Retroactive Continuity: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power S2E3-4 “Signals” and “Roll With It”

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Given the short season–if it can even be called a season (see my last Retroactive Continuity on the show)–She-Ra needs to transition swiftly from resolving threads from last season to setting up threads for this season. One of those threads is introduced in this pair of episodes, first with the Horde, and then with the Princesses: characters feeling inadequate in the face of tasks that seem impossible to do alone, and seeking out (or begrudgingly accepting) help from others to complete them. Bow’s repeated “deaths” in “Roll With It” are a silly but obvious example; his admission in “Signals” that he doesn’t think he can live up to Entrapta’s technological skill and know-how is a better one. And he’s right, he can’t do that alone–he will need his parents’ help by season’s end. Catra likewise realizes she can’t run the Horde army singlehandedly and turns to Shadow Weaver for aid–foolishly, given Shadow Weaver’s penchant for treachery and manipulation and the fact that Scorpia is right there. Likewise, Scorpia can’t take on five princesses and Bow alone any more than Adora can take on total responsibility for the entire Rebellion alone, and Hordak can’t create a working portal alone.

That last brings up something else that’s happening in these two episodes, which is that the show is trying to bring up potentially romantic character pairs other than Catra and Adora, because Catra and Adora are increasingly going to be depicted as an extremely unhealthy relationship. So, we get Scorpia very obviously head-over-heels for Catra, and an extended imaginary sequence in which Glimmer’s image of Catra is the most sexualized any character in the show has ever been. Most of all, we get Entrapta and Hordak working closely together and appreciating one another, with Hordak trusting Entrapta with more information about his plans than he ever trusted Shadow Weaver or Catra, and Entrapta commenting on him being her first “lab partner.”

Entrapta has come up quite a few times in this discussion already, which is fitting, because she’s also being used to open up another theme for this season, and it seems likely the show going forward: the convergence of magic and science. Consider her unusual status: she appears to be the only named, recurring princess who has no magical abilities at all. Not all princesses have the massive elemental powers of Glimmer or Mermista, but Spinerella and Netossa definitely have their own kind of magic. What, then, of Entrapta? This question is answered by another: why is her technological prowess treated as not just above Bow, but unattainably above him, impossible for him to reach on his own? How is it that a self-taught inventor from a “backwater planet” can seemingly surpass the work of Hordak, who as we will learn has scientific and engineering skills from a vastly more technologically advanced civilization?

The answer is simple: she isn’t the only princess without powers. Technology is her magical gift, her element if you will. Bow says it himself early in “Signals”: “Magic and tech aren’t totally separate things. Entrapta is one of the only people who really understands that.”

And he’s right. Magic is, after all, just symbolic manipulation in an effort to similarly manipulate reality. We all to some degree believe in it; that’s why we yell at technology that doesn’t work or call out for lost objects. It makes sense that we should believe in it, because using symbols to express what we want to happen is generally the most effective way to get it to happen what it involves other people, which is most of the time; add in that sometimes the car does start right after we yell at it, and of course it’s our go-to solution! The history of science, looked at closely, is not a rejection of magic but an evolution of magic. Look at two of the oldest sciences, astronomy and chemistry. People started out looking at the stars, noticing the regularity of their motion, and surmised that they reflected or even influenced the motion of objects on Earth. Eventually, after careful study, it was found that it doesn’t work like that–but by that time we had a carefully crafted system of symbols by which the movement of the stars could be predicted, which we call astronomy. The same thing happened with alchemy–after centuries of mixing this and melting that and writing down what happened and guesses as to why, eventually we worked out patterns and rules for how it worked, finding ways to manipulate substances to get what we wanted, and called that chemistry.

As it turns out, the rules that work are more mathematical than poetic, and machines aren’t actually very much like people at all, but it’s all still manipulating symbols. Press a key, labeled with a particular letter, on the keyboard and that letter appears on the screen–you have manipulated a symbol to effect change in the material world. Entrapta’s gift, her power, is that she’s one of the few people who really understands that.

It’s no accident that we’re introduced to Hordak’s interdimensional portal and holographic “ghosts” in the same episode, because they’re both technowank excuses to have fantasy phenomena, just as is the notion of elemental magic being characters tapping into an artificial planet’s environmental control systems. They come at it from opposite ends, of course: ghosts sound magic and holograms sound technological, while an interdimensional portal sounds technological from the start. But it’s really just the old fantasy notion of the magic door, a gateway to Faerie or the underworld, given a sci-fi makeover. (As is much of science fiction, for that matter. The distinction between science fiction, fantasy, and pulp adventure is often just surface aesthetics.)

This approach to magic can be seen as somewhat reductionist. If science and technology are just magic that works, is the rest of magic just failed science? Well, yes. But flip it around: there is magic that works. That’s not reductionist, that’s astounding. We live in a universe in which magic works, in which human minds and hands are capable of constructing and manipulating symbols which tap into cosmic forces to do whatever we can imagine and figure out how to do! How terrific is that?

And, as the end of “Signals” ominously looms, how terrifying?

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Light makes him lose his powers (Absolute Power)

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It’s January 16, 1999, and the charts are largely unchanged from last time, with only the order different–Brandy is on top at the moment with “Have You Ever?” Varsity Blues opens at number one in theaters. And in the news, earlier this month the euro was launched, as was the Mars Polar Lander, the latter at least to end in failure–it will eventually crashland on Mars.

On TV, “Absolute Power,” a fairly forgettable Superman: The Animated Series episode notable mostly for being a couple of second-and-lasts–the second and last episode narrated in flashback, and the second and last appearance of Mala and Jax-Ur. The title of the episode is, of course, a reference to the famous line by John Dalberg-Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Acton was an English baron and marquess who strongly opposed centralized authority, a fan of U.S.-style federalism who vocally supported the Confederacy during the Civil War on states’ rights grounds. Knowing that, it’s worth reading his most famous quote a little more closely: “Power tends to corrupt.” In other words, it doesn’t always corrupt, just often does, while “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The repeated word “absolute” is here being used in two subtly different sentences: “absolute power” of course refers to the maximum possible amount of power, power which cannot be resisted or denied, but “corrupts absolutely” is constructed in opposition to “tends to corrupt,” and therefore reads as guaranteed corruption, not maximal corruption.

This is an important distinction to make, because again, the speaker here is an aristocrat who opposed any power above his own but supported slavery, just like the bulk of the people who wrote the U.S. Constitution–no wonder he was a fan! In other words, someone who believed his own power as an aristocrat did not corrupt him, but rather that any higher level of power was necessarily corrupting–power which could be used to interfere with his exercise of his power over those subject to it. He’s basically the nineteenth-century equivalent of a modern-day right-libertarian.

This is important, because despite the title, the episode isn’t built around his quote, but actually a saying (usually attributed to Edmund Burke) which arguably opposes the Acton quote: “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” The opposition comes in when one realizes the implication that absolute power is not guaranteed to corrupt if “good men” do something, though arguably preventing the consolidation of absolute power in the first place could be the something done.

Either way, the probably-not-actually-Burke quote is the closer to true of the two, despite the emptiness of the category “good men”: we live in an amoral, and therefore immoral, universe, and have invented morality out of our own capacity for agency and judgment. If we wish it to exist in the world, rather than merely our imaginations, we must build and rebuild it constantly. And not just in the world, but in ourselves–to decide that one is, once and for all, good is to lose the capacity for self-correction, and thereby guarantee failure.

This episode is thus actually a crucial one to understanding Superman, because it shows that he is capable of error, and more importantly that he knows he is capable of error. He has, as many critics and commentators have noted over the years, a nigh-impossible balancing act to perform: on the one hand, given his great capacity to do what others cannot, him doing nothing gives evil a far greater chance to triumph than most; on the other, if he does too much to protect–which is to say, control–others, he becomes a tyrant. Mala and Jax-Ur choose to go much too much to the latter extreme, becoming dictators as a means of bringing “peace” and “order” to the divided planet they conquer, but initially Superman goes too far to the former, leaving their rule intact because he fears the consequences to the planet if he fights them.

Ultimately, however, he is Superman. He finds a way to stop them without it turning into a planet-busting kaiju fight, though they help by taking him out into space to throw him into a black hole. He finds a way to protect almost everyone, by fighting Mala and Jax-Ur in incredibly dangerous space until they slip up and die. He even saves their head of security/police, Alterus, over the protests of the rebel Cetea.

It’s an interesting choice, because although Alterus has a last-second change of heart to rescue Superman and Cetea from execution by black hole, he is still depicted as Mala and Jax-Ur’s second-in-command. He is doubtless responsible for executing many of the atrocities they are implied to have masterminded in their conquest of the planet, doubtless including actual executions. He’s also shown being sexually assaulted by Mala, which certainly makes him more sympathetic, but also provides a possible ulterior motive for turning against the regime.

What he is, in short, is a reminder that it isn’t actually necessary for “good men” to do anything to prevent the triumph of evil, which is good since people aren’t actions and therefore can’t be meaningfully assigned moral value. Apparent “bad men” can do it too, by taking good action.

This is not, in itself, redemption. Alterus does not really have a redemption arc; he’s barely a character. “Redemption” is a fuzzy concept when you’ve rejected the concept that a person can be good or evil, anyway; it’s connected to forgiveness, but forgiveness lies entirely in the free choice of one’s victims. Mostly it’s the realization of one’s own prior evil actions, acceptance of one’s capacity to do such things, and choice to start doing better, which certainly could be what’s going on with Alterus, but on the other hand he could just be taking advantage of an opportunity to rid himself of his abuser and take over the planet himself in the process. He could, in other words, just be upset about power greater than his own, and not see anything wrong with his own power over others, or he could be genuinely recognizing that power must be broken.

In the end, his redemption or lack thereof isn’t important. What is important is that it demonstrates for us that someone can serve a tyrannical regime in its conquest of a divided planet, then turn against that regime’s leaders. Doing so isn’t redemption in itself, but it’s better than not doing it, and that’s a start.

But surely we won’t see this precise sequence of events with a character we know much better at the end of this season, right?

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