One of the most famous pieces of X-Men lore revolves around the death of Jean Grey at the end of the Dark Phoenix Saga.
During the Dark Phoenix Saga, Grey destroys an alien planet, complete with killing billions. The unprovoked attack showed the brutality and power of the character.
It would also prove the end of Grey in a time when heroes were more likely to stay dead. Editor Jim Shooter took an interest at the end of the arc. At the time the climactic issue was still in the planning stages when he approached them.
According to his blog, the plot indicated that Grey’s mind would be wiped and she would go back to the mansion. Shooter found this conclusion distasteful.
“That, to me, would be like taking the German army away from Hitler and letting him go back to governing Germany.
Did I have a “moral” issue with that? Yes. More than that, it was a character issue. Would Storm sit comfortably at a dinner table with someone who had killed billions as if nothing had ever happened? Nah.”Jim Shooter
Why am I starting this post about Galaxy Express 999 talking about an American comic?
Well, the story about why Jean Grey needed to die popped into my head the moment after I finished Episode 14.
That is, as soon as I got over my initial shock.
I need to explore my feelings about it, but first, I need to bring people up to speed about Maetel and Tetsuro’s journey to the Perfect Mechanical.
The planet of Perfect Mechanical
Our introduction to the Perfect Mechanical comes with an image of two planets close enough that that they effectively share the same atmosphere. Rain falls from one planet to another. The planets are kept from crashing by a machine.
It’s also a sign that we’ve come into Matsumoto country. So far the planets have been pure fantasy. A planet surrounded by near solid smoke. A completely formless planet.
When they land, they are greeted with a gray landscape of giant machines. I noticed the colorful train directly contrasted with the colorless landscape. When Tetsuro mentions the size of the machine homes, Maetel says that the machines feel comfortable inside bigger machines.
Before deciding to leave the train, Maetel takes out her suitcase and reveals several pistols, When she takes out the pistol, she is sure to equip the high energy clip, so if something goes wrong, she can be sure to kill stuff fast.
Probably most importantly she warns Tetsuro to exert self-control when he is among the machines. This is their planet and the two of them are guests.
To this point in the series, Maetel has served as a limiter on Tetsuro’s more rash impulses. She stepped in on Pluto when he planned to destroy Shadow’s body. She tried to stop him when he tied up the two formless creatures on Formless Planet Nuruba.
She serves a similar role here.
As you can tell with that helpful piece of foreshadowing, events are going to turn bad for our heroes. As their first stop to get food, they are served liquid hydrogen. Tetsuro has a bad reaction to it, which immediately tips off the rest of the customers. They learn both Tetsuro and Maetel are human.
The group of men grab Maetel and announce their plans to kill her and mount her. This raises memories for Tetsuro, who kills all of the men.
Importantly, Maetel asks him, “Why didn’t you exert self-control?”
I mean this is kind of a cold question to ask the kid. He did pretty much save your life at this point, but it does show that Maetel is concerned with not disrupting the world too much.
But all of this is a prelude to the main show. We meet the episode’s namesake, Laala, when she hits them with her car. Maetel and Tetsuro are knocked out. When Maetel wakes up, she is greeted by the green-skinned doctor, who nearly immediately switches bodies with Tetsuro.
Laala tells them that she is leaving on the space train with Maetel and he will need to stay in her in place. She points a gun at Maetel and they leave.
She soon learns that Laala is not going to let Tetsuro live a nice normal life. She has booby-trapped her office to catch on fire. Maetel rushes back at the same time that Tetsuro gets free of the fire.
He threatens the doctor, and she agrees to switch bodies back with him, But they soon learn that it’s just another ruse, Laala takes them to another doctor who plans to switch bodies with Maetel.
Maetel finally has enough. She pulls out her gun, the one with five times the energy of a regular gun, and demands Tetsuro’s soul be put back into his body. He complies with this, and they leave to get back on the 999.
At one point during this last exchange, she says they are truly despicable.
This is the point where this episode goes from interesting to another level. Tetsuro arrives at the 999 without Maetel, and before it leaves we see Maetel running up and she boards the train.
As they are pulling away, she tells Tetsuro not to look at the flash of light outside. We see the two planets crashing into each other, and it’s heavily implied that Maetel destroyed the device that kept the planets apart.
The last two humans in RobotVille
What struck me was that I didn’t feel Maetel’s actions were unjustified. But by a strict understanding of what was going on, they were. While she and Tetsuro were treated poorly by the planet’s inhabitants, we only saw two groups. These weren’t the only people on Perfect Mechanical (or at least I assume so).
This is all made more complicated by the fact that this show has a strange sense of morality. Ryuz, the witch at the bottom of the space well, killed an entire trainload of people because she was lonely. Shadow tried to kidnap a child and steal his soul so she could be reborn.
Both of these characters are forgiven by the end of their episodes or arcs.
The morality of the show is focused largely on intention more than the act. While Ryuz is guilty of killing dozens, she intended to find those moments of happiness she had in the brief time she was married. Shadow is similar. While she intended on kidnapping and killing Tetsuro, it would be too cruel of a punishment for Tetsuro to destroy her old human body.
They intended to correct a mistake they made in the past.
Their means were cruel, but their reasons were good. Most importantly, they found some sort of repentance. We see this in other spots, but those are the two that are the most dramatic.
What happened on Planet Mechanical reminds me of a Biblical story. Their trip to the planet was something like Sodom and Gomorrah or the story of the Flood. They disembarked looking for one kind person, and what they found was cruelty.
At each step, Maetel offers them a chance for repentance. She tries to stop Laala from switching bodies but is unable to do so. She leaves with Laala in hopes of convincing her to switch back, but soon learns she had no intention of letting Tetsuro live.
Then with her final chance, Maetel offers to let them switch back and no one has to suffer. Instead of taking the option, she again seeks to betray them.
Maetel sees her role as an avenging angel at this point. She enacts her wrath on a planet she sees as wicked. We’ve seen her step in as an arbiter before, but normally on the side of showing mercy. In this case, she sees no reason to be merciful.
We know this because she tells us.
By extension, Laala and the men in the bar are seen as a stand-in for the planet. While that would seem fundamentally unfair, it works for one other reason.
The natural and the unnatural
The show has developed a theme through these first 15 episodes. It can simply be boiled down to that human bodies are good and mechanical bodies are bad.
This may be a generalization at this point, but while Tetsuro longs to have a mechanical body, the people we meet are made miserable by them. We see in the first episode with the pack of robots who hunt down and kill Tetsuro’s mother. We see it again in Episode 3 when Tetsuro is introduced to Claire, a woman made of crystal.
She is miserable because her mother placed her in an artificial body at a young age. All she wants to trade it in for some actual flesh and blood.
We see it again with Antares who eschews a mechanical body, and again with Shadow and Ryuz.
We see it with the commentary about the Planet Wildflower where people are too busy pursuing modern wealth to enjoy time with the natural world.
While I would stop short of saying the show expresses a fear of technology, it does indicate that there is a real cost to trading in your human body for a mechanical one. At least for the people who want the mechanical body, the cost is their empathy.
So we’ve been trained that Maetel an arbiter for what is just and that mechanical bodies are bad.
These are the two points where Maetel’s massacre differs from the Dark Phoenix’s. In the comic, the action is a rash act of cruelty meted out without any thought.
In the case of Maetel, it’s a measured act that comes only after people are given every chance to repent. It is effectively, the lesser evil.
But, if you’ve seen the episode let me know what you think? Was this a mistake by the writers? Should they have just escaped to the space train, or was this the only possible outcome?
As always, thanks for reading.