Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Netflix’s new She-Ra series got me thinking about the different approaches to reboots.
I’m stating the obvious here, but there are a few ways to go about revisiting old material. Until recent memory, the most common way to reboot a property was simply to, well, remake it. More often than not, studios remade old properties that had some brand recognition, like The Ten Commandments, Ocean’s Eleven, and Sabrina. Whether or not these properties could benefit from being remade was immaterial. Opting to produce (or re-produce) a familiar property no doubt felt and continues to feel like a safe bet for Hollywood suits. But the current era of reboots have brought us two important new forms of remakes — the so-called “requel,” along with what I’ll call the “child-brain reboot” because I can’t think of a pithy portmanteau right now.
The “requel” is by now a familiar form. Technically a sequel to an existing series, the requel essentially remakes one or more of the series’ most beloved entries. The requel both serves as a jumping-on point for new fans and nostalgia-catnip for old-timers like me. Think Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Jurassic World.
But the child-brain reboot is a different beast entirely, taking a property from our childhoods and spackling over all the cracks and imperfections, delivering up a much stronger version of that original property that is the version we think we remember. Netflix’s Voltron reboot is the quintessential child-brain reboot, as it revisits a rickety old property and invests it with vastly superior writing and production values. In fact, the showrunners lent that turn of phrase to my shorthand. In an interview with Inverse, Voltron executive producer Joaquim Dos Santos said:
“When you go back and watch that original with adult eyes, you realize the product of the time. As nostalgic we are, you can see they were making the best of what they had. The memories you have are vivid and fill in a lot of the gaps that weren’t there. We were trying to make that show, that our child-brains remember.”
My niece and nephew both love the new Voltron, but I would never recommend they watch the original series unless it were out of sheer archaeological curiosity. Another of my old 80’s favorites, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, received its own child-brain reboot back in 2002.
So where does the Netflix She-Ra reboot fall in this taxonomy? Well, it’s not a requel and it’s not quite a child-brain reboot. Child-brain reboots like Voltron are meant to feel like their older counterparts, whereas the team behind the new She-Ra set out to create something that feels entirely new, despite largely following the beats and contours of the old one.
Before I go on, I want to tap the brakes and make it clear that when it comes to reboots of old shows, I don’t have a horse in the race. When a remake comes along, I’m not going to lose my mind if I don’t like it, because let’s face it, none of these old shows based on the toys we liked were stone-cold classics. Some of them had good individual episodes — the original He-Man episode “The Problem with Power” holds up fairly well — but these aren’t great works of art. They’re the detritus of our youths, and the reboots are simply that detritus repackaged for a new era and designed to stoke our nostalgia. But dang, some of them are pretty great. The new Voltron and He-Man cannily reimagine the original concepts and pack them with cool world-building as well as a thoughtful new set of “rules” governing the powers of the heroes, as well as a focus on episodes where our heroes get out of jams using their wits instead of relying on brute strength.
The same approach is taken with She-Ra, and I would say its closest contemporary counterpart is the 2002 MOTU reboot, although She-Ra’s showrunners opted for a more “young-adult-lit” feel by playing everyone about 10-15 years younger than the original animated series. I know that’s a fine distinction. Despite featuring a cast of grown-ups, the original series is still a show that appeals exclusively to kids. Still, by playing all the main characters as roughly middle-school age, the showrunners are able to port over a useful set of themes from the world of YA.
That said, I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what the new She-Ra feels like. It doesn’t quite feel like the original series, though that was — as 80’s-era, toy-driven detritus goes — a fairly unusual beast. It spun off a show for boys, repackaging its medieval/sci-fi vibe for girls, all while merging that vibe with a kind of primary-color Rainbrow Brite aesthetic. But the original She-Ra flipped the He-Man script by putting the villains in charge of the planet and relegating the heroes to the status of beleaguered rebels. Neither of these shows were particularly “dark,” but comparatively, the original She-Ra managed to depict a far more menacing world in Etheria than He-Man’s basically tranquil Eternia.
The Etheria of the new She-Ra doesn’t feel as dangerous as the original, but that doesn’t matter; what matters is that the show doesn’t appear to be concerned with precisely capturing the tone of the original show as they were concerned about giving us something… “new.” More than anything, that “something new” came from the show’s primary developer, writer Noelle Stevenson. The new She-Ra feels most like Stevenson’s delightful comic series Lumberjanes than anything else — a spirited adventure with a penchant for super-silliness. But at the same time, her new She-Ra still ports over some of the original series’ Frazetta-lite vibe to go along with its new world-building.
In adapting the original She-Ra for a modern audience, Stevenson and her team were saddled with one of the old show’s more difficult plot points: Adora’s initial alignment with the Horde. The original series glossed over her transition from evil to good with a few lines detailing her sheltered upbringing in the Fright Zone, as well as Shadow Weaver’s magical control over her mind. The first four episodes of the original series played more like Adora was brainwashed than anything. Stevenson and her team wisely built upon these two ideas, depicting the Fright Zone as a hermetically sealed stronghold where Adora and other young soldiers are indoctrinated with pro-Horde propaganda, mostly under the guidance of Shadow Weaver, who is the first season’s chief villain, while head baddie Hordak mostly lurks in the background (presumably being held in reserve for season two). Catra, one of the original series’ many interchangeable henchmen, is elevated to series co-lead and given a plausible psychology to play.
If by calling the old show’s villains “interchangeable,” I sound like I’m being hard on it, well… I am. Again, these shows aren’t exactly works of art, and one the benefits of rebooting them is the opportunity it gives a new generation of writers to take a goofy old idea and flesh it out with real characters playing for real stakes. In the new Voltron, old characters who were painted with only the most rudimentary a palette (Keith was dashing, Lance a goofball, Hunk a doofus) are expanded into more fully-formed people.
Ditto for the new She-Ra, in which Adora and Catra are presented as echoes of one another. Both are raised in the Fright Zone, both eventually discover the truth about Hordak’s regime (Spoiler Alert: it’s evil!) but only one crosses over to fight for the good guys. Their relationship is told with the foundational vocabulary of sibling rivalry, and it works. Adora is Hordak’s favorite, which spurs Catra to try and win Hordak’s (and by extension, Shadow Weaver’s) favor with more and more hardline tactics.
At the same time, the show digs into Adora’s sheltered and militaristic upbringing to depict a classic fish-out-of-water for the first few episodes, as she settles into her new life in the kingdom of Bright Moon. Bright Moon’s opulence baffles Adora, who approaches social engagements with a General’s intensity and opts for a soldier’s cot instead of the comfier beds offered by her hosts.
One complaint any self-respecting child of the 80’s has about their favorite shows, from MOTU to She-Ra to Voltron, is just how easy it is for the heroes to vanquish evil. Adam merely has to transform into He-Man, Voltron only has to form the blazing sword, and the party’s over. But in this new incarnation of She-Ra, the show draws on the old Captain Marvel (that would be DC’s Captain Marvel, aka “Shazam”) tradition and give us an Adora who struggles just like Billy Batson to channel She-Ra’s power. Reciting the “Honor of Grayskull” incantation doesn’t always work, and even when it does, She-Ra is not always the best solution to the crisis at hand. One of the season’s best episodes, “No Princess Left Behind,” sees Adora, not She-Ra, leading a strike force into the Fright Zone to free some of her captured comrades.
Stevenson and her writing team also wisely devote a lot of screentime to Shadow Weaver, expanding on a throwaway line from the original series where she describes herself as a kind of “mother” to Adora, building on that to develops Shadow Weaver into a surrogate (and abusive) parent to her. In one memorable episode, Shadow Weaver dispatches a spectral spy to gather intelligence on Adora. It’s standard action-fantasy stuff, but Shadow Weaver’s spy — an inky, amoebalikecloud that menaces Adora — reminded me of the kind of hold an abusive relative can hold over someone else.
I have somewhat mixed feelings about the show’s visual style, however, which is comparable to Sailor Moon or Steven Universe. I’m moved to think back to the more traditionally “Frazetta” look of the 2002 MOTU reboot, which introduced Hordak in its second season. Apparently the 2002 MOTU showrunners planned to unveil She-Ra in their third season. Alas, it never happened, but there’s oodles of fan art dedicated to imagining what She-Ra, Adora, and her friends might’ve looked like in that incarnation. Here’s a look:
(Note — as near as I can tell, this artwork comes from a gentleman named Eric Marshall, whose produced several alternate concept designs for characters from both MOTU and She-Ra. You can see his work here, here, and here.)
But that’s a mere quibble. Like she does with Lumberjanes, Stevenson embraces charming character design and an embrace of a more diverse and inclusive cast of characters. A refreshingly wide array of body types and ethnicities populate Stevenson’s Etheria, along with a fluidity of gender roles and depictions. Stevenson said in an interview that the wide array of women depicted in the original series — heroes, villains, and comic relief — drew her to the material. She and her team deliver a similarly pleasing array of leading women, including rebellion leader Glimmer; groovy plant-master Perfuma; the perpetually unimpressed Mermista; and many others. Women are depicted as everything from kooky mad scientists (Entrapta, my personal favorite) to hulking heavies (Scorpia) to mythical heroes (She-Ra herself). The show also pairs Catra and Scorpia as dates for a “Yule Ball”-style soiree that serves as the backdrop for the season’s best episode.
I’m curious what, if any, role Eternia and Adora’s origins will play in future seasons. Will this show serve as a backdoor pilot for a new vision of He-Man? I doubt such considerations figured heavily into this show’s conception, but all the same, I wonder… and I was also hoping to see Duncan, aka Man-At-Arms, show up at season’s end to reveal Adora’s extraterrestrial origin. I was also half-intrigued and half-puzzled at the depiction of Light Hope — and by extension, She-Ra’s powerset — as technological in origin. Though to be fair, Entrapta refers to the First Ones’s technology as a hybrid of magic and technology. Did the First Ones find a way to harness the power of Castle Grayskull and reproduce it through technological means?
In any event, I’m looking forward to future seasons. Let me know what you all think in the comments.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.