Sunday, December 16, 2012

We're doomed (Winter Wrap-Up)

From the day we arrive on the planet
And, blinking, step into the sun
There's more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done
Identity Crisis and Transmutation

The show's creators have clearly never been content to create merely another iteration in the My Little Pony franchise. From the start, they have sought to create a show that can transform My Little Pony from base and blatant cash-grab to something greater, something enduring--something that has a whiff of the timeless about it.

For the first nine episodes, they slowly explored the space they had carved out for themselves, but ultimately they trod the same ground as My Little Pony always stuck to: friendship, rainbows, and fantasy fun. After the initial daring move to explore the eclipse myth for the premier, they largely retreated to slice-of-life episodes with higher production values, better jokes, and vastly superior characterization to previous iterations of My Little Pony, but ultimately nothing novel in their premises. The My Little Pony canon remained untouched, consisting of the same narrow pool of motifs and themes as always.

"Swarm of the Century" changed everything. The parasprites devoured not just Ponyville, but the show itself; the introduction of Star Trek to the canon violated every rule of how the show worked even as it delighted the growing brony contingent of the audience. Before "Swarm of the Century," My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic was unique among its contemporaries for its sincerity and near-total isolation from pop-culture. That isolation has been breached; it no longer is what it was. By airing an episode clearly designed for geeks, it threatens to become a show for geeks, which in 2010 means either a meme depot or a cult show.

A meme depot (Regular Show is a good animated example) is a show that trades almost entirely in memes. It is full of catchphrases and stock characters, and very heavy on references to pop culture, especially nostalgic pop culture. It's a show that's easy and fun to quote, but doesn't provoke much discussion. By its nature, a meme depot cannot take itself too deeply; it must maintain the ironic detachment needed to self-consciously generate its quotable gags.

A cult show (Adventure Time is a good animated example) , on the other hand, is a show that encourages speculation, discussion, and theorizing in its fanbase. It is heavy on internal references, foreshadowing and callbacks and background subtleties, and tends to have more story arcs and character development than is typical for the medium and genre. It seeks to evoke the existence of a world in which the events of the show takes place and a plan for how the events of the show will unfold. Much of the entertainment of a cult show comes in fan speculation and discussion, and thus if it is to last it must give out details and hints in dribs and drabs, without ever coming to the resolution it implicitly promises (or else start out with the entire series already planned, including the ending, beyond which it necessarily cannot last).

There is nothing inherently wrong with either type of show in itself, but the one relies on irony and the other on promising a payoff without ever delivering. Neither is compatible with My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic's greatest strengths, its unwavering sincerity and emotional openness. It cannot become either, but the floodgates are open; it cannot remain what it was. The only option is to create something truly new, something transformative.

The great work begins...

Nigredo

The first phase of the magnum opus is "blackening," the burning away of dross from the base materials and their reduction to a uniform mass. This is the black night of the soul, the emergence of melancholy that threatens the self. This is the phase for the expression of doubts, the asking of questions that make discovery and transformation possible. It is a time of disintegration, of clearing the old to make way for the new.

It's December 24, 2010. The top song is Katy Perry's "Firework," which is so absolutely perfect a metaphor for the next few episodes of the show I checked three times to make sure I wasn't misreading the charts. Also, it's actually kind of an okay song for pop. (If there's no article next week, it'll be because the Metal Police found me.)

In a travesty of all that is right and good in this world, Little Fockers is top at the box office this weekend, implying America likes Ben Stiller better than the Coen brothers. A long cold winter of film lies ahead: except for one brief week of True Grit, there won't be an actually good movie in the number-one spot until Rango in March.

In the news, Israel and Gaza are missiling each other again. The U.S. Senate passes the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and President Obama signs it, ending the policy once and for all. And it's Christmas Eve, celebrating the miracle that a child born in a stable in the wee hours of a late-December night 2,000 years ago survived until morning, or something like that. I'm not a Christian, I don't keep track of these things. More importantly, we are just past the solstice. The nights are still long and dark, but getting shorter every day; we are in the inevitable climb back up to spring.

The ponies are climbing back up to spring, too, with "Winter Wrap-Up" by Cindy Morrow. This is another solid but unspectacular effort by Morrow overall, though it does have one of the best songs all season, also titled "Winter Wrap-Up."

The episode primarily deals with Twilight Sparkle's uncertainty about her place in Ponyville, and in particular whether she has anything to offer other than her ability to use magic. It's also all about clearing the old to make way for the new, a fitting theme for what is much more of a solstice and New Year's episode than a traditional Christmas episode. As Rarity sings, the winter has been delightful but gone on too long, and her boots are getting old. It is time for something new, but first the old must be cleared away.

Twilight Sparkle tries on several different hats (or vests, rather) throughout the episode, and it is tempting to read those vests as signifiers of future paths the show could take, but ultimately disgards. "Waking the animals is a metaphor for a radical show that pursues social justice!" my inner over-reaching critic says. "Helping build nests is a metaphor for focusing on worldbuilding, and ice skating is... uh..."

That's going much too far, however. More important than the specific tasks Twilight undertakes is the fact that she undertakes them at all, that she wishes to help with clearing away the old. If there has been an arc thus far this season, it has been the evolution of the Mane Six from a group consisting of newcomer Twilight Sparkle and her five friends, to a group of six friends from Ponyville. Much of Twilight Sparkle's distress in "The Ticket Master," for example, comes from the fact that she is afraid that if she upsets any of her friends, she might lose them. That fear becomes less pronounced as she grows closer to them, and by "Bridle Gossip" she has no quams about criticizing them for their attitude toward Zecora.

Part of clearing away the old in this episode is thus clearing away Twilight's status as a newcomer; Twilight descends into despair as she realizes she has coasted on her laurels since the first episode, and not really demonstrated her usefulness to the people of Ponyville. It's unlikely that she'd lose her place outright, but she still feels uneasy and inadequate unless she can prove that she has something unique to offer. However, in the end she learns that she can be an organizing principle, a way of bringing together the community, and this itself is valuable. She herself does not complete any of the tasks required for Winter Wrap-Up, but can nonetheless serve as a catalyst to transform the community from one at odds with itself into one capable of cooperating and completing tasks that normally require magic.

Which, of course, this task does require. There is literally no way to turn winter into spring by manual labor, which is why Ponyville has always failed. Twilight Sparkle does use her magic, but not her unicorn spells; she uses her Element of Harmony, (Friendship Is) Magic. She creates a cooperative community where before was only the chaos of people working and living at cross purposes, and in so doing accomplishes the impossible.

At the same time, she has been fully accepted as part of Ponyville, and never again shows signs of fearing that she doesn't belong. Quite the opposite; her fear of being taken away from Ponyville, and the desire of her friends to keep her from being taken, is a significant plot point in episodes such as "Lesson Zero" and "Magic Duel."

The episode thus sweeps away one element of the plot so far, Twilight's uncertainty about whether her friends and the people of Ponyville truly accept her. She retains the underlying fear of rejection that partially defines her character, of course, but she focuses that fear on more distant figures instead, such as Princess Celestia or Shining Armor.

It clears away some subtler elements, too, such as the notion (introduced in the premier) that Pinkie Pie thinks she's in a musical and everybody else thinks she's weird for bursting into song. By giving a song to all of Ponyville, this episode makes it pretty clear, this is a musical, just one that can sometimes go several episodes without a song. It's a retreat away from a unique element of the show, which is always a bit sad, but ultimately I think the "only Pinkie Pie sings" rule that seemed to apply in past episodes (intentionally or otherwise) would have been much too limiting, and cost us several of the show's best songs.

The philosopher (I hesitate to call him a psychologist, since that implies some element of science in what he was doing) Carl Jung suggested that medieval alchemy, particularly the quest for the philosopher's stone, was actually the quest for self-realization and spiritual enlightenment. Each of the traditional stages in forging a philosopher's stone is actually a step in this process of self-transformation and maturation, which follows a pattern of descending into darkness, losing one's identity, then slowly restoring oneself with a newfound inner light 'cause there's a spark in you/You just gotta ignite the light/And let it shine...

Okay, enough Katy Perry, I can almost feel the Metal Police breathing down my neck.

The first step in the magnum opus of alchemy, nigredo or "blackening," is the burning down of the component ingredients into a uniform substance, which is of course what Twilight Sparkle does to Ponyville in this episode. In order to get there, however, she has to fail at all the other tasks first, and reach a nadir, the "dark night of the soul" I mentioned above. In the spiritual realm, the fire that burns away dross is failure, and at this point at the heart of winter 2010, the show is on the cusp of artistic failure.

What I mean is not that the show is no longer entertaining, or that it is no longer one of the best cartoons on the air. Rather, I mean that it is failing to live up to its promise. The premier by and large promised a magical girl show, which is to say something between a magical adventure series and a superhero team. Instead, ten episodes later we've only had two more adventures: "Dragonshy," which was a character episode in disguise, and last week's "Swarm of the Century," which has triggered a narrative collapse that appears to be pushing to show to either become a regurgitator of geek memes a la Regular Show, or retreat from its more intertextual and geeky elements and return to the standard My Little Pony canon.

Simply put, in its present state at the end of 2010, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic cannot fulfill the promise of its premier, either as a magical girl show or as a bearer of truth about the Internet generation; it is a slice-of-life cartoon for children, with sufficient humor and heart to appeal to adults, but nothing transcendent. It will flare in popularity for a while, produce some image macros on Tumblr and Reddit, and fade away into obscurity.

And its response to this challenge? A retreat into another slice-of-life episode with no antagonist. It is a decent enough episode, and it does bring together what has worked before: Twilight stressing out, the close ties between the ponies and nature (which have been in the background until now, except for the pegasi and weather), a musical number, Fluttershy starting out timid and then turning suddenly assertive when the animals she cares about are threatened, and so on.

Unfortunately, even as the ponies tear apart winter, the show itself is coming apart around them. This episode has nothing to say, and its friendship lesson is one of the weakest yet. The show knows it does not want to become nothing but endless references and recycled plots, but it does not know what it is anymore. It is certainly not the show it was in the premier.

Its identity is now gone; it is blank. The black night of despair gives way to the blank white of nothingness.

The great work continues...

Next week:  Albedo, blank flanks, new beginnings, and a new friendship, which is magic.

10 comments:

  1. I don't know what you meant by "Princess Celestia or Twilight Sparkle" but it doesn't make any sense.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the catch, that should have read "Princess Celestia or Shining Armor." I've fixed it.

      Delete
  2. Replies
    1. Ah, but think about what the next episode has to say about blankness; another word for it is "potential." Nigredo, as the name implies, is the darkest point of the journey; things get lighter from here, until in the final phase they become triumphant and transformative.

      There is a way out of the dilemma the show finds itself in here, but it will take a few episodes to find that point.

      Delete
  3. I just read all of the posts here so far. I really appreciate the amount of thought you put into each one and the cultural context bits at the beginning are great.

    One thing has bothered me though. For a number of posts you have only focused on one specific part for analysis. Some of the episodes that you dislike have other (at least partially) redeeming or interesting aspects to them that you never discussed. For example, in Bridle Gossip, Twilight's constant refusal to accept magic that she doesn't know about fits very well into the geek theme. You've made a lot of good points about the weaknesses of different episodes, but I'm a bit of an optimist and I think that even the weaker episodes have some redemption worth exploring.

    As for this post, I can't wait to see where you're going with the transformation thing. Also, welcome to reddit :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks muchly for the kind words and the welcome!

      I'm very much enjoying the whole alchemy kick--the more I work on it the more perfectly it fits. You don't have long to wait--the next post is finished and scheduled for midnight EST.

      I have generally stuck to one theme per episode in order to keep my essays more or less unified, and sometimes that means focusing on one aspect and ignoring others. That just means there's more work for me or another critic to do. ;)

      Delete
  4. I'm sorry, but if you actually think the magical-girl premise of the show was promising, then I feel an immediate need to slap you across the face with multiple DVD sets of magical-girl animes. That genre is so overdone and dead that it was already successfully deconstructed - and then, yes, reconstructed in the course of one episode - in "Puella Magi Madoka Magica". Nothing in the "My Little Pony" franchise could ever get as dark or as determined as would truly be necessary to reach the proper literary depth established for magical girls by "Madoka".

    Basically, the Nightmare Moon two-parter sucked, and if the show had kept up in that vain, it too would have sucked.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, I think it's worth noting that the premier was more than a year before the first episode of Madoka.

      Personally, I think there's a lot of untapped potential in the magical girl genre, and not all of it requires darkness to find. I look forward to the show (probably still a few years away) that serves as the Gurren Lagann to Madoka's Evangelion. I also think that an American perspective on magical girls could be interestingly fresh and different enough from the Japanese standards to retain its appeal--it worked for Buffy, after all.

      I disagree most strenuously that the Nightmare Moon two-parter sucked. It was a very good episode and I'm not sure the show could have launched any other way. However, I'm also happy with the show we ended up with, which evolved away from that initial idea; it is almost definitely a better show than the one the premier appeared to be. We're still a couple episodes away from what I consider the first more or less perfect expression of what the true, final form of the show, though I'm sure you can guess what it is if you look at an episode list and remember that there are four stages to the magnum opus... ;)

      Delete
  5. "It clears away some subtler elements, too, such as the notion (introduced in the premier) that Pinkie Pie thinks she's in a musical and everybody else thinks she's weird for bursting into song. By giving a song to all of Ponyville, this episode makes it pretty clear, this is a musical, just one that can sometimes go several episodes without a song."

    If you're referring to what I think you are ("Tell me she's not-" "She is."), I don't think that was necessarily intended to denote the musical number as out of place in *Equestria*, only to suggest that Twilight Sparkle thought it was out of place in the current *scenario*. That is, the point being made might not be "Pinkie Pie disagrees with the others on whether or not they're in a musical", just "Pinkie Pie disagrees with the others on whether being semi-lost in the Everfree Forest during unnatural nighttime and surrounded by scary faces out of nowhere is a good time for a musical number".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That is an excellent and fascinating point that never occurred to me. I like it, and it could be interesting to explore further!

      However, it still implies that the songs are diegetic (really happening within the context of the show), whereas in musicals the songs are usually non-diegetic (ways of entertaining the audience and conveying emotion that we aren't supposed to believe are "real" to the characters). All of Pinkie's songs prior to this episode are diegetic, but "Winter Wrap-Up" has to be at least partially non-diegetic because there's no way ponies across town from each other could coordinate their timing to pick up verses from one another. So there's still something being cleared away here--it's just not necessarily what I thought was being cleared away.

      Delete