What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Learn the classics. Every other drink is just a modification.
(first piece of mixology advice I ever received)
I’m absolutely hooked on Netflix’s reboot of the 1984 Voltron cartoon. Voltron follows five adventurers from Earth who inadvertently teleport to another galaxy and must learn to work together if they’re going to stop a malevolent force bent on conquest. The original show was standard Saturday morning fare— giant robots, alien monsters, one-note characters—, but this reboot has brought something new to the table. Every character battles numerous personal demons. The team’s leader struggles with PTSD from his time as a POW; their sharpshooter battles feelings of worthlessness as he constantly tries to prove himself; and their science expert (in addition to being quietly transgender) obsesses over rescuing his kidnapped brother. The characters’ personal journeys enrich the overarching narrative, and every episode leaves you wanting more. But here’s the real kicker for me: I never got into the original show.
I didn’t have cable growing up, and Voltron was a few years before my time anyway. When I attempted to watch the original show a few years ago, it never ensnared me the way its reboot has. You see, while the reboot certainly invokes nostalgia, it’s never too preoccupied with its past. Instead, the Voltron reboot succeeds because it leaves room for a new story to unfold. In fact, Voltron gives us a great formula for how to use our nostalgia effectively. I’m going to call it…
The Voltron Rule:
Nostalgia is healthy when it leaves space for new stories to be told.
Nostalgia that resists new stories is unhealthy and should be abandoned.
The pop culture landscape is littered with sequels, remakes, and reboots, but how many of them adhere to The Voltron Rule? Let’s look at a few test cases:
Star Wars: The Force Awakens revisited old filming techniques, set pieces, characters, and even plot elements from the original Star Wars film trilogy, but it also built strong new characters like the heroic Rey, the reluctant Finn, and the angsty Kylo Ren. At this point, I see as many coffee mugs and backpacks with the new characters as with the old ones. The classic Star Wars elements are remixed to raise new questions and tell new stories for these new characters. This fulfills the Voltron Rule.
Michael Bay has described the classic Transformers cartoon series as a glorified toy commercial, and his Transformers movies don’t fare much better critically. As a director, Bay’s preference is for large action set pieces where the real stars are the special effects. As such, the Transformers receive little depth and development in their own movies. While the Transformers movies aren’t without their fun moments, they don’t use their characters to tell any kind of new story, making them pretty forgettable over all. This fails to fulfill the Voltron Rule.
Stranger Things is an 80s nostalgia-driven thriller. Its setting contains constant allusions to Spielberg classics like E.T. and Close Encounters, and its synth-laden title sequence even mimics a 1980s VHS tape. At the same time, the nostalgia is only there to set up a deeper conversation: the difference between how adults and children perceive the world. To highlight this theme, the story constantly bounces back and forth between a group of adventure-hungry preteen friends and the show’s more nuanced and worldweary adults, giving viewers a chance to empathize with both worldviews. Oh, and there are monsters. This fulfills the Voltron Rule.
We could probably study nostalgic movies and TV shows forever (and there are already numerous youtube channels and websites dedicated to this), but I believe the Voltron Rule has useful implications beyond pop culture. For example, the craft cocktail scene owes its very existence to nostalgia.
Prohibition almost killed the American cocktail movement, but recent decades have seen a revival of the art form. Modern bars often take their design cues from vintage speakeasies; bartenders and distillers often pull double-duty as historians; and then there are the drinks themselves. Classic recipes like the Old Fashioned, the Negroni, and the Moscow Mule have come back in a big way in recent years, and even the most innovative modern drinks are riffs on classics. Cocktails are a great example of The Voltron Rule in action. Every drink involves old ingredients and old recipes, but every drink also invites innovation. They conjure feelings of nostalgia while also leaving room for a new story.
Of course, I think the Voltron Rule has even broader implications than this.
What happens when we apply it to politics?
What happens when we apply it to religion?
More on this coming soon.