Spectrum #13

"Red Sonja"

Back in 1998, Angelica Bridges appeared in an episode of the (fortunately) short-lived syndicated series Conan. For some reason we were semi-regular viewers of the show and as a result wrote a review for Spectrum 13. Because that issue is long out of print, and because this is one of our favorite reviews, we are reprinting the piece here. If Ralf Moeller (who played Conan) looks familiar, by the way, he went on to bigger and better things--such as scoring a prominent role in the Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe film Gladiator! (He was one of the gladiators who befriended Crowe's character.)

Angelica Bridges (Red Sonja)

Starring Ralf Moeller (Conan), Danny Woodburn (Otli), Robert McRay (Zzeben), T.J. Storm (Bayu), Jeremy Kemp (Hissah Zul), and Aly Dunne (Karella); Developed by Max Keller, Micheline Keller, and Burton Armus; Music by Charles Fox; Produced by Peter Chesney; Supervising Producer Burton Armus; Co-executive Producers Arthur Lieberman and Chris Lancey; Executive Producers Max Keller, Micheline Keller, and Jacques Konckier.

For aficionados of first-rate television--fans of St. Elsewhere and The Prisoner and The Dick Van Dyke Show and Crime Story and Twin Peaks--Hercules and Xena must seem like frivolous wastes of time. After all, how difficult can it be to produce shows about wandering superheroes battling supervillains and special effects monsters, while buxom scantily-clad women fill the background (and mid-ground and foreground...)? But to appreciate the great works of art that Hercules and Xena are, one needs to view the unfortunate second-generation clones cluttering up the airwaves nowadays. Surely you've seen them late Saturday night while flipping through the channels--Robin Hood and Sinbad and Tarzan and Conan. And with the increasing popularity of Herc and Xena, no doubt more clones are in the pipeline ready to leak out this fall.

The weekly syndicated television series Conan is not the worst of these pseudo-Hercules productions, but it still manages to epitomize virtually everything wrong with the TV mentality.

The popularity of Conan in books, films, and comics would seem to make it an enticing property for television. In fact, Robert Weisbrot reports in Hercules, the Legendary Journeys: The Official Companion that Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert had hoped to do a Conan series, but "a question about who owned the rights to the character led them back to Hercules" (page 6). It's impossible to know how their Conan would have turned out, but surely it would have been better than the current incarnation.

Despite Conan's popularity, the character presents a problem that runs counter to the TV mindset. It's a problem that was faced by Roy Thomas and Marvel Comics in 1970 when they began producing the comic books. Thomas has often stated the challenge, but Les Daniels (Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics) summarizes it well: "[I]t featured a hero who possessed no magical powers, little humor and comparatively few moral principles" (page 148). Thomas fought for the comic--first to convince Marvel to take a chance with the property, and later to keep publishing it when it was on the verge of cancellation--and soon it became both a critical and commercial success.

Though Thomas was not able to translate Conan from paperback to comics precisely, all things considered the character remained essentially intact. Such would not be the case when Conan moved to live-action television in September 1997.

The series has lobotomized Conan into a noble Robin Hood-type figure, fighting on behalf of his Cimmerian homeland to free it from Hissah Zul, a tyrannical sorcerer/king. Enslaved as a youth (an element borrowed from John Milius's first Conan film, not from the original Robert E. Howard stories), Conan escaped and is "chosen by the gods to fight evil, rescue the weak and the oppressed, and bring freedom back to his beloved Cimmeria."

Ralf Moeller (Conan) and Bridges

Even a superficial knowledge of Howard's character reveals that this is not the literary Conan--or even the comic book Conan or movie Conan. This is someone else completely--we'll call him "Conrad the Barbarian" to avoid confusion. While Conan has his own sort of personal ethical code, he is essentially out for himself. For instance, in "The Tower of the Elephant," Conan endeavors to steal a great jewel just for the heck of it. And though he has somewhat of a chivalrous attitude toward women, the plot of "The Frost Giant's Daughter" revolves around Conan's attempted rape of a mysterious god-like woman. Obviously such material is not the stuff of mass-market television. Television's "Conrad" is much more palatable, traversing the countryside, ŗ la Hercules (whose show also plays fast and loose with the literary antecedents) doing good deeds and finding himself immune to any problematic moral dilemmas. It's all very sweet.

Whereas Conan often fought alone or entered into tenuous, temporary alliances with others for the purpose of a single mission, Conrad assembles a permanent band of merry warriors to fight the weekly evil machinations of Hissah Zul. The warriors don't have as much a strategic use as a comedic one: their bickering and practical jokes ostensibly entertain the television audience in-between the lethargic action sequences and poorly-choreographed fight scenes.* For that matter, Hissah Zul doesn't have much purpose, either, beyond an obvious attempt to give separate adventures an easy "continuity." Done right (such as Joss Whedon's Buffy/Master conflict in the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer), such long-range story arcs can add to the interest and depth of a series. But in Conrad, it appears to be simply glued on to give the illusion of plot direction.

For the purposes of this review, we've decided to examine one of the better (relatively speaking, of course) episodes, "Red Sonja." In Spectrum 12 we traced the history of the character, from Howard's original warrior "Red Sonya" in the non-Conan historical Turkish adventure "The Shadow of the Vulture" to the Roy Thomas/Barry Windsor-Smith alteration in the Conan the Barbarian comic book to, eventually, the unfortunate 1985 feature film starring Brigitte Nielsen in the title role. Just in time for February sweeps, the weekly TV series gives us still another version of the character. The episode is written by Scott Thomas and Charles Henry Fabian, and directed by Mark Roper.

Here's the plot: A "child-wizard" who has discovered the "secret of youth" has been kidnapped by soldiers of the evil King Vog (Robert Culp), who seeks to be restored to his youth. Red Sonja (Angelica Bridges) intends to rescue the boy. Later, "Conrad the barbarian" decides that he and his merry band will follow her and help her-the flimsy reason given is that the boy might be able to lead them to Hissah Zul. They catch up to Sonja, but she doesn't want their aid. Suddenly some scruffy rogues attack. After a battle, the attackers flee, except for a woman who stays with Otli because she likes his nose. Later, Sonja explains that she was raised by an old warrior. Now she hunts game for the "Keepers of the Truth," of which the boy wizard is one. At a tavern, Conrad, Sonja, and company are attacked by men seeking to collect a reward for their deaths. Otli's friend is killed. The kidnappers bring the wizard to Vog's castle. The boy refuses to help the king, so Vog will sacrifice one person each day until the boy meets his demands. Conrad and company rescue one soon-to-be sacrifice. Sonja offers herself as a sacrifice while Conrad sneaks into the castle. The boy wizard restores a tree to life. He tells the king to mix a certain formula. Vog tests it on a dog, who becomes a puppy. The King eats--and becomes a puppy himself! Townspeople charge the castle, led by Conrad's men. Sonja accompanies the wizard back to his homeland.

As a basic story, the foundation is no worse than your run-of-the-mill Hercules or Xena, but it's filled with pointless fights and sub-plots that serve only to fill up time. The gang that attacks Conrad, Sonja, and friends do so for no story-related reason; the woman who stays with Otli does so for no plot reason (it provides the episode with excruciating "comic relief," then a faux-dramatic event when she dies); she gets killed for no reason in a pointless fight; and on and on. And this episode is not out of the ordinary in this regard; they're all like this. It's as if Samuel Beckett had created a sword-and-sorcery television series.

After watching the Red Sonja movie, though, almost anything is likely to be better. At least Angelica Bridges shows a bit of acting ability here--something that eluded Nielsen entirely in the movie. Sonja's TV costume is fairly close to the Neal Adams/Esteban Maroto/Frank Thorne version used in the comics, and one must admit that Bridges looks spectacular in it.** But the part is so blandly written, the viewer might as well turn the sound off and just watch the images. For a woman pursuing a dangerous mission out of loyalty and revenge, this Sonja is the most laid-back warrior imaginable. Perhaps Bridges had her mind on her next assignment, which had to be better than running around Mexico (where the series is filmed) pursuing kidnapped wizards.

To create a successful television series, the characters must be interesting. Conrad has virtually none, and it's a shame, because the potential seems to be there. Ralf Moeller would make a pretty good Conan; he is certainly closer to Howard's description than is Arnold Schwarzenegger, who played the role in the movies. Moeller's physique is perfect for the role, and he seems to be an adequate enough actor for this part. His sword-play and fighting sequences are sufficient, despite the poor staging. Unfortunately, as Conrad the pseudo-Conan, he's made to look ridiculous, playing den mother to his band of squabbling child-like warriors.

The worst role is Otli, played by Danny Woodburn. His background as a stand-up comic no doubt enamored him to producers who created the character for the show's comic relief. Whether because of Woodburn or (more likely) the role itself, it's embarrassingly bad. It reeks of TV-think. We can imagine executives gathered around a large table in Los Angeles; one of the men leans back in his chair and says, "We need a character to make jokes inbetween Conan's fights." But the jokes aren't funny, and the role is bland. And in a series even remotely faithful to Howard's character, there would be no Otli, period.

Of the principal cast members, only T.J. Storm is interesting. He plays Bayu, who uses his agility to defeat attackers. Storm is somehow able to connote a character with some depth and substance. While everyone around him is reading lines, he's acting.

Perhaps it's a waste of time to spend too much effort reviewing a frivolous Hercules rip-off show, and if not for our life-long interest in REH and his Conan character, we'd have stopped watching long ago. But we can't help it. No matter how unwatchable Conan gets, we keep tuning in from time to time. We keep hoping that at some point the bad stories, bad special effects, shallow characters, and stupid-looking talking skull (don't ask) will, with a wave of one Hyborian Age wizard's arm, magically transform into golden entertainment. Or at least silver. Heck, at this point, we'd be happy with Herculean tin.
RATING: 1.5 out of 5 (on a good week)

*In fairness, lone-wolf stories are particularly difficult to do on television, where dialogue drives so much of the plot: the lead characters need someone to talk with. The closest literary relation, a first-person voice-over narration, rarely works well in TV and film. And having the lead character constantly mum≠bling to himself would be silly (remember the wonderfully goofy Sledge Hammer series a while back?).
**This seems to be the only aspect of Hercules and Xena that the clone series copy successfully--the plethora of shapely women in skimpy costumes. Sinbad took first prize, however, with Jacqueline Collenís co-starring role in the first season. Unfortunately, she did not return for the second year, though she did guest-star in an episode of Conan, "Amazon Woman."

Text ©1998 Win-Mill Productions. Photos ©1998 Keller Entertainment/Balenciaga W.I.S. All rights reserved.