6. Hercules: The Journey Begins, part 1

When analyzing a tv series to see if it has an overall structure, the best approach is to compare the first and last episodes. That's because they will share elements of each other, and provide a bookend. But if the structure is quite strong, you'll be able to find a correspondingly strong anticipation and resolution of the entire series within each. This doesn't mean the stories are planned out in advance; only that they have a conceptual center that is expanded upon, then resolved at the end. Think of the first episode as the universe before the Big Bang, before it started expanding into a million different worlds, then think of the final episode as the universe collapsing into its primordial state. I don't mean "collapsing", like falling apart, but like the entire show is condensed back again to its core dramatic argument, so that it may finally resolve itself. That's why it's not always enough to just focus on character evolution. The inherent structure of a serialized story is not like a novel; it uses a series of variations on the basic theme to sustain itself, which looks more complex than it really is, spinning endless loops but always staying close to the center until the time comes to resolve its story. Television is, by necessity, the most disciplined form of serialized storytelling around, and is a good subject for this kind of study. These particular two shows rely heavily on outside references, which will prove helpful in identifying its structure.

Given this possibility that "Xena" and "Hercules" originated from a single "Big Bang", and can be treated as one story, our next step is to compare the first and last episodes to see if this holds up. Identifying the last episode is easy: "Xena" ended a season after 'Hercules", so we'll use its series finale, "A Friend In Need, parts 1 & 2". For the first episode, we go to "Hercules", but not to the first episode in its series ("The Wrong Path"), but rather, the first "Hercules" movie that preceded it a year before. There were five movies originally made as part of a rotating syndicated series of action films for Universal Studios, made in conjunction with other filmmakers and involving a number of different genres, with "Hercules" supplying the sword and sandal genre. The idea was to repeat the success of NBC's old Sunday night Mystery Movie rotation, which spawned a number of successful tv series, including its longest-lived one, Columbo. Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert were contracted to make four movies for their genre, and if it caught on, they'd finally realize their 10-year goal of having a tv series and the creative control that went with it.

The first "Hercules" movie that aired was "Hercules and the Amazon Women". We can see how this movie anticipated a number of elements in both shows, such as the gender conflict that would shape the concept of the "Xena Scrolls", and certainly, with the casting of Lucy Lawless as an Amazon second-in-command, we can think of this as a bookend to her final appearance as Xena in "A Friend in Need". But can we really think of this as the show that will provide the "Big Bang" to both series? No. So it shouldn't surprise us to learn that this was not actually the first movie Rob Tapert planned. That would be the second movie that aired, "Hercules and the Lost Kingdom", and it fits the "Big Bang" theory like a glove. We can consider it the true precursor to both shows, and the fact that Rob overruled its screenwriter's character-driven approach01 would also be a precursor to how the show would place a higher priority on his "logic of aesthetics"02 over character development.

"Hercules and the Lost Kingdom" is the first indication that we're not going to be given the Greek myths in the familiar shapes we're used to. It's not clear what myth it's based on, at first. The names and places don't match up, and the events don't ring any bells at first. There's the city of Troy, but not the one we know from the Illiad; there's the character of Deianeira, but not the one we'll come to know as the wife of Hercules, whom we'll meet in later films; and then there's all these strange cults, practicing human sacrifice, which is not what we usually associate with Greek culture. Where did this story come from?

Actually, the story does come from the Greek myths we're familiar with, but recombined in an unfamiliar way. The myths are stitched together according to theme, not character. The result is a new story based on ancient, proven elements. The story of "Hercules and the Lost Kingdom" is founded on a particular combination of myths that will prove to be very important later on, and will eventually be recapped in the final episode of "Xena" (which will prove to be the last word for "Hercules" as well, in a sense). As we'll also discover, there are myths associated with each other, because they're inspired by similar traditions, and these myths will appear later on as part of the pattern as well.

 

The story involves Hercules traveling to a land where he hopes to learn the fate of Troy, which has disappeared in the mist, because of Hera: she's sent her priests to overthrow it, making its citizens exiles. On the way, he finds a young women named Deianeria about to be sacrificed to a water god, but Hercules prevents it. She resists this at first, because she feels her sacrifice is her destiny. She doesn't know much about her life, otherwise; it seems it's lost in the mist, as well. All she knows, or hopes, at least, is that her father is a great king of a troubled city. She also knows that a mysterious figure in costume has been haunting her, but this figure is not a figment of her imagination: we can see him stalking her. It turns out he's a priest of Hera who summons a great serpent to swallow up Deianeira while she's on the beach. Eventually, they make their way to the exiled king of Troy who reveals he is indeed Deianeira's father: Hera demanded he sacrifice his daughter, and he refused, losing the city as a result. With his death near, he commands her to lead his people as their queen. The movie ends with Deianeira learning to become a leader, with Hercules' help, and retaking Troy from the "Blue cult" of Hera.

To figure out where this story comes from, it's important to know the precise sources used. In this case, it's Robert Graves' "The Greek Myths", a two-volume series that outlines the myths, their historical roots and the stages of their evolution as the different cultures came together in the Greek mainland. The story opens with a comical moment from "The Cyclops": Hercules is confronted in a tavern by a giant with a cyclopean tattoo on his forehead. He offers the giant beef stew, but the giant would rather have him. We then hear about Troy being "lost in the mist"; this is not from the myths, but the idea of heavenly mist as a disguise is used frequently in"The Illiad". Hercules makes his way to the land of Queen Omphale, a name that has matriarchal associations. She bought Hercules as a slave to serve her for one year, and the money went to orphans (in the movie, Deianeria described herself as an orphan at one point). Her story has its roots in Greek's matriarchal past03, when the Queen chose a king to rule with her for one year, at the end of which he was sacrificed, dressed in women's clothes. This helps explain Deianeria's strange outfit when she was about to be sacrificed: it almost looks like she's dressed in drag, with heavy makeup and false breasts. According to Graves, that would have been the original Hercules outfit, instead.

Deianeira

Hercules doesn't get sacrificed in the film, of course. He sleeps with the queen, as a stud for the night, then she offers to help him. She gives him navigation tools that her ex-husband left behind. These tools are anachronistic, since there weren't any compasses or the like in ancient Greece; nor is there a moment like this in the myth of Queen Omphale, in any case. But it makes sense when we realize the actual inspiration for this scene: it's very likely borrowed from "The Odyssey"--after Calypso agrees to let Ulysses leave her island, after having been her captive lover for seven years, she gives him tools to build a ship: "axe, adze, augers, and all other necessary gear"03. What does "The Odyssey" have to do with Queen Omphale? Nothing, but it has plenty to do with the story of Hercules, and later on, Xena. It goes back to the play, "The Cyclops", and Dionysus: the god of wine hardly appears in the story of Troy, as told by Homer in "The Illiad", despite his importance in Greek culture, but Euripides amends that by including him in "The Odyssey", thanks to his brief satyr play. The play is invoked in this movie as part of the overall Dionysus/Orpheus/satyr pattern. We'll even meet the cowardly yet loyal goat-man of "The Cyclops", Silenus, in the form of Robert Trebor's slave--he's likely inspired by the passage in Graves relating to Pan, who is drawn to Hercules and Queen Omphale04.

There are other Dionysiac elements in this movie: the costumed man shadowing Deianeria recalls "Black Orpheus", and Deianeira herself gets her name from the daughter of Dionysus.05 Deianeira's two sides in the Greek myths--first as daughter of Dionysus, second, as wife of Hercules--are split into two characters for these movies. Her association with Dionysus can be the only reason why she's so named, since the myth we know her character is taken from is different: she should be called Hesione, the daughter of the king of Troy who was sacrificed by her father to a sea serpent to save the city. Hesione is a perfectly good name, so why not use it? Especially since they knew they would be using Deianeira's name in the next film? Perhaps because Rob Tapert didn't want to limit her story to that myth; changing it meant he could give it greater resonance, and create a deeper story that could be unfolded throughout the "Hercules" series. As it happens, the myth of Hesione and the related myth of Andromeda survives all the way through to the last several episodes of "Xena"!

This movie contains references to other myths as well, but we have enough to demonstrate our point that it anticipates, and is fulfilled by, the final episode on "Xena": the issues of sacrifice, freedom, mentors, destiny, and the salvation of a lost city. We even have one of Xena's stars in both episodes: Renee O' Connor plays both Deianeira here and Gabrielle in "A Friend in Need", and in both cases, she travels from innocence to experience under the guidance of a Dionysiac teacher, learning to take the place of a princess. Before we continue on to the "Hercules" series, let's look at how these movies are wrapped up. It'll provide important clues on how the main characters were constructed.



01Hercules: The Legendary Journeys by Rob Weisbrot, pg. 32
02Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, An Insider's Guide to the Continuing Adventures, by Robert S. Weisbrot, p. 102
03The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves, note k
04The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves, G 136 j
05The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves, 142

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