By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
Back in the early 80’s, Ken Clark of UPI wrote saying the television series, The Phoenix (1982), could be a classic of its time. But up against the rigid standards set by the networks and perhaps the viewing public, it died within a month of its premiere and is more or less forgotten. More than 30 years later, I feel this program deserves a second chance, especially when many television and film studios are looking at revitalizing old classics. If the success of the new MacGuyyer is any indication and Magnum P.I. is in the works, along with Greatest American Hero, then The Phoenix deserves a look too!
According to the original series bible, the lead character Bennu (Judson Scott) is an alien sent to Earth to guide humanity’s development into becoming the next space-faring civilization. But when he and the other scientists in his expedition arrive on Earth far too early, they decide to put themselves into suspended animation until the primitives have developed far enough in the technological ladder to warrant first contact.
The show was under-appreciated and misunderstood in an era of television when most of its story elements were essentially unheard of. Back then to have programming exploring the weird — ancient aliens and lost civilizations — was not common. They were more of a plaything for cinema. Television budgets did not allow for lavish effects (as this show’s intro clearly indicates) and to do it right really meant either getting Stephen J. Cannell (The A-Team) or Glen A. Larson (Battlestar Galactica) involved.
The series’ problems were not limited to its low-budget approach. The show was at times too similar to The Incredible Hulk. Bennu, like Bruce Banner, was a mild-mannered but brilliant anti-hero. Both were sought after by government agencies intent on exploiting their immense power.
The 90-minute pilot episode featured a freshly unearthed Bennu in 1982 who lived in a fog. He had to figure out what went wrong, and also find where his mission commander went. The party did not stay together. A few clues in the early episodes suggest he should have been awakened December 20, 2012 (the same date the Mesoamerican deity Quetzalcoatl was prophesied to return). Other telling details include how all the ancient empires in North America are connected. Although the bird is from Egypt, perhaps this culture too had some connections. If the conspiracies are true, perhaps a few Egyptians did land in primitive America and set up shop. The symbolism of the titular bird – life, death and rebirth – is more of a Mediterranean one than Western. Sadly, this detail was never fully explained in the abbreviated run of the show. Had the series established a better groundwork, the run might have lasted better side by side with Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World complementing the material.
Flash forward to now, The Phoenix stands a better chance of lasting on network television. With shows like Ancient Aliens (2010-ongoing) speculating on Earth’s greatest mysteries of the ancient world, Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009) re-imagining the original series’ spiritual subtext and Stargate: Origins (2018?) making a comeback to explore ancient worlds, the time is right to bring back this show. When movies like Thor: Ragnarök exist (it is very loosely based on the myth) very well at the box office, clearly interest in science fiction films inspired by legend is not dead.
A rebooted series with a narrative updated to reflect current sociological and theological concerns can easily succeed now when in the past, the attempt failed. The eco-conscious agenda of Bennu would likely play better in a time when climate change is on everyone’s mind. To have a character reborn is at the heart of what the Phoenix legend is all about.