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 fourth season, which is marred by the minimal use of Hercules, as Kevin Sorbo was recovering from a very serious series of strokes. Although he eventually trickles in more and more near the end of the season, the lack of Hercules is a major detriment to the season, especially since the original plan was to commence with the Dahak storyline and dovetail the series with Xena at the end of the year. The writers were forced to change their plans mid-run, and everything they did, though most of it isn’t stellar, is simply commendable for its creativity. Otherwise, this is a sorry collection of episodes, but only because real life got in the way. (Unfortunately, most of the offerings in which Hercules is a non-entity deserve less of our time; my thoughts on them will be brief, but I will return to my usual verbose commentary next week when the series once again finds its strength.)
71. Season 4, Episode 12: “Men In Pink” (Aired: 02/02/98 | Filmed: 11/11 – 11/20/97)
On the run from phony murder charges, Autolycus and Salmoneus change their names to Autolyca and Salmonella and join Widow Twanky’s all-female dance troupe.
Written by Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci | Directed by Alan J. Levi | Production No. V0317
While both series were prone to doing homages, none is more obvious than this
rip-off homage to Some Like It Hot, one of the funniest motion pictures of all time. In addition to the marvelous clowning of Campbell, Trebor, Hurst, and guest star Lacey Kohl (in the Monroe role, obviously), much of the enjoyment in this episode comes from the ways in which the story uses the film and then differentiates itself from it. It’s really an amusing installment for fans of the picture; I would be curious to see how it plays to someone who didn’t know the aforementioned film.
72. Season 4, Episode 13: “Armageddon Now (I)” (Aired: 02/09/98 | Filmed: 12/01 – 12/09/97)
Evil Hope, who survives her own cremation, frees Callisto and sends her back in time to keep Hercules from being born.
Written by Paul Robert Coyle | Directed by Mark Beesley | Production No. V0319
Hope and Callisto venture over to Hercules in the first of a two-parter that is essential viewing for all Xena fans. Thus I featured this episode in a series of posts on the Herc/Xena crossovers. (You can read that here.) With the Dahak/Iolaus storyline pushed back, this two-parter, which brings on several guest stars to take screen time away from Sorbo, introduces the Dark One onto the series and impacts the events that transpire in Xena‘s third season finale. While Hope’s focus on Hercules seems out of left field, the inclusion of Callisto is always worthwhile, and the scene in which she uses the Hinds Blood dagger to kill Strife is among the most powerful moments of the season (not to mention this two-part episode). And, even though this was designed to give the lead a lighter load, he does double duty playing both Herc and the Sovereign!
73. Season 4, Episode 14: “Armageddon Now (II)” (Aired: 02/16/98 | Filmed: 12/10 – 12/19/97)
Iolaus encounters the evil, unreformed Xena during his journey into the past to stop Callisto from killing the pregnant Alcmene before she can give birth to Herc.
Story by Paul Robert Coyle and Gene O’Neill & Noreen Tobin | Teleplay by Gene O’Neill & Noreen Tobin | Production No. V0320
As the conclusion of the two-parter, which also includes appearances by Xena and Gabrielle (in the alternate timeline), I featured this episode in a series of posts on the Herc/Xena crossovers. (You can read that here.) Because of their cameos, this episode will definitely appeal to Xenites. However, those scenes, which seem like gratuitous distractions (because they are), lack the necessary weight to really make them worthwhile for more than superficial “Oh, isn’t that cool” reasons. On the other hand, Callisto’s visit to Cirra packs an emotional wallop, and combined with both the story’s high stakes and Michael Hurst’s intense desire to keep the proceedings fast-paced, the episode validates its existence. And because it isn’t a goofy comedy, the episode, with the one prior, stands out as superior.
74. Season 4, Episode 15: “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Hercules” (Aired: 02/23/98 | Filmed: 11/21 – 11/28/97)
After an earthquake hits modern-day L.A., the show’s producers are hit with a devastating aftershock: series star Kevin Sorbo is nowhere to be found.
Written by Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci | Directed by Christopher Graves | Production No. V0318
Of all the episodes to come out of Sorbo’s illness, this episode is the most creative and the best, as the cast takes on the roles of the show’s real writers and producers. Highlights include Bruce Campbell as Rob Tapert, Hudson Leick as Liz Friedman, Michael Hurst as Paul Robert Coyle, and Kevin Smith as Jerry Patrick Brown. (Also among the ensemble are Ted Raimi, Lisa Chappell, Gina Torres, and Robert Trebor.) Although a lot of the humor may best be appreciated by insiders, the episode is truly a laugh a minute, taking time to also carve out a viable story about the show’s desperation when Kevin Sorbo goes missing. (Very meta-theatrical, huh?) Best bits include the urinal scene, where all the guys whistle the Herc theme song and the shtick of Michael Hurst as the chronically inebriated Coyle. One of the truly clever things to come out of this otherwise unfortunate season. A classic!
75. Season 4, Episode 16: “Porkules” (Aired: 03/16/98 | Filmed: 01/12 – 01/20/98)
Iolaus and Autolycus race to save Hercules after he is put on a butcher’s chopping block following his transformation into a pig by Discord.
Written by Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci | Directed by Christopher Graves | Production No. V0322
Discord turns Hercules into a pig. Iolaus and Autolycus must get to him before the butcher does. Alex Tydings voices a female pig who falls in love with Hercules. I wish this was a joke, but it isn’t. Was the show trying to hit a new low? It’s reminiscent of some of those awful Darrin-lite Bewitched episodes where he gets zapped somewhere or turned into something, so he doesn’t have to have a lot of screen time. Really, a sad offering; something worthy of parody and ridicule.
76. Season 4, Episode 17: “One Fowl Day” (Aired: 03/23/98 | Filmed: 01/21 – 01/29/98)
Ares punishes Iolaus and Autolycus for turning Discord into a chicken by chaining them together naked; Hercules’ pig friend fulfills her dream of becoming human.
Written by Adam Armus & Nora Kay Foster | Directed by Michael Hurst | Production No. V0314
A conclusion to the above installment, this one is slightly more enjoyable, if only because the series takes the bizarre humor of the story even farther, seemingly acknowledging what ridiculous drivel it is. While Katherine the pig (played by Tydings) getting to experience human life is a sweet subplot, nothing can take away the gloriously awful shine of Disocrd as a giant chicken, attacking Iolaus and Autolycus, whom Ares had prior chained together, stripped naked, and turned into half-donkeys.
77. Season 4, Episode 18: “My Fair Cupcake” (Aired: 04/13/98 | Filmed: 02/11 – 02/19/98)
Autolycus uses the voluptuous and naive Cupcake to distract Prince Alexandros so he can steal the ruler’s famous sapphire as Antioch and Carpathia ready for war.
Written by Noreen Tobin & Gene O’Neill | Directed by Rick Jacobson | Production No. V0324
A sequel to “Men In Pink,” this installment doesn’t work quite as well, chiefly because it doesn’t have the brilliant plotting of Some Like It Hot off of which to fall back. Also, the marvelous cast finds themselves caught in a story that fluctuates between broad comedy and earnest heart, trying to engage both without fully selecting one or the other. Autolycus remains the focus and get the most interesting arc, but by now we’re really missing Hercules.
78. Season 4, Episode 19: “War Wounds” (Aired: 04/20/98 | Filmed: 01/30 – 02/10/98)
Herc and Iolaus’s war buddy Ajax wants to erect a statue to fallen comrades. But the plan runs into violent opposition from King Iphicles, who happens to be Herc’s brother.
Written by Paul Robert Coyle | Directed by John Mahaffie | Production No. V0308
Finally, a serious dramatic episode in which Hercules is actually an active participant! This isn’t a perfect episode, particularly because of the lack of complexity afforded to the veteran, whose moral ambiguity is sacrificed so he can become the full-fledged antagonist. But, the offering has so many wonderful things going for it (especially for Season Four), that this big shortcoming becomes more of a nitpick. In addition to the return of Iphicles, who’s mourning the loss of his wife and also gets to play out some ethical questions, we also get to see Nebula again, whose flirtation with Iolaus becomes even more pronounced. And, more than anything else, it’s a great story — perfect for Hercules, pitting a family member against a friend, giving our favorite demigod that much needed personal investment that automatically raises the stakes and allows the story to transcend its constructs and become about the character, and how he is personally affected.
79. Season 4, Episode 20: “Twilight” (Aired: 04/27/98 | Filmed: 02/24 – 03/04/98)
Herc and his dying mother, Alcmene recall young Herc’s first taste of the horrors of war, when he went off to fight the supposedly evil Parthans.
Written by Noreen Tobin & Gene O’Neill and Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman | Directed by Philip Sgriccia | Production No. V0323
The non-story of Alcmene’s death, which is only good in the emotional effect it has on Hercules, Iolaus and Jason, is combined with a wonderful story about their younger counterparts first going off to war. Unlike in “Medea Culpa,” there’s some attempt to connect the past with the present (thus justifying the flashback portions), but it never really works as well as it should. While the “war is hell” story is well written and well played, I would rather see the death of Alcmene in a powerful present day story on its own, and certainly one with more meat than we’re given here. Two great ideas, that would have worked better apart (and more fleshed out).
80. Season 4, Episode 21: “Top God” (Aired: 05/04/98 | Filmed: 03/05/98 – 03/16/98)
Zeus’ proposal for Hercules to join him as a god on Mount Olympus brings up memories of the warrior’s first brush with divine immortality.
Story by Paul Robert Coyle | Teleplay by Jerry Patrick Brown | Directed by Charles Siebert | Production No. V0325
Hercules considering going to Olympus is a great inner conflict for the character. It’s also interesting to see that Hercules once did get a taste of godhood. Unfortunately Apollo is a difficult villain to take seriously and the flashbacks end up feeling too much like an after school special. But more importantly, a potentially weighty present day story is saddled with something with which it shouldn’t be, no matter the explicit nature of the connection between the two. Again, it’s really unfortunate that Sorbo was still recovering because we’re really wanting for a good meaty Hercules episode.
81. Season 4, Episode 22: “Reunions” (Aired: 05/11/98 | Filmed: 03/17 – 03/27/98)
Hera blackmails Zeus into becoming mortal; Hercules battles the gods to return Alcmene’s soul to the Elysian Fields and restore his father’s powers. Meanwhile, Iolaus reunites with his mother.
Written by Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci and Jerry Patrick Brown | Directed by Charles Siebert | Production No. V0326
This may be the episode to which the entire first three seasons of the series were building, with Hercules making amends and protecting his father from Hera, with whom he finally faces off and defeats. Thus, in many ways it’s quite satisfying. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see enough of this; instead we’re distracted by another appearance by the miscellaneous Apollo and a lot of plotting that just doesn’t rise in the way that we’d expect of an episode of this importance. However, the subplot of Iolaus returning home and facing conflict with his mother and step-father is a great parallel for Hercules’s story, and the episode’s ultimate reunion — Hercules with Iolaus — is the most satisfying of all. Perfect representation of the fourth season: some good stuff complicated by an outside factor, rendering it not nearly as good as it could have been.
MVE (Most Valuable Episodes): “Armageddon Now (I & II),” “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Hercules,” and “War Wounds”
Come back next Thursday for more Hercules! And tune in tomorrow for another Pre-Code film Friday!