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 remake it. (I’ll discuss the current definition of reboot—as I understand it, at least—in a moment.) More often than not, studios remade old properties that had some brand recognition (The Ten Commandments, Ocean’s Eleven, 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 casually call the “child-brain reboot.” (I can’t think of a pithy portmanteau right now. Maybe one’ll come to me.)
The “requel” is by now a familiar form. Technically a sequel to the 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 the old-timers like me. Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Jurassic World both serve as excellent examples of requels.
But the child-brain reboot is a different beast entirely. The child-brain reboot takes a property from our childhoods and spackles over its cracks and imperfections, delivering up a much stronger version of that original property that, for all intents and purposes, 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, showrunner 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.”
I couldn’t agree more. 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. (Though to be fair, the American version of the original show, Go Lion, was heavily edited, largely excising some of the more violent parts. Maybe the Japanese version is better. Let me know in the comments!) Another of my old 80s favorites, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, received its own child-brain reboot back in 2002. (Though for the record, I far prefer the new Voltron to the 2002 MOTU.)
So where does the Netflix She-ra reboot fall in this taxonomy? Well, it’s not a requel and (for me, at least) it’s not quite a child-brain reboot, only because it’s such a fresh new take on the original material. In short, child-brain reboots like Voltron are meant to feel like their older counterparts, whereas I think the team behind the new She-ra set out to create something that felt entirely new, although interestingly, the new series largely follows the beats and contours of the old one. (More on that later.)
Before I go on, I want to tap the brakes and make it clear that when it comes to these old shows and reboots, I don’t really have a horse in the race. Meaning, when a remake comes along, I’m not going to lose my mind if I don’t like it or if I disagree with any of the showrunners’ choices, because let’s face it, none of these old shows based on the toys we liked were stone-cold classics. Some of ‘em 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 we’re talking about here. 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 ‘em are pretty great. The new Voltron cannily reimagines the original concept as an excellent space opera packed with cool world-building and a thoughtful new set of rules governing the function of the five lions and Voltron, as well as a focus on episodes where the team gets out of jams using their wits instead of relying on Voltron’s brute strength. The 2002 MOTU perfectly captures the Frazetta-lite action-adventure of the 80s series, but infuses it with a more thoughtful set of rules governing He-Man’s powers, as well as a focus on episodes where our heroes defeat Skeletor and his retinue without the advantage of He-Man’s brute strength.
If you sense a pattern here, you’re right, because the new She-ra series benefits from a more thoughtful set of rules governing She-ra’s powers, as well as a number of episodes where our heroes use their wits to get out of jams instead of relying on She-ra’s brute strength. I’d 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. Side note: I know that’s a fine distinction. Despite featuring a cast of grown-ups, the original series is still a kids’ show, but 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, chief among them the struggle to fit in alongside some of the usual coming-of-age stuff.
That said, I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what the new She-ra feels like to me. It doesn’t quite feel like the original series, though to be fair, the original series was—as 80s-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 at the same time, 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. Again, neither of these shows were particularly “dark,” but comparatively, the original She-ra managed to depict a far more menacing world (Etheria) than He-Man’s basically tranquil Eternia. (Again, by the standards of 80s toy-driven detritus.)
The Etheria of the new She-Ra doesn’t feel as dangerous as the original—more on that in a moment—but that doesn’t matter; what matters is that the showrunners didn’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. If you’re asking me, the new She-ra feels (to me) most like Stevenson’s delightful comics series Lumberjanes than anything else—a spirited adventure with a penchant for super-silliness—though at the same time, her new She-ra still ports over some of the original series’s Frazetta-lite vibe along with some interesting new world-building.
Earlier I said that the new She-ra follows the beats and contours of the original series fairly closely. That’s mostly true. 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 Adora’s 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. (I rewatched the first four episodes of the original series, and it 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’s essentially the first season’s chief villain. (Head baddie Hordak mostly lurks in the background, presumably being held in reserve for season two.) Hordak henchman Catra, one of the original series’ many interchangeable villains, 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 ‘em 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. To wit is 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—presumably for reasons relevant to the series’ mythology—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 showrunners dig into Adora’s sheltered and militaristic upbringing to depict a classic fish out of water for the series’ 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. (It’s funny—this new version of Adora made me wish the filmmakers behind the new Star Wars had devoted half as much thought to their depiction of former Storm Trooper Finn, who, as we learn in The Force Awakens, was raised in a military culture at least roughly comparable to Adora’s. It’s such a great idea—a Storm Trooper bred from birth for a post-Clone Wars imperial army—but besides one scene in The Force Awakens, the filmmakers never really explore it.)
Earlier I said that the showrunners craft a thoughtful new set of rules governing She-ra’s powers. One complaint any self-respecting child of the 80s 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 showrunners draw on the old Captain Marvel tradition—DC’s Captain Marvel, aka “Shazam”—and give us an Adora who struggles (much 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’s not always the best solution to the crisis at hand. (The 2002 MOTU reboot trafficked in similar themes and devices, forcing Price Adam to fight his share of battles.) One of the season’s best episodes, “No Princess Left Behind,” sees Adora leading a strike force into the Fright Zone to free some of her captured comrades.
Moving on: Stevenson and her writing team also wisely devote a lot of screentime to Shadow Weaver. Like I said, she (and not Hordak) registers as this season’s archvillain. More important, though, is the showrunners expansion on a throwaway line from the original series, where Shadow Weaver describes herself as a kind of “mother” to Adora. Building on that idea, the showrunners craft Shadow Weaver into a surrogate parent for Adora—and an abusive (or at least very controlling) one at that. 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, amoebalike cloud that menaces Adora—reminded me of the kind of hold an abusive relative can hold over a young person. (Or an older person, for that matter.) It’s powerful.
All this said, I want to touch on the somewhat mixed feelings I have about the show’s style, readily conceding that, as a fortysomething dude, I’m not this show’s target audience. Friends of mine compared its visual style to Sailor Moon or Steven Universe. I’ve not seen either show, but cursory Googlings indicate the comparisons are valid. All the same, I’m moved to think back to the more traditionally "Frazetta" look of the 2002 MOTU reboot, which introduced Hordak in its second (and final) 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:
But that’s a mere quibble. Again, more than anything, the new She-ra reminded me of Lumberjanes, with Stevenson’s charming character design and 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. (I suspect there’s a subset of fandom that’ll find the depiction of any such diversity irksome, but that’s their loss.) 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 general Glimmer; groovy plant-master Perfuma; the perpetually unimpressed Mermista; and many others. (Like the 2002 MOTU reboot, the showrunners commit to all of the original show’s goofball names, and I applaud them for it. I still chortle whenever someone refers to He-Man’s ally “Buzz-Off” by name.) 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.
Side note — Stevenson’s Etheria felt safer, more stable, than that of the original series. That’s not so much a criticism as an observation. The Horde felt like more recent arrivals to Etheria, their presence still mostly contained to one region. That allowed for the showrunners to build out their central story engine, Glimmer and Adora’s efforts to rebuild the planetary alliance among the various realms’ ruling princesses.
I will say, however, that 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. (I was so 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, 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. What did you think?