Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Another Story I'd Like to See in Season 4

I may have shared this plot idea before, but I don't think with this friendship lesson: Fluttershy and Angel go to visit his family, who have just moved to Ponyville. They run into Applejack on the way, who's looking for the varmints that tore up her south field to build a burrow. Yep, same bunnies. They begin to feud, Fluttershy trying to help the bunnies to stay and Applejack trying to eject them. They start trying to recruit their friends to each other's sides, and privately worry their friendship might be over. Ultimately someone (probably Twilight, but it'd be nice if it were someone else for a change) helps them reach a compromise that satisfies everyone. The two write a friendship letter together: "Sometimes friends disagree or get mad, and that doesn't mean the friendship is over. It's important to talk to the friend you're mad at and work through it together."
(Why yes, I'm still reading Odd Girl Out, why do you ask?)

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Paragons and Exceptions

Of the mane six, three are paragons of their respective tribe and three are exceptions. For the unicorns, Twilight Sparkle is the paragon, with an immense gift for the magic of her tribe. Rarity is the exception, barely using her magic and sticking mostly to physically (well, telekinetically) constructing her creations. For the pegasi, Rainbow Dash is the paragon, an immensely talented flyer who almost never touches the ground and who can clear a sky in... well, you know. Fluttershy is the exception, barely flying and taking care of living things. For Earth ponies, Applejack is the paragon, an immensely strong and determined pony with a massively successful farm; Pinkie Pie is the exception, bouncing around constantly and with no ability to care for plants or animals at all. But what's most interesting about this, for me, is that it's entirely accidental. Originally Pinkie Pie was a pegasus and Fluttershy was an Earth pony, and they only swapped them because it increased the number of different ways in which characters moved, from two zippy flyers and four walkers to one speedy flyer, one slow flyer, one bouncer, and three walkers.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: I've been caught

Oh no, everyone, they're on to me! The brave, brave souls at Your Kickstarter Sucks have conducted a stunning and thoroughly researched expose of my evil scheme to accept voluntarily offered money in exchange for goods and services. Fortunately, they have a cunning counterstrategy: talking about my Kickstarter to large numbers of people who would otherwise not know that my Kickstarter exists.

I accept my defeat, and humbly bow to you, oh wise and honorable people of Your Kickstarter Sucks.

In other news, the Kickstarter is still hovering just shy of the second stretch goal! There's only a little over a week left, so if you want access to the Kickstarter-exclusive essay or to nudge me closer to being forced to watch Generation 3 ponies, now's your chance!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

That's four "ever"s. That's like... forever! (Baby Cakes)

On the one hand, EWWWWWWWW. On the other, it's nice
that Mr. and Mrs. Cake share the childcare duties, and this is
treated as so normal that it's never even remarked upon.
It’s January 14, 2012. The top movie is Contraband, about which I know nothing, and the top song is still LMFAO’s very funny “Sexy and I Know It.” In the news this week, Mitt Romney wins a second primary, in New Hampshire this time, and Scotland and England conflict over whether Scotland is allowed to hold a planned referendum on independence in 2014, but the main story is a revolt in Chechnya and ensuing fighting between Chechnyan militants and Russian troops.

This week’s episode, written by Charlotte Fullerton and directed by Jayson Thiessen, is the quite fun “Baby Cakes,” a terrifying and extremely accurate warning against making the terrible mistake of having or accepting responsibility for children, because they will exhaust you, terrify you, force you to do humiliating and disgusting things, and then use their evil mind-control powers to make you want to keep doing it.

But I kid (except for the part where I am 100% completely serious that that is what children do, their evil mind-control powers are a documented fact). Really, this episode is a continuation of a theme that started last episode (or is that next episode?) involving exploring the various ways in which past, present, and future can influence one another. Indeed, while that theme is not fully realized until the eleventh episode (either one of them), playing with and exploring time has been as common a theme thus far this season as transformations were last season:
  • “The Return of Harmony”: an ancient evil returns for revenge
  • “Lesson Zero”: Twilight is racing the clock
  • “Luna Eclipsed”: The traditions surrounding Luna (both her own old-fashioned ways and the beliefs other ponies have about her) clash with the realities of the present
  • “Sisterhooves Social”: Sweetie Belle is motivated entirely by her desire to spend more time with her sister
  • “The Cutie Pox” and “Secret of My Excess”: Young people grow up too fast, with disastrous consequences
  • “Sweet and Elite”: Rarity is torn between making time for her new friends and making time for the old
  • “Family Appreciation Day” and “Hearth’s Warming Eve”:  The power of stories of the past to change how we view the present
“It’s About Time” indeed. Children are symbols of both the future and the past. The past because we often seek signifiers of our ancestors in the features of children: “he has his mother’s eyes” or “she has her granduncle’s ears.” Additionally, children are a reminder of when we ourselves were children, which of course is in the past. At the same time, they signify the future because they will (if all goes well) inherit that future when we are gone. If, then, last week was about the power of the past to reshape the present, this week is about the responsibility of caring for those who will carry that past into the future.

So of course that responsibility falls to Pinkie, our spirit of chaos, our mini-Discord, complete with a flour- and water-based echo of Discord’s transformation to stone. The result is almost a clip show: Hey, remember back in Season 1 when Pinkie Pie used to perform unambiguously diegetic musical numbers out of the blue? Remember Twilight obsessing over reports to the Princess? Applejack having to buck her entire farm before a deadline? Pinkie's terrible puns from the series premiere? A troublesome guest whose refusal to eat is an early sign that the caretaker is in over her head? Pinkie's hair going limp? Twilight trying to persuade someone to accept her help, and saying exactly the wrong thing in a way that convinces the other pony to reject help? A babysitting job turns into a horror movie, and is ultimately resolved by the babysitter playing a card from the standard sexist depictions of women?

All here.

Except this isn't a clip show. The scenes I refer to resemble events of past episodes, some very closely, but they are not actual repeats and there is none of the usual framing of a clip show: no characters stuck somewhere and reminiscing to pass the time, no Troy McLure hosting a fake documentary, no trial sequence in which a character has to justify their past actions. Instead, the past recurs not as a fragment to be repeated, but fully absorbed and transformed, an integrated part of the present.

This is actually a common technique of postmodernism. The literary theorist Ihab Hassan describes this as part of the postmodern tendency to hybridization; just as postmodern art tends to merge genres, it also tends to bring the past into the present so that it can play with and recontextualize it. This is neither rote repetition of the past nor an ahistorical denial that the past is the past, but a declaration that the relationship between past and present is not a one-way street.

Put another way: a clip show simply repeats the past while saying "this is the past." A formulaic show repeats the past while saying "this is new." This episode does neither; it repeats the past while saying "this is different now than it was then." Applejack is still determined to harvest all her apples, but there is no suggestion just she would refuse help. Twilight is writing a report to Princess Celestia that summarizes her reports to Princess Celestia, but she's not panicking and frankly, given the number of reports she's doubtless written by this point, probably useful. The horror movie-sitcom hybrid is handled more artfully than in "Stare Master." The past is present, but altered.

One of the more interesting examples is the repetition of Twilight unintentionally persuading someone to refuse her help. In "Applebucking Season," Applejack initially refused to admit she needed help, was solidified in that refusal of help by Twilight's accidental insult, and ultimately broke down and admitted she needed help. Here, Pinkie Pie initially wants the help, but changes her mind in response to Twilight's accidental insult, and ultimately discovers she didn't need the help, as once she earns the babies' sympathy they start behaving.

With the exception of distant stars viewed through telescopes, we cannot perceive the past directly. All we can do is try to reconstruct it. Memory reconstructs our personal pasts; history reconstructs the pasts of cultures; sciences such as paleontology and geology reconstruct the past of our world; astronomers and cosmologists reconstruct the past of the universe. The past, in other words, is a construct, and like any construct it can be deconstructed, decontextualized, hybridized, and generally played with.

Which is not to say that the results are always necessarily good. "Stare Master" presents Fluttershy's standard-issue stereotypical sitcom-mom power as an expression and extension of her close observation of body language and behavior, which is easily readable as an effort to reclaim the trope from its problematic roots. Pinkie Pie's crying, however, is a straightforward (albeit unintentional on at least the character's part) expression of the stereotype that women use their tears manipulatively, a troubling note in an otherwise enjoyable episode.

Regardless, the constructed nature of the past means that, as much as the past creates the present, the present also shapes the past. How we construct our pasts is in large part a product of our present. Depressed people have difficulty recalling happy memories. The Great Man theory of history gives way to theories based on sweeping large-scale forces, such as Marxist history, and these in turn give way to fashionable ideas about contingency that synthesize the two.

The present contains the past, in other words, but does not repeat it perfectly. Our lives are neither clip shows nor formulaic repetitions; the past is present but fluid, transforming to fit the shape of its container, the present.

And if we don't like that shape? Dump a bag of flour on its head, have a good laugh, and move on; it will be shaped differently tomorrow.

Next week: Derivative Works Month begins! First up, a post I've been itching to write for months. Oh, this will be fun...

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Children of the Night

Children of the Night is finally out! Not at all what I was expecting (I didn't realize that the musical number was going to be basically the whole thing) but not at all bad. I think it's the best animated of the fan animations I've seen.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Season Four, Derivative Works Month(s)

So, if you haven’t heard, Season 4 will air its first episode on November 23. That’s an interesting date, being the day after the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, which is also the 50th anniversary of the death of mediocre Bible fanfic author C.S. Lewis.

Oh, and November 23 is the fiftieth anniversary of some obscure little British TV show about a man who time-travels in a cupboard. That too.

I therefore hereby propose that November 23 be declared International Postmodern TV Day, and continue in perpetuity as a day of mourning for the Tumblr servers.

Now, assuming Season 4 is 26 episodes and takes about six months to air, then I have a little bit of a problem. I don’t want to do Season 4, episode 1 until after the last episode of Season 4 airs, and right now, even with three Derivative Works Months in the mix, I’m shaving it really close.

All of which is a roundabout way of me announcing that August is Derivative Works Month! I’ve got what I think is a solid lineup for it: you’ll get some things you’ve been asking for, some things you expected, and at least one thing I’m pretty sure no one’s expecting me to cover.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Trying Again

Okay, yesterday was a bust because I am apparently incapable of reading a calendar. TODAY, however, I can confirm that I definitely do have a guest post up at The Analytical Couch Potato, exerpted from the book-in-progress.

Speaking of the book, my editor sent me the remainder of the first round of review on Monday. He's got a lot of great comments, which is great for you guys but a pain in the butt for me because it means more work.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: I talk about ponies... I think?

So in theory I should have a guest post up at The Analytical Couch Potato today. I say "in theory" because, while I completely trust the fine individuals at that site, for whatever reason it's blocked at work and I therefore cannot go to the site and confirm it's there or link directly to the article. Long-time readers should find it familiar; it's an excerpt of the chapter of the book based on my article about "Party of One." That's one of the chapters with the least expansion, but nonetheless you might find it interesting as a point of comparison between book version and online version.

If anyone who gives it a look could (a) confirm it's there and (b) provide a direct link, it'd be much appreciated.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: An Interesting Counter-Argument on "A Dog and Pony Show"

Here's a video discussing "A Dog and Pony Show" from a feminist perspective that offers counterarguments to most of my points in my own critique of it. It's good stuff--I'm not convinced by it, but it's well-argued.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Twilight Would Be Jealous

So, I've been working heavily on the book after work and on Saturdays, because my editor is doing an amazing job and that means tons of work for me. A lot of it has involved heavy research, because my editor's reaction to basically any assertion I make is "prove it."

Why not Sundays? Because on Sundays this place is closed:

That's the main reading room of the Library of Congress, home to 32 million books and 61 million manuscripts, and one of my favorite places in the world.

And I am enough of a nerd that, every time I walk in, all I can think is "Twilight, eat your heart out."

Sunday, July 21, 2013

And that's how Equestria was made (Family Appreciation Day/Hearth's Warming Eve)

Sorry this is a few minutes late. This one's a bit unusual with the formatting. I had to fight a lot with Blogger, and it's still not entirely right. Let me know if you have any suggestions to improve it.

Thanks to KPShadowSquirrel for all the coding help, without them this post wouldn't exist!

She watches. And waits. And bides her time.
It’s January 7, 2012. The top song is LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It,” which works pretty well as a parody of the top songs we’ve had for most of this season, and the top movie is The Devil Inside, about which I know nothing. In real news this week, the death toll of the Syrian uprising passes 5,000, Iran successfully tests two long-range missiles, and the U.S. Republican Presidential primary is officially underway, with Mitt Romney winning Iowa and Michele Bachmann dropping out of the race. Also, it’s my mom’s 63rd birthday.

On TV, Cindy Morrow writes and James Wootton directs “Family Appreciation Day,” a cute but unremarkable little story that is mostly noticeable for (assuming the source for the story-within-a-story is reliable) dramatically increasing our knowledge of the history of Ponyville.
She watches. And waits. And bides her time.
It’s December 17, 2011. The top song is still the same Rihanna, and the top movie is Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, which I thought was pretty good but paled against the first. In real news, Time names “The Protester” as its Person of the Year, the 2010 U.S. Census results show one in two residents of that country is low-income or poor, and in its first report on the subject, the U.N. calls for the worldwide protection of LGBT rights. Also it’d be my dad’s 70th birthday, if he were alive.

On TV, Merriwether Williams writes and James Wootton directs “Hearth’s Warming Eve,” a cute but unremarkable little story that is mostly noticeable for (assuming the source for the story-within-a-story is reliable) dramatically increasing our knowledge of the history of Equestria.

Putting aside that possibility of an unreliable narrator, the use of stories of the past to defuse present conflict provides an interesting contrast to the real world, where such stories often serve more to fuel conflict than resolve it. Lawrence LeShan, in The Psychology of War, builds an argument that societies often engage in warfare as part of a process of mythologizing reality. History and national legend serve as tools to identify “the bad guys” as a monolithic, dark force that can be heroically resisted. Note, for instance, the frequent comparisons between Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler in the run-up to the Iraq War; by identifying the present enemy with a past foe, it becomes possible to other both into a monolithic Enemy, a monstrous entity that can be opposed without applying the normal moral constraints on violence.

Now, this episode does not involve a war per se, but it does involve a conflict between ponies in the present that resonates with a past relationship between their ancestors. Specifically, the ongoing bullying and teasing of Apple Bloom by Diamond Tiara is contrasted with the congenial relationship between Stinkin’ (later Filthy) Rich and Granny Smith.Now, this episode does not involve a war per se, but it does involve a conflict between ponies in the present that reiterates a past relationship between their ancestors. Specifically, the rather petty squabbling between the Mane Six in the present is deliberately paralleled with the conflicts between their ancestors in the story of the founding of Equestria.

Notably, however, the history being told here is not the history of a conflict or an enemy defeated. The creation of a new order is here the result of understanding, magic, and unity, which is to say more of an alchemical transformation than the violence of a founding myth that rests in revolution or the exploits of a legendary hero.

Like any town, Ponyville is built of families. Connections between these families, their histories and rivalries and alliances, form the unwritten history of the town, invisible to the uninitiate. Unaware of their families' history, Diamond Tiara and Apple Bloom feud and fight. Ignorant of economics, Diamond Tiara knows that her father is well-dressed, that he provides her with sparkling accessories and a big cutecenera, and owns the biggest store in Ponyville. She equally knows that Apple Bloom has to do chores, that her family works a farm and does not have particularly refined manners or tastes.

To her, Apple Bloom is a member of a lower class to be mocked, but her worldview is challenged by the discovery that the Apples are the founders of Ponyville. This is unsurprising--their land holdings are massive in "Applebucking Season," and this episode and "Super-Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000" together reveal that the Apples hold monopolies on two of Ponyville's major products, Zap Apples and cider.
Based on timing, this is the Christmas episode, and the decorations (especially Rarity's Christmas tree hat) and hymn-like musical number both support that interpretation. Interestingly, then, the story of Equestria’s founding bears no plot resemblance to the Christian tale—no foals born in mangers or guiding stars here, and the three rulers from distant lands are neither wise nor traveling together.

Thematically, however, this is a story about fellowship and unity emerging from the coldest, darkest part of winter and beginning the journey toward light and warmth, and thus like “Winter Wrap-Up” before it this is an excellent Yule story, with all the old pagan implications fully intact.

The Yule tradition, Christmas included, is ultimately about celebrating the solstice. In the heart of winter, the longest night occurs, and thereafter the day lengthens--the sun is beginning to come back. It is a celebration about emerging from the ice and restoring warmth.

Exposed to stories of the past, ponies are forced to re-evaluate their opinions of one another and their interactions. These founding myths serve as instructions for life in the present as much as they tell the story of the past; like many legends, folk tales, and family stories, or Friendship Is Magic episodes for that matter, they have a moral to impart.

Granny Smith may appear to be a senile old mare, and Apple Bloom, while initially excited to help with the Zap Apple jam, is eventually persuaded by Diamond Tiara's teasing that Granny and her traditional rituals are embarrassing. However, with her story Granny not only reveals that Diamond Tiara's family's wealth is founded on reselling Apple family products; she also reveals herself as more trickster than fool. Her rituals, though they may seem arbitrary, are actually purposeful, part of an arcane ritual that Granny herself discovered and developed, based on her decades of experience with Zap Apples.

The elderly, traditionally, serve as the repository of a community's knowledge. Before the rise of other forms of record-keeping, such as writing, the stories and reminiscence of a community's elderly were its only record of the past; indeed, there is reason to believe that this is the evolutionary reason that humans are able to live so far past reproductive age. Granny Smith is keeper of both the origins of Ponyville and the methods for making one of its major products.

True, that method appears arbitrary, but magic always does to the uninitiate. Meaning is contextual; without that context, the meaning is unavailable. Granny's actions only appear nonsensical because we lack that context, just as, without the knowledge to interpret it, the graphs and equations in a scientific paper are incomprehensible.
It's interesting that we have here the backstory for long-lasting racial grudges between the three tribes of ponies, and yet there is no evidence for them in the present day of the series. Instead, it appears the moral of this story has been taken thoroughly to heart by succeeding generations of ponies (and given that this story must have taken place before Nightmare Moon's rebellion a thousand years ago, that is likely to have been quite a few generations).

There's a notable similarity of the magic unleashed by the three second-in-commands to both the Elements of Harmony and the love magic Cadance and Shining Armor use in the season finale. Like the Elements of Harmony, it is triggered by the companionship of multiple ponies and restores the "natural order" disrupted by the episode's villains (as opposed to simply driving the villains away, as the love magic does), but visually it strongly resembles the love magic from the finale.

The spell here thus appears to be the basal magic that both later workings derive from. Companionship and unity between those who are different is, after all, at the root of both love and friendship. Only in cooperation can harmony arise--and cooperation does not have to mean abandoning oneself; harmony is the mingling of distinct voices. Centuries later, the three tribes are still distinct.

Magic, ultimately, is nothing more or less than a system of manipulating symbols. Science is magic that works in the world. Stories are magic that work in our minds. The stories of the past can transform the present and our selves.

Next week: A pony volunteers to babysit, and finds herself beyond her depth. This sitcom plot then collides straight into a pile of horror tropes. ...Is time broken or something?

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Granny Smith Is Awesome

Although by the time "Apple Family Reunion" aired I was sorely sick of Apple family episodes, it did accomplish one thing, which is make me realize that Granny Smith is awesome. After that episode she rose into the top tier of secondary characters for me, up there with Trixie and Discord, because in my personal opinion she knew what Apple Bloom was up to for that entire episode and was just trolling her the entire time. Also, she's an Earth pony, not a unicorn, and still managed to figure out the incredibly complex magical ritual for Zap Apple harvesting and processing all on her own.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Help An Artist Out!

Viga, the artist who designed the logo at the top of this page and is doing the cover for the book, is trying to get more commissions. She does a lot of designing avatars for people, she's done title cards for several web series, she's done a few logos and event fliers/posters... her stuff is good and she's a friend, so if you're looking for art for some purpose, give her a try!

ETA: And yes, this is pony-related. She draws ponies sometimes. She's improved a LOT on a technical level since then, but I'm still fond of the concept of her series of human!ponies as superheroines of color, particularly her Scootaloo.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: That Other Ditzy Doo Personal Fanon I Mentioned

As of this writing, the Kickstarter is a mere $10 from reaching the first stretch goal, a custom backer-exclusive essay on a topic chosen by the backers!

Also, I need some HTML 5 help. Now that pretty much all the table controls are verboten, how exactly can I go about creating a table arranged in two columns, each 50% the width of the page? If you can point me to example code, that would be ideal. Thanks!

I like to imagine that, every time Ditzy Doo drops something, it's because she's distracted thinking about questions like "What if light had a speed? What would the world look like from on top of a light wave?" And she's worked out the theory of relativity in her head, but never bothers to tell anyone because she knows (after all, everyone keeps telling her) that she's a silly, clumsy pony, so her ideas must be equally silly.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Do You Even Spy?

Watching "Hearth's Warming Eve," and before I'm even a minute in I have to stop and ask: Have any of these ponies, or any of the writers, ever played "I Spy" before? It is a guessing game, not a "shout out everything you lay eyes on" game!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Thank You So Much

At the time of writing this, the Kickstarter is a couple of bucks past 100 percent. Thank you all so much!

I've got a new update on the Kickstarter discussing stretch goals and the like. If you're a backer you should have received it in your e-mail; if not you can view it at the link.

ETA: Also, if you're wondering why I never got the Kickstarter onto any news sites, (the fanworks-focused affiliate to Derpy Hooves News) informed me that they no longer post Kickstarters because of too many conventions succeeding at their Kickstarters and then failing anyway. It was a fairly long and rather nice e-mail, actually. Equestria Daily sent me a terse one-sentence response that they don't post "just any" Kickstarter, presumably for similar reasons.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Firefly is Best Pony (The My Little Pony Special/Rescue at Midnight Castle/Firefly’s Adventure)

Even back in the 80s poor Applejack could
never catch a break...
Last week, I promised flashbacks, secret origins, and the power of history to shape the present. By which I obviously meant it's time for another Generation 1 guest article by Spoilers Below!

(Aside: click on the links whose words interest you, don’t worry about chasing down every little thing (unless you feel so inclined...))

The Letter: Dear Princess Celestia,

Sometimes it feels like the way you think about your life and the way the world should be just don’t match up to the way things really are. There are some really horrible things out there, and it can be really difficult to keep living your life in the way you choose when they turn their attention towards you. But that doesn’t mean you you should give up! You can always meet new friends who can help you! Sometimes asking for help can be difficult or feel strange, but in the end you lose nothing by the attempt. Be brave! In the end it’s much better than suffering alone. What else are friends for?

Your faithful student,

ps. Why am I pink in this episode? And my mane! Did the animators mess up again?

What is it? A 22 minute special produced by Hasbro to hock the new “year two” line of pony toys.

What’s it about? A horrible monster is attempting to enslave the ponies to pull his chariot so he can release the Rainbow of Darkness to conquer Ponyland. With the help of his two vile minions, he kidnaps nearly enough to enact his evil plan. Can the ponies find someone who can help free their friends and stop the monster’s reign of terror?

Why is it significant? This is where it all begins, creating a web of relations and links that proceed outwards, encompassing everything without leaving the confines of its very small boundaries. Without George Arthur Bloom’s pilot, none of this happens. The Sea Ponies and Year Two toys aren’t a huge sales success and Hasbro shutters the pony development division. There’s no reason for Megan to come back and help the ponies defeat Catrina, no movie, no television show. Lauren Faust doesn’t have a character to get her screen name from and, already having much experience with round and stubby armed female protagonists, instead ends up revamping her other childhood love, the Strawberry Shortcake franchise. Shorties, a band of periphery demographic male fans of the show, take the internet by storm. The trials and tribulations of Strawberry Shortcake, Ginger Snap, Plum Pudding, Angel Cake, Huckleberry Pie, Orange Blossom, and their mascot/familiar Custard the Cat teach us the importance of friendship and the magic of eating delicious desserts. Moony Muffin, a background character with a silver mailbag who ends up crosseyed due to an animation error, inspires the internet to pay especially close attention to the backgrounds, and soon fandoms for all the various minor characters spring up. The “Baker’s Half-Dozen” inspire cosplays, comics, podcasts, fan art, music, and transformative life experiences in millions world wide. Conventions are held...

A more horrible fate for the world cannot be envisioned.

Is it worth it? Hell yes! I mean, come on, it’s only 22 minutes. You weren’t doing anything important right now, were you? And you are a real fan of the show, aren’t you? Don’t worry, the essay will still be here when you get back from the YouTube tab.

Are there songs? Yep. One of them performed by a broadway singer, too. Shame they couldn’t write as well as she could sing, but that’s why you can do live scrubbing, isn’t it?

What else was happening? April 14, 1984. I have been alive for less than a week, and thus miss the first showing. The day before, the Indian military launches Operation Meghdoot, and succeed in claiming the disputed Siachen Glacier from Pakistan. This kicks off the Siachen Conflict, which is still being fought today. The day after, fez wearing comedian and magician Tommy Cooper will die of a heart attack on live television in the middle of a sketch, and it takes way longer than it should for people to figure out that he’s not faking it. We are 9 days away from the public announcement of the AIDS virus’ existence in the United States. Kenny Loggins remains at the top of the charts with Footloose, the title song from the film that was released back in February. Movies this week include Friday the 13th IV: The Final Chapter, which needless to say wasn’t, and Swing Shift, a strange film notable for the inability of the two stars, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, to realize that they were supposed to be in a serious drama, rather than a lighthearted romantic comedy, a misunderstanding of genre we’ll revisit in a little bit. And that morning President Reagan, a firm believer in the domino theory, says he will continue aid to El Salvador despite many vocal critics, believing it to be an important step in stopping the influence of the Soviet Union in South America.


Speaking of President Reagan, one of the most important -- whether good or bad is debatable, but important -- things he did as president as far as we’re concerned was push through deregulation of children’s television programming. As Dr. Toon tells us: “The impact of deregulation on children's programming was astounding. Cultural historian Tom Englehardt noted that between 1984 and 1985 cartoons featuring licensed characters increased by some 300%. By the end of 1985 there were more than 40 animated series running concurrently with licensed products and active marketing campaigns.” Half-hour toy commercials were now A Thing, with the various companies and conglomerates pumping out as many toyetic characters as possible. If you were nervous about Reagan Appointee Mark “Regulate It Like a Toaster” Fowler’s FCC trying something (yeah, right), just be sure to tack on a little message at the end or somewhere in the broadcast to let the children know what they should have learned and you’re good to go. It’s educational now! It didn’t really matter what you wrote, provided it displayed the toys in as many exciting and fun scenes as possible. Kids of that age and era would simply turn on the television and watch whatever was on, so if you were on the right channel, you had it made. No one can get parents to open up their wallets like an excited child.

Before this, the ponies were just injection moulded hunks of plastic shaped into vague pony forms. The special quite literally animated them into actual characters... well, kinda. It’s a slow process, with a two year gap in between two specials and the film, and another before there was an actual television program. But it is a beginning, and however unintentional it may have been, it’s not hard to see Friendship is Magic as the logical endpoint. This is the pebble that starts the snowball rolling down the hill. This is the raindrop that is responsible for the storm.

Faces familiar to viewers of Friendship is Magic abound: there’s Applejack working the fields, there’s Twilight trying to teleport down off a cliff face, there’s Rainbow Dash Firefly doing her aerial acrobatics. As is typical of those who don’t obsessively cut out and keep the info cards on the back of the packages, we’ve long since forgotten the name of the white and purple unicorn (Glory, maybe?), but Rarity sounds like a pretty name, doesn’t it? And we’re of course shipping her with Applejack less than 2 minutes in. What’s more romantic than licking apple off of someone’s cheek? And from the opening, we’re no doubt poised for a program about blank-flank Ember learning to like herself even though, as an Earth pony, she can’t fly or do magic. Twilight assures her that she’ll find her own special talent sometime soon. It’ll be an easy way to kill 22 minutes into forgettableness, and considering the generally low expectations for children’s entertainment, Bloom could have simply pulled a Terry “Good Enough” Nation and packed it in early: Ember runs away, is chased after by one of the older ponies who doesn’t want to see her hurt, saves the both of them by making a campfire (her special talent!) so they don’t freeze during the terribly cold night in the forest, is found by her other friends the next morning who assure her that they missed her, everyone hugs, someone makes a pun on the word “fire” (“And I bet you’re all fired up to take another camping trip!”) and everyone laughs, roll credits. Took me 30 seconds to come up with. I’m sure a professional television writer could do it even faster.

But consider this: disposable genres are often where the most interesting things happen: pulp novels, anime, comic books, etc. To be fair, this kind of mercenary media usually ends up as garbage. Expectations are low, and honestly most of the results are crap, but sometimes due to a magical combination of lowered expectations and the relative freedom to produce literally anything that can be published or animated, amazing things happen. And also consider this: one of the best parts about being a kid with toys is that there are no world boundries or continuity or canon to worry about. It may have taken 20 years for a GI Joe/Transformers crossover comic to be produced, but no such boundaries exist on the playroom floor. You can invent your own world, and what you say goes.

So just when we’re getting comfortable, about 2 minutes in,  the show turns on the caps lock and swerves left into a really heavy and dark kidnapping and enslavement plot. One moment Applejack is trying to collect apples and cope with Firefly messing up the Cutback Drop Turn Sonic Rainboom Double Inside Out Loop above her, the next she’s running for her life as dragons wyverns stratadons swoop in from the sky to kidnap her friends, yoke them to a chariot, and transform them into horrible monsters. It’s almost as if another program has invaded this one. Viewed through this lens, the appearance of the Cen/Minotaur Tirac, his winged baboon minion Scorpan, and his minion the baby dragon Spike isn’t really that odd. Our young players have access to some He-Man and Thundercats toys as well. And the only thing that’s going to fix that is a girl who really knows what’s going on, a regular girl just like you, dear viewer!

(aside: And doesn’t having a centaur crossed with a minotaur work just wonderfully as a dark mirror of the ponies? He’s still a four legged, hoofed creature, capable of all the pulling and farm work that a pony would be, and every bit as sentient and capable of thought, but with the added strangeness of the minotaur torso jutting out of the horse body making the sentience more explicit. And what was the minotaur but the horrible son of Queen PasiphaĆ« of Crete, created as punishment for King Minos’ greed?)

Because we are working from a formula, a recipe if you will, that was established over 100 years ago. It was fully explicated in George Orwell’s seminal essay on Boys’ Weeklies, which pretty much codified how children’s serial entertainment works. You keep the characters just vague and broad and varied enough that there’s a good chance that any given reader will have something in common with one of them and want to see more of their misadventures, and make sure they all make appearances often enough that the reader will sit through an episode that isn’t about their favorite (ask any given fan, and I’m sure they’ll be able to tell you which pony each of their friends are, and which one is Best). And of course, there’s a tent pole character around whom all these characters will swirl. Megan is, without a doubt, intended to be this character, a viewer projection figure allowing you, the viewer at home, to have adventures with her favorite ponies. Having so few traits of her own (she likes horses, she is a girl, she likes friendship, she gets mad when people try to hurt her friends), it’s beyond simple to mentally fill in whatever gaps you need to make her likable.

And this demand for an easy to relate to Point Of View character is a strange thing in retrospect. Back in the 80s the world was much more closed off and close minded, and there was a general expectation that people had no interest in people unlike themselves -- a view which sadly persists today in too many places, but is nowhere near as prevalent as it was in the past. (aside: witness how many shows with “breakout characters” quickly quit focusing on the bland male lead with emotional problems and start focusing on the funny and/or interesting person) Needless to say, this is demonstrably false: I can relate to the mental state and reactions of a fictional purple unicorn far better than I can most television characters despite not being myself a purple unicorn. Our host feels similarly about a yellow pegasus, and I’m pretty sure he’s a human. We can understand things just fine through the eyes of a purple unicorn; it doesn’t need to be someone like us. As a result, Megan feels superfluous. There’s no reason Firefly couldn’t go straight to the Moochick to get the amulet and rainbow herself. But this is the old show; we’re still solidly in the nigredo phase of the great work. The elements are all on the table, but it will take someone a lifetime to put them together. And so Firefly kidnaps  brings back a normal human girl to fight for them, despite Megan’s insistence that she can’t do anything to help.

There’s a tradition in children’s literature to abstract violence, to shield young eyes from the absolute brutality that even one punch can inflict on someone. Whether this is good or not is debatable, as children probably don’t need to see, for example, what it really looks like when someone is shot, but at the same time hiding the real horrors behind red and blue laser rifles belittles just how serious and deadly armed conflict is. Sailor Moon’s shining light attacks are perhaps the logical endpoint of this: the enemy is simply washed away with a flash of light or battered with a gigantic heart and ends up a puff of ash and a symbolic object related to their gimmick (with the added benefit of allowing you to save about 4 minutes worth of animation per episode with recycled attacks and transformation sequences). What violence could be cleaner than that? The Rainbow of Light is not quite so rough as that, but the comparison holds. (And wasn’t the original Friendship is Magic pitch essentially a magical girl show?)

But magic isn’t all good. It can transform innocent ponies into horrible dragons. They need a worthy foe after all, and what else but darkness could be the opposite of a rainbow? One could question why a cen/mino-taur needs a chariot to get around, but that’s perhaps the wrong nitpick for a character as focused on control as Tirac. Of course he could walk or gallop on his own; he wants you to do it for him. Hence why he forces Scropan to do it for him, why he abuses Spike and manipulates his desire to be included in something, anything, his insistence that Scorpan address him on one knee as master... Tirac doesn’t want friends, he wants servants and slaves. Though as astute viewers may have noticed, Scorpan simply isn’t trying very hard, which is the problem with relying on fear and intimidation to make people do what you want. It takes the threat of decapitating Spike to get Scorpan to finish the job, and, as any good media viewer ought to know, threatening the cute mascot character is the surest way to get a villain killed.

(Aside: That the entire scenario effortlessly reads like an older sibling stealing your toys and the quest to get them back can’t possibly be accidental...)

Spike ends up imprisoned alongside Ember (who is too small to be transformed and pull the chariot), always the misfit of whatever group he’s in, but a loyal friend nevertheless. Spike not fitting in and being isolated from his peer group, then finding another which is more loving and accepting, will be a reoccurring theme throughout many stories over the next 30 years, and that he has endured as a character this long speaks to the necessity of this story being told. It’s one thing if the ponies all get along with one another and with the stand in for the viewers at home; it’s quite another if they can be friends with their opposite and make him feel more included than he ever was among the other dragons. (aside: It’s tempting to say here that it’s because the nice boys aren’t scary and you ought to play with them too, but it reads just as well as an allegory for learning to love your stepfamily after a divorce, or dealing with all the mental confusion of being adopted. You don’t need to be biologically related to someone for them to be family, just as you don’t need to be a pony to be a pony.) Not that Scorpan will allow Spike to be hurt. Just as he insured Megan didn’t die from being dropped when Firefly kicked the stratadon that was kidnapping her. Why would an evil monkey creature do that, dear viewers? Have you guessed our twist ending yet?

It is decided that the only person who can help them is the Moochick, a mushroom-dwelling, absentminded magician who keeps losing things in his horde. After a literal song and dance, the ponies and Megan receive the Rainbow of Light, the only thing that can defeat the Rainbow of Darkness, and Tony Randall gets an easy paycheck. On the way to the castle, Applejack slips through the slats of a rickety old bridge, and Megan dives into the river after her. Our last concession to “traditional” girl television entertainment is given in the form of a Busby Berkeley style musical number (Girls love musicals, right?) with the Sea Ponies, who disquietingly have the exact same heads as the regular ponies. They save Applejack and Megan from drowning, and give Megan a shell to summon them whenever they need aid. Given how horribly catchy their song is, it’s the least they can do.

This favor is cashed in almost immediately, so the ponies can get across the moat and enter Midnight Castle. Tirac is almost too delighted by this turn of events, as he now has the last pony he needs. Applejack is transformed into a horrible dragon, and Tirac soars into the air to unleash his power and let eternal night reign forever. Not that this can be allowed to happen. Firefly can fly like the wind, and the ponies play keep away for as long as they can, battling the guards, teleporting all over, making prodigious leaps, and soaring quick as can be. Betraying his master, Scorpan ascends to the air and battles Tirac directly, the two beasts grappling savagely, before Scorpan is shoved from the chariot, thankfully landing on a bale of hay to keep him from being dashed on the rough stone roof below.

And then Tirac opens the bag around his neck and lets the Rainbow of Darkness free. This was supposed to be a show about magical friendship horses. What happened?

Just selling toys, that is all this is meant to do, right?. It had no other intended purpose. It’s a commercial you get to watch in between the other commercials on Saturday morning. For those of us at a certain age, the undeniable truth is that almost all of our beloved childhood characters and heroes were created to sell us things. Optimus Prime was killed not to provide dramatic tension and introduce children to the idea of death, but because Hasbro wanted to introduce a new line of characters and needed a convenient excuse to get the old toys out of the way. The MLP movie, as we discussed before, didn’t even bother with explanations; they simply rolled out a new cast and pretended they were the old one, then tried to sell us a new playset, Paradise Estates. It would be easy to be cynical. After all, we grew up in a time when every other story was about the horrible world our parents were leaving for our children, the sports heroes we looked up are now murderers or drug addicts, the jobs we went to college for have 300 better experienced and better connected applicants than us, and good luck finding someone to love when you live with your parents and are unemployed. Said parents who probably got divorced at some point during your childhood, by the way. By any stretch we have the right to be annoyed and dark and bitter.

And yet, and yet, there is something there that can be loved anyways, despite the commercial nature of its creation, without irony or appeals to camp. Something sincere in spite of the cynicism. These are cool toys, aren’t they? They do things. Sure, the hunk of plastic might be permanently affixed in one pose, but look what it could do with your imagination? They run and fly and fight! Look at the adventures a normal young girl can have with them. Can you even dream of the adventures you’ll be having once you have some of them for your very own? That’s the message, isn’t it?

If “The purpose of art is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable,” then this is art, isn’t it? What would be so wrong about dreaming of a better world? Why not let it in? Why not become the change you wish to see in the world? as that banal old platitude goes. Much like Plato’s Republic, the world already exists if you act like you’re a citizen of it. It doesn’t mean you can’t be angry or upset about things that are wrong. But rather than wallow in it, why not try to change? Be a little nicer and a little more forgiving of others faults? (aside: if you skipped all the rest, this is the link to follow and watch. It’s the important one.) Why not give someone the benefit of the doubt? Why not help someone with no expectation of something in return? Why not be a little less selfish, a little more compassionate, a little more willing to stand up for what’s right? Everyone acts like it’s some horribly complicated and difficult thing, and while the latter is true, the it still only requires a little effort and sacrifice to figure out. It doesn’t matter if you’ll never fly like Firefly and Medly, or jump far like Bowtie, or disappear like Twilight. Everyone can be nice. Everyone can figure out what’s really important to them. Everyone can let a little light into their lives. Effort does not require talent or skill.

(aside: Isolationism isn’t the answer, by the way, and unlike the film the special in no way endorses it. Kindness and forgiveness do not preclude self-defense or getting angry. Get help. Get your friends back. Don’t just lay there and take it. Remember that Ponyland is constantly under assault from horrible monsters and really genuinely terribly people, often who want to destroy the ponies for no other reasons than petty jealousy or selfishness. Equestria is right on the border of the Everfree forest, home to horrible hydras and gigantic lunar bears, where the plants grow and the animals take care of themselves and the clouds move all on their own! The gates to Tartarus, Hell itself!, lay within walking distance. And yet the ponies remain, happy to forgive those who repent, and accept those in need.)

And it is then, after all their options are exhausted, that Megan unleashes the Rainbow of Light. It’s a tiny thing, barely bigger than her palm. What could it possibly do?

Light is a strange substance, especially when compared to darkness. Because of the way it works, outside of a black hole, there is literally no way for darkness to be so dark than even a little light can’t brighten it. Darkness is an absence, a lack, a void waiting to be filled. There’s a bit in Alan Moore’s Top Ten that has stuck with me ever since I read it years and years ago. In it, two men have been fused together by a teleportation accident and will soon die. The one is a follower of the Great Game, an intergalactic chess match being played across the galaxy between the light and the darkness. The fellow he’s bonded to, an ordinary businessman, asks how the gamer can keep going. He’s going to die and there’s nothing he can do about it. Hasn’t he wasted his life on this silly game? Looking up at the night sky, the points of light are so few. Surely the light side must be losing. What hope is there? No, the gamer replies, a serene smile on his horse-like visage. We are winning. It used to be all dark.

And it is just so here. It doesn’t matter how dark and tenebrous the Rainbow of Darkness is. It is useless compared to even a little bit of color. Tirac is obliterated in a wave of light, never to be seen again, all alone in the end. The transformed ponies are returned to their original states and placed gently upon the ground. The stratadons return to being butterflies. The guards turn back into bluebirds. And Scorpan becomes his old self again, a noble, nameless, mustachioed prince who can resume ruling his kingdom. But Spike? Spike doesn’t change back into anything. He’s always been a baby dragon. He’ll always be a baby dragon. There’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone can share a laugh at Ember sneezing so hard she falls into the shallow river, and in the end even she can laugh too. She’s learned no lesson, hasn’t discovered any special talent, has had no transformative journey or life changing realization. And that’s alright, too. Someday, when she’s ready, she will. Everything was lovely once again.

Because friendship is optimal. I would submit that that’s been the thesis of the series from the very start.

Coda: In 2005, Lauren Faust decides to create a DeviantArt account. Aliases are hard to come up with, so why not the name of a favorite character from her childhood? The common spelling is long since claimed by fans of the Joss Whedon program, but in true internet fashion, a few letter swaps that preserve pronunciation work out fine. And the rest is history. And as we all know now, Fyre-Flye is Best Pony...

But wait, wait, wait! In the opening credits who’s this silent red and white unicorn, hanging out in the background, then getting carried off by the stratadons?

Moondancer? Yeah, right, sure. That's her name. I believe you.
So why don't they her that ever, huh?

We should have known. The seeds were there all along. She just needed to find her wings and transform into her full alicorn self.

“Look out Twilight! Here I go!”

Other Bits:

-Some fanon holds that Firefly is Rainbow Dash’s mom. Works for me. I’m sure there’s fanfic of her and Rainbow Dad Bolt meeting for the first time somewhere on the internet.

-Sandy Duncan is one of those strange performers who adults think children are aware of and care about. It’s a small class, usually featuring young women who’ve played Peter Pan, and someone else can unpack the various implications of thinking kids will love a woman who dresses up as a young boy and carries children off to have adventures in Never Never Land. But Sandy Duncan must be important to this program, because all the commercial breaks remind us she’s in it. It’s quite rare to have an actress repeatedly credited in the subtitle of every commercial bump, after all. Now, please don’t take this to mean she’s bad, because honestly she’s not. She’s quite talented as a singer and dancer, and she’s the best pony voice actress in the show chiefly because she doesn’t go for an odd breathy high pitched rasp whenever she speaks. She’ll reprise this role for years and years, too, in between being the cool aunt on The Hogan Family.

-The parallels between the special and The Mare in the Moon/Elements of Harmony are pretty obvious, and as you’d expect, the more modern show avoids almost all of the things the Special gets wrong. Twilight doesn’t need a human girl nor a magical mushroom wizard to give her special powers; she acquires the magic jewelry through the powers of filibuster and sophism friendship and sagacity. They don’t need a deus ex sea ponies to keep themselves from drowning in the river, because they can work out a solution for themselves (“Oh, it's fine, my dear. Short tails are in this season. Besides... it'll grow back.”). Applejack doesn’t slip off any bridges, and Rainbow Dash can catch Twilight before she falls. Twilight manages to learn the magic of friendship, rather than nothing. And in the end, it is not the villain’s lieutenant that is redeemed and transformed back into his old royal self, but the villain herself, turning out to be as much a princess as Celestia herself, a much more powerful ending.

-The reason Firefly and many of the other original ponies aren’t in FiM is due to a huge and complicated copyright kerfuffle that Hasbro is in over the original rights to the characters. They managed to keep Spike and Applejack due to their inclusion in the G3 line of toys, but seem to have lost the rest. Sadly there is very little authoritative and properly sourced information I can find on the details of this. In the end, it doesn’t much matter. The show is just as good with the names and colors being a little different.

Next week: Flashbacks, secret origins, and the power of history to shape the present. And you still still don't know whether I'm going in production order or broadcast order!