Analysis

Five Useless Powers in Popular Stories

Bunny, Jack, and Santa in action poses from Rise of the Guardians.

Special powers are a cornerstone of speculative fiction. Whether they come from ancient magics or alien evolution, we love to see characters with abilities that humans cannot possess. Such powers provide excellent novelty and wish fulfillment. But sometimes storytellers don’t think about how their powers actually work. Usually, this results in overpowered, story-breaking abilities. But powers can also go to the opposite extreme: totally useless. Let’s take a look at some of the latter in the wild.

1. Threat Ganglia: Discovery

Burnham handing Saru a flower from Star Trek Discovery

In the first and second season of Star Trek: Discovery, Kelpiens are portrayed as aliens who primarily evolved as a prey species. This is in sharp contrast to predatory species like humans, and it makes for some interesting characterization. Commander Saru is the show’s main Kelpien, and he’s much more concerned with risks and potential escape routes than his fellow officers.

However, one aspect of the Kelpien species falls completely flat, despite how much time is spent talking about it: the threat ganglia. These are fleshy tendrils that extend from Saru’s head whenever he feels threatened, and they are portrayed as a big deal. We’re supposed to know a situation is serious when the ganglia come out.

The problem comes when you think about this from Saru’s perspective. He doesn’t need ganglia to tell him that he feels threatened, because he’s already feeling threatened. If he wants his allies to know that he feels threatened, he can tell them. All the ganglia do is broadcast his emotional state to anyone who looks at him, which could actually be a serious disadvantage in a tense standoff.

One scene implies that the ganglia may be psychic, and if that were true, they’d actually be useful. We see them extend when a shuttle leaves the ship without its dangerous passenger on board,* even though Saru had no way of knowing that. However, this is never followed up on, and otherwise, it seems the ganglia only know what Saru knows.

It’s possible to explain the ganglia’s existence as some evolutionary holdover, but that doesn’t make them any less useless. Most Star Trek aliens get some kind of cool signature feature, like the Vulcan neck pinch or Klingon super strength.* Kelpiens get an extra reminder that they’re afraid. Interestingly, the writers seem to agree with me, as they eventually have Saru trade in his ganglia for a pair of spine launchers. Those aren’t super useful either in a setting where everyone has a phaser, but they at least make for a good surprise attack once in a while.

2. Insect Daemons: His Dark Materials

A woman and her butterfly daemon in His Dark Materials

In the world of His Dark Materials, people’s souls are externally manifested as animal companions called daemons.* Right away, it’s obvious most of these daemons don’t provide much practical utility. Only a handful are big enough to be useful in a fight, something made worse in the TV show, where the CGI animals can’t easily interact with the environment or other characters. Bird daemons could theoretically be used for scouting, but it turns out that a human and their daemon must always stay close together, so at most they can serve as nearby lookouts.

This isn’t a huge problem on its own, as the daemon’s main purpose is to provide companionship. It’s useful for the protagonist to have someone she can talk to, even when otherwise alone. Daemons also offer an external reflection of a character’s inner self, which is handy from a storytelling perspective.

But then there are the people with insect daemons. These are even less physically capable than normal daemons because of their small size, and more importantly, it’s super easy for them to die. This also results in the human’s death, so it’s the equivalent of having a big glowing weak spot your entire life.

While this is obviously a problem for anyone who gets into physical conflict, it’s an issue for everyone else too. An enemy can easily kill someone by crushing their insect daemon, but it can also happen by accident. Insect daemons might be swatted, sat on, or gobbled up by a passing predator, all without any intent to kill their human. Keeping an insect daemon close doesn’t fix the problem, as that increases the risk of accidentally crushing it. The only safe option is to carry the daemon around in a rigid box, and that doesn’t sound pleasant for the daemon.

In return for this enormous liability, most insect daemons provide no utility at all. Their obvious use as spies doesn’t work because of the distance limitation, as their human would always need to be nearby. Venomous daemons could possibly be used offensively, but that would likely end in death for them as well. Even Lee Scoresby’s rabbit daemon seems useful in comparison.

3. Becoming a Guardian: Rise of the Guardians

Jack and Pitch from Rise of the Guardians

Rise of the Guardians takes place in an urban fantasy world where figures from fairy tales and urban legends are real and have magical powers. Jack Frost has ice powers, the Tooth Fairy can exchange lost teeth for cash in the middle of the night, Santa has a magic sleigh, etc. Some of these figures, the titular Guardians, have a special job: to protect children from the forces of darkness!*

The story is about Jack Frost being recruited as a Guardian, which requires him to go through some personal growth before he’s ready to take on such a major responsibility. Sounds good, right? But then we find out a weird quirk of this universe: the Guardians’ power is tied to children’s belief. If they stop believing, the Guardians lose their magic.

Fortunately, Jack isn’t actually a Guardian for most of the movie. When the villain renders everyone else powerless via his disbelief campaign, Jack still has ice powers to fight back. But it raises the question: why would Jack ever agree to become a Guardian? For that matter, why did anyone in this movie agree to become a Guardian? All it seems to do is make them especially vulnerable to magical propaganda.

The obvious answer is that they want to protect children, but they don’t have to officially join the Guardians to do that. Jack protects children for the entire movie without ever signing on the dotted line. Becoming a Guardian doesn’t seem to come with any benefits either. Jack is already more powerful than most of the existing Guardians, and if he gets some kind of boost after being sworn in, the movie doesn’t show us.

The only remaining explanation is that becoming a Guardian will allow children to see Jack, but this is something else that seems to happen on its own. By the end of the film, a group of children he’s protected can see him without any difficulty. And he does all of this without the risk of losing his powers.

4. Flight: Legend of Korra

Zaheer in a dive from Korra.

In Avatar: The Last Airbender, three of the four elements have their own advanced techniques. Advanced firebenders can learn lightning bending, while advanced earthbenders can bend metal. Waterbenders have even more options. Airbending is the odd element out, probably because protagonist Aang was the only airbender around. He didn’t need any advanced techniques to stand out.

By Legend of Korra’s time, the airbending population has recovered somewhat, so it was only natural to add a new technique. And who better to demonstrate this awesome power than the season three villain, an airbender named Zaheer? As the episodes first aired, I got excited imagining the possibilities: soundbending, weather control, air blades – any of them would have made great additions.

Unfortunately, the writers decided on flight instead, which immediately presents a problem: airbenders can already fly. They do need a foldable glider, but those are hardly uncommon. So Zaheer’s special power is the ability to fly without an easily procured accessory. How… exciting?

Beyond the obvious silliness of giving airbenders a power they already possessed, flight would be a bad option for the villain even if it wasn’t already available, as all it does is give Zaheer an extra option to run away. Airbenders are plenty mobile without flying, and each bending style has powerful ranged attacks at its disposal. Flight doesn’t help Zaheer win any fights, and making the villain better at retreating isn’t exactly going to make the heroes quiver in their boots.

Adding insult to injury, it’s not just airbenders who can already fly. Powerful firebenders can do it too by using their flames as a rocket motor. Zaheer gets a “special” power that isn’t even unique to his own element.

5. Red Flames: Legendborn

Brie with curly black hair and red flames from Legendborn's cover art.

Tracy Deonn’s urban fantasy novel has a brilliant love triangle and a less-than-stellar magic system. The main magical resource is called aether,* which can be used to perform a whole grab bag of feats. Weapon enchantments, summoned monsters, magically binding oaths, shapeshifting, and memory alterations all fall under the broad umbrella of aether magic. Flight may also be covered, but that depends on how you read the book’s final line, so we’ll leave that alone.

Mages typically access aether via demonic heritage or through deals with ancestral spirits. Either way, a practitioner’s power seems to be determined by how much aether they can channel, as there’s no shortage of the stuff floating around. Enter protagonist Bree, who has a special power:* she can create her own aether rather than taking it from the air around her.

This ability manifests as red flames whenever Bree uses it, and the other characters think it’s very impressive. When she shows it to a more knowledgeable mage, he goes on at length about how this breaks the laws of magical physics, which certainly sounds like a big deal. There’s only one problem: the book never establishes how Bree’s magic is different in practical terms.

Remember, magical strength is determined by a mage’s capacity for channeling aether, not where that aether comes from. The book never tells us whether Bree’s ability also comes with enhanced channeling capacity or if it lets her do anything that other mages can’t. In fact, she only uses the red flames in a single, relatively minor battle. When the boss fight finally arrives, they’re nowhere to be seen.

Don’t get me wrong, Bree generating her own aether certainly could be a useful ability, but until we have a more robust understanding of the magic system, it’s a distinction without a difference. It’s like wanting to know which car is faster and being told that one uses gas while the other is diesel. That could be interesting, but without more context it means nothing. On the bright side, Legendborn has a sequel in the works, so maybe that book will tell us what the red flames actually do.


While useless powers can show up anywhere, I tend to find them more often in TV shows and movies than in novels. That’s likely because novels have more time to lay out how their magic works, whereas most visual mediums have at most a few scenes to explain things. But all the explanation time in the world won’t help if the author doesn’t properly understand how their magic works and what it’s capable of. Not every magic system has to be as detailed as Avatar or a Brandon Sanderson book, but a little consideration will take you a long way.

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Comments

  1. Jeppsson

    You forget the most obvious advantage of the daemons (at least in the TV show): As a viewer, you never have to wonder for a second whether a character is on Team Good or Team Evil. You don’t have to, say, ponder their actions or motives: Just take a look at their daemon! Nice animal=Good. Scary animal (for instance, reptile, spider, or the world’s most sinister-looking monkey)=Evil. (Or, wait, maybe that’s NOT an advantage?)

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Haha, good point! Also all the Tartars have wolf daemons for some reasons? The heck?

    • Laura Ess

      I’m trying to remember who had the insect daemons. Can’t place it exactly.

      But the point about an easy way for the reader/viewer to figure out who’s “good/evil” is mostly right. The best example of all is Mrs Coulter with her “golden monkey with long fur” who is intensely curious and savage. Coulter, like the Witches can have her daemon go any distance away from them. Gerard Bonneville (from La Belle Sauvage) has his his hyena dæmon which which is extremely aggressive and frightening. I think though that rather than representing a split between good / evil they represent the general thrust of a person’s character.

      Mrs Coulter was ruthless in the pursuit of power and knowledge that would further her ends. Bonneville was obsessed with obtaining an Aletheometer which he’d originally stolen and then lost. At one point in that story his daemon openly pisses on a road to mark its territory! Likewise pre-adults have daemons that continually shift based on their moods. That stops with the end of adolescence where – presumably – their character is then more or less set and fixed.

      In The Secret Commonwealth Lyra and Pan have “split” after her reading several books which make her more cynical and disillusioned (despite what she’s experienced as a child). Because that they become distanced from each other and after Lyra leaves on a journey – without Pan – Pan travels on his own route in an effort to either find her or or find others like him.

  2. Jeppsson

    Creating your own magical energy would be super useful if it normally exists in a limited amount. That’s a thing in my books… At any given time, there’s only so much magic to go around, there’s only so much people can channel (no one can create their own, though, but if a person like that existed, it would be really useful).
    I haven’t read Legendborn, and I don’t even know if it’s first in a series or anything, but that would be the obvious way to make it a useful ability.

    • SunlessNick

      I assume a later novel is going to feature somewhere where there’s no ambient aether, or else some kind of poison that prevents people from channeling it.

  3. Cay Reet

    I had to balance out my MCs berserker trait when I started writing about her. One one hand, I admit it was kind of a cop-out – a way for her to win the final fight by being in the berserker state and overruling the electric shock her enemy could create. On the other hand, I also put it into her backstory – she’s been going from foster home to foster home as a child because she couldn’t control her aggression, until she joined the agency.

    Her mentor/father figure helped her learn to control the berserker, so she doesn’t unleash its aggression just so. The good side of the berserker is that during that stage she can’t be stopped by anything short of outright killing her (not even a crippling blow). The bad side is that all those injuries are still there after she’s come back from the stage, so she needs to deal with them at some point. It’s also hard for her to push the berserker back into its cage (although it has become a little easier after she met her boyfriend).

  4. liz

    The only thing I noticed about being a Guardian, from watching ROTG ten times straight over the course of a week (as one does), is that it seems to give you some kind of spiritual street cred. At least, that’s the way Pitch talks about them.

    It’s a shame we never got that sequel because we could’ve seen if/how Jack benefits magically from being a Guardian, though one could make a very solid case that he benefits socially and psychologically (i.e. aforementioned street cred and now he belongs somewhere and has answered questions he’s grappled with the entire movie, like where he comes from and how he fits into the wider world).

  5. Laura Ess

    Well as already stated the Threat Ganglia is probably an evolutionary thing, similar to a frill on a Frill Necked Lizard native to Australia. In that circumstance, it makes the lizard LOOK BIGGER or more FEARSOME so it’s a bluff to deter predators. Also apparently some variants of lizards have groves on the frills which help them collect water!

    As far as Saru’s species goes, I’d guess that it’s a visual clue to others about danger when the person feeling it the most is so petrified with fear that they can’t otherwise communicate about. Or – and this is a guess because I’ve only watched season 2 once – I seem to recall that after “transition” Saru’s ganglia fell off. Perhaps it’s the ganglia which actually enhances the feelings of threat, as a genetically created control mechanism? Just a guess about that and I’m probably wrong.

  6. Ada V.

    What puzzled me about Rise of the Guardians is that there are 4 Guardians.
    4. A perfect even number to split things evenly.
    Yet somehow there are 3 male characters & 1 female, not counting the villain, whose also male.
    And Tooth Fairy is the least proactive of the Guardians.
    I mean really, was having an even split of female/male characters too much?
    Or even 1 ambiguous one?
    Even the nightmares, which should’ve been, you know, mares, didn’t come off that way to me.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah the cast’s demographics were certainly a problem. Beyond gender, it’s one of the whitest movies I’ve ever seen.

  7. Noah

    Two other examples in my opinion:
    Voldemort has the exact same problem as Zaheer: he can fly without a broom in a setting where everyone has brooms and teleportation. The only time he ever uses it in combat is in a fight where everyone else has brooms anyway. Fortunately, the books didn’t make as big a deal about it as LoK did, but it’s still kinda weird the villain has such a useless power

    Perhaps a controversial one, but I feel that in Star Wars, ever since episode two, Force lightning has become really useless since it can easily be deflected with a lightsaber, a weapon that literally every Jedi has. This also makes Yoda’s ability to deflect it without a lightsaber redundant and useless. This is really a pet peeve of mine cuz it ruins an awesome Dark side only power and takes away from Palpatine’s threat level since his signature ability isn’t that useful. Twice now he’s been beaten by a Jedi who deflected his own lightning back in his face. I feel like it would be awesome if Force lightning could NOT be deflected by lightsabers: this would make Palpatine way more intimidating, and it could even explain how he killed 3 Jedi masters so easily in episode 3. He could simply shoot lightning at the, Windu could block it with the Force while the others are overwhelmed since they have no defense against it. Currently, as far as I know, Yoda is the ONLY Jedi in mainstream canon who can deflect lightning with his hands. It would make sense that even Jedi masters can’t do it. Also, I have trouble believing that Palpatine can really still fight in episode 6 at his age and with his wounds, but with more reliable Force lightning he’d be able to fight without doing anything physical.

    On LoK, I love the sound of both soundbending and weatherbending. If they wanted Zaheer’s power to be themed around Air Nomad spirituality, they could’ve gone with weatherbending, and instead of sacrificing his emotional attachments, he’d have to connect with the natural world, perhaps by sacrificing his pride and recognizing himself as a small part of a large world. It could be compared with the great tree in the swamp that connects life together. Idk, just a thought I’m throwing out there, if it doesn’t fit with the beliefs of Air Nomad culture, then definitely not. (is it Buddhism they’re based on as far as spiritual beliefs? I know Tibet is the national culture that inspired them, but I don’t know for sure about their religion/spirituality)

    Lastly, thoughts on magmabending? I felt like it was really redundant since Earth already had a sub element, and it was also weird cuz we’d see Kyoshi and Roku bend lava, so I assumed it was an Avatar technique combining fire and earth, but apparently not. I also felt like Bolin didn’t need an arc about discovering he has a special power, his arc could’ve been about plenty of different things

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I was really not a fan of lave/magmabending. First, it was just too hard to believe characters weren’t dying. Firebending already had that problem to a certain extent, but this is lava. Lava is molten rock, there’s no way to pretend it’s not immediately deadly.

      Second, while it’s reasonable to me that earthbenders could move lava around if it’s already there, having them be able to create it on the fly feels out of theme. I know we already had waterbenders able to do state changes on water, but there is just so much more energy involved here, it feels wrong.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That said, I have no issue with Earth getting more advanced techniques. I think there are lots of directions to take earthbending other than lava.

  8. Stoat

    I don’t think Rise of the Guardians really suggested that there’s an actual specific benefit of becoming a Guardian, after all if there was (other than it being a superficially snobby title with extra work), Jack Frost might have been inclined to actually join them. In general it seemed that the characters themselves had an expectation that an already powerful aka well established spirit/magical being would be more likely to be chosen, since they’d be actually useful, as opposed to someone seemingly weak like Jack.

    After all the villain fluctuated in power equally strongly during the movie through the belief system, where as Jack Frost had floundered around seemingly without the knowledge or interest on how to work the system in his favor until the movie required it (which is perhaps one extra unlikely thing in this, maybe you could argue he didn’t want to become a sellout like the Guardians).

  9. ramiro

    about the whole zaheer flight debate,
    my point of view on the usefullness
    PROs:
    -does not need a glider
    -appears faster than a glider (it beat an zeppelin)
    -possibly able to do “sharper turns” -can be used indoors-
    -allows “static flight” (hover on the same place)
    -allows CONVENTIONAL COMBAT + FLIGHT, just think about it he can use ALL normal tecniques with the added bonus of being OUT OF RANGE from 95% of people,
    CON: requires a form of enlingment that a 12 year old named Aang could manage winout losing his girlfriend.

    So… it appears to be an usefull tecnique.
    then again i am a bit of a munchkin in tabletops and made my own avatar tabletop to play with friends so that might be a factor.

    so yeah sorry if about the little rant, if the grammar is incorrrect i am sorry, i am not a native english speaker

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