The X-Men Episode Guide 3×03: ‘The Phoenix Saga, Part One: Sacrifice’
The early ’90s were spoiled for choice when it came to comic book adaptations. Not only was Batman: The Animated Series on the air, but X-Men led Marvel’s push to get on the small screen, diving right into the often convoluted continuity of everyone’s favorite mutants, luring in a generation of fans, and paving the way for cartoons to follow. That’s why we’ve set out to review every single episode of the ’90s X-Men animated series. This week: We start in with the animated adaptation of one of the key storylines of X-Men history with "The Phoenix Saga, Part One: Sacrifice!"
Previously, on X-Men:
Last week, we skipped ahead a bit for a delightfully nonsensical Christmas special that ended with the X-Men having a cold dinner of paint thinner stew in a sewer rather than inviting the sewer-dwellers back to their palatial mansion to eat the gourmet repast that Jean and Gambit had been slaving over all day. 'Tis the season of giving, sure, but spending St. Stephen's Day trying to scrub sewer muck out of the Danger Room is a bridge too far.
Slightly more relevant to our interests is the actual previous episode, in which the wreck of a Shi'ar prison ship that was sent to Earth "centuries ago" had the bizarre psychometric effect of giving Professor X visions of the future. Specifically, a space adventure that the X-Men are going to be embarking on this very week as Jean's power to shout and fall down is increased to what I assume will be shouting and falling down on a cosmic scale.
Our discussion question for last week's episode concerned the X-Men's New Year's Resolutions, and while there were a lot of solid suggestions, there's only one that we really need, from reader Charles T. Arthur:
Gambit perfect, chere. Dere don' need to be no changin' what already flawless, non?
A+ work. Now let's see what we have in store for us when we head to outer spaaaaace!
This week's adventure comes from writer Michael Edens and supervising producer Scott Thomas, and opens up with Charles Xavier suffering from some telepathic night terrors. This is significantly less interesting than it sounds. I mean, you'd think that when a dude who basically has unfettered access to the mindscape of the entire human race went to sleep and wasn't able to consciously block his powers from picking up stray thoughts of, say, the sexually frustrated misanthropes in his immediate vicinity, things would get weird.
Instead, he's just having some visions of space battles that feel like knockoffs of Star Wars. The insect spaceships are pretty neat...
...but I'm pretty sure this has to be the first time that someone has started experiencing the Dark Phoenix Saga and thought "Galaga did it better."
Despite their relatively low production values, Professor X's harrowing visions are enough to wake him up, and he puts out the call to the X-Men so that they can go avert some space crimes. This is where we get the unquestionable high point of the episode, because this call goes out in the middle of the night, and we get to see what the X-Men wear to sleep:
Much like last week's episode and the bit with Cyclops being a bad singer because it requires experiencing emotions and understanding what fun is, I love that Cyclops wears full pajamas, slippers and a robe tied fastidiously with a sash. I like to think that he didn't put the robe or slippers on when he woke up, either, he just wears that ensemble, in its entirety, laying motionless on his back for exactly eight hours every night before it's time for his 5:00 AM session in the Danger Room.
Also worth noting: Beast just strolling around in his boxer shorts, which actually cover more than his usual trunks, and, though it's not pictured, Storm in the same salmon and forest green nightmare that she was wearing in the Christmas episode, where I think it was supposed to be a dress.
So let's see, Jubilee's there in an oversized football jersey and Professor X gets an awkwardly dubbed-in line about how Rogue is off "on a mission," so that still leaves Gambit. Just what exactly does that guy wear to bed?
"Look like I come home jus in time."
"Late date, eh Gumbo?"
"Not for me."
How?! How did Gambit become my favorite character on this show by being an even more unrepentant scumbag than he already was? That dude is so damn sketchy! Why did we not get 20 full minutes of Gambit up in the club trying to hit on women who were clearly not interested in his Drakkar Noir-soaked Alberto Del Rio scarf before he got the call to come back to the mansion? I feel cheated and delighted all at the same time.
As Gambit slithers his way into the room, Professor X lays out the plan: The X-Men need to go hijack a hecking space shuttle so they can get up to an orbital station called Eagle One and save a scientist called Dr. Corbeau from alien troubles. Seems like a pretty reasonable thing to do based on a weird old man's dreams, so hey, why not.
The only one to question this plan of action is, oddly enough, that scumbag Gambit, who chimes in with "Breakin' into government installations, not usually our style." Dude. Gambit. Breaking into government installations was literally the plot of the first episode of this show. Remember? Beast was in jail for the entire season because of it? And then the team broke into another government installation to fight Magneto in Episode 3? And then into another government installation in the season finale? And then another one when Omega Red showed up? And then Wolverine broke out of a government installation in the one with Alpha Flight? Seriously, breaking into government installations is not the unusual part of this mission. Maybe raise an objection about the part where you steal and pilot a space shuttle instead.
Either way, the obvious objections are over, and now it's time for the totally passive-aggressive ones.
"Sorry to bother you, Professor, but I just wanted to talk to you in private. Why can't you tell us what this mission is about? Don't you trust us? Don't you trust... ME to lead the team?"
Neediness, thy name is Cyclops.
After Professor X offers up an explanation that, shockingly, does not include the phrase "It's not always about you, jackass," our merry mutants hop into the blackbird and fly off to Cape Canaveral for a bit of Grand Theft Spaceship. Now, there are a lot of ways they could go with this, from the brute force method of just clawing, optic-blasting and weather dominating their way into mission control and stealing it, to a more subtle bit of subterfuge that would take advantage of Beast's intelligence and Jean's limited telepathy. But these are the '90s cartoon X-Men, so of course they choose to do it in the dumbest way possible.
Step one is, of course, sneaking in undetected, so for that they call on Storm to create a light fog that slightly obscures them while shouting "FOG! RISE AND ENSHROUD US IN THE CLOAK OF YOUR GREY MISTS!" at the top of her lungs.
Step two is physically throwing Wolverine over a fence.
Step three is cutting up a door and setting off an alarm, in case anyone didn't hear a bunch of shouting and see a dude in a bright yellow zentai suit hurling through the air over the barbed wire.
Step four is letting Jubilee be caught and sent to federal prison for terrorism.
I am not kidding in the slightest about any of this.
With the most impressionable teen available set to take the fall, the rest of the crew is clear to ambush the shuttle crew, knock them out with optic blasts to the face, steal their spacesuits, and lock them in an isolation chamber with "plenty of food and water." The only snag is Dr. Corbeau himself, but Jean's telepathy fools him into thinking a giant blue cat-man and his cronies are the rest of the astronauts, and they blast off without further incident, leaving Storm behind to commit a jailbreak. The X-Men are starting to rack up a list of felonies that rivals even the Misfits.
The trouble starts when they get to Eagle One, and trying to open the hatch triggers an attack of knockout gas -- something that seems like a pretty dodgy weapon to be using when you're in an environment with a small and very finite air supply.
Whoever's on the other side of that door gives zero hecks about this potential snag, though, and the X-Men are KOed. So just who is this mysterious baddie farting up everyone's space missions?
It's Erik the Red! Or, uh, maybe Eric the Red! It's in Wikipedia as Erik but X-Men #97 says "Eric." Erick? Erik. Sources vary, but I think we can all agree that he's definitely into whatever they call BDSM on the Shi'ar Throneworld.
After knocking out the X-Men, he phones home to D'Ken, complaining that they weren't expecting a bunch of mutant weirdos instead of the astronauts they had prepared for. They start yammering about how it must've been Lilandra who warned Earth that they were... doing... something, keeping things pretty vague because we've still got two more hours of Phoenix Saga and another two of the Dark Phoenix Saga to get through before it's all over. All we really get is that he's mind-controlled the station's crew, and needs Doctor Corbeau because of reasons.
So yeah, Mind Control! That seems like a problem where it would be pretty handy to have a telepath along to deal with, right? Especially one who was, just minutes ago, using her abilities to mask the appearance of five other people, which would seem like a pretty complex bit of thinking! Surely Jean will prove useful, and won't just use her powers, moan, and faceplant directly onto the floor again, right?
Alas. Her record remains at a solid zero.
Eric/k attempts to blow the X-Men out of the airlock, but Jean regains consciousness just long enough to save Cyclops from sudden death in a cold hard vacuum, which is yet another strike against her record.
Finally, fifteen minutes into this, we find out what the big deal is: Eagle One has been studying "what your primitive scientists would call a 'Worm-Hole,'" explaining it for any X-Men fans in the audience who weren't already watching Deep Space Nine. It seems Lilandra, described only as "an enemy of my emperor," has escaped and is now hanging around somewhere in our solar system. This is why he needs Dr. Corbeau, because he's the only one who can... man, I don't even know. I think he's supposed to read the wormhole science reports or something, but considering how much Erik/c is running his mouth about Earth being a backwater and how the Shi'ar are so technologically advanced, this seems like tenuous reasoning. Wouldn't the Shi'ar be able to track their own spaceships better than we could?
To the show's credit, it doesn't give you a whole lot of time to consider this plot hole, unless you're the type of person who's pausing it every few seconds to write jokes about how it is not a very good television cartoon. Instead, we get right to some more action when the X-Men bust in and are met with Eric/k shouting the awkward and whiny phrase "YOU! YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO HAVE BEEN SPACE DEBRIS!" Then, in one of the show's more hilarious moments, something that is this entire show in a nutshell, he follows that up with "YOU CANNOT COMPREHEND THE POWER OF THE SHI'AR!" and then orders two regular human dudes to shoot at them with guns.
That's the power of the Shi'ar, folks: Two regular dudes with guns.
As the fight starts up, the Wormhole opens and Lilandra's ship arrives -- wait, it's not already there? How did they know this was where she was going? Does it take a couple of days to get through a wormhole, and you can outrun it if you just go around? I am officially past caring, and since I'm the only one here who's actually being paid to care about this stuff, I'm going to assume you are too. Erik/c tries to take a potshot at her ship using Eagle One's laser cannon, but it explodes when the X-Men shoot and/or cut up enough of the equipment that is necessary for keeping the space station from exploding.
It is not the Shi'ar Empire's finest hour.
Sure enough, the rest of Eagle One starts going to pieces too, and before long enough things are exploding that the X-Men can consider this a successful mission. They rescue the crew and hop back into the shuttle in their weird MODOK spacesuits, and The Red escapes in his craft, swearing that he'll get them next time, Gadget.
There's one more hurdle to get through before it all comes to an end, though, and surprising no one at this point, it makes no sense at all. The ship is doomed to fly through the "energy contrail" of Lilandra's Shi'ar cruiser, thus baking the X-Men and assorted allies inside. According to Corbeau, there's no way to change their course, so Beast has the idea of hiding in the on-board solar probe, where they'll be safe from the radiation. But! The autopilot is also shot, meaning that someone has to stay out and maintain the ship's course.
The course that they can't change and thus avoid certain death.
Someone has to stay out and make sure it doesn't change.
You can probably see the problem with this narrative.
Cyclops volunteers to stay out, land the shuttle and die in the process and again, this sounds like a dandy idea. Unfortunately, Jean absorbs Dr. Corbeau's knowledge of how to fly the ship and puts a whammy on Cyclops, knocking him out and volunteering for the suicide run. Wolverine, by the way, who is right there and has the ability to survive horrific injury and heal right back up to a hundred percent, is totally cool with this.
Thus, the episode ends, with Jean facing certain death while moaning in a way that could not possibly sound more like her voice actress was faking an orgasm. Seriously, I was a little embarrassed watching this, and I was alone, in my own house, with headphones on. But perhaps that's just the ecstacy of cosmic power entering the body?
Discussion Question: Boy, the Shi'ar. They sure do exist, don't they? But where do these sexy, sexy bird people fall on the grand scale of Marvel's cosmic races? Which alien race would you rather see the X-Men having to deal with? I've got my pick, we'll talk about it next week after you leave yours in the comments below.
Next Week: The Phoenix Saga continues, as it will for the next three months. You may want to settle in.