Phoenix Saga (Part 1): Sacrifice
Written by Michael Edens
Summary: Professor Xavier is haunted by images of aliens arriving from space. On his orders, the X-Men sneak onboard the Eagle One space station. They’re soon attacked by Erik the Red, an emissary of the alien Shi’ar. They prevent him from killing the astronauts, but the Eagle One is destroyed during their fight. They escape in a shuttle, shortly after an alien aircraft emerges from a nearby wormhole. In order to shield the shuttle from radiation, Jean Grey surrounds the craft with a telekinetic field and pilots the Starcore shuttle back to Earth. When the shield begins to fail, she screams out in pain.
- This episode marks the animated debuts of Erik the Red and Peter Corbeau, both characters that play key roles in the original Phoenix storyline. Shi’ar emperor D’Ken also makes brief appearances as an image on Erik the Red’s wrist-communicator, and the bird image of the Phoenix Force debuts very quickly in the final frame of the episode.
- Much of this episode borrows heavily from Uncanny X-Men #97-100.
- Jubilee and Storm stay behind with the Professor as the team goes into space. Rogue is away “on a mission” and doesn’t appear in this episode.
“Um, Actually…”: The radiation invading the shuttle in this episode is created by the contrail left by the strange alien spacecraft (which we learn next episode is piloted by Lilandra). In the original story, a cosmic storm is hitting the Earth at the precise moment the X-Men pass through. This cosmic storm was intended to be identical to the one in Fantastic Four #1, tying in with the original (intended) explanation that Jean Grey’s Phoenix powers were created by cosmic radiation.
Production Note: This five-part serial marks the first time X-Men aired during FOX’s weekday afternoon schedule.
Review: Can you imagine a time when no outside media adaptations of “The Phoenix Saga” existed? It’s hard now to appreciate just how badly fans wanted to see these episodes before they aired. After the first season made it obvious that the show was taking its inspiration directly from the comics, the first question any longtime fan had to ask was “When is (Dark) Phoenix coming?!” And, to the producers’ credit, they gave the hardcore audience what it wanted, but waited an appropriate amount of time before giving in. The first season established the characters and the core human/mutant dynamic. The second season delved into the histories of the cast, while also expanding the reality of the show, bringing in concepts such as Mojoworld and the Savage Land. By the third season, a space opera wasn’t that big of a stretch.
To truly adapt the original Phoenix storyline, there’s a lot of material to plow through. And Michael Edens is able to use his twenty minutes wisely and hit the high points of the first four issues of the storyline and fit them all into one episode. (He also knows that Rogue’s powers would totally eliminate Jean’s role in the climax of the episode, so he’s surreptitiously removed her.) Unfortunately, that also means he’s dropped some of the best action sequences of the original storyline. The opening chapters of what retroactively became known as “The Phoenix Saga” brought us the X-Men fighting a brainwashed Havok and Polaris, a new model of Sentinels, and robotic duplicates of the original team. In this episode, the action consists of the X-Men knocking out innocent astronauts, then fighting brainwashed astronauts after making it into space. And these are pretty gratuitous fights, too, since the story makes it clear that Jean’s telepathic powers are all that’s needed to slip past them anyway. Having Cyclops optic-blast innocent astronauts who pose no threat to the team is just a cheap way to insert a fight scene.
As disappointing as the action is, the characters are in the positions they need to be by the episode’s end. Erik the Red is introduced into the story as an alien staking out a wormhole that’s being investigated by the Eagle One space station; a wormhole that’s going to be bringing us Princess Lilandra in just a few minutes. The original comics spent months slowly revealing these characters and putting the X-Men in position to meet them, in typical Claremontian fashion, but the show competently gets to the point in twenty minutes. A lot of dramatic tension is lost when compared to the comics, but I don’t know if fans of the cartoon felt this way. What's important to establish is that Xavier is having strange visions and an alien has hijacked a space station. And for all the audience knows, Jean just might die in the next episode. That’s dramatic enough for a kid, I would say.