Radar for BBC3, 12 to 23 January 2004 (12 episodes)
Way back in Greek mythology, Hercules was a bit of a hero. The son of Jupiter and Alcmena, he was not looked on favourably by Jupiter's regular wife. Hera sent some snakes to strangle the youngster, but he defeated them with his bare hands. After a night of madness, in which he killed his wife and children, Hercules paged the Oracle at Delphi, who told him to serve King Eurystheus of Tiryns for a dozen years. During that time, the king tried to get rid of Herc, setting him twelve seemingly impossible tasks. "We do not intend to rid ourselves of Hercules," said Eurystheus's Crime Minister, "we are piloting our Community Service project, by which criminals might gain redemption by their own hard work." After completing his time in Tiryns, Hercules remarried, was killed by a poisonous potion, and became a genuine minor deity.
Many thousands of years later, the Hercules myth remains potent. There have been televised dramas loosely (very loosely) based around the original myths, and a cartoon that has nothing at all to do with the Greek tales. Now a game show takes some note of the legends, but twists them to its own ends.
The concept is simple. Take twelve extreme endurance athletes - a fell runner, a biathlete, an extreme gymnast, and others. Take them to the Devon coast, and give them really, really difficult things to do. Make those really difficult things out of wood and metal, without using anything modern, and make these tasks have some vague connection to Greek mythology. Time how long everyone takes to complete the tasks. If everyone completes their task, then the slowest aggregate time leaves the show. Do something a bit clever towards the end of the run, otherwise we'll have no one left for the last show.
In concept, Hercules is - as it probably should be - an extreme form of Gladiators. The events don't need a "Don't try this at home" warning because no one is going to be so stupid as to try and run on a giant hamster wheel. In execution, though, it's not quite all there.
The first problem: who are these people? Because of the nature of the events, Hercules isn't going to get the sort of household names that were tempted for Superstars. Instead, we see people who are very famous in their own sports, but those pursuits struggle to get attention in the very small print Sport In Brief sections. Hercules does its best to introduce all the contestants as the days pass, but we can't help feeling that we don't know much about the early leavers.
The next problem: how to get them from one event to the next? Hercules' answer is simple: bring the events to them. Have all the contestants live in a camp, with their support teams, and just construct the next event in the fields around the camp. This also gives the producers some footage of what goes on outside the formal events, adding to a slight sense that this is Extreme Survivor. The use of faux-Roman costume, graphics based on a marble sculpture, and a very old-fashioned on-screen typeface all add to the sense that this is Event Television.
The format of the show means that it's natural to concentrate on those facing elimination from the event. This makes for good television, as we don't have to worry too much about places in the middle of the pack, and concentrate on two or three people. However, when fifteen minutes separates last from last-but-one, and last-but-two is only three minutes clear, tension is heightened by looking at all three people. For the voice off to say the day before that the race for elimination is between the last two rather diminishes the chance of an upset. Similarly, it's not always clear how the time gap translates into performance in today's event.
Perhaps the biggest flaw in Hercules was the way that one day's events dominated the entire competition. The opening day's event had a spread of hours between first and last. All other events tended to have a spread of perhaps 90 minutes, and the big gaps on the first day were still in evidence a week later when the format changed. Was this by design, or was it an unfortunate over-estimation of the competitors' strengths? And was the change of format part-way through the contest a reaction to that problem?
The voice off is that of Paul Darrow, who rose to fame in the late 70s through seminal sci-fi drama Blake's Seven. He has a very clear voice, he carefully enunciates every syllable, he speaks with dignity and care, and tends to be rather soporific. There's nothing wrong with Mr Darrow's work, but the lack of variety can tends to bore, and make the show drag a little. We would probably have benefited from a second commentator, perhaps to give statistics and other background information. Radio shows know not to use the same voice for more than about twenty minutes without a break, perhaps the television voice industry would benefit from that advice.
It can eventually be noted that, in addition to being verbose and slow, the event commentary for each day's labour begins with the phrase "It can immediately be noticed." This is not a coincidence.
The music used on the show has been culled from various existing works, and as there's no credit for "Music," it's fair to assume that none has been specially written. One of producer Gary Monaghan's previous works, Banzai, also featured liberal doses of library music.
Over the course of the twelve days, we've seen some outstanding performances by all the participants. They've pushed themselves to the limit, and in some cases beyond the limit. While the television presentation has a few flaws, these are all of a relatively minor presentational nature, and shouldn't overshadow a quality effort.
Hercules' original tasks from Eurystheus:
- Bring the skin of the Lion of Nemea
- Kill the Hydra of Argos
- Bring alive the Hind of Cerynitis.
- Bring alive the Boar of Erymanthis.
- In one day, clean out the Stables of Augeas.
- Chase away the Birds of Stymphalia.
- Bring the Bull of Crete.
- Bring the Mares of Diomedes of Thrace.
- Bring the Girdle of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons.
- Bring the Oxen of Geryon.
- Bring the Golden Apples of the Hesperides.
- Bring Cerberus of Hades.
The tasks on the 2004 series of Hercules:
- The Hoops Of Odysseus. Or, hang around on the Hang Tough apparatus for 100 minutes.
- The Wheel Of Ixion. Or, run an entire marathon uphill by turning an oversized hamster wheel 4000 times.
- The Ladder Of Hades. Or, climb a couple of ladders and slide back down 700 times.
- The Anchor Of The Argonauts. Or, raise an anchor 800 times.
- The Rocks Of Deucalion. Or, chuck a rock 9000 metres. And bring it back.
- The Oar Of Hercules. Or, row 70,000 metres.
- The Chase Of Apollo. Or, wade 20,000 metres through a wet ditch.
- The Chariots Of Helios. Or, pull a heavy chariot round a track 400 times.
- The Wrath Of Poseidon. Or, drop water in your opponent's tank via a Heath-Robinson contraption.
- The Torment Of Theseus. Or, hold your breath underwater for 150 minutes.
- Ascent To Olympus. Or, build a stairway of 1200 concrete blocks.
- The Twelfth Labour. Or, we have run out of ideas, so repeat bits of days 2, 3, and 5.
Mike Dixon (biathlete)