Friday, January 24, 2014

X-MEN Episode Forty-Three - November 26, 1994

The Dark Phoenix Saga (Part 4): The Fate of the Phoenix
Written by Brooks Wachtel

Summary:  Xavier evokes a duel of honor in order to prevent the Shi’ar from executing Jean.  The Shi’ar teleport the X-Men to the Blue Area of the Moon, where they agree to fight the Imperial Guard for Jean’s life.  During the battle, Cyclops is wounded, which causes the mental barriers in Jean’s mind to collapse.  Dark Phoenix reemerges.  Jean struggles for control, using her powers to direct a Shi’ar craft to attack her body.  Jean’s sacrifice forces the Phoenix to break free of its dark nature.  It takes a piece of each X-Man’s life to revive Jean’s body.  When Jean awakes, the Phoenix flies away into the stars.

Continuity Notes:  
  • The Supreme Intelligence of the Kree and the Skrull Empress make cameos, reciting almost verbatim their lines from Uncanny X-Men #137.  They agree to the duel, provided Phoenix isn’t allowed to live.
  • Jean wears her late ‘60s Marvel Girl outfit during the X-Men’s duel with the Imperial Guard. She cites the same reason given in the comics for switching costumes, even though the audience for the cartoon probably had no idea Jean ever wore this outfit in the past.

“Um, Actually…”:  The original “Dark Phoenix Saga” ends with her dying, of course.

Review:  And, with the exception of Jean not dying, that’s pretty much the conclusion of the “Dark Phoenix Saga” that we all remember.  You can quibble with some of the voice acting, and the animation is as stiff as usual, but the episode is such a direct adaptation it’s hard to find any real flaws.  The performances could've potentially killed the material, but thankfully the histrionics are kept to a minimum for the most part.  The X-Men’s moral dilemma is still effectively dramatized, and the script does an excellent job of conveying the team’s loyalty to one another.  The viewer really does empathize with the team in a way they haven’t before; the stakes have never seemed this high, which is exactly the mood a writer needs to strike when adapting this storyline.  

In retrospect, this could’ve been a bold new beginning for the series.  Jean Grey wasn’t originally supposed to die in the comics; as we all know now, she was supposed to receive a “psychic lobotomy” and lose her powers at the end of the story arc.  Why couldn’t the animated series follow this direction?  Admittedly, Jean has been a non-entity for much of the show’s run, so the idea of her living life without powers wouldn’t have the same impact that Claremont originally intended, but it could still provide material for new episodes.  Cyclops and Jean could finally have a real wedding, move away, and give Storm a chance to lead the team.  (Wait, that means more of Storm’s affected voice acting.  Never mind.)  Actual consequences should’ve been felt from this storyline, but instead, everyone carries on as if nothing happened.  The show descends into a series of one-off stories and eventually it reaches the point that you forget the last episode as soon as the next episode airs.  That flies in the face of what made the show so unique in the first place, and I’m still surprised that the producers didn’t realize the major mistake they were making.

Credit to for the screencaps.


cyke68 said...

I'm in full agreement that this is about the best adaptation as you're going to get for a Saturday morning kid's show. There's the school of thought that says if you aren't able to go all the way, then it isn't worth doing at all. But I think what the show was able to achieve is still quite remarkable. Phoenix obliterating an inhabited star system is a vicious load of baggage to saddle a character with, whether committed of her own volition or no. Exercising that here honestly makes the X-Men's position a lot more defensible. The Shi'ar are, after all, sentencing a woman to death for the crimes that she MIGHT commit in the future. And yet, their actions are arguably justified by the fact that it was only dumb luck that she destroyed an uninhabited system. It's a "needs of the many" argument on a cosmic scale. Absolving Phoenix of any heinous deeds, even if to satisfy broadcast standards and practices, is a neat touch and right for the story that the series is telling.

Lilandra punching the switch does rob Jean of a little agency; she still sacrifices herself, but plays more of a passive role than an active one. I do like the bit with her activating the weapons though - it nicely illustrates that there's no way the Shi'ar could have stopped her if she didn't allow it herself. A bit convoluted, but it's an acceptable work-around to the suicide that absolutely would not have made it to air. To this day, I'm surprised they "got away" with as much as they did.

And then, the care bears ending. It's fine, as these things go. It provides an excuse for some squabbling between Scott and Logan, which is always fun. As you pointed out, it's a scene that really does strike those emotional high notes, recalling the series' version of the Phoenix saga. (Cyclops, in particular, is humanized a great deal over the course of this story. His righteous anger after Jean's "death" is easy to empathize with. After the Phoenix mechanically delivers a bunch of philosophy, going on about the cosmic order and how it had lost its way, he spits something back like "And what about Jean? Or are the dreams of a mortal beneath your notice?!" is kind of a Crowning Moment of Awesome.)

It's a shame how the season, and by extension, the series entirely, peters out after this. You are right that it never matches the ambition of the Phoenix material again. Their next attempt, the Beyond Good and Evil four-parter, had its moments, but felt like it was going through the motions (and certainly didn't utilize the cast to its fullest). I don't know what happened. Maybe the Phoenix stuff didn't get the reception that would warrant that kind of effort again (what I recall of the limited online chatter was mainly fanboys bitching about how the Phoenix Saga wasn't slavishly devoted to the source material, but that's nothing new). Maybe the producers didn't expect to be renewed beyond the 65-episode syndication target, so they coasted to the planned finale. Maybe it was a pacing issue due to production problems (season three was supposed to be longer, but a bunch of episodes were delayed and didn't air until the fifth season. Such as it was.) In any case, I don't mind that the reset button was pushed on Jean. It brings the character full circle, illusion of change and all that. I, too, just wish they had done more of this kind of storytelling. There was a lot to be proud of here.

G. Kendall said...

Having a Shi'ar ship "kill" Jean is arguably an improvement over the original story, which had a star-destroying Kree* weapon just pop up out of nowhere on the moon. I realize that the final few pages had to be redone over a weekend in order to appease Jim Shooter, but it's hard not to view Jean's final two pages as ridiculously rushed. I believe John Byrne has stated that he intended most of the final page to have no dialogue at all, letting the reader fill in the gaps for himself/herself.

*Until Claremont later mused that maybe it was APOCALYPSE's giant gun...

wwk5d said...

"which had a star-destroying Kree* weapon just pop up out of nowhere on the moon."

Kind of, but Jean pretty much read the Kree representative's mind, got the info about the weapon, and activated it herself to commit suicide...which makes it a very powerful ending. I realize that might not be the best explanation, and rather rushed...but it works for me.

This series does peter out after this but, there are a handful of good episodes along the way...of course, mileage does vary ;)

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