Fundamentals of Immersion

May 12

Contextual Analysis

Speculative Design in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.

The 2018 TV show She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (created by Noelle Stevenson and produced by DreamWorks Animation, a re-imagining of and not to be confused with 1985’s She-Ra: Princess of Power) demonstrates strong understanding of the speculative design tradition. Originating from a series of tight constraints – that is, being required to keep the same core characters, setting, naming conventions and basic plot from a quarter-century old show that famously was not very concerned with logic or narrative consistency – She-Ra and the Princesses of Power proves itself a work of speculative futurism masquerading as space fantasy.

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is about Adora, a soldier from the army of the fascist Horde that has invaded and has been terrorizing the planet Etherea, who defects when she is chosen by the Sword of Protection. Using the sword she can transform into She-Ra, a powerful being dedicated to protecting Etherea. She makes friends with Glimmer, one of several Princesses of Power who are granted supernatural powers by ancient Runestones, and Bow, a talented archer. Together they travel Etherera with the goal of to reuniting the Princesses and defeating the Horde.

While the show has the trappings of a fantasy (and indeed the various powers of the Princesses are referred to as “magic”) the show contains details that suggest the show may be a science fiction instead.

Presumably the show’s creators were mandated to keep details from the original show – for example, the lead character and her iconic transformation into the titular She-Ra. These details would serve as entry points into the world.

The Sword of Protection, arguably the defining artifact carried over from the 1985 show, is described at one point in the 2018 version as a “portable Runestone”. The Runestone, then, is the source of She-Ra’s power. When Adora is removed from the sword she is unable to transform and access the various powers of the sword. Another clear requirement is the presence of the various Princesses of Power, who are holdovers in name and power from the original show. It is explained that each of the Princesses gain their powers from a Runestone as well, and that if their Runestones are destroyed or tampered with their powers can suffer.

So now we have the Runestones as artefacts of the world, and requisites for the existence of the princesses. This is further extrapolated by the existence of the First Ones, a highly advanced but mysteriously vanished progenitor species that left their technology (usually referred to in short hand as “First Ones’ Tech”) scattered around the planet. It is eventually revealed that the First Ones created the Runestones and that they are all connected through First Ones Tech that runs throughout the planet. The Runestones are technology, not magic, and dictate the nature of the communities that they belong to (the Runestone that affects nature is surrounded by a great forest and is tended by a community of survivalists, while the Runestone that affects cold is suspended inside a mountain of ice and is tended by Inuk-inspired arctic-dwelling people). They can even be hacked by computer, which happens several times in the show, at one point causing She-Ra’s behavior to change (suggesting that She-Ra’s transformation is technological in nature).

This further lends context to the question of why only Princesses can access the power of the Runestones (perhaps they are descended from First Ones?) and the question of why the world of Eternia is in such a bizarre state  —  why it seems to be divided by ecological biomes (the elemental influence of the Runestones, which aside from Adora’s are immobile) and lacks stars in its sky. None of these questions are the focus of the show, which tends to focus its plots on brief adventures and the interpersonal relationships of the protagonists and antagonists.

They serve as worldmaking details that belie the absurdity of the show’s presentation. Stevenson and the team behind She-Ra and the Princesses of Power used details from a defunct and little-cared for story world as entry points (or “core samples” if considering McDowell’s Mandala framework) to extrapolate an internally consistent story world that holds up against scrutiny – that is, stand up to suspension of disbelief – and ask the question “how would the world be if an ancient progenitor race distributed supernatural runestones on the planet?” with a straight face.

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