Small-Screen 66: #65: Hercules: The Legendary Journeys / Xena: Warrior Princess
(Syndicated, 1995-99 / 1995-2001)
In my “Film Favorites” countdown, I mentioned that 1998’s Merlin introduced me to the live-action fantasy genre. In retrospect, that’s not entirely true. Today I’ll be addressing a pair of twin series which predated Merlin by several years, and which provided some of my earliest vivid memories of television.
Hercules: The Legendary Journeys starred Kevin Sorbo as the legendary strongman and demi-god. Throughout 1994, a series of TV movies produced by Universal as part of their “Action Pack” programming block (sort of a Wonderful World of Disney analogue) served as “pilots” to the show. The “Legendary Journeys” of the title saw Hercules (often accompanied by his nephew/sidekick, Iolaus) traveling the length and breadth of the ancient world, battling various deities and legendary creatures. Storylines initially stuck to the realm of Greek mythology, and often focused on Hercules’ conflicts with Hera, Zeus’ queen, who was driven by hatred of her husband’s infidelity. But as the series continued, new antagonists, such as the war god Ares, were introduced. In later seasons, elements of other cultures’ mythologies were incorporated as well: Hercules traveled farther afield, encountering beasts and deities from Sumeria, the Middle East, and Celtic legend.
In the first season, a three-episode arc featured Hercules fighting, but eventually teaming up with, a female warlord named Xena (played by Lucy Lawless). The Xena character proved so popular that she soon received her own spinoff series. Xena: Warrior Princess had Xena essentially attempting a My Name is Earl scenario: in an attempt to atone for her past misdeeds, she would travel the world doing good. Xena was accompanied by her own sidekick, a naive blonde girl named Gabrielle, and over the course of the series the two formed a strong bond (providing ample material for fanfiction writers).
Like Hercules, Xena was a great warrior, and confronted a similarly all-inclusive pantheon of divine friends and foes. Whether it was the gender-swap angle, the LGBT cult following, or Xena’s badass blade-frisbee weapon thing (technically called a chakram; seriously, how did she catch that thing?), Xena: Warrior Princess proved significantly more successful than its predecessor. But Hercules and Xena stayed on speaking terms, and the two shows occasionally featured crossovers, and shared characters such as Ares and Autolycus (a legendary thief played by equally legendary B-movie actor Bruce Campbell). In 1998, Sorbo and Lawless even teamed up for a direct-to-video animated move, the appropriately titled Hercules and Xena – The Animated Movie.
I don’t know this for certain, but I strongly suspect the popularity of The Legendary Journeys and Warrior Princess may have inspired Disney’s decision to make their 1997 Hercules film (which in turn probably inspired the animated Hercules/Xena movie…which also sees the protagonists attempting to stop a recently-liberated gang of Titans). The two shows featured stirring adventure, epic music, and a patchwork quilt of interesting elements borrowed from world mythologies. And they never took themselves too seriously: The series had a campy, fun atmosphere, and almost every episode included numerous cheesy (awesome) kung-fu fight scenes. One of Xena’s trademark moves was to jump into the air and hang there almost Matrix-style, remaining suspended via a spinning kick to the faces of four or five bad guys, always conveniently arranged in a circle.
Featured Episode: Hercules, S5,E2: “Descent”
In the episode I remember most vividly, Hercules and Iolaus find a wrecked ship on a grim shore. They enter the skeletal hull, and are immediately set upon by a horde of zombies. Straight-up zombies. It was pretty late in the show’s run, so I guess they were scraping the bottom of the barrel as far as new “mythological” threats to face, but I’m not complaining. HERCULES vs. ZOMBIES, people. That’s almost Nazis vs. Ghost Armor good. And the scene included one aspect of the show I’ve neglected to mention: Quips. You see, the zombies make surprisingly good adversaries, because they are mostly unaffected by Hercules’ great strength. He simply punches through them, and the undead press on largely unfazed. In one case, Hercules punches his fist into a ghoul’s chest, and pulls it out clutching a rib. The zombie remains apathetic.
“Hm. Guess that one was a spare,” Hercules says.
That’s the kind of one-liner I could die happy after making.
Both Hercules and Xena are currently up on Netflix. Check them out if you’re so inclined. Though they haven’t got as much hype as House of Cards or Breaking Bad, I can vouch for both series being truly Legen…wait for it…dary.
Tidbit: Hercules and Xena were both filmed in New Zealand. I wonder if this is where the “fantasy realm = New Zealand” trend began.
You can keep up with Brian’s Small-Screen 66 countdown here.