False Analogy - A(nother) Meta on the Galra Empire
A common theme I see in discussion of Voltron: Legendary Defender is people comparing the Galra Empire to the Fire Nation from Avatar: The Last Airbender, to the point where every ATLA AU I’ve ever found has cast the Galra and part-Galra characters as Firebenders.
It’s not as if the comparison is completely unexpected, given the potential for the production staff to take influence from their previous work. And there actually are one or two similarities. Both civilizations have spent a long period of time conquering the setting of their respective franchises and have all but taken over everywhere by the time their stories properly begin. The current rulers during each show are power-hungry tyrants who abuse their only sons.
But those are pretty much where the similarities end. And fans would do well to remember that the production staff having worked on ATLA does not obligate them to recreate Avatar Season 3’s look at civilian life in the Fire Nation in an outer space setting.
And the biggest things that separate the Galra from the Fire Nation are the motivation for their respective wars and the stability of their civilizations.
“The Avatar and the Fire Lord” established that Fire Lord Sozin began the war during a period of wealth and prosperity, with Sozin’s specific goal being to expand the Fire Nation’s power under the guise of “sharing their prosperity with the world.” The Fire Nation at the start of the war is experiencing a period of plenty, and none of the resources and materials seized in their conquest are shown to be used to benefit their civilian population back home in any way.
That’s why it’s easy for the Fire Nation to instantly stop the war after Aang defeats Ozai and Zuko becomes Fire Lord. While the situation with the colonies in the Earth Kingdom takes a while to resolve (see: the comics), stopping hostilities and military engagements abroad causes very little change to the lives of civilians in the homeland.
The Galra Empire, on the other hand, is an entirely different beast.
Season 1 of Voltron: Legendary Defender shows us through multiple examples that the Galra Empire uses Quintessence as the primary energy source of the empire. In the present day, quintessence is mined from planets and taken to processing facilities like the one seen in “Collection and Extraction”, where the Druids use what I assume to be a bastardized variation of Honerva’s alchemy to process the Quintessence into usable fuel.
Before the war began, the Galra’s main source of Quintessence was the Rift on Daibazaal, giving them access to an unlimited energy source. The rift staying open on Daibazaal was damaging the planet over time, and after Alfor destroyed the planet to close the rift, the Galra were abruptly cut off from their primary energy source, and a significant chunk (if not the entirety) of their population was now homeless.
The Galra people were scared and uncertain, and Zarkon gave them a convenient target to blame for their displacement when he declared war against Altea and the other planets of their solar system.
But once the system was securely under the empire’s control, the Galra still had to contend with the loss of their biggest stable energy source. The medic tending to Honerva during Lotor’s birth outright tells Zarkon in “Shadows” that their civilization cannot survive without a way to obtain more Quintessence.
This is what Ulaz was referring to when he says in “Shiro’s Escape” that “we thought expanding the Galra Empire would bring stability.” By conquering more planets, the empire gained access to new sources of Quintessence that would prevent the complete collapse of their civilization.
But as we see with the Balmera in Season 1, the planets the empire conquers are not unlimited sources of Quintessence. Eventually, the planets they harvest from will run dry, and they’ll need another source. Not only that, but the more planets they conquer, the larger their infrastructure becomes. This means that they now need even higher quantities of Quintessence to account for the increase in scale. Which leads to more planets being conquered, and the whole process repeating itself over and over again in an endless cycle.
Where the Fire Nation was stable enough that their government and infrastructure could keep going after a regime change, the Galra Empire for millennia has perpetually been one succession crisis away from collapsing into anarchy.
We see that happen in Season 7 because after Zarkon’s death and Lotor being left in the Rift, Haggar stopped giving a shit about the day to day running of the empire. Once she dismissed the Druids and they started going after the Blade of Marmora, the rest of the Empire was suddenly faced with having no way to process all the harvested quintessence into usable fuel, putting them right back where they started 10,000 years ago.
With no central leader, no stable energy source, and dwindling resources, the empire fell apart as warring factions fought each other for the Quintessence they had left, and innocent people on both free and conquered worlds were caught in the crossfire. This is what Lotor was talking about when he told Lance in “Omega Shield” that transitioning the empire toward peace wasn’t as easy as freeing planets until he could offer an alternative to the empire’s current methods of operation.
While stopping further invasions and working to transition conquered planets back to independent government after however many years under Galra rule so that the inhabitants could work with the empire on equal footing were things that could be accomplished relatively easily, the empire immediately shutting down their Quintessence mining and pulling out completely like the Fire Nation did with most of their younger colonies in the ATLA comics was not possible from a logistics standpoint.
Because that would leave the Galra with a dwindling stockpile of processed fuel and no way to refine the unprocessed Quintessence that’s already been harvested, putting them right back where they started 10,000 years ago.
Now course, actually going out and subjugating quintessence to fuel the Galra Empire’s need for quintessence was entirely unnecessary and peaceful means of obtaining Quintessence would have likely been worked out had Zarkon and Haggar stayed dead after the Rift (assuming the next emperor was someone who genuinely had the best interests of their people at heart and wasn’t a power hungry tyrant looking to take advantage of the chaos for their own gain).
But Lotor’s line “the universe can no longer doubt our strength” during his speech at the start of Season 3 shows how easily the Galra’s “victory or death” mentality can be twisted by survival-of-the-fittest rhetoric into a belief that the Galra have to earn their right to security and survival. This is something Lahn reinforces in “The Prisoner’s Dilemma”, when he says that Allura “never had to earn power.” With a convenient scapegoat and a narrative of betrayal, it makes sense that Galra civilization would so readily accept a philosophy that their survival hinged on taking from others to prevent the same thing from happening to them.
And unlike the Fire Nation, most of the Galra Empire’s population is involved in the war to one degree or another. Where civilians in the Fire Nation were comfortably isolated from the reality of the war by both distance and propaganda, Galra civilians did not have that luxury. With their entire home planet destroyed, non-military Galra would have been on the same ships as everyone else. Combine that with the fact that they were already demonstrably a warrior culture in the vein of the Mandalorians in Star Wars, and it’s no surprise that we don’t see very many Galra in non-military positions within the Empire.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t any civilian Galra within the empire. “Space Mall” introduces notable examples in Varkon and Vrepit Sal, plus we see a few civilian Galra in Omega Shield. But from what we see the majority of the Galra population is connected to the empire’s military in some capacity.
If anything, most of the civilians we’ve seen within the empire’s territory have been non-Galra. The first flashback to Shiro’s time in the arena during “Return of The Gladiator” clearly shows a diverse array of sentient species sitting in the audience for the gladiator matches. Varkon is even the only indication that the otherwise mundane Space Mall is located in the empire’s territory. Even a glimpse of the so-called “labor planet” where the Omega Shield is based shows both Galra and non-Galra carrying supplies during Lotor’s speech.
This all communicates that due to strategic value, lack of viability for quintessence mining, resisting invasion successfully enough to be offered a treaty that annexes them into the empire on their terms, or some combination of the above, there are a not-insignificant number of planets within the Galra empire where the native inhabitants are on something close to equal footing with the Galra, despite Zarkon’s views about the superiority of his species. Despite the suffering and subjugation being inflicted on other worlds, these planets are able to live relatively peaceful, mundane lives away from the front lines of the empire’s conquests.
Which of course is why the Paladins were performing their shows at places like the Space Mall in “The Voltron Show!”. The planets that had already endured slavery and oppression like the Balmera, Puig, and Olkarion didn’t require much convincing to join forces with Voltron. It was the planets where people had largely been able to live mundane, safe lives that needed to be persuaded to cut ties with the empire and join the Coalition.
I understand why people enjoy the look at civilian life in the Fire Nation that we get during the first half of Avatar Book 3. Not only does it further reinforce that the Fire Nationals (yes, that is the canon term for people from the Fire Nation.) aren’t all maniacal monsters that enjoy burning and killing, but that kind of information is just fascinating to know from a worldbuilding perspective. Knowing what life in this universe is like for the average grunt or the people far from the front lines is prime fanfic fuel.
But people wanted so badly for Voltron to copy it that they missed the larger purpose of those elements from a story perspective.
From the very beginning, a major focus of Avatar was showing us the very real, painful realities of war in as much detail as they felt their target audience could handle. The whole point of seeing how people in the Fire Nation lived was to show us how the Fire Nation’s war effort was affecting people on the home front. We see the factories used to power their war machine poison rivers and harm communities. We see just how much propaganda that Fire Nation children are fed in school to indoctrinate them into thinking the war is justified and good.
Even leaving aside the completely different scenarios, the reason we don’t see similar episodes from Voltron is because Voltron was telling a completely different story.
That story, much like the titular robot, is ultimately about people overcoming their differences and uniting around a common, mutual goal. We see this theme repeated throughout the series time and time again. The Paladins learn to work as a team in order to combine the Lions into Voltron. The different rebel groups and freedom fighters from countless liberated planets come together to fight back against the tyranny of Zarkon’s rule. And our heroes learn to work with people they initially thought were their enemy to bring about a peaceful end to the empire’s conquest and expansion.
Narratively speaking, Avatar needed to show civilian life in the Fire Nation and how isolated its people were from the reality of the war as a contrast with how much Zuko’s experiences have chipped away at the lies he used to believe about the world outside his home.
But an in-depth look at Galra civilian life was never necessary with Voltron because that was never the kind of story that Voltron was telling or the kind of civilization that the empire was.
The Fire Nation was a prosperous country that waged war on the rest of the world out of a belief that their neighbors needed to be saved from themselves, whose population lived in relative comfort and isolated from the reality of their nation’s actions.
The Galra Empire was a civilization on the brink of collapse whose leaders directed their fear and need for security at outside targets in a never-ending fight for resources out of a belief that they had to earn their right to survive despite never truly achieving the stability and safety that they longed for under said leadership, and few of whose population had the luxury of avoiding the reality of the empire’s actions.
TL;DR: Despite their similarities, the Galra Empire is not just The Fire Nation Recycled In Space, and it’s unfair to both Voltron and Avatar for fans to act as if one not copying the other is inherently a bad thing.