When The Legend of Korra, Nickelodeon's sequel to its mega-hit series Avatar: The Last Airbender was about to air, we wondered if the show might turn out to be anti-science. Last weekend, The Legend of Korra wrapped its first season, a season which pitted the young Avatar in training against the technology-wielding Equalists. But not only is Korra not anti-technology, it thoughtfully integrates technology with its fantastical setting. Spoilers ahead!
Certainly, the first season of Korra wasn't perfect, especially in its pacing of the final episodes. (And, while I love me a little polar bear dog, I could have used a few more intrusions from the natural world.) But it did introduce us to a charismatic set of characters, including a wonderfully flawed Avatar whose personality and challenges are very different from Aang's, and a setting that is recognizable as the Avatar universe, but believably technologically advanced. How did The Legend of Korra introduce science fictional technology while not letting it overwhelm its original fantasy setting? Here are a few things the series did well:
It looked to its past. Technology didn't suddenly spring up in the period between Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. Bender-aided innovations existed in Avatar, such as the mail delivery system at Omashu, or the Fire Nation's tundra tanks and airships, and the new technologies could have easily sprung from the minds of inventors like mechanist, whom the Avatar crew encountered at the Northern Air Temple. Peacetime may have enabled the rapid growth of technology by the Korra era, but Avatar laid the foundation.
It uses technology that fits the setting. The United Republic of Nations represents the first time in the Avatar universe that peoples of Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, and Water Tribe descent live side by side, free to immigrate and build. (In fact, the United Republic is built from the Fire Nation's colonies in the Earth Kingdom, which could not be simply dissolved in the wake of the Hundred Years' War.) Republic City is a sprawling symbol of that newfound cosmopolitanism, and the technological explosion is a direct result of urban needs. Cameras, microphones, telephones, and radios allow city dwellers to record, transmit, and receive information. Cars, mopeds, airships, and buses allow people to travel great distances easily — including foreign dignitaries and business people. Indoor plumbing allows people to live right on top of one another without major sanitation problems. And the creators add some nice touches that date the relative newness of the technology, especially the recaps at the beginning of each episode read in a newsreel announcer's voice.
Also, the technology that exists in Republic City hasn't spread across the entire map. The innovations that support city life in the United Republic of Nations just aren't as useful to life among the Northern and Southern Water Tribes, for example. Hopefully, in future seasons, we'll get a chance to see what peculiar innovations different regions have adopted.
It doesn't let technology overwhelm its social developments. Technology has changed radically in the 70 years between Avatar and Korra, but it's not the only thing that's changed. Fire and Earth folk have intermarried, and dual-bender families aren't seen as much of an anomaly anymore. (And you can walk into a restaurant and buy Water Tribe food!) Although there are still small color cues as to who bends what element, people tend to dress according to their social status rather than their nation of origin (though there are certainly exceptions). Urbanism has paved the way for an industrial revolution, but it has also proved a fertile ground for organized crime. The city is run by committee rather than by a monarchy, but powerful benders are still at the helm. It's all of these changes that help drive the story of Korra's first season. This isn't a world of bending vs. technology; it's a world experiencing growing pains, and technology is just one component.
It uses a light touch with personal technology. Bending doesn't suffuse every aspect of a person's life unless they're a bending master or the Avatar, and similarly, technology sits in the background of most people's lives. Yes, their lives are altered by technology, but in a way that most of the characters don't even think about. (Except when the power goes out.) You have to be rich or well-connected to get your hands on an electrifying glove — or even a car — and we haven't hit the point where people have microwave ovens or television sets, at least not yet. In fact, the experience of the Korra characters doesn't look that much different from the experience of the Avatar characters, except in some places more efficient. That might all change down the line, but for the first season, it's a good way to sink us back into a familiar world.
It balances magic and technology. Okay, yes, technically bending isn't considered magic in the world of Avatar; rather, it's a martial art that only a gifted few can perform. But the point still stands. Avatar: The Last Airbender always did a nice job of making non-bending warriors as potent as benders. Whenever Ty Lee or Mai showed up on screen, you knew that the bending characters were in heaps of trouble. Now the electrifying glove offers non-benders a force that is similar to bending, which is useful when benders of different stripes are aligned against anti-benders. And even putting aside the gloves, Asami Sato proves to be a powerful ally for a key reason: she can drive. Just like benders have an innate connection with their element, Asami is remarkably at home inside a vehicle, and her love of driving makes it an adaptable power. Thanks to her tendency to drive anything in industrialist father's possession, Asami can look at a set of controls (especially if they were made by Sato himself) and get a good sense of how to drive a new vehicle.
In fact, one of my quibbles with the first season of The Legend of Korra is that bloodbending is just too damn powerful. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, bloodbending was a chilling and powerful ability, but it came with very specific constraints — namely, that it could only be used during the full moon. At least when Amon is finally taken down, it's through a power greater than bending or technology: politics.
It lets its magic and its technology work together. So far, benders don't seem to take much issue with technology. Even Tenzin, who's as traditional as they come, has a radio and a telephone in his home. We've only seen non-benders take up the Equalist electrifying gloves, but that's because they're seen as playing field levelers — in fact, I wouldn't be surprised if we see benders using technological combat weapons in future seasons. And, when it comes to the metalbenders, these technological advances make them more powerful, since they are the only ones able to control a substance that existences in powerful pieces of equipment, including tanks and other weapons. I even suspect that, if Republic City is ever threatened by a weapon of mass destruction, it will be powered by both bending and science.
Technology gets a distinct, but not discordant look. Design was a big component of Avatar in terms of identifying social status and affiliation, and many of those designs carried through to Korra. The sleek, dark outfits favored by more technologically inclined characters fit in with the more traditional Avatar designs while suggesting something modern and new. The crackle of electrical energy has the same visual force of the elemental attacks, offering a clear sense that the bending and glove-wearing characters are evenly matched. And those designs carry over to Asami, who despite being the losing vertex of her love triangle, seems firmly planted on Team Avatar.
Technology doesn't automatically eliminate social strata — and in some places emphasizes them. As much as the Equalists complain about the disparity between benders and non-benders, there's a larger socioeconomic disparity in Republic City. Running water and airships are all well and good, but we still a tent city, children left orphaned and homeless with few resources aside from the local triads, and technology (especially cars) mostly in the hands of the wealthy. It's fitting that our key bender Korra and our key technology wielder Asami come from privileged households. Through their relationship with Mako and Bolin and their further adventures in the city, Korra and Asami come face to face with deep problems that can't be solved with bending or technology alone. Republic City is in trouble, and it's trouble that needs a human solution. It might be a job for Korra's newly tapped spiritual side.
It keeps a few things magical — and makes them extremely important to the protagonist. There are several reasons that the introduction of pro-bending was particularly brilliant — not least of all because physically-inclined peacetime characters are more likely to be athletes than warriors like Sokka and Suki. It also gives Korra something non-academic that is pure bending — something relatively untouched by technology. This is a place where she can grow and thrive as a bender, even when the city isn't in constant peril. It also shows us that there's at least one opportunity benders have that non-benders don't; after all, Mako and Bolin seem to have a shot at bettering their situation only because they happen to be a fire bender and an earth bender. Non-bender kids don't have the same options open to them.
Every now and then, it steps up its technological game. As much as balance was important in this introductory season, when we were being reintroduced to the world of Avatar, it makes sense that technology will only grow more and more powerful. When Team Avatar discovered those mecha tanks in Sato's secret lab, it's clear that they fear the power those suits hold. It's ironic when Sato calls his chances against Korra in the tank "equal," since he has a clear upper hand against the Avatar. Similarly, the biplanes outclass existing warships based on Fire Nation technology, technology to which benders who serve in the military and law enforcement have been able to adapt their skills. Extremely powerful bending might exist in a limited few hands, but extremely powerful technology might proliferate.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about The Legend of Korra is that Korra is an Avatar at a time of important global transition, a time when technology is gradually becoming more powerful than bending. The writers have the opportunity to explore the significance of bending in this new world, especially if technology gains preeminence over bending. What will be the role of the Avatar then, and will she focus her energies toward issues like poverty and, yes, equality?
What did you all think of the first season?