It’s New To Me – X-MEN: THE ANIMATED SERIES (“Descent” / “Graduation Day”)

In my years of TV watching, there have been tons of well-regarded shows that have eluded my gaze. Thanks to the magic of Netflix and other online streaming sites, I now have an opportunity to watch these shows and share my thoughts on them. It may be a classic to you, but It’s New To Me!

As I stated in my previous entry, it’s difficult to judge the X-Men Animated Series independently of the era in which the show first aired. While syndicated animated series of the past were generally not held to the same high standards of quality that present-day cartoons are, this particular cartoon aired at a time when shows like Batman: The Animated Series, Animaniacs, and several offerings from Disney were upping the ante in terms of quality and sophistication for these types of shows that it’s all but impossible not to hold X-Men to the same standards. Now that I have completed the series, I can say with confidence that while it pales in comparison to its aforementioned contemporaries in terms of overall quality, it still stands out as a worthwhile entry in this distinguished and game-changing era of animated children’s entertainment, even though there were occasional individual episodes that were real stinkers, as shown in this week’s final entry.

“Descent,” the penultimate episode of the series, goes all the way back to the late-19th Century to give us the origin story that nobody wanted. At the time this episode first aired, I was pretty out of the loop comics-wise and wasn’t aware that Mister Sinister was a popular character in any way. I remember him being a fairly prominent X-Men villain during the late Eighties and early Nineties but, aside from having an interesting look, I personally wasn’t as intrigued with him as I was with the team’s more time-tested foes. It appears, though, that Sinister did cultivate a healthy following, given his prominence on the show and being given an entire episode devoted to his origin story, which occurred in Victorian-era London as told by James Xavier, an ancestor of the good Professor’s, as he and the Scotland Yard police force track a familiar-sounding killer roaming the streets. He tells them about an obsessively-driven scientist named Nathaniel Essex, whose admiration for the work of Charles Darwin led him to conduct experiments on 19th-Century mutants in order to isolate the mutant gene and save the life of his beloved spouse Rebecca, who is dying from an unnamed illness that’s probably tuberculosis, because everybody had that back in the day, right? Anyway, after Essex’s unethical work is denounced by the British scientific community, including Darwin himself, he doubles down on his work, growing more obsessive and testing the results of his findings on himself to grant him immortality, changing his skin tone to stark white as a side-effect. Rebecca sees the effect Essex’s work has on him and freaks out, and Xavier succeeds in running Essex out of town while protecting his innocent mutant subjects from the angry crowd that forms around them. After the earlier flashback ends, we find out that the killer that Xavier is tracking is not only Jack the Ripper but that he himself has been enhanced by Essex’s methods. Xavier fails to stop Essex from boarding a ship to America and finds Essex’s autographed copy of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, which he left behind to taunt him. Xavier then audibly hopes that someday there will be somebody out there who will be able to stop Essex for good. The episode ends in the present-day, with Xavier’s mutant descendant in possession of that very book.

“Descent” could have been a fascinating entry in the show’s overall mythology if: A) there were ever any explicit hints at a connection between Sinister and Xavier dropped previously in the show; and B) if this wasn’t the absolute final appearance of Mister Sinister in the entire series. Throughout his tenure on the show, he’s been more tied to Scott and Jean, just as he was in the comics, with his conflict with Xavier being nothing more than an extension of that. Finding out that he and Xavier have this added connection really adds nothing to the show, because it is never followed up on and just seems like a half-baked idea added to the show at the last minute to fill the required number of episodes for the show’s final season. It’s a real shame, because the themes brought up by this episode could have been interesting if they were given the time to develop, a trend that has become one of my main gripes with the show as a whole, and here just seem peppered in to give the story the illusion of depth. I won’t even go into how odd it is that Jack the Ripper, a figure known for mutilating prostitues, is featured somewhat prominently in an episode of a kids’ cartoon, but I guess they needed some sort of historical marker to once again cover up for what is essentially a boring, trite Frankenstein knock-off. “Descent” is definitely one of the worst episodes of the show’s entire run, and I can’t imagine how disappointed viewers at the time were in it, especially when they found out that it was one of the final new episodes of the show they were to ever see. 1.5 out of 5 Anachronistic Shades.

The crushing disappointment of “Descent” is tempered quite a bit by the rocky but still emotionally satisfying series finale, “Graduation Day,” in which Professor Xavier is gravely injured during a debate about human-mutant relations at the UN by an irate Henry Peter Gyrich shooting him with a device that simultaneously outs him as a mutant to the world and puts the Professor in a coma. As the authorities haul Gyrich away for a series wrap, the X-Men whisk their mentor to the Mansion to try to revive him while tensions rise between homo sapien and homo superior around the world. After failing to revive their mentor and discovering that his vitals are rapidly dropping, Beast deduces that only Shi’ar medicine can help revive Xavier, but that only Xavier is able to contact them due to his psychic bond with Lilandra. The team recruits the help of Morph to impersonate the Professor during a televised plea to the mutant community not to retaliate against those who are oppressing them, and they later take steps to prevent a widespread mutant revolution by visiting Magneto and convincing him to come back to the Mansion to help save his oldest friend and adversary. When Magneto arrives, he is able to somehow use his power to enhance Xavier’s brainwaves so that they reach Lilandra, who instantly beams down to Westchester and places a device onto her Earthling lover that wakes him up, albeit in pretty bad shape. Lilandra tells the X-Men that the only way to save Charles will be to take him back to her home planet, where their advanced medical knowledge will be able to heal him fully. The episode ends with Xavier speaking with each of his students and with Magneto one by one, telling them all how much he loves and has great pride in them before being whisked off by Lilandra, leaving the team without their founder and leader but still willing to fight towards their end goal of human-mutant harmony.

As a self-contained story, “Graduation Day” feels extremely rushed, especially since it winds up having great importance for the series as a whole. In just one half-hour episode, the finale covers a narrowly-averted all-out war between mutants and humans and the near-death of Professor Xavier, two plotlines that would have justified at least a two-parter each, and both plotlines’ dramatic potential are somewhat neutered by this fact. The final sequence, however, is what makes “Graduation Day” such an effective and surprisingly emotional swan song for the series as a whole. Hearing Xavier express his pride and love for each one of his students and then seeing their reactions to his words surprisingly gave me a little lump in the throat, and the final shot of the team standing outside of the Mansion with Magneto in a heroic tableau was the perfect way to bring the show to a close. This sequence alone nearly makes up for all the narrative problems I had with “Graduation Day,” which earns 3.5 out of 5 Mutant Halo Jumps. As for the series as a whole, I would say it earns 3.5 out of 5 Inappropriate Jean Grey Moans. (Seriously, Scott, not for nothing, but I think she’s faking it). The show doesn’t come close to matching the brilliance of the Nineties’ best cartoon series, but it had several memorable stories, decent voice work (despite the moaning), acceptable animation, and an admirable amount of reverence to the source material, both in terms of character and plot development. I for one had a ball watching this show from beginning to end for the first time, and I hope you enjoyed reading my reviews.

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Who ARE these people!?

Ben Gilbert is an avid comic and movie fan, father of two amazing kids, and husband to one awesome chick. He resides in the hills of East Tennessee and still doesn't quite know what he wants to be when he grows up.

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