XENA AND HERCULES
AS featured in the November 98 edition of Matrix Magazine produced by the British Science Fiction Association. (BSFA)
What possible interest can Humanists find in a couple of sibling programmes about a Greek myth world where gods not only exist but interact directly with human beings? The answer is lots.
The mention of Hercules (subtitled The Legendary Journeys) conjures up visions of old ropy old B movie films featuring the likes of Steve Reeves and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Hercules TV series featuring Kevin Sorbo rises surprisingly high above such dross. For one thing, the muscle bound central hero is played by an actor, not by a plank of wood. Sorbo shows a remarkable range of acting skills in the series, as does Lucy Lawless in the sister show, as will be seen shortly.
Hercules is the product of Sam Raimi's Renaissance Pictures TV studios. Raimi is most famous for the low budget, but highly imaginative black comedy horror flicks now known as The Evil Dead Trilogy. (The star of those films, Bruce Campbell, appears periodically in Hercules and Xena as Autolycus, the Errol Flynn/Robin hood like criminal genius known as The King Of Thieves). Renaissance alone is a word that conjures up a sense of historical tradition for Humanists, and indeed, that tradition is shot though the adventures of Hercules and his female counter part. It was during the Renaissance in the 15th century that Christian artists became influenced by Greek and Roman art, history, philosophy and myth. Before this time, much Greek art had been destroyed as pagan and superstitious. During the Renaissance, such traditions were revived with a vengeance. As Greek/Roman artists were as fascinated by human form and depiction of people in motion, the Renaissance also saw the birth of the Humanities. It was suddenly in vogue to celebrate the lives of ordinary people as well as notaries, priests, and Biblical heroes. Raimi's studios being called 'Renaissance' is therefore extremely apt.
Hercules is a familiar figure to us all of course; the half-human demi-god is one of the great archytypical heroes whose twelve labours thrilled many of my childhood imaginings. Half-human heroes are also common is SF television, most notably from the day Spock, the Vulcan logical non-emotional hero of Star Trek revealed that he had a human half and had to suppress his feelings. Film makers and TV producers are nervous of making the heroic (rather than the evil) aliens too remote from any human identity. This was to result in even British Television's Doctor Who being revealed as half Human in his final televised adventure to date. If ET could be all alien and still loved by us, why not other aliens? Why have to make them all 'a bit human' to make us empathise with them?
Hercules has a stronger right than most SF heroes to be half human, as of course he was made such by Homer and other writers long before SF was dreamed of. (that's if you reject the idea of The Odyssey being a proto-SF novel in its own right, which I don't).
Spawned by Zeus who had a reputed habit of seducing mortal women, Hercules grows up exasperated by the lack of contact with his father, and his illegitimate status. His step-mother, Hera, insane with jealousy wants Hercules dead, and his father never calls round to offer any fatherly advise. As a result, Hercules renounces his divine strength and tries to be a human. His contempt for the gods shows throughout his adventures, and in many ways, shows us why we should have no place for gods in our lives. Hercules proves to be very educational viewing for Humanists.
In one of the five feature films made to launch the series and its truly spectacular CGI effects and sense of costume, (Hercules And The Circle Of Fire) Prometheus is trapped in a pillar of ice for his defence of humanity against the wishes of the Olympian hierarchy of Gods. Humanity slowly loses the secret of fire (given to us by Prometheus), and the world grows dark and cold. We are in danger of freezing to death. Hercules enlists his father's help and sets off to rescue Prometheus, but even his Father wants to stop him. At first, Hercules suspects his Father is as evil as Hera, (the cause of the crisis), but Zeus (Anthony Quinn reprising his Zorba The Greek role and loving it for every moment he's on screen as the womanising dirty old codger), is actually protecting Hercules, who's half God status makes him likely to be killed by some of Hera's traps on the quest.
Prometheus is of course an excellent role model for Humanists, in being more for humanity than pro-God despite being a God, but we see little of him in the episodes he features in. In many ways it is Hercules who takes on the characteristic defiance we normally associate with Prometheus. Hercules marries a woman, and raises a family. His heroics and his need to do good for everyone means invariable separation from domestic duties and enforces his human qualities time and time again over his physical strength and cunning. He often outwits opponents rather than thumping them anyway.
When the series (Hercules) began in earnest, Anthony Quinn dropped out, and the family Hercules acquires as his own in the films are killed off by Hera, literally in the opening episode. (The Wrong Path). This leads Hercules to a literal war against the gods as he rampages round trashing Hera's temples. Until a human woman shows him the futility of mindless violence and he starts being a champion for all mortals once again.
Temple sacrifices being stopped are a common theme in Hercules (and Xena), arguing consistently against the idea of humans being insignificant compared to divine entities.
In the ninth episode of Hercules, The Warrior Princess, Xena makes her first appearance, as a cruel, and beautiful warrior, who seduces Hercules' best friend Iolaus, a regular character in the adventures, played by Michael Hurst, who seems to get better fight scenes than Sorbo ever does). Iolaus is seduced by her into killing Hercules. He almost does, and Xena also comes across as a match for the demi-god.
The success of the Xena episode prompted a call for her to get her own series, which quickly went into production. Her interest for many male viewers is easily understandable. Lucy Lawless (who has already been in Hercules as other characters) is a truly beautiful woman, so dressing her in dominatrix leather short skirt and revealing leather top, complete with leather boots, a sword and a whip, was enough to drive the male audiences wild. In fact Xena also has an intense following in the American lesbian community, of which more later.
The producers had one problem in making the Xena series. Xena is an utterly evil character, but in a specially prepared teaser episode of Hercules, (The Gauntlet) she is made to have a change of heart. By the time her own series began, she was a hero, albeit a darker, more melancholy figure than her male counterpart. We never doubt that Hercules will come through and win, but Xena often fails and struggles to come to terms with her mistakes. Her evil past is made constantly to haunt her. She has dangerous, unpredictable qualities and still relishes a fight against the odds. She takes out whole male armies and enjoys doing it. It's no wonder women like her so much, as she beats so many macho sexist pigs senseless and kills those who would use women in a more overtly abusive manner.
While Hercules has close friends like Iolaus, we never doubt that they are just good mates, and buddies. Xena has a more regular travelling companion, Gabrielle, who has matured from a drippy naïve virgin full of romantic bardic dreams to gaining a near equal warrior status to Xena herself. Their relationship is more intense and passionate, suggestive of a certain gay affinity. They take baths and swim together, and admire one another's beauty. In one episode, Xena, trapped in the body of Autolycus, actually passionately kisses Gabrielle. In Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Gabriella is seduced into an all female vampire club, where the sense of erotic passion is blatantly explored. The episode looks like a teaser for a soft porn film version of Dracula.
Lucy Lawless comments on the Lesbian sub-motif herself in an interview given to SFX Science Fiction magazine November 1988. "I'm very thankful to the New York lesbian community because they were the first ones to latch onto the show in a cultish way and make it hip. I'm totally comfortable with that. To me, it's like saying Xena has grey eyes instead of blue. Big deal! I'm sure most gay people don't think about being gay all day long. We could make a big deal out of it and say 'Oh gosh, she's not (a lesbian), or 'Yes she is', and alienate part of our audience. Why on Earth would any show want to do that? We don't have a mind to and it isn't an insult to us. That's a very 90's way of looking at the world, isn't it? It just doesn't hurt us or make a difference one way or another."
In America, lesbians now celebrate Xena day. And why not?
The Hercules series continues, popular and deservedly so in its own right. Some stories are pure comedies. Others dark and depressing. In Cast A Giant Shadow, Hercules is trying to bring down The Mother Of All Monsters (understandably vengeful after Hercules has killed most of her children) but discovers that a gentle giant and friend of his actually loves the repulsive snake woman, (one of the show's most impressive monsters). And he comes to see the value of protecting her. King For A Day is the first story given over exclusively to a supporting player, and Iolaus handles himself extremely well in it, setting the scene for other stories in which the central character doesn't appear at all, a rare event on any television show with an eponymous hero.
History and chronology are extremely confused in both Hercules and Xena. It is uncertain what period of mythical history they are set in, the dawn of Greek civilisation, or its swan song. When Hercules meets Daedalus, father of Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun is already dead as a result of his folly. Similarly, Midas is cured of his golden touch problem. The stories often evoke the idea of Hercules and Xena living at the close of an era, the gotterdammerung of Greek myth. Gabrielle meets Homer, the blind poet who wrote the Oddessy. Xena participates in the last days of the Trojan War, sees the horse, and meets Helen Of Troy. By this time the events, if they are to believed true, were largely over and done with. Jason, for instance, is an older, battle weary figure, reliving his Argonaut adventures. In one episode, the skeletons Ray Harryhausen created for the film, Jason & The Argonauts, return, though Renaissance Pictures CGI SFX (impressive as they are) are no match for the old film's stunning effects on the skeletons. At times, the Renaissance effects are astonishing, with huge hydra monsters and serpents, but it is often the simple costume creatures that stand out; notably the giants (the best outside Irwin Allen's Land Of The Giants series) and the very well presented centaurs.
Xena witnesses many biblical scenes. In Altared States she stops a man who believes in only one God from killing his son, Icus in honour of that God, who actually turns out to be the boy's older brother, pretending to be the voice of God. The name Icus is a pun on Icaas, son of Abraham, who faced a similar decree only to spare his son in the end. The message here is clear, that humans must protect all children from such extreme beliefs and that no God should be allowed to oblige humans to slay their own kith and kin. This is a surprisingly anti-biblical story.
Xena also discovers the ark of the covenant, in The Royal Couple Of Thieves (aided by Autolycus) which has exactly the same effect on the story's villains as it does in the film, Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Xena decides such a devise isn't for her and rehides it, (with an obvious hint that Indiana Jones will find it next). In Giant Killer, Xena helps David slay Goliath, (who is portrayed for once with some sympathy and understanding); actually she doesn't so much help as do the deed for David, to the degree that you wonder why she wasn't mentioned in the Bible.
Clearly moving on several centuries, Xena has several encounters with the tyrannical Julius Caesar and meets Boedicea, too, even though their history post dates the earlier Biblical scripture story and precedes the advent of Christianity by 55 years at least.
In a non too serious adventure, Solstice Carol, Xena actually meets the Midwinter Festival equivalent of Father Christmas, and also provides Mary & Joseph with the Donkey needed for their trip to Bethlehem. This story is concluded in Hercules' A Star To Guide Them when Iolaus has visions that lead him and Hercules to witness the arrival of the Star Of David at Bethlehem. Iolaus goes into the stable, but Hercules, sensing the passing of his age, stands back and watches in morose silence, turning the traditional image of hope into a more sombre pageant.
Both Hercules & Xena were given to harsh stories amidst the humorous ones. In Gabrielle's Hope Gabrielle is duped into an affair with a cult leader and spawns his child, who she names Hope. The girl grows alarmingly quickly, and is clearly a psychotic killer, but Gabrielle loves her as a mother might, and even threatens to kill Xena, before faking her daughter's death to fool Xena into leaving the child alone. In Maternal Instincts the girl, Hope returns and eventually kills Xena's own recently discovered forgotten child, and Xena kills Hope who will later return from the dead). By now Xena has become very dark and serious indeed. Gabrielle & Xena try to kill each other over the deaths of their respective offspring, and almost succeed until plunged into the realm of illusion where they face hallucegenic musical numbers that force them to reassess their relationship and chill out. That's right, the savage harsh storyline suddenly turns musical, a kind of Gilbert & Sullivan meets Wagner parody, surprisingly well staged, showing the extraordinary range of its cast's acting range.
Later the dark, miserable side reasserts itself, when Hope comes back and apparently kills Gabrielle in the third season finale. Stay tuned for season Four folks.
Hercules went straight for laughs much of the time and even got into a phase of dabbling in pantomime. In And Fancy Free (a parody of the film Strictly Ballroom), the hard-man hero is caught up in a dance contest with a girl partner with two left feet. To teach her the necessary skills quickly he enrols with her in Widow Twankie's dance academy, (the widow is played in high comedy by a near unrecognisable Michael Hurst, (more familiar to fans of the series as Iolaus). The widow proved popular enough to resurface in Men In Pink, a high camp variation on the classic Monroe, Lemmon, Curtis film, Some Like it Hot in which Autolycus and Salamonius end up in drag in Twanky's dance troop.
At times the humour in Hercules stops the show from being anything other than a comedy. Salamonius (a regular wise guy, toga salesman character) seems remarkably like Terry Pratchett's Discworld's Cut Me Own Throat Dibbler, a sell anything and run before they realise they've been had, figure. The comedy reaches its peak in Porkules when Hercules is turned into a pig (a parody of the film Babe), and its sequel, One Fowl day when the female pig who falls for him, tries her hand at becoming human for a while. There is a homage to tradition here of course, with Homer also having the crew of Odysseus's ship turned into swine, but the comedy detracts from the serious aims of the show. In Yes Virginia, There Is a Hercules, the parody takes over when the story is brought to our own time, and the making of Hercules. Kevin Sorbo vanishes, and the production crew, seeing their profits dwindling, struggle, fight and bicker over how to solve the crisis. Alternatives suggested include spin offs, (such as Xena), the adventures of Young Hercules depicting the hero as a teenager (actually done often in the series itself) and turning it into a cartoon, (a viscous lampoon of the Disney film about Hercules that was undoubtedly inspired by the show's success). Some scenes are hilarious as new Hercules actors audition lousily, and there's a terrific scene in which the male members of the production crew take a leak in the gents loo while collectively showing their bitterness by whistling the programme theme tune.
After such lightweight hilarity and with Sorbo back from filming on other projects the stories get dark and serious again. Hercules' earthly mother dies. Zeus returns (now played by Roy Dotrice and not Anthony Quinn) ) invites his demi-God son to become a complete God. Hercules tries it for a while, but sickened by Olympian life and after a brutal battle with Hera, he rejects supreme power and returns to demi-God status.
In many stories we see humans become god like and fail, and gods become mortal and having to lump it (even Hercules suffers this fate briefly in Judgement Day).
Xena & Hercules are very entertaining hokum, and if you don't quite buy that idea, try watching them back to back with their imitators, Tarzan, and Sinbad. Tarzan attempts to turn the stories of the jungle lord into SF. He fights more aliens than lions. Sinbad is an attempt to do a Hercules in an Arabian Nights setting. Both the pretenders to the throne fail due to lousy acting, ill-conceived scripts and third rate special effects. Their failure helps to make Renaissance Pictures productions all the more stylish.
Xena and Hercules can be violent shows, which tends to put many Humanists off watching, which is a shame. After all, the central theme is a call for peace and an end to violence. God Of War Ares's first collision with Hercules ends on the brink of a bloody battle between two armies which Hercules stops with the aid of the maimed ghosts of the dead of former battles standing between the two forces, reminding the living of the cost of their wars. When Ares tries to force Hercules into direct combat, Hercules refuses and beats the more powerful God by refusing to fight at all. Whilst violent, the message of Xena and Hercules is one of peace.
Hercules & Xena are extremely thoughtful at times and self indulgent pleasant time wasters at others. Judging them merely on sex appeal factors is a mistake. They actually show us why the old Greek gods (Greek despite the show being filmed in New Zealand), would have been much more interesting than the God believed in by Christians today. If I had to believe in Gods, the Greek ones would win out every time.
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