Friday, 11 January 2019

TV Review: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power

"I am Adora, He-Man's twin sister, and defender of the Crystal Castle. This is Spirit, my beloved steed. Fabulous secrets were revealed to me, the day I held aloft my sword and said, 'For The Honor Of Grayskull! I AM SHE-RA!!!'"

“I am Adora, He-Man’s twin sister, and defender of the Crystal Castle. This is Spirit, my beloved steed. Fabulous secrets were revealed to me, the day I held aloft my sword and said, ‘For The Honor Of Greyskull! I AM SHE-RA!!!'”

This new She-Ra show is absolutely brilliant at showing the difficulties of navigating interpersonal relationships. It is, however, still firmly ensconsed in a younger “Saturday morning” genre of shows.

The story follows the same basic beats as the original She-Ra. Adora was kidnapped as a baby (though no mention is made of a manly brother) by the Horde and groomed to be its next great leader. When she discovers the horrors of what the Horde is actually up to she defects and happens to find a sword that can transform her into She-Ra.

Where this show differs wildly from the original is in its depictions of the relationships between all of the characters, particularly the villains. What once were one-dimensional evil caricatures are now fully fleshed-out, unbelievably sympathetic people. The main thrust of the whole show is the sisterly relationship between Adora and Catra, who were both raised as basically sisters by Shadow Weaver, who is (let’s be frank) a pretty terrible mom. Shadow Weaver constantly raises up Adora while denigrating Catra. And even though Adora deeply loves her adopted sister and tries to help her, the fact that she has to rely on Adora so much makes Catra feel weak and resentful.

Because of Shadow Weaver’s parenting style, Catra never bought into the whole Horde thing. She was more cynical and self-serving. But all of the feedback that Adora got growing up made it so that she was pretty gung-ho about striving to be the best for the Horde. So when Adora does defect, Catra doesn’t feel betrayed because Adora left the Horde; she feels personally betrayed because Adora left her. Shadow Weaver spends much of the series trying to get Adora back because she believes Adora would be an amazing general in the Horde. Catra tries to get Adora back because she misses her sister.

Similar care is taken with most other villains (except Hordak, who remains a mostly-offscreen, distant ruler figure). Most fascinating are Scorpia and Entrapta. Scorpia is actually a princess whose family surrendered to the Horde rather than fight. She is rather simple, and doesn’t seem to actually buy into the Horde philosophy. Indeed, she doesn’t even seem to really understand it. She just believes she’s friends with Catra, and wants to help her with her plans because that’s what friends do, right? Entrapta is also a princess who is basically a mad scientist. She’s so in love with experimenting that she never thinks about the consequences of her experiments, and indeed doesn’t seem to see them as anything other than data points to incorporate into future experiments. As such she creates huge amounts of chaos not through malice, but carelessness and tunnel-vision. She joins the Horde simply because Catra encourages her reckless experiments and the mayhem they cause.

Also wonderful is Adora’s relationship with her new, non-horde friends, the feisty Glimmer and the upbeat Bow. Glimmer (who has the ability to teleport) is at first guarded. She has a lot of pain in her past because when the Horde originally invaded they killed her father (the only mention of a death in the whole series—more on that later), and now she’s pretty desperate to move out from both his shadow and the shadow of her immensely powerful, important, and protective mother. Glimmer wants to prove herself on her own terms. Bow, on the other hand, is almost completely unflappable in his optimism and happiness. Its his sunny outgoing-ness that reaches out with childlike naiveté and pulls Adora into the group. He wants to help! He wants everybody to be happy! It’s completely charming.

There is some interesting world-building as well (with reservations—see below). The world is divided into kingdoms (princessdoms?) that each house a very powerful crystal. These crystals form kind of a worldwide power network that the princesses can tap into, and allows them to use their unique powers. She-Ra isn’t a person so much as a global defense system. Adora is not the first She-Ra, she simply becomes the latest one. There are hints and signs pointing to deeper things that will (hopefully) be further developed in subsequent seasons.

Where the show falls short is in its handling of the more violent subjects. The Horde is ostensibly waging a war against the rest of the world, but the logistics of the war are nonsensical. And there is also a real problem of scale. Before the events of the show, the rest of the world (led by the princesses) joined together as a Rebellion and stood up to the Horde. It did not go well. The Rebellion disbanded with each princess going into isolation to protect only their own corner of the globe. But the Horde does not seem to have done anything to press that advantage in the ensuing 15 years (or so). There is no warfront. There are no armies. Indeed, at the climax of the series when the Horde army invades Glimmer’s kingdom, it seems to consist of about 12 tanks and maybe 20 soldiers, and the Rebellion consists entirely of half a dozen people. I wonder if there were budgetary problems that prevented showing larger conflicts? The newer Voltron cartoon handles the scope of war in a much better way. Also nobody ever gets hurt (in any serious way), and except for mention of Glimmer’s father, it is an absolutely deathless war. She-Ra has a gigantic sword that never cuts anybody.

It’s reminiscent of the original A-Team show that had in some episodes showers of machine gun fire that never hit anybody. It’s this feeling of being held back that makes the show seem aimed at an incredibly juvenile audience even at the same time that its handling of relationships is incredibly mature.

Categories: Reviews, TV Reviews.

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