Welcome to a new Xena Thursday! As a result of the popularity of my Hercules reviews and some requests I’ve personally received, today’s entry, echoing our initial Xena offerings, is the sixth in a series of posts counting down my picks for the fifty best episodes of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (which also celebrated its 20th anniversary this year). While each of my initial posts on every Herc episode listed a few MVEs, you’ll notice that some seasons are much better than others — they’re not of equal quality. In other words, all the MVEs (and some non-MVEs) from early Season Two may be listed before any of the MVEs from the second half of Season Five, and because all of those choices were designed to represent only their specific season/half-season, the accompanying posts cannot properly reflect the true determination of qualitative preference and strength. Instead, these seven entries can serve as a reference for both hardcore fans, curious Xenites, and anyone interested in partaking in the fun that is Hercules. While Xena is far and away my preference, this series has such a lot to offer, and I’m certain that if you want to find it, you will.
04. Season 2, Episode 7: “The Mother Of All Monsters” (Aired: 10/16/95 | Filmed: 05/25 – 06/03/95)
Echidna, the “mother of all monsters,” is out to get Hercules for killing “all my children.” Her unwitting ally: Herc’s mother.
Written by John Schulian | Directed by Bruce Seth Green | Production No. 876806
In addition to reconciling the early seasons’ penchant for monsters with the writers’ growing need to imbue the stories with a personal undercurrent, this installment takes its premise from mythology. Everything great about the Schulian years is personified here, as “the mother of all monsters” conspires with Hera to make Hercules pay for slaying her children. The tactic: targeting his mother. There’s strong conflict, a tight (and logical) script, and a surprisingly nuanced performance from Echidna. Check out more of my thoughts here.
05. 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
Executive Producer Rob Tapert directs this human tale that introduces us to Jason (of the Argonauts fame), who’ll soon grow to be a very important character, and turns the mythology on its ear by showing us what happens AFTER their infamous mission. The strength of the offering exists in the weight of the drama, which rests completely on the mortal characters (which is as it should be). Of course, the series lives up to its reputation by adding in Hera and a wickedly cool CGI skeleton fight. Check out more of my thoughts here.
06. Season 5, Episode 1: “Faith” (Aired: 09/28/98 | Filmed: 04/22 – 05/01/98)
Hercules and Iolaus head for Sumeria, where the local king says he’s under attack by his kingdom’s gods.
Written by Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci | Directed by Michael Hurst | Production No. V0708
Hercules‘s Dahak arc, which, as discussed before, was supposed to begin in the middle of Season Four, launches in this superiorly rendered installment that has Tony Todd as King Gilgamesh, filling the Marton Csokas role in Xena‘s comparable “The Deliverer.” The striking cinematography, heightened action, and obviously darker themes usher in a period of excellence for the series, in which Hercules becomes a more emotionally abstruse character — with tangible flaws. It’s powerfully evocative. Check out more of my thoughts here.
07. Season 3, Episode 12: “Surprise” (Aired: 01/27/97 | Filmed: 11/18 – 11/26/96)
Xena’s old enemy Callisto returns from the afterlife when she makes a deal with Hera to kill Hercules in exchange for immortality.
Written by Alex Kurtzman | Directed by Oley Sassone | Production No. V0117
As with the above, it must be noted that many of the show’s best offerings are darker in tone, using elements more commonly found on Xena. This is incredibly obvious in this installment, in which Callisto makes her first crossover appearance, resurrected from the dead by Hera to torment the demigod. The interplay between the psycho and the hero is unlike anything else on this series, and although lacking the emotional weight of her relationship with Xena, she definitely heightens the danger. Check out more of my thoughts here.
08. 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
Although this installment did not air as the second season finale, it would have been an appropriate conclusion, for it’s a knowing amalgamation of all that the year entailed — the characters, the stories, and the style. With a bevy of guest stars, including Kevin Smith as Herc’s brother Iphicles, and the incorporation of Hera as the main villain (not to mention the return of the haunting Blue Priest from Hercules And The Lost Kingdom, the darkest of the telefilms), this episode is a golden era classic. Check out more of my thoughts here.
09. 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
Many of the episodes that make my list for the show’s finest use Hera as the principal antagonist. This is because both the telefilms and the series’ premiere set up her hatred for Hercules as the core conflict. But because we didn’t get to actually see her until the end of the fourth season, she usually works through an emissary. In this case, we get Enforcer II, a follow up to the first Enforcer, and an homage to The Terminator series. The use of the first as an ally against the second yields some great moments. Check out more of my thoughts here.
10. 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
The show makes lemonade out of lemons in this outing, the best script to come out of the desperate period in which Kevin Sorbo was practically out of commission (due a series of strokes). With the series’ trademark tongue-in-cheek tone, the writers lampoon themselves in this brilliantly hysterical script that utilizes an all too true conflict: Kevin Sorbo is missing. The performances, though maybe not reflective of the real life counterparts, are a hoot. This is the best comedy of the ENTIRE series. Check out more of my thoughts here.
Come back next Thursday for numbers 1-3! And stay tuned tomorrow for another Blondell Pre-Code Film Friday!