Hercules The Legendary Journeys: Season One, Part One Review
Collecting the first three episodes of its initial season, (The Wrong Path, Eye Of The Beholder, The Road To Calydon), and the preceding five television movies (Hercules and the Amazon Women, ...and the Lost Kingdom, ...and the Circle of Fire, ...in the Underworld, ...in the Maze of the Minotaur), the Hercules The Incredible Journeys box-set is simple, unassuming fun set in a simple, unassuming time. A tongue-in-cheek take on Hercules and various other mystical figures both good and bad, the syndicated television show ran for six seasons and displaced Baywatch as America's number one programme.
Of course, executive producers Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert had tread this ground before in the third Evil Dead movie, Army of Darkness, a similarly self-mocking, though much funnier action-adventure set in medieval times. Hercules doesn't have a charismatic leading man in the same league as the inimitable Bruce Campbell, though Kevin Sorbo does throw himself into the proceedings just as willingly, and similarly understands that this isn't something to be taken at all seriously.
Certainly the movies and episodes collected here are extremely light hearted and good natured (though occasionally broad and labored); indeed, in contrast to Army of Darkness the only resurrections that occur are to bring back the good guys who didn't deserve to die in the first place. The problem this creates is that the programme becomes difficult to criticise; whilst it doesn't bear comparison with current American series' such as The Sopranos, The West Wing or Six Feet Under or even lighter efforts such as Alias or 24, it doesn't exactly invite them either. How can you take something seriously when it resolutely refuses to do that very thing itself.
That said, by placing Hercules alongside those shows, we are able to pinpoint some of the notable flaws. Unlike every one of those programmes there are only the most rudimentary narrative arcs across the episodes (Hercules gains a wife and children before Hercules in the Underworld, and loses them before the season proper), rather, each could stand alone as an individual piece. Moreover, the plot adheres to the same outline in every one: Hercules embarks on one of his eponymous journeys in order to save some townsfolk from a god/demon/monster. Undoubtedly, this creates a certain predictability, and overfamiliaity sets in a little too soon, yet there are still pleasures to be had besides the devil-may-care tone.
The special effects in particular boast a cheap and cheerful quality that occasionally recalls Tom Sullivan's work on the first Evil Dead film, albeit of a gore-less variety, as well as providing the kind of dumb sight-gags that Raimi employed in many of his pre-A Simple Plan works. Likewise, the costume design has a gaudiness that can't help but charm (and was, remarkably, produced by the same people responsible for the award winning work on Peter Jackson's The Lord Of The Rings trilogy), as do the anachronistic dialogue and accents (a mixture of American and Kiwi, the show having been filmed entirely in New Zealand).
Indeed, the only time the programme truly frustrates is when it digresses from usual formula and introduces, for example, huge dollops of sentimentality (...and the Circle of Fire) or resorts to flashbacks from previous movies for fifty percent of its running time (...in the Maze of the Minataur). Otherwise, the irreverent tone, perhaps best illustrated by having Zeus portrayed as a dirty old man, and the much shorter lengths of the individual episodes work perfectly well to provide simple, no-brainer entertainment - and in a current climate where fantasy is being represented on the big screen by the sternly straight-faced annual installments of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, this provides a welcome relief.
Unavoidably, the DVD emphasises Hercules' made for television nature. Scenes occasionally appear grainy, and the end credits are often unreadable. There is a slight improvement evident in the episodes as opposed to the TV movie, and one would presume that each season will prove superior as and when they are released (as was the case with, for example, Star Trek: The Next Generation). Technically, the discs also provide a few problems: There is, on occasion, some obvious edge enhancement, and the whole package definitely suffers from an NTSC to PAL conversion.
The sound is a more favorable proposition. Offering both the original stereo and a DD5.1 mix, the former is, somewhat surprisingly, the better option. Whereas the latter does provide some extra ambience, the elements from which the mix has been created are not substantial enough to fully justify its presence. Moreover, the dialogue is given much cleaner status in the original DD2.0.
In terms of extras, Anchor Bay have offered some worthy additions. Aside from the weblink (to the official Hercules site), the brief stills gallery and even briefer cast biographies found on disc one, elsewhere we are offered over an hour of interview material and an episode commentary by Kevin Sorbo.
Sorbo is also the main interviewee on the third disc's documentary, though actor Michael Hurst and director Bill L. Norton also contribute. Presumably honed on the fan convention circuit, this 79 minute piece is full of anecdotes and background information on the series' early stages. At the half way point, the documentary switches to an informal chat between Sorbo and Norton, though proves just as illuminating.
Sadly this isn't quite the case with Sorbo's commentary (which accompanies second episode Eye of the Beholder). Recorded recently, the actor's memory isn't strong enough to enable him to speak continuously, though he does prove to be a likeable presence, and is perfectly happy to take the Mickey.