Hercules, back in the olden days, was an incredibly strong man. King of the Gods Zeus once had an affair with the lovely mortal Alcmene. This produced the world's only god born from mortal womb Hercules. This would be fine and lovely, but Zeus was meant to be going out with Hera and, well, you know how complicated all these extra-marital affairs can become. Basically, he grew up really strong, was driven to insanity by Hera and killed his wife and kids. In order to be purified, King Eurystheus set Hercules twelve surely impossible labours. But he did them, married someone else, died out of love and rose to Heaven as an immortal.
But now! Twelve people attempt to take on twelve all new labours (all of which based loosely on Greek myth, but not actually based on the actual twelve labours of Hercules) in order to be crowned the new Hercules. Each athelete is at the top of their chosen endurance sport and get to bring two helpers with them. They take part in twelve labours over twelve days, staying in spartan tents overnight.
Each event has a target. It's up to the contestants to reach the target as quickly as possible, although other than on Day Nine each athlete must take two ten minute Time Outs at the time of their choosing, and they can leave the apparatus for a rest at any time although that would be playing into the hands of others. The total times for each labour are totted up and the results displayed on The League of Hercules for all to see. At the end of Days 1-8, whoever is at the bottom of the League is eliminated. The times are wiped for Day nine which is a special day, and the three people left compete on an all new league for the final three days.
Obviously then, you'll be wanting to know what the events are. Each event is expected to take about six hours.
The final three days have an all new League of Hercules, and the final three competitors stay until the end.
And whoever has the quickest time for the last three days is declared Hercules and wins the fabled Shield of Hercules, a heavy wooden shield with a big H on it.
Man, we love this show. The first thing to strike you is the highly camp sci-fi actor Paul Darrow (who you may know as Avon from Blake's Seven) who not only hosts but also provides the commentary. We like him because he overemphasizes most of his syllables, mainly. We don't think he's a random choice either, producer Gary Monaghan has a track record of liking to use old cult B-list celebs to take part in his shows, his other main work being the wonderful Banzai.
That Banzai influence extends to the music which plays throughout the show, most of which you feel you should recognise but actually don't. Fans of prog rock will be in their element, and fans of Pulp will be pleased that This is Hardcore regularly drives the show along.
Quite a fascinating thing happened on Day One which I think helped the production of the show but more, I would imagine by accident than design. The head physio commented before the first labour that actually, nobody's ever asked anyone to hang for 100 minutes before and so they didn't know what was about to happen and how it would affect people. Well, the main physical effect would appear to be lots of blisters (and fans of blisters would have been pleased to hear that close ups are shown) and stretched nerves. The more interesting effect is the time differentials between competitors. The day's winner managed to complete the task in just under six hours. The person in eleventh place took just over eleven hours, with various times inbetween for the other competitors. All the other tasks had a first/last place differential of about ninety minutes maximum, so you'd (quite rightly) assume that winning that first event would give you a massive advantage in surviving.
So whilst the top of the table wasn't particularly fascinating, the bottom of the ladder is another tale completely as usually there are two or three people who were close enough to vye to avoid being in last place at the end of the day. This means that most of the action in concentrated on them, the day's leaders getting the odd nod and the middle order not really featuring very much at all. In effect, it gives each day a story to follow between those people down the order. Given the highly repetitive (but hypnotic) nature of the tasks, this keeps the interest up.
The tasks might be highly repetitive, but our main annoyance with the show is how often it goes into flashback mode telling us things over and over again as the episodes progress. This seems there solely to pad the show out. The opening titles begin with a good few minutes recap of the past events. Whilst we're not given each person's video biography every episode, the same ones tended to get used over and over. If there's a story thread, like the amount of injuries someone is picking up, they'll insist on replaying the whole story up to that point on every episode. On occasion it's welcome, but generally it's annoying padding.
As you'd expect from a show where thirty-six people live in tents for twelve days, time is given over for "reality" strands. To it's credit, this tends to be limited to athletes complaining they're still knackered from the night before before an event begins, athletes drinking too much during the evenings, friendships and rivalries and exciting ambulance visits. Relevant stuff really, and luckily there are enough characters around for some half decent story threads to develop.
In summary then: we like Hercules. It's the tale of twelve supernaturally fit people performing seriously impressive feats whilst a camp bloke twitters away in the background.
But hold! There's a half hour re-edited version doing the rounds as well. On the plus side, most of the padding is stripped away. On the minus side, this means that we don't really get to know the athletes - there's no time for athlete bios and far less time for athlete mid-event reactions. The actual time given over to the events is about 15-20 minutes which actually doesn't quite get across the sense of time, effort and difficulty that another 15-20 minutes given them. It's not a completely awful edit, but neither is it brilliant but I suppose it's not bad considering half the show is being cut out.