointment over how the narrative unfolds. Wiping Iolaus of his memory essentially negates all that this episode is poised to examine, and although it’s exciting to see Hercules and the amnesiac Iolaus come to blows, it’s not worth the loss of all that this story could have been. Interestingly, it was pitched with Hercules dropping the girl, and although that would have most certainly made for a harder hitting story, I can understand the arguments as to why they couldn’t make him fallible. (That’s one of the big differences between Herc and Xena.)
62. Season 4, Episode 3: “Regrets… I’ve Had A Few” (Aired: 10/13/97 | Filmed: 08/04 – 08/12/97)
Hercules reminisces about the accidental death of a childhood bully, when Celesta arrives to take the brother of the deceased boy to the Elysian Fields.
Written by Paul Robert Coyle | Directed by Gus Trikonis | Production No. V0309
As the first episode (of four) this season that utilizes flashbacks of Young Hercules (played by Ian Bohen, who was replaced before the spin-off), this installment does the best job of incorporating his adventure with that of the present day, as Hercules’ friend is about to be escorted by Celeste (who, unlike on Xena, is blonde now) to the other side. While some of the moments play with a little too much melodrama, I like the visual direction of the episode, and the standout moment — bar NONE — is the conversation that Hercules has with his younger self. It’s a beautiful, ethereal device that tightens the episode and helps justify the inclusion of Young Hercules (something that his later appearances this year do with much less finesse). Not a great episode, but potentially powerful.
63. Season 4, Episode 4: “Web Of Desire” (Aired: 10/20/97 | Filmed: 07/15 – 07/24/97)
Hercules and Iolaus join forces with beautiful Captain Nebula to battle deadly spider-woman Arachne.
Written by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman | Directed by Michael Levine | Production No. V0301
Of all the episodes in today’s post, this installment features the greatest sense of danger, as Hercules and Iolaus face off against the nasty spider woman, Arachne, played with abandon by the always committed Josephine Davison. But more notable about this episode is the introduction of Nebula, a sharp-tongued pirate who suffers no fool gladly — except Iolaus, with whom she shares an already palpable chemistry. Gina Torres is one of the series’ greatest presences, and she always elevates an episode by her mere inclusion. Meanwhile, although the action is mostly confined to the cave, the story never slumps or slows, building and building to that requisite fourth act fight. It’s the perfect combination: scary monster, butt-kicking chick, and the dark storytelling that helps give the premise weight. A favorite!
64. Season 4, Episode 5: “Stranger In A Strange World” (Aired: 10/27/97 | Filmed: 05/12 – 05/21/97)
Herc and Iolaus find themselves in parallel worlds, each saddled with lookalikes of the other who act very differently. Meanwhile, Zeus appears to be dying.
Written by Paul Robert Coyle | Directed by Michael Levine | Production No. V0302
With Lucy Lawless, Renee O’Connor, and Ted Raimi appearing in the Alternate Universe as their Xena counterparts, I featured this episode in a series of posts on the Herc/Xena crossovers. (You can read that here.) I’ve admitted in the past that I find all the Alternate Universe devices (on any series) to be particularly gimmicky, but it’s difficult to deny the initial pleasure of seeing our favorite characters acting in ways completely foreign to what we’ve come to expect. Furthermore, all of the actors seem to be having a ball, and that translates into the final product. While the Sovereign gives the episode exactly the kind of danger it needs to sustain the tension, Lawless and Tydings’ cake fight is one of the most unashamedly amusing moments of the ’97-’98 season. Highly enjoyable outing.
65. Season 4, Episode 6: “Two Men And A Baby” (Aired: 11/03/97 | Filmed: 04/04 – 04/14/97)
After finding out he’s a father, Hercules engages in a fierce battle with Ares over the life of the magically endowed baby.
Story by Kevin Sorbo | Teleplay by John Hudock | Directed by Christopher Graves | Production No. V0122
Kevin Sorbo dreamed up the story (which he ruefully admits to having been changed extensively by Tapert and company) for this episode, one of the two held over from the prior season’s production schedule. Like several others, the spark of the idea is genius: Nemesis (who’s unfortunately been recast AGAIN) returns with a son and tags Hercules as the baby daddy, only to later reveal that Ares is actually the father. This not only allows for more romantic tension between Hercules and his old flame, but helps amp up the animosity between the two brothers, who fight over the baby with equal gusto. Unfortunately, the episode doesn’t live up to its full potential — losing itself during the middle and sagging considerably by the end. Don’t know who to blame, just know that it should have been better.
66. Season 4, Episode 7: “Prodigal Sister” (Aired: 11/10/97 | Filmed: 03/24 – 04/03/97)
Hercules fights members of a renegade Amazon clan to reunite a blind teenager with his sister, who is a member of the female warriors’ group.
Written by Robert Bielak | Directed by Gary Jones | Production No. V0125
In an effort to sate Sorbo’s demands for some of the storytelling that he felt Tapert was denying his series and giving to Xena, this episode — for the first time since the first telefilm — brings Hercules back in contact with the Amazons, who once again, become the antagonists. Although there are some great performances (and a cameo by Ephiny, who’s there only to prove that not ALL Amazons are bad), the nasty unlikable conflict, and the presentation of the Amazons as villains, just leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Although I don’t share Tapert’s reservations for Hercules fighting women, putting Hercules in conflict with the Amazons, even for an episode, keeps them from ever establishing the connection that they have with Xena and Gabrielle. And ultimately, that’s why it’s less successful.
67. Season 4, Episode 8: “…And Fancy Free” (Aired: 11/17/97 | Filmed: 06/26 – 07/07/97)
Hercules two-steps his way into the Panathenaia to help a teenager fulfill her dream of winning the cutthroat dance competition.
Written by Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci | Directed by Michael Hurst | Production No. V0307
After a string of darker episodes, this installment returns things to the lighter fare for which the middle years of the series are best known. It’s also one of the better comedies, becoming one of the cast and crew’s favorite installments. Willa O’Neill, best known to Xena fans as Gabrielle’s sister, Lila, plays a young girl with whom Hercules aligns to help her win a dance contest and stand up to bullies. Sorbo is fantastic in this installment, totally game for all the lunacy that accompanies Hercules as he brings his strengths from the battlefield onto the dance floor. However, I’m sure the most memorable thing about this episode is the debut of Widow Twanky, played by Michael Hurst, a hilarious creature who never reaches the same delectable heights as she does here. A really fun installment and fan favorite.
68. Season 4, Episode 9: “If I Had A Hammer…” (Aired: 01/12/98 | Filmed: 06/16 – 06/25/97)
The metalsmith Atalanta, who has long pined for Herc, fashions a statue of “the perfect man”, and it’s magically transformed into a not-quite-mirror image of Her Hero.
Written by Paul Robert Coyle | Directed by Steve Polivka | Production No. V0303
Atalanta, whom we haven’t seen since the second season’s “Let The Games Begin,” returns, and although I enjoyed her earlier appearances, her reinforced and exaggerated affection for Hercules, made more explicit than ever, takes away some of the character’s unique charm. Discord, who emerges as the episode’s villain (and perhaps among the most frequently used antagonists of the fourth season, since her introduction in “Two Men And A Baby”) isn’t the same kind of foe as Hera, or even Ares, as her look and attitude manage to negate her ability to menace. And, ultimately, the shape-shifting, evil Hercules double bit has already been played before, leaving this episode to contend with ground that feels like this series has already trodden. Again, not a bad one, just far from great.
69. Season 4, Episode 10: “Hercules On Trial” (Aired: 01/19/98 | Filmed: 07/25 – 08/01/97)
Hercules is tried for manslaughter when a man impersonating him is killed while doing a good deed.
Written by Robert Bielak | Directed by John Laing | Production No. V0306
Intended to be a bottle show — one that could be filmed on few sets in a few days, this episode is one that I can imagine seeming intriguing at first: Hercules is put on trial for those who’ve lost their lives while trying to follow in his heroic footsteps. Unfortunately, the episode doesn’t work because the whole thing is ludicrous; Hercules saved a family and the man in question died while trying to help them. There’s nothing in there that could make Hercules culpable, as much as the script would try to convince the jury, the audience, and Hercules otherwise. Furthermore, this is one of the few episodes that lacks the series’ trademark wink to the audience — and since the proceedings play without irony, you can be sure that this is an installment that simply doesn’t work. Not dire, but a definite misfire.
70. Season 4, Episode 11: “Medea Culpa” (Aired: 01/26/98 | Filmed: 10/30 -11/10/97)
Hercules and Iolaus reminisce about their first battle with the fire-breathing Ghidra, the seductive powers of Medea and Hera’s meddling tactics.
Story by Robert Bielak | Teleplay by Robert Bielak and Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci | Production No. V0315
It’s obvious that this is an episode that exists solely because Sorbo was ill. He appears only in the very brief opening and closing scenes, bookending an entire show that could exist as one belonging to Young Hercules. The myth of Medea is ugly and incredibly ripe with potential, and both the casting and the scripting do a fairly good job of realizing her story and making it live up to its promise. (It’s also nice to see Hera as the villain again.) Interestingly, Tapert originally intended the Medea story on Xena, and was then working on it for Hercules when he was forced to cobble it together for the latter’s younger counterpart. While I would have enjoyed seeing the episode play out on either show, the teenage angst employed in this episode is well handled, making the story a good fit for these characters, and the installment one of the fourth season’s surprises.
MVE (Most Valuable Episodes): “Web Of Desire” and “Stranger In A Strange World”
Come back next Thursday for more Hercules! And tune in tomorrow for another Pre-Code film Friday!