Wednesday, October 9, 2013

X-MEN Episode Thirty-One - September 7, 1994

Phoenix Saga (Part 3): Cry of the Banshee
Written by Michael Edens

Summary:  Juggernaut kidnaps Lilandra, taking her to his partner, Black Tom.  Their employer, Erik the Red, initially refuses to pay them until he’s intimidated into giving up millions of dollars.  After Jean awakens with the sense that Xavier’s in trouble, the X-Men travel to Muir Island.  With Banshee’s help, they track Juggernaut and Black Tom to Cassidy Keep.  Suddenly, Gladiator enters and punches Juggernaut miles away.  He demands Lilandra return with him, but is fought off by Jean, using her new Phoenix powers.  Meanwhile, D’Ken enters our galaxy.

Continuity Notes:  
  • This episode (very) loosely follows the events of Uncanny X-Men #101-103.
  • Rogue returns this episode, berating herself for being away on a mysterious “mission” when the X-Men needed her.
  • The episode marks the animated debuts of Black Tom and Gladiator.  Banshee also reveals himself as a mutant, following his debut last episode as a seemingly normal Joe.
  • When re-aired, this episode featured a different voice for Gladiator.  Judging by my search logs, people remain very curious about this switch.

“Um, Actually…:  Black Tom claims that he and Banshee are brothers, explaining why their powers won’t work on each other.  The original comics continuity long ago established them as cousins.

Saban Quality:  Another change made during the reruns is in the episode title.  Originally, the chyron listed this as “Phoenix Saga Part III” (notice the fancy Roman numerals).  Later, the title was rewritten as “Phoenix Saga Part 2”…with no Roman numerals and the wrong chapter number.

Review:  This has always been my favorite chapter of the original Phoenix five-parter.  It’s also the one Juggernaut episode that I can't dismiss as boring or just dumb.  Juggernaut doesn’t have a particularly great part in the story, he’s just used well, which is more than I can say for his other appearances.  All of the classic Juggernaut bits make their way into the episode, right down to Xavier mentally attacking him and forcing him to relive his childhood, which is really all I wanted to see as a young fan.  The other Juggernaut episodes either played him as a generic villain or comedic relief; here, he’s a true threat and is actually fun to watch.

Comparing this chapter to the original storyline, I have to acknowledge that this is the one time the cartoon’s changes are obviously an improvement.  Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum weren’t plotting the initial issues specifically as “The Big Phoenix Storyline,” they were just doing a run on X-Men, giving the heroes villains to face every issue while the Erik the Red/Phoenix/Lilandra subplots simmered in the background.  Consequently, that two-and-a-half issue diversion with Juggernaut, Black Tom, and the leprechauns at Banshee’s family castle stands out like a sore thumb when trying to piece together the true story of the Phoenix.  Edens manages to work in Black Tom, Juggernaut, and Banshee into the plot through fairly logical connections to the larger storyline.  Lilandra’s probes are driving Xavier insane, so he goes to Muir Island for help.  There, he meets Moira’s new boyfriend, Banshee.  While in Scotland, Erik the Red hires mercenaries to kidnap Lilandra, super-powered mercenaries that can do the job brainwashed astronauts can’t.  This leads us to Black Tom and Juggernaut.  For fans of the comics, you get to see the characters you remember from the original Phoenix issues, but the story’s been streamlined in a reasonable way to minimize the diversions.  

The Phoenix entity also gets a mercifully simplified backstory.  It’s the guardian of the M’Kraan Crystal, a powerful cosmic artifact that can destroy the galaxy if disturbed.  That’s all we ever really needed to know, and I think we should all be grateful that the show’s producers never felt the need to elaborate on it too much.  For anyone who only remembers the Phoenix from the TV show, I can’t imagine what they’ll think if they ever stumble across the Phoenix Wikipedia page.

Credit to for the screencaps.


cyke68 said...

One can't help but wonder what the Phoenix Saga could have been by serving as a reintroduction to the Sentinels, Magneto, etc. but the producers really made the only call they could have in jettisoning all those little episodic threads. You are absolutely right that Claremont and Cockrum were diligently churning out monthly (well, bi-monthly) issues of a comic series, and one barely keeping its head above water at that. There was a tenuous strand connecting the individual plots, yes, but everything preceding the real meat of the space opera stuff was a bombastic, wild goose chase meant to keep the readers' attention. That's a lot easier to accomplish in a daily-televised miniseries marketed as a special event with a clear mission statement. And, of course, no fear of cancellation. It's how the story logically would have been constructed in print, had the writer been able to take a long-term approach rather than plotting issue-to-issue.

Well, maybe any writer other than Claremont. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Where the last episode was the, "Ummm, guys?" moment of this adaptation's faithfulness to the source material, this one is definitely more like it. Maintains the suspense of the previous chapter's killer cliffhanger and serves as an effective bridge to the setting to for the final act. I was eating up all of this as a kid and couldn't believe the show was reaching new heights now three years in.

I still can't make up my mind whether this episode is enhanced or forever tainted by being the basis for "The Juggernaut Bitch!!!" parody some years back.

Matt said...

This was my favorite episode of the "Phoenix Saga" as well. Partly because Banshee is one of my favorite X-Men. Wasn't a big fan of his cartoon voice, though.

Your points about the story's structure are interesting, because as Cyke says, I can't help wondering how the story would have played if it had more faithfully adapted the comics, lasting for a full serialized season, with Phoenix as a background element -- a la Beast's imprisonment in season 1 and Xavier and Magneto's Savage Land expedition in season 2 -- before coming to the fore in the finale for "Dark Phoenix".

Of course they still would've had to compress it quite a bit to fit forty or so issues into thirteen episodes. But then, I was also the weird kid who wondered why the series didn't adapt the entire comic book run, starting from the beginning with the original five, on a one issue to one episode basis, for a total of three hundred plus episodes.

(I hadn't yet learned terms like "accessibility", "ratings", and "we don't need to make any more episodes after we hit 65 for syndication".)

cyke68 said...

A season-long series of subplots showing D'Ken scheming, Lilandra's plight, Xavier's freakouts, and Eric the Red as the culprit behind various otherwise unrelated conflicts could have worked. It sort of necessitates splitting the Phoenix and Dark Phoenix halves into two seasons though. Or I guess you could bookend them... a season finale cliffhanger on Jean's sacrifice, then her "resurrection" as Phoenix in the next season opener, and the "death" of Phoenix as the finale. It's structurally sound, but still spreads all this Phoenix business across two seasons. In my perfect world, without all those silly considerations you mentioned and a finite series order, it is so.

Even condensing as many issues as they did, Phoenix still consumed *nine* episodes of the third season once all was said and done. (Ten if you count the lost "No Mutant Is An Island.") As compromises go, this was pretty agreeable.

To G's point about simplifying the Phoenix mythology, it seems like TAS was a good entry point for new readers regardless of what they were encountering in the comics. I was familiar with Jean's history back then, though never having read most of it. It never occurred to me that someone OTHER than Jean (possessed by the Phoenix), was participating in those original stories. And when she blew herself up on the moon, well, so what. It was just the Phoenix part of her that got "killed" and she was back to being normal Jean. (I knew she was PRESUMED dead, but had no concept for how long in real or comic book time.) Even in reading summaries of these events, that's how I connected everything in my head. The mechanics didn't really matter. It wasn't until I got my hands on X-Factor #1 that I realized, "What--the--fuck--?!" So, it's probably for the best that I was unduly influenced by the cartoon first.

Anonymous said...

This was my favorite episode of the "Phoenix Saga" as well. Partly because Banshee is one of my favorite X-Men. Wasn't a big fan of his cartoon voice, though.

I had read that Jeremy Ratchford, the voice actor for Banshee, also portrayed a live action Banshee in the Generation X TV movie. Looking it up now, there seems to be some confusion about this. I'm pretty sure I read it in Wizard back in the day, so it's got to be true, right?

And a Generation X live action movie. Before an X-Men film, before anything. Seems absolutely crazy today.

Anyway, back on topic. :)

Teebore said...

I have to acknowledge that this is the one time the cartoon’s changes are obviously an improvement.

Ditto. This is a great (and rare) example of an adaptation improving on the source material by looking at what works and what is necessary, and jettisoning the rest (ditto also the Phoenix Force explanation which is essentially the same as it is in the comic, only much, much simpler and straight-forward).

Banshee certainly isn't the first or only character on the cartoon to which this applies, but I love that he has a straight-up superhero costume ready to go despite being introduced as nothing more than Moira's boyfriend. It's like mutants in the animated universe are just given a costume when their powers manifest, just in case. :)

@Matt: I hadn't yet learned terms like "accessibility", "ratings", and "we don't need to make any more episodes after we hit 65 for syndication".


cyke68 said...

@Teenbore: I love that he has a straight-up superhero costume ready to go despite being introduced as nothing more than Moira's boyfriend.

Hear, hear! Not every first appearance has to be an origin. I think the only character who didn't magically debut in costume was Colossus. He only appeared in two episodes, but it was the same jeans and tank top look both times. Which maybe came from his civilian identity as Peter Nicholas, of all things, if we turn to the comics for inspiration. I don't know why, but it suddenly strikes me as a very odd choice indeed.

I guess that's a "welcome to 1993 moment," when Gambit and Jubilee are more iconically associated with the X-Men than Colossus, Nightcrawler, Kitty, etc.

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