Monday, October 7, 2013

X-MEN Episode Twenty-Nine - September 5, 1994

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.

Continuity Notes:  
  • 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.


cyke68 said...

Business is about to pick up.

Without getting too far ahead of myself, I'll just say this 5-parter and the subsequent Dark Phoenix Saga demonstrate how you can translate an incredibly heavy, sacred cow comic story for a new audience and different medium without sacrificing the integrity or themes of the source material. The changes are entirely logical within the context of the animated universe. As we progress, I'm impressed at how far the producers are able to push the envelope. Apparently, you could get away with quite a lot indeed as long as you danced between the very specific restrictions of broadcast standards and practices. That, or, the show had built up enough good will to give some assurance that the rather more mature elements of the story would be handled tastefully.

-I was pretty OK with the "energy contrail" explanation. Again, within the context of the show, a cosmic storm would've seemed awfully convenient -- it wasn't established that these things were an every day occurrence like in the MU. (Then again, it does beg the question why Jean didn't simply try to *move* the shuttle out of this very specific trajectory entirely.)

-Third episode in a row without a Rogue appearance in the season. At the time, this struck me as very odd indeed. Such long absences were still uncommon, but soon become the norm.

-Speaking of, I get why Rogue isn't here, but what about Storm? She plays a bit part throughout the entire miniseries. Odd considering her presence in the original storyline. (Although the show does provide us with an adaption of the Phoenix Saga which places Gambit in a space suit. The necessity of TAS inserting characters created years or decades after the fact into its versions of classic stories still makes me chuckle.)

-The biggest complaint I can recall from reviews of this episode at the time? After everybody gets gassed, Jean is the first to recover while Wolverine is knocked out pretty much for the remainder of the episode. Luckily, we will be provided with far more egregious other media interpretations of the Phoenix Saga in the years ahead!

Matt said...

Loved this series' adaptation of the Phoenix Saga. Wasn't so keen on their version of "Dark Phoenix", though.

This weeklong serial was my first exposure to the Phoenix storyline, and it's what made me finally decide to go back and get ahold of those comics from the seventies. The rest is history, I suppose.

(Also, these episodes and the related comics gave me a peculiar obsession with Davan Shakari/Eric the Red. I love that guy. I even have his action figure.)

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't Storm have been useless in space? No weather to affect...


cyke68 said...

You would think, but I believe she was able to control solar/cosmic winds or something to take out a Sentinel in the run-up to the Phoenix Saga in the comics. I would imagine she could still generate lightning from her own body to some degree as well. As long as there's a localized atmosphere or SOME natural phenomenon to tap into, seems like she can get by.

(There was even a later episode of this very series where she generates powerful wind guests within a submarine. This seems... dubious.)

Truthfully, Storm's powers have never made much sense to me. Even talking Marvel science, it's hard to square these mutants, possessing individual, genetic anomalies, who are able to manipulate external forces on such a scale. Mind you, I don't really care or get hung up on these things, because, comics.

cyke68 said...

And Matt, I'll be interested to know what didn't work for you with the Dark Phoenix Saga. Yes, they took a BIG departure from the original conclusion, but... well, we'll get to that. Might be another six months or so, all in due course.

Eric the Red was one of the few figures I DIDN'T have. I don't think he was particularly hard to track down, just not highly sought after. The female characters were always like hitting the jackpot (I can't imagine what my dad went through trying to find Rogue that one Christmas because I heard some real horror stories).

This might be another good opportunity for G. to GET--INTO--THE--GROOVE and point out some of the more inexplicable character selections by ToyBiz. Slayback, anyone?

Matt said...

"And Matt, I'll be interested to know what didn't work for you with the Dark Phoenix Saga. Yes, they took a BIG departure from the original conclusion, but... well, we'll get to that."

That's basically it. Too many changes made for standards and practices. Any version of "Dark Phoenix" where Jean is still alive at the end just doesn't have the same impact.

But if they had to let her live to appease the censors, they should have gone with the original Claremont/Byrne plot, leaving her powerless and regressed mentally to childhood. Which, much as I love the Claremont/Byrne run as is, I would not have minded seeing someplace as a "What If..." scenario, especially if it culimnated in a battle with Magneto and Phoenix, as Claremont and Byrne had originally conceived.

Teebore said...

God damn, I LOVED this little miniseries as a kid. I remember being vicerally excited about it, and racing home from school the week it aired to catch each episode.

I watched it again recently as was surprised at how well it stood up. It really is a surprisingly good adaptation, especially considering it had to A. simplify some pretty complicated continuity/character stuff B. work in characters who hadn't even been created when the story was first written C. appease some pretty ridiculous Standards & Practices edicts.

That they were able to do all that and still tell not only a coherent story but a reasonable adaptation of the original, is mighty impressive.

Like Matt, I enjoy this more than the "Dark Phoenix" adaptation (though that too is still impressive in its own right, especially since it had to make some even more sweeping changes, and I do get a chuckle out of seeing characters like Gambit and Rogue fighting the Hellfire Club), and like Cyke, I remained confused as to why Storm is left behind in this episode (whereas Rogue and Jubilee's absences make perfect sense).

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