Thursday, October 31, 2013

Derivative Works Month Is Coming...

And I need suggestions on what to cover. I know I want to do the second volume of the IDW comic, but other than that I have no idea. I know I don't want to do Equestria Girls yet and I don't want to do the iPhone game at all, and as always no porn or gorn. "Ponies" isn't technically a derivative work of Friendship Is Magic, though it is one of the franchise as a whole, so I'm on the fence about it.

Any suggestions?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Beyond the Inferno: Situational and Virtue Ethics in Fullmetal Alchemist

Warning: Extensive spoilers for Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood and the Fullmetal Alchemist manga.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood spends a lot of time tackling some fairly complex ethical questions for a shounen series, not least of which is its examination of vengeance and situational ethics. Of course, situational ethics tends to get a bad rap, being characterized (much like ethical relativism, to which it is related but not equivalent) as a sophistic cover for amorality. But really, situational ethics is nothing more than the trivial observation that the context of an ethical decision can alter the outcome. On some level, this should be obvious; it is clear that curling one’s index finger caries different moal implications depending on whether the finger is pressed against the trigger of a gun or not. But FMA:B goes beyond the trivial in its examination, and as such, has earned some undeserved criticism for inconsistency on the question of whether revenge is justified.

A significant factor in this criticism is that we live in a culture where two major ethical systems dominate, the Manichaean and the utilitarian. In a Manichaean worldview, morality is determined by ingroup and outgroup status—anything which helps the ingroup or harms the outgroup is good, and anything which does the opposite is bad. The same action may thus be regarded as good when done to the outgroup, and bad when done to the ingroup, or vice versa. This is the moral view generally embraced by militaries (“support your comrades, kill the bad guys”), and can be found in quite a few places in our culture, such as most action movies and video games, the Harry Potter series, and the Republican party. Contract the ingroup until it consists of only the individual self, and you have capitalism, libertarianism, and objectivism.

At the other extreme, expand the ingroup to include all of humanity and you have the utilitarian view: anything which net benefits people is good, anything which net harms them is bad. It’s certainly a more progressive worldview than Manichaeanism, but still based entirely on the outcomes of actions. It does not matter why or how you benefit people, as long as you do. Which sounds reasonable on the face of it, until you realize that depending on whether you count misery as a small amount of happiness or a negative amount of happiness, utilitarianism either says that a world of 50 quadrillion miserable people is better than a world of 5 billion happy people, or it says that murdering severely depressed, unloved people is not only morally permissible but mandatory.

FMA:B, on the other hand, mostly follows an ethical system that is largely disfavored in our culture, virtue ethics. In virtue ethics, an action is good if it demonstrates that the person doing it has the qualities of a good person, and bad if it demonstrates they have the qualities of a bad person. This is where we come to the question of revenge, because FMA:B quite consistently argues that pursuing revenge turns you into a bad person.

Key to this are the characters of Scar and Mustang. Scar is the survivor of genocide; most of his people are dead, murdered by the Amestrian military and particularly its State Alchemists, their homeland of Ishbal is ruined and largely abandoned, and most of the survivors live in slums scattered throughout Amestris. Early in the series, Scar is introduced as an antagonist, murdering every State Alchemist (an organization which the main character joined long after the Ishbalan War) he can find. From the start, Scar is depicted as inhuman: nigh-superhumanly fast and skilled in hand-to-hand combat, cold, implacable, without even a name—he is known only by the prominent facial scarring he received during the attack that killed his family. As the series progresses, however, Scar slowly turns away from vengeance, ultimately adopting the twofold goal of making Amestris admit what it did to his people, and reform in order to ensure it never happens again. This is accomplished through a process of humanization, as Scar acquires companions—a cowardly, disgraced Amestrian soldier, a foreign child on a journey of her own, and ultimately Marcoh, a medical doctor driven by guilt over the experiments he performed on Ishbalan prisoners of war—and is thus given opportunities to demonstrate emotion and character depth. Key in his development are his two confrontations with the character Winry, whose parents—Amestrian doctors who tried to help the Ishbalans during the war—were Scar’s first victims.

In the first encounter, Winry learns that Scar is responsible for her parents’ deaths and points a gun at him, but is unable to pull the trigger. Details of the scene cause Scar to flash back (post-traumatic stress disorder is another recurring theme of the series) to the death of his family, in a way that places Scar in the position of the State Alchemist who killed his family, main character Ed Elric in the position of Scar’s brother who died saving Scar, and Winry in the position of Scar. Scar flees in confusion, and soon after spares Marcoh’s life in exchange for learning more about the Ishbalan War, showing that already he is acquiring motivations other than mere revenge.

In the second encounter, Scar is immobilized and wounded, and several characters are debating whether to kill him, given that he has information they need. Winry steps in and begins treating Scar’s wounds, stating that although she does not forgive him, it’s what her parents would have done. At this point Scar’s transformation begins in earnest, and the series begins moving him from antagonist to, arguably, tritagonist or even deuteragonist.

Contrasted heavily to Scar is Mustang, an Amestrian State Alchemist regarded as a war hero for his participation in the genocide of the Ishbalans. From the start, Mustang is depicted as somewhat morally ambiguous, but mostly good. He seeks to become the head of the Amestrian military dictatorship, but not solely out of ambition; rather, he sees it as the only way to institute reforms. His explicitly stated plan is to become dictator, transform the country into one where genocide and dictatorship are not tolerated, and then turn himself in to a war crimes tribunal for his actions in Ishbal. Early in the series, Mustang’s best friend, Hughes, is murdered, and Mustang spends much of the series pursuing the mystery of who killed him and why, although like most of the cast he spends much of the second and third phases of the series too busy dealing with larger events to spend much time on personal goals.

Relatively shortly after Hughes' death, Mustang encounters Lust, who contributed to Hughes’ death but is not the one who personally killed him. Lust is an extremely dangerous fighter, among the series’ more lethal antagonists, and manages to permanently disable one of Mustang’s closest followers, seriously injure Mustang, and nearly kill Mustang’s right-hand woman Riza (who is also strongly implied to be his love interest) and their ally Al Elric, Ed’s brother. Mustang responds with a furious show of force, brutally and efficiently killing Lust in an agonizing fashion. The scene is deeply uncomfortable, but played as a triumphant victory nonetheless, and indeed it is the first real victory anyone has had against the main antagonists of the series.

Much later, in the final run of episodes leading up to the series finale, Mustang finally meets Hughes killer, Envy, who not only confesses but brags and taunts Mustang about the killing. Mustang proceeds to violently, painfully, and methodically demolish Envy in a lengthy fight sequence that spans two episodes. Unlike his attacks on Lust, which looked and sounded extremely painful but were nonetheless clearly Mustang trying to kill her as quickly as possible using whatever resources he had on hand (Lust finally dies mere centimeters from striking a killing blow on Mustang), his fight with Envy is clearly torture. He gives Envy time to recover between attacks, allows him opportunities to attempt counterattacks (all of which Mustang immediately defeats), and deliberately uses attacks designed to be painful and disorienting rather than lethal (such as burning out Envy’s tongue and eyes). The sequence is extremely difficult to watch, and clearly the series very much intends it as such, because immediately after Envy’s defeat Riza, Scar, and Ed confront Mustang, persuade him that this pursuit of revenge and hatred is inappropriate for the man who will become the country’s leader, and force him to back off from striking the killing blow.

Finally, in the last episodes of the series, nearly the entire cast gathers to fight Father, the immortal power behind the throne of Amestris. Al sacrifices himself to save Ed, and Ed attacks Father in a berserker rage, seriously injuring him. There is then a brief fight between Father and another character, Greed, after which Ed strikes a final blow on Father, causing his body to be destroyed and his soul to return to the primordial chaos from which it originated. This entire sequence is again portrayed as a heroic act, with the assembled characters chanting Ed’s name as he fights Father.

Here, then, is the apparent inconsistency: Why is it wrong for Scar to kill State Alchemists, Winry to kill Scar, and Mustang to kill Envy, yet right for Mustang to kill Lust and Ed to kill Father? And the answer, of course, is context.

The latter two incidents have in common that the antagonist being killed is an immediate and deadly threat, is highly capable of defending themselves, and has only just caused serious harm to someone close to the protagonist doing the killing. The protagonist, in other words, is both acting in the heat of the moment and “punching up”—attacking someone more powerful than they. In addition, in both cases the protagonist has been well-established as a fighter, though Ed has been consistently portrayed as refusing to kill up until his fight with Father. Finally, they do not draw out the attacks more than is necessary; they are clearly acting to defeat the opponent, not cause them to suffer for its own sake.

All of the other incidents differ in at least one respect. Winry is consistently depicted as a non-combatant, as her confrontation with Scar makes clear: Ed tells her “these hands were made for healing, not killing” when he talks her down. Scar’s attacks on State Alchemists are based on old pain, and represent a premeditated plan; in addition, he targets all State Alchemists indiscriminately, not just those who participated in the Ishbalan genocide.

Finally, there is Mustang’s revenge on Envy, which of all of these scenes gets the most attention from the narrative, taking up the last seven minutes of episode 53 and the first ten or so of episode 54. That it gets this much time is especially notable given that, at this point in the series, there are no fewer than fifteen separate groups of characters being actively followed by the narrative, allowing an average of 1.47 minutes per group per episode—to give a single confrontation more than ten times that much screen time clearly marks it as both a major plot event and a key moment of character and thematic development.

All of which it is. The audience has minimal empathy with Envy in this scene, as he has been thoroughly vile throughout the series, killing beloved characters, taunting and tormenting others, and gleefully recounting his participation in multiple horrific acts, including deliberately setting off the conflict that culminated in the genocide of Ishbal. If anyone in the series deserves to die, it’s him—and yet the visuals repeatedly depict Mustang as a figure of terror, his face contorted in rage (including shadows noticeably similar to Scar’s scar) as he clinically describes precisely how little of a threat Envy is and how he plans to cause Envy maximum pain. After Envy attempts to flee, Mustang becomes much like a horror movie monster, unstoppable, implacable, and inescapable as he pursues Envy and just keeps hurting him, over and over and over again.

Mustang is consumed utterly by hatred, and the contrast between this and him fighting Lust (or Ed fighting Father) could not be clearer. In those scenes, the protagonist was immediately, furiously angry, but still recognizable themselves. They were not given over entirely to their anger, and thus still appeared human. Here, Mustang is monstrous, much like Scar in his early appearances, existing solely to make the enemy hurt without regard to any other concerns.

In both the fight with Lust and the fight with Envy, the effect of Mustang’s actions is identical: a lethal and dangerous enemy who has committed terrible crimes (and intends to commit more) dies painfully. However, the circumstances of that killing (the situation part of situational ethics) make it clear that against Lust Mustang is acting out of desire to protect his friends, loved ones, and allies, and anger at the immediate harm Lust has caused. In the latter, Mustang is acting out of desire to see his hated enemy suffer as much as possible. In other words, against Lust Mustang is being righteous, protective, loyal, and just; against Envy he is being sadistic. The former are virtues, the latter a vice, and thus under the series’ virtue ethos the former is right and the latter wrong.

This is primarily Scar’s argument in the scene where the other characters talk Mustang down, but it is not the only argument used against him. Ed and Riza instead use a slightly more complex variant of virtue ethics, in which the virtues themselves are situational—specifically, individual personality and social roles both influence what virtues apply for a particular person. This goes back to Winry’s “hands of a healer”; Ed’s argument in that scene is that it is wrong for Winry to kill because she is inclined to the virtues of compassion and empathy, and because her role in society is as a healer and maker of prostheses. The implication is that it would be wrong for Winry to kill, even in a situation like Mustang’s fight with Lust, because it would go against her core virtues and contradict her social role. Mustang, on the other hand, is neither particularly compassionate or empathetic, and as a soldier, his social role requires killing. However, as Ed points out, he seeks to become the ruler of Amestris in order to reform it. Is the kind of person who sadistically tortures hated enemies the kind of person who can transform a military dictatorship into a just and peaceful democracy?

The series is quite clear that the answer is no, and so Riza (whom Mustang ordered years ago to kill him if he ever became corrupted by power and ambition or strayed from the path of reforming Amestris) pulls her gun on Mustang and tells him that if he kills Envy, she will kill him, finish out the current mission, and kill herself. It is this ultimatum which finally breaks Mustang out of his berserker rage and forces him to back down from torturing Envy (who, for complex reasons outside the scope of this essay, commits suicide shortly thereafter).

Situational ethics, as I said, often gets a bad rap. Like moral relativism, it is frequently characterized as being a cover for underlying amorality. In truth, any sufficiently complex ethical schema can be gamed to justify basically anything, and so the extreme case of a complex ethos such as situational ethics or relativism does shade into amorality. On the other hand, simpler ethical schema lack flexibility and nuance, and so the extreme case of a simple ethos such as utilitarianism or deontology shades into extremism. FMA:B is not particularly inconsistent in its ethics, as critics allege; rather, it consistently portrays a complex virtue ethos in which the morality of an action is as much or more a function of the motivations, goals, social role, and emotional state of the person performing the action as it is a function of who the action targets or what outcomes it results in.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Genesis Device

So, here's a nerdery of mine that's been surprisingly rarely referenced on this site: Star Trek.

So, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (the best Star Trek movie by a wide margin, and probably the most accessible to non-Trekkies, despite being the one with the most references to past events) established the creation of the Genesis Device, which can turn a lifeless planet into a complete, habitable ecosystem within a matter of days--but if used on a planet where life already exists, that life is erased in moments and replaced. Thus, depending on the target, it's either a device of mass creation or a weapon of mass destruction. Alas, Star Trek III reveals that the planet created at the end of Star Trek II is unstable, and it collapses; the Genesis Device is only useful as a weapon of mass destruction, precisely the opposite of its creators hopes.

But here's my question: 60 or 80 years later, in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, the Genesis Device ought to be fairly common knowledge, something any of the more advanced/powerful cultures can build easily and the less powerful ones build if they're determined enough, much like nukes on modern Earth. And, much like nukes, they are a doomsday weapon--any war fought with Genesis Devices would quickly annihilate both sides. So it's odd to me that there's little to no mention of the device in the later Star Trek series, as it could have served as a handy metaphor for nuclear tensions--all the major powers have Genesis Devices mounted on warp-capable missiles, but only as a deterrent to keep the other powers from using their Genesis Devices...

Also, did no one think to try using them as a weapon against the Borg? Could have been interesting...

Monday, October 28, 2013

Is Gravity Science Fiction?

I just watched Gravity on Saturday (excellent movie, and only the second ever for which I can say it is worth paying extra to see in 3D), and I've been pondering whether it should be considered science fiction. Given my adherence to the cladistic view of genre, I'd say yes: it is clearly descended from the cinematic tradition of science fiction films, with its depiction of space as a sublime realm of awe and terror (compare 2001: A Space Odyssey or Alien), its use of both strategic silence and sounds such as static, heartbeats, and heavy breathing to create tension (2001 again), even the use of special effects as the primary antagonist (Star Trek the Motion Picture, War of the Worlds (1953 or 2005), there are countless examples good and bad) are all drawn from the tradition of science fiction film. The characters, meanwhile, are straight out of the Golden Age pulps: the brave but inexperienced woman scientist, the old space cowboy, the reckless rookie who is first to die. The film is steeped in science fiction; the fact that nothing which occurs in it is any more fantastical or implausible than a heist film or cop movie is largely irrelevant in the face of that heritage. It's like saying that ostriches aren't birds just because they don't fly.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The pony who holds my fate in her hooves (It's About Time)

[insert joke about Past Twilight coming on to Future Twilight]
It's March 10, 2012. The top song is back to Kelly Clarkson's "Stronger" and the top movie is still The Lorax, with the surprisingly good (if you accept it for what it is) John Carter at number two. In the news, China ups its defense spending by a whopping 11 percent, the U.S. government takes steps to extradite the founders of MegaUpload, beginning the end of that particular file sharing service, and on the day this episode airs, famed French comic artist Moebius dies.

While on TV, we have "It's About Time," by M.A. Larson and directed by Jayson Thiessen. Like "Feeling Pinkie Keen" in Season One, this is a Twilight-centric episode that has Pinkie Pie in a supporting role, and involves a series of misfortunes happening to Twilight courtesy of co(s)mic forces of fate. In this case, a visit from her rather beat-up future self (from the distant era of next Tuesday, a full two days beyond Next Sunday A.D.) cues Twilight to begin desperately trying to avert the disaster she sees coming. Of course, in a tradition dating back to Greek myth, everything Twilight does to avert the future serves only to bring it about, because she has misinterpreted the nature of the warning.

In my article on "The Cutie Mark Chronicles," I discussed the way the show handles questions of fate, destiny, coincidence, and free will, questions on which I expanded in the chapter "Of Destiny and Doughnuts" in the My Little Po-Mo book. In the former discussion, I talked about the relationship between destiny and coincidence, arguing that the distinction between the two is purely subjective. In the latter, I discussed (within the context of cutie marks) whether free will can exist in a deterministic universe, arguing (following Daniel Dennett) that it can and does.

"It's About Time" raises both questions within the context of an "ontological paradox" or "time loop." Twilight had planned for a normal week, but the sight of her future self incites her to panic, and she takes a series of increasingly desperate actions to try to avert the disaster she believes is imminent, in the process steadily altering her appearance until she is a perfect match for her future self. At this point, she realizes that there was no disaster, just her own empty worries, and travels back in time to try to warn herself not to worry, but the sight of her future self incites her to panic...

The reason this is referred to as a paradox is because there seems to be no "origin" for Twilight's panic. She panicked because she tried to tell herself not to panic because she panicked because... However, everything that happens is logically consistent. Events proceed in a circle, rather than a line, yes, but there is no contradiction--nothing that happens renders anything else that happens impossible. Indeed, there has been serious research by physicists on a simplified model of time travel, involving a computer model of a billiard ball encountering a "closed timelike curve" (presumably called that because "time warp" doesn't sound science-y enough for the grant committee). Thus far, while they have been able to find scenarios where the ball travels back in time and knocks itself into the time warp, they have yet to find a scenario where the ball travels back in time and prevents itself from doing so. There is much reason to be skeptical, not least of which that no closed timelike curve has ever been observed, but it seems within the realm of possibility that it is possible to travel back in time to make yourself travel back in time, but not to travel back in time to prevent yourself from traveling back in time. Twilight, in other words, was always doomed to failure.

But what then of free will? Is future Twilight somehow compelled to say and do what she does, stripped of her freedom by the fact that she saw herself do it?

Much of the question comes from how we define "free will." The construction I used in the book, and will continue to use here, can be expressed as "the capacity of an agent to identify potential courses of action, determine a preferred course, and act accordingly." None of this requires mysticism, magic, or even a non-deterministic universe; even in a completely deterministic universe a specific agent can still identify the courses of action some other agent might take in the same circumstances, and reject that in order to take the action consistent with itself. This is, after all, the kind of freedom worth having--the freedom to act as one wishes to act, in accordance with one's own values and preferences. Why would anyone want "free will" if it meant acting against oneself?

So, given that definition of free will, does Twilight have free will within the time loop? To put the question another way, is future Twilight destined to say and do what she does in order to perpetuate the loop, or is it a coincidence that the two ponies do what they did? To which the answer is, of course, yes--the distinction between the two is subjective, and so it is a matter of perspective.

Key to understanding this is to grasp that there are not two separate events, one in which past Twilight talks to her future self, and another in which future Twilight talks to her past self. There is only one event, one point in time and space which Twilight views from two different perspectives. Happily, the episode makes this obvious by allowing the audience to see the same event twice--and it is the same event, shot-for-shot identical. Nonetheless, like Twilight the audience has two different perspectives on the event. Although the position of the camera, the sound, the events depicted are identical in both scenes, the first time the scene plays we have been following past Twilight, and therefore experience it from her point of view, sharing her surprise at the sudden arrival of future Twilight and frustration at how little information she receives; the second time we have been following future Twilight, and so share her desire to see the past changed and frustration that past Twilight keeps interrupting with irrelevant questions.

Two perspectives, but one event. When Twilight encounters her future self, she acts in accordance with her own preferences and personality, bombarding her with rapid questions. When Twilight encounters her past self, she acts in accordance with her own preferences and personality, trying to get out important information but continually sidetracked by questions. These are the same event, and Twilight is acting freely in both.

Consider another perspective: there are three possible ways past Twilight's morning could go. She could not encounter her future self, because her future self doesn't travel back. Or her future self could travel back, warn her not to worry, and Twilight could agree not to worry, making sure in a few days' time to go back and warn herself not to worry. Or, finally, the events we see could occur. Regardless, there is at most one encounter between the two Twilights, and they thus each get only one chance to choose their actions. Whatever they choose in that moment is what happened in that moment; since neither can do the moment over (traveling back a second time, if possible, would only mean three perspectives on the same event, not a new event), neither can choose not to do what she already chose to do.

It helps that the episode does not (unlike most time loop stories in science fiction) go around the loop multiple times, creating the illusions that the characters do as well. Instead, we see the event once from past Twilight's perspective, and completely appreciate why she chooses to say and do what she does, and then again from future Twilight's perspective, where again we can appreciate why she chooses to do and say what she does. Future Twilight is not trapped by anything other than herself, her own nature and choices--just because she happened to see her choices before she made them doesn't change that they are her choices.

With this episode, the season's exploration of time is largely over, given a fitting capstone in a return to the past of the series. At the same time, it lays the groundwork for the future; between "It's About Time" and "Lesson Zero," it is very clear to both the audience and the ponies that Twilight has a tendency to overreact and create disasters where none are needed. That knowledge of her character will be key to the season finale.

Next week: Unless of course referencing a 30-year-old game franchise counts as part of the theme of time.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

MLP Comic, Volume 2

Apologies for the lateness. I always forget the weekend is not actually at the end of the week, but split between end and beginning. As a result, I saw that I had thoughts of the day queued through the second-to-last day of the week, and thought that included today. Sorry!

Just got the second volume of the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic comic (thanks to the reader who sent it to me!) and it's good! Not as good as the first, mostly due to the lack of humor and gloriously weird layouts, but good.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Scootaloo is the Applejack of the CMC

Thing about it. She's orange, boring, and a flat character, and ambiguously might be an orphan. She's Applejack the Next Generation.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Pattern I've Noticed

And by "noticed" I mean "lifted from JesuOtaku's Twitter feed."

The second season of Legend of Korra is actually really entertaining whenever Korra isn't on the screen. Though, honestly, I still think the show would be better if they dropped the whole "avatar" thing and just made it the ongoing adventures of Asami as she pilots her mecha in lone battle against goofy-yet-evil industrialists and war profiteers.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Elements of Harmony 2: Applejack Is Best Pony

For the "Element of Harmony" backer tier on the My Little Po-Mo Volume 1 Kickstarter, one of the rewards was for the backer to select a pony, and I would write an essay for this site on why that character is the best pony. This is the second such essay.
As I discussed in the article on Rarity, the question of "best pony" requires a definition of "best." That the concept of "best" is not set in stone should be obvious, unless you wish to contend that what makes he best cupcake also makes the best pony. "Best" thus necessarily must always be understood to mean "best for a particular purpose," not in any absolute sense.

Thus, just as with Rarity, if we can find the purposes to which Applejack is best suited, we will understand why she is best pony. Now, I've made no secret of my apathy toward Applejack; I find her a boring character, the least entertaining of the Mane Six, and indeed less entertaining than any of the princesses or the Cutie Mark Crusaders as well. Pretty much the only character likely to serve as an episode focus I am less enthused by than Applejack is Spike.

So, clearly, the purposes for which Applejack is best pony are not my purposes as a viewer or a commentator. But by examining the character and her strengths, can we construct such a purpose? Because of course she has quite a few strengths; as I have said before, I feel apathy, not antipathy, toward her. I don't dislike her or think her unworthy, I just don't personally find her entertaining, precisely because of her strengths.

Applejack's greatest strength and weakness, fairly consistently across episodes featuring her, is her determination. Since, as a general rule, if a pony is the focus of an episode they must have a problem to overcome, frequently Applejack's determination is depicted as stubbornness. Applejack creates her own problems by excessive stubbornness, whether that's refusing to accept help from her friends in Season One's "Applebuck Season," refusing to compromise or bend her sense of propriety and fair play for others in "Look Before You Sleep" and "Fall Weather Friends" (both also Season One) or holding herself to unachievably high standards in Season Two's "The Last Roundup" and Season Three's "Apple Family Reunion." But at other times her determination is a strength, as when she refuses to give up and recruits her friends and family to help against the Flim-Flam Brothers in "The Super-Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000."

Applejack does not quit, and she hates to lose, regarding even second place as a failure (as witness her behavior in "Fall Weather Friends" and "The Last Roundup"). But she is not a total perfectionist: "Fall Weather Friends" opens with her playing horseshoes, visually referencing the saying that "Close only matters in horseshoes and hand grenades." Although one of the most rigid of the Mane Six (Twilight has a tendency to become even more rigid when pushed outside her comfort zone), Applejack is capable of bending when necessary, as in "Sisterhooves Social." In order to help her sister's friend (who is also her friend's sister) Sweetie Belle, she cheats at the obstacle course by secretly substituting a fresh pony for herself mid-race, and simultaneously throws the contest by having that pony be the significantly less athletic Rarity. Rainbow Dash, the most competitive of the Mane Six, would never do such a thing, but Applejack is willing to do so because in addition to her stubbornness, she has a strong sense of compassion.

Applejack's compassionate, nurturing side comes out most in her interactions with her little sister, Apple Bloom. Given their lack of parents, Applejack serves as a surrogate mother to the significantly younger Apple, most notably in "Call of the Cutie" and "The Cutie Pox"--indeed, between her brother's taciturn and self-effacing nature and her grandmother's age and disability, Applejack is effectively head of the family and manager of the farm; though she regularly defers to her grandmother's experience and advice, it is usually Applejack who represents Sweet Apple Acres and the Apple family in interactions with others.

Indeed, as the series has gone one Applejack's "stubbornness" has increasingly been portrayed as a strong sense of responsibility, sometimes pathologically so. There are hints of this as early as "Applebuck Season," but it is most clear in "The Last Roundup," where Applejack refuses to return home or even explain to her friends what's going on until she's earned the money she promised the town, and "Apple Family Reunion," where she works herself to the bone not out of a stubborn determination to prove Big Macintosh and Twilight Sparkle wrong, but out of a sense of obligation to provide her family with a "perfect" reunion.

That episode gives us a clue to a possible reason for why Applejack acts the way she does, in that it comes as close as the show likely ever will to outright saying that her parents are dead. The implication is very strong, and therein lies a key to Applejack's personality and the first time her character becomes remotely interesting to me all series. Consider who was left on the farm after Applejack's parents died: Her grandmother, elderly and disabled, full of knowledge but unable to handle the exhausting physical and emotional labor of maintaining the farm and holding the family together. Her brother, physically capable but too quiet and self-effacing to lead the family. Her sister, too young for any real responsibility. Applejack would have seen herself as having no choice; she had to take on the responsibilities of running the farm and leading the family, because no one else was available to do it. She herself was likely still quite young: given that the Mane Six have been friends for at least a couple of years by the time of Equestria Girls, which depicts them as high school students, and Applejack is already depicted as running the farm in the third episode of the series, she cannot have been more than the equivalent of a 15-year-old, and could have been as young as the age difference between the sisters, perhaps as little as five or six years. Nonetheless, she shouldered the burden because no one else was around to do it, and perhaps also to distract herself from grief.

There is further evidence that her shouldering of responsibilities could serve as a distraction and escape from grief, namely that she near-compulsively takes on new responsibilities. In both "The Last Roundup" and "Apple Family Reunion," Applejack jumps at the chance to take on new responsibilities, even though the ones she already has are quite impressive for a pony so young. Something drives Applejack to take on ever more responsibility, and we've seen no signs that she has any particular future goal she strives toward; it thus seems likely that her drive is away from, not towards. She is still trying to race ahead of that loss, still distracting herself from fully experiencing it and beginning the healing process.

She is, in other words, the inverse of Pinkie Pie. Both are trying to escape past trauma, but doing so in opposite ways. Pinkie Pie buries herself in fun, playing her life away in a rejection of all responsibility, while Applejack devotes herself to work, becoming the kind of pony whose idea of a party is a chance to sell her apple treats.

But this dedication, coupled with her nurturing compassion and genuine desire to help others, points to the way in which Applejack is best pony: She is, of all the ponies in the show, the one who would make the best friend or family member. She is reliable, hardworking, stable, at least relative to the rest of Ponyville, caring, nurturing, compassionate, and honest. None of these traits open up a lot of avenues for character development, humor, or entertaining drama, but they are great traits to have in a companion, whether setting out an adventure or just trying to live life.

Like her determination at the diegetic level, Applejack's greatest strength at the extradiegetic level is also her greatest weakness. That which makes her best pony also makes her boring: she is the best pony to have as a friend, so on a show where most episodes are about learning to become a better friend, Applejack has the least to learn. Within the terms by which the show defines growth, Applejack is already fully grown.

But once again, what makes for an interesting character to watch is not the same as what makes for a good friend. Applejack has the quality of the latter in spades. In this sense, she is unquestionably best pony.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Monday, October 21, 2013

It's a Small World Full of Weird People

Remember those YouTube shorts about Doctor Tran? The little boy that was haunted by a voiceover that thought he was an action movie hero? And then it got really weird?

Their creator, Breehn Burns, was roommates with Pendleton Ward, the creator of Adventure Time, in 2008. (At the link, scroll down to the Jan 21 entry for the proof.) He's also credited in my favorite Doctor Tran short, "100% Ice Part 3," for animating Leland the Cough Drop's walk.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Please don't be mad at us. (Putting Your Hoof Down)

There is a dark and terrible alternate universe in
which this episode is a raunchy comedy about
Fluttershy being traumatized to realize she's horny.
It's March 3, 2012. The top movie is The Lorax, because Hollywood (not to mention, sadly, moviegoers) has yet to figure out that Dr. Seuss doesn't work at feature length and remaking Chuck Jones is a mortal sin. The top song is Katy Perry's "Part of Me," which is yet another generic "you're a jerk and I don't need you" breakup song, but the music video juxtaposes it with what amounts to a recruitment video for the U.S. Marines. The results are more interesting than good, but at least it's interesting. In the news this week, a silent film (The Artist) wins the Best Picture Oscar for the first time since 1927, Mitt Romney emerges as the frontrunner in the Republican Presidential primaries, and Maryland legalizes gay marriage.

In ponies, we have the first Fluttershy vehicle of the season, "Putting Your Hoof Down," written by Charlotte Fullerton and Merriwether Williams and directed by James Wootton. Their effort is a pretty standard "be careful what you wish for"/"don't change to please others" story, but it does confirm past episodes' insights into Fluttershy's character and provides something of a corrective to last week's implications of mandatory friendship.

The danger of mandatory friendship is that school-aged girls in our culture, especially middle-class white girls, other girls to a lesser extent, and sometimes middle-class boys to a still lesser extent, have imposed on them this notion that aggression is inherently wrong and everyone should get along with everyone else at all times. This is, quite simply, impossible. No two people can get along perfectly with one another forever, even if they are the best of friends, and it is all the more impossible to have large groups of people interacting with one another (as in a school setting) without rivalries, resentments, and misunderstandings creating ill feelings that can only be resolved by a constructive expression of aggression. As Rachel Simmons explored in Odd Girl Out, which I've referenced a few times before, the inability to express aggression openly through the usual means of yelling, arguing, and in extreme cases fighting does not cause aggression to disappear. Instead, girls express their feelings through what Simmons terms "alternate aggressions," such as ostracizing, spreading rumors, and cyberbullying. It does no good, in other words, to tell girls they have to be nice to everyone; more helpful by far is to teach them to manage their aggressive feelings and express them constructively, or at least minimally destructively.

Suppressed, aggression festers and builds until it must burst out. From the start of the series, it's been pretty clear that Fluttershy has a great deal of pent-up aggression, and when she does express it, it's always been in the form of snapping and lashing out. Sometimes the results are positive, as when she stares down the dragon in "Dragonshy" or chases down Rainbow Dash in "The Return of Harmony," but it can also be extremely destructive, as in "Best Night Ever."

In Fluttershy's case, however, her aggression is not suppressed due to social norms and expectations as in our culture's girls. This much is clear from the willingness of Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, and Twilight to appropriately (and occasionally inappropriately, as in "The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well") express anger, disagreement, and criticism of one another and others. Instead, it appears to be a result of her avoidant personality; because she so hates and fears the disapproval of others, she cannot bear to express aggression for fear of how others will react. She avoids conflict at any cost, with the result that her aggressions emerge explosively and en masse when her limits are reached.

This episode, however, takes a different approach to Fluttershy's underlying aggression. First, it puts a set of pressures on her we've not seen before, namely other people taking advantage of her tendency to immediately surrender in the face of any possibility of conflict. The episode does not shy from showing the dangers (albeit in a way relatively accessible to children) of excessive conflict avoidance: Angel, her bunny, is stubbornly picky and even slaps Fluttershy when she feeds him the wrong food, which, reading this episode in isolation, comes across as a fussy, demanding pet or child being bratty. Unfortunately, given the frequency with which Angel is depicted as a sort of caretaker or life coach for Fluttershy (for example, in "The Ticket Master" and "Bird in the Hoof" in Season One and "Hurricane Fluttershy" later this season), it reads disturbingly naturally as an abusive relationship, not the last time such a reading will be near the surface of a Fluttershy-centric episode. But in a way, though its resolution is off (making dinner "correctly" might get your abusive husband to not hit you tonight, but he'll find an excuse soon enough--a better resolution would have been for her to kick Angel out), the abusive reading is the stronger one.

Abuse is never the victim's fault. The moral responsibility for any event lies with the agent who chooses to create the event, and that is always the abuser's choice to abuse. However, there are weaknesses which abusers seek out, and extreme conflict avoidance--"meekness," one might say--is one such trait. It is no accident that Fluttershy keeps finding herself in abusive relationships, though again, that is not to say that the abuse is therefore her fault or that she deserves to be abused.

Fluttershy is subjected to repeated humiliation or outright ignored by the other ponies in town as they shove her aside to go about their business, and she does nothing to stand up for herself. Again, the fault for Fluttershy's mistreatment is the other ponies, but the episode points out that her friends won't always be around to help her, and the only other pony with any motivation to help her is her. It is unfortunate, but often that's the case--the person who ends up having to clean up any given mess is usually the person most impacted by it, not the person who caused it. Encouraging people to help one another and treat each other kindly (which is not the same as "always be nice to everyone" by any means) is an unmitigated good, but sooner or later you have to stand up for yourself. In the words of Rabbi Hillel, "If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?"

So it is that Fluttershy ends up seeking out yet another predator, the "self-help guru" minotaur Iron Will, accompanied by a creepy pack of goat servitors. (Not to imply that there are non-creepy goats.) Iron Will preaches selfishness, self-centeredness, and rudeness under the guise of "assertiveness"; what he is actually teaching is aggression and intimidation. But due to her terror of disapproval, Fluttershy has never learned any method of restraining or channeling her aggression other than suppression and avoidance; remove that fear by giving her a supporter that approves of aggression for its own sake, and she will morph rapidly into a bully.

Fluttershy has always totalized aggression. Any aggression directed at her, even the tiny, appropriate or day-to-day aggressions of criticism and disagreement, is interpreted as overwhelming aggression; she cannot comprehend moderate anger or light criticism because she experiences them as soul-destroying disasters when directed at her. As such, and egged on by Iron Will's terrible advice, once she starts expressing aggression she does so massively disproportionately: she jumps directly from disagreeing with her gardener to dousing him with his own hose, from politely asking garbage-hauling ponies to move their carts to overturning the carts and covering the ponies in filth.

Ultimately, her lashing out hurts her friends, and the intense sensitivity to the feelings of others that is her core strength and weakness reasserts itself. That empathy is what enables her to say exactly the words that will hurt Rarity and Pinkie Pie the most, transforming their own core strengths into weaknesses Fluttershy belittles, and it's what destroys her when she recognizes almost immediately what she's done. Her empathy causes her to feel, intensely, the hurt she's caused them--that is what empathy does, after all-- and, once again totalizing the situation, she decides to shut herself away before she can hurt anyone else.

She finally does manage to find a middle ground when Iron Will forces his way in to collect payment for his seminar. When he starts bullying her friends, just as with the dragon she steps in to protect them, but this time she does so with moderated aggression. She does not intimidate Iron Will or use her Stare (as she eventually does to make Angel eat his food), but simply stands her ground, refuses to pay, and reasons that his "satisfaction guaranteed" pledge means she doesn't owe him anything--reasoning which, reluctantly, he accepts. He is disappointed, but doesn't bear any ill will to Fluttershy--she has discovered that she doesn't automatically lose any conflict, and that it is possible to end a conflict with no ill feelings resulting.

As I said above, this episode provides a much-needed corrective to last week. It's not necessary or even right for everyone to be friends with everyone, but just because someone doesn't belong in your life or you conflict with them, that doesn't mean you have to be enemies. It's a big world; we can share it with people we disagree with and even people we don't get along with, without our conflicts necessarily having to be destructive.

Next week: Destiny, time, Tuesday next and last.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Golden Age?

Is this the Golden Age of television? I think there's a strong case that the late 1990s through today has been a steadily increasing explosion of creativity--that the best shows are much better than the best shows of yesteryear, and the worst not that much worse.

When you have people making big-name, successful movies and then moving from that to running a TV show, something has shifted. But what? My money's on the Internet--I don't think it's an accident that the shows commonly cited as major transitions between how television was done in the 1980s and how it's done now--Babylon 5, The X-Files, Twin Peaks--were also some of the first shows to have significant online fandoms, the Superwholock of the rec.arts era. Nor do I think it's a coincidence that the modern surge of improvement really kicks into high gear around 2005-10, at the same time that services like Netflix were killing off traditional video stores. The ready availability of past episodes, recaps, and discussion groups all allow shows to demand a level of attention and retention that would be unthinkable in 1985, culminating in intricate works rich in ambiguity and thematic complexity such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

Frankly, we've reached the point where "I don't watch TV" isn't a declaration of dedication to high culture and rejection of low; it's an admission of cultural illiteracy on par with "I don't listen to music" or "I don't read books."

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Celestial Cycle

Saw a picture meme floating around suggesting that Celestia is not actually immortal in the "never dies" sense, she's just reborn in flame every time she dies, just like Philomena. Makes a lot of sense--the dying and returning god is a common feature of solar mythologies (see also Adonis, Amaterasu, Jesus, Aang).

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Art of the Opening

It's still Wednesday, barely, so let's talk about openings, shall we? Specifically, opening credit sequences to TV shows. What makes a good opening?

The answer is that it could be a lot of things, depending on the show. The ideal for an opening is to prime the audience to enjoy the show, but what exactly that means is highly variable.

The most basic approach, but frequently the most effective, is to introduce the audience to the characters and premise of the series. The Simpsons opening, for example, does a marvelous job of introducing the viewer (assuming they are one of the three people left on Earth who don't know the characters) to the essential natures of the characters and that this is a cartoonish family comedy.

Here's another classic example of this "introduce the premise" approach, which more explicitly lays out the premise while leaving out the characters (unless, as I do, you think the main character of Star Trek has always been the Enterprise).

Probably because of Star Trek, this style of opening has become de rigeur for American science fiction series, and reaches its apotheosis at the same point as the Star Trek-style imperialist-liberal space opera, Babylon 5. (Note, all openings after the first in this video contain spoilers--the third in particular contains the only case I know of where the first line of the opening sequence completely recontextualizes the series to that point.)

Note that, for the first two seasons, the opening relies heavily on detailed description in the form of a very dry monologue, but in the second season shifts to show more of the characters, emphasizing them as much or more than the titular Big Artificial Thing in Space. The third season starts to move away from that approach, using a combination of music, images, and a much shorter monologue to provide the revised series premise, and places the characters over the Big Artificial Thing in Space, implying (correctly) that it is important as the place where these characters interact, not as a consequence of its Bigness, Artificiality, or location In Space. The fourth opening abandons any straightforward explanation of the premise, and relies instead on a sort of thematic expression, with different characters pronouncing different views on the events of the series, and finally the fifth opening expresses the premise by showing it rather than telling it, presenting the series as the future history it is.

That thematic, rather than literal, expression of the series that Babylon 5 Season 4 attempted is often done extremely well by anime. I like to point to the fifth opening of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood as an example of this being done extremely well.

Here we have a song that is melancholic without being sad, juxtaposed with images of heroes and villains coming together in flames that dissolve them together (suggesting both the concept of the crucible and the alchemical stage of citrinitas), followed by a steady rain (the title of the song, incidentally) through which people nonetheless continue to strive, struggle and fight, though not without loss. In the end, the clouds part, and we see images of hope and love. Anyone who's seen the final arc of the show to which this opening corresponds can see how relevant this is to the episodes in question, even though in terms of actual "spoiler" imagery it has a fairly light touch for an anime opener. (Which is to say, unacceptably heavy for a Western show.)

Another good anime example is the first-season opening to Higurashi no Naku Koro ni.

This is all about the song. I freaking love this song; it's creepy, unsettling, and has a great beat. They even managed to use autotune well, which I didn't think was possible! Image-wise, it's pretty good, especially the beginning with the kaleidoscope and the flowers and, most importantly, the lamp with the butterfly. That image--a fragile, beautiful creature, drawn towards the light that will destroy it, but locked out by a cage--goes beyond intriguing and manages to be downright haunting.

Unfortunately, instead of sticking to its guns and depicting similarly haunting images, the opening instead shows all the main characters (with the notable exception of Keiichi, the only male character in the group) sad or in pain. It gives up on being the opening to a smart, highly original, and deeply creepy horror story and is instead the opening to a show about voyeuristically watching cute adolescent (and younger) girls suffer. Unfortunately, both of those are accurate descriptions of the brilliant but deeply problematic Higurashi no Naku Koro ni.

An opening doesn't have to be particularly deep to be great. Some shows, you just need something to get you in the mood--say, some energetic 90s J-pop along with images of action-adventure shounen fantasy.

Returning to the West, there's been a notable trend in American shows toward ever-shorter opening credits, so the question must be asked: Can a theme under 30 seconds accomplish anything more than announcing the name of the show and maybe one or two big names attached to it?

Yes, yes it can, as witness the theme that inspired this article.

Start with the visuals: a smoky green haze, the chemical formula for methamphetamine,* the periodic table, and then the title of the show, Breaking Bad. The periodic table is doubled over on itself, the right and left sides superimposed so that they can more easily dissolve into the title, evoking the overlapping dual nature of the protagonist, which must ultimately give way to reveal that, like everyone else, he's a complex but singular entity. All of this imagery suggests a tale of science run amuck,which to an extent is true, but it is ultimately wiped away in smoke, leaving only the name of the show's creator: this is also a complex and extended morality play, and the divine authorial hand will punish and wipe away the iniquity of those who "break bad." Even the music adds extra layers, since it belongs quite firmly in the traditional scoring of Westerns, both recalling the New Mexico setting of the show and helping make the case that it belongs in the Western genre with which it shares so many thematic similarities and character archetypes (in particular, the series is highly reminiscent of the John Wayne vehicle The Searchers).

Finally, no discussion of openings could be complete without reference to my uncritical, irrational adoration of this final clip, the best version of the best opening theme in all of television. What can I say? I'm a child of the 80s, I have a nigh-Pavlovian response to cheesy synthesizers swelling hopefully.

*Which does NOT include lithium, whatever fans desperate to find alternate meanings for the title of the series finale might tell you: FeLiNa could be iron, lithium, salt, but that's neither a stable compound nor some kind of code for "blood, meth, and tears"--there's no lithium in meth.

Note: Because this article went up so late and is fairly lengthy, Thursday's thought of the day will go up in the evening instead of noon.

Wednesday Whatever Late Today

I'm aiming for midnight.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Am I the only one who just doesn't care about Pokemon X/Y?

Pretty much everyone I know is massively enthused with the new Pokemon games, and I just can't bring myself to care. I played at least one game of every generation from Blue to Black, as well as the Silver remake, and I'm just exhausted. I can't bring myself to go to another gym and earn yet another badge, or catch yet another identical Pidgey clone.

At this point, pretty much the only thing that could get me interested again is an MMO. In theory a Pokemon game that had an original plot might do it, but frankly I've lost all confidence in the ability of JRPG makers to come up with plots.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Tragedy of Korra

The worst thing about how much Legend of Korra is sucking this season is that its plunging ratings won't be blamed on the sub-par writing and reliance on heavily telegraphed, cliche plot "twists." No, anyone who's followed the animation industry knows that the Nickelodeon executives will blame its poor ratings on the gender of the protagonist, and make it that much harder for the next person who wants to make a general-audience show with a woman as the main character.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

But I was just... (A Friend in Deed)

This is not the face of someone planning to
respect the needs and wishes of others.
It's February 18, 2012. The top song is Kelly Clarkson's "Stronger," which is about as generic a post-breakup "I don't miss you" song as it's possible to get, and rooted in one of those sentiments that seems nice on the surface but quickly becomes utterly reprehensible once you did into it, namely that "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger." The top movie is Safe House, which once again I have not seen, but just to prove that I'm not completely incapable of watching movies, I can say with certainty that this is the weekend I saw Studio Ghibli's Arietty, which was not up to their usual standards but still well worth watching.

In the news this week, the international community condemns the mounting violence in Syria, with the U.N., China, and the U.S. Senate weighing in; Whitney Houston's funeral is held; and Greece agrees to cut government spending during a recession as a condition of being bailed out of its financial crisis by the rest of the European community. Because that's not completely the opposite of how you deal with a recession.

On TV, fortunately, we have "A Friend in Deed," a highly entertaining but troublingly problematic episode by (of course) Amy Keating Rogers and directed by Jayson Thiessen. Primarily this episode serves as a continuation of the theme of love from the last episode; "Hearts and Hooves Day" was about trying to create a new love, while "A Friend in Deed" is about lost love. There have been few images in this series as heartbreaking as the sequence in which Cranky wanders Equestria seeking Matilda, growing older and sadder as the montage continues until he is finally the angry, broken old donkey he spends most of this episode as.

It is Pinkie Pie who finally brings him and Matilda together again at last, of course; that's what Pinkie Pie does. She is the social glue that holds most of Ponyville together, as the episode's first of several musical numbers depicts. But as always "Party of One" casts a pall over everything Pinkie Pie does; though she is upbeat and cheery about her desire to "make all her friends smile," the truth is that she desperately craves constant approval.

This is part of what makes Cranky a strong foil for Pinkie Pie. Recall my discussion of the two selves in regard to that episode: the experiential self desires pleasurable experiences in the present, while the remembering self wants to create good memories. In most people the two selves are more or less balanced, but in tension, but in our focus characters for "A Friend in Deed" they are wildly out of balance. Where Pinkie Pie sees the present as preferable to the misery of her upbringing on the rock farm and suppresses her remembering self, Cranky is fixated entirely on a happy memory, his one night with Matilda, and suppresses his experiential self. His cynicism and curmudgeonly attitude are defenses against a world that, as far as he is concerned, contains nothing of value. All he cares about are the physical reminders of his memories, which he literally drags behind himself everywhere he goes. Though Pinkie extends him a hand of friendship, he is no longer interested in such things; relationships in the present brings him no joy because all he cares about is reliving his memories.

None of which justifies Pinkie's behavior in this episode. She is relentlessly thoughtless and self-centered from beginning to end, and as usual Rogers depicts this behavior comedically. As usual, Pinkie does not learn the lesson she (and increasingly Friendship Is Magic) desperately needs, that it's okay to not be friends with everyone, instead learns the secondary lesson that people have varying friendship styles, and sometimes the nicest thing you can do for a person is give them some space. Which is a good lesson, and one Pinkie needs, but still ignores that she spends the entire episode running roughshod over Cranky's repeatedly expressed wishes.

Instead, given Cranky's transformation from unhappy and friendless at the beginning, to happy and friends with Pinkie at the end, it seems we have here the precise opposite of the lessons of "Green Isn't Your Color" and "Lesson Zero." Ignore the wishes and needs of others, this episode says, and force your "help" on them whether they want it or not. Since you know better than they what they need, it will all work out in the end.

For all that it is undeniably fun, this episode is based on a deeply toxic premise. I've cited Odd Girl Out before, and it is time to do so again: central to that book's thesis is that telling children that friendship and "niceness" are mandatory renders them unable to express aggression openly, forcing them into deeply harmful alternative aggressions that can leave scars that last decades. Pinkie's need to be friends with everyone leads her to some extremely unpleasant behavior in this episode, such as when she ignores Cranky and roots through his property. Ultimately, it leads her to destroy his most cherished possession, and it is only pure luck that allows her to make it up.

Cranky has a right to set boundaries. If he doesn't want Pinkie around, he has every right to push her away. But ignoring those boundaries allows Pinkie to reunite him with Matilda, implying that he was in the wrong by setting boundaries and trying to push away a person that made him uncomfortable. The implications are horrible, considering how hard our society works to tell women and girls in particular that they are not allowed to set their own boundaries, that they must either conform to a self-contradictory and impossible standard or accept whatever happens to them.

Again, this episode is not at all poorly constructed. It is very clear that a great deal of thought has one into making it funny, visually appealing, and musically engaging. "Smile" has deservedly become one of the most popular songs from the show, and the visuals which accompany it are fun, funny, varied, and attractive. So it is all the more worrisome that apparently no thought was put into what this episode says about what is supposedly the core focus of the show, the basics of relating to one another. Pinkie is, frankly, completely out of control, both within the universe of the show and in terms of her ability to distort the narrative. She is apparently incapable of learning, incapable of listening, and determined to trample over others, but she is much too entertaining for the show to jettison or even minimize her role.

The question is, what could possibly force Pinkie Pie to change, to begin growing as a character in a way that could resolve this conundrum? She appears immune to consequences--but in a few episodes we'll see that isn't entirely the case.

Next week: Another character, another foil. Maybe there's good reason she's afraid of her own Shadow?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

I have been watching the Netflix

For a variety of reasons, I happened to get Netflix at precisely the moment I had to eliminate my entire entertainment budget (only reason I was able to go to the Protomen was because I paid for the tickets weeks ago), so it's been getting a pretty hefty workout. I watched all of Breaking Bad, as I mentioned, and then moved on to Weeds because I have had a schoolboy crush on Mary Louise Parker for decades, and also Arrested Development because everybody's been bugging me about it for years.

Conclusions thus far: Breaking Bad is some of the best television ever made Weeds is not bad but I think I'd have liked it more if I'd watched it before Breaking Bad, which is both more dramatically compelling and more laugh-out-loud funny. But even nearing fifty, Mary Louise Parker's smile can still light up a room, so I continue. And I liked Arrested Development better when they were poor and it was called Titus.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Protomen!

Went to a Protomen concert last night. If you're not familiar, they're a metal band who have a rock opera based on Mega Man (here's my favorite track from that), and also the only people allowed to cover Queen as far as I'm concerned. They're pretty good in studio, and straight-up amazing live.

It was a seriously good time, and if you somehow haven't heard of them before, I strongly recommend checking them out.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Requesting Reviews...

So, I checked my book on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Amazon has one review, and it's pretty scathing (though not unfairly so) and as for the Barnes and Noble reviews, most seem to have little to do with the actual book. So, if you've got the book, and read it, and feel like giving a hand, this is me formally requesting for you to please write a review for one or both sites.




Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Elements of Harmony 1: Rarity Is Best Pony

For the "Element of Harmony" backer tier on the My Little Po-Mo Volume 1 Kickstarter, one of the rewards was for the backer to select a pony, and I would write an essay for this site on why that character is the best pony. This is the first such essay.

What does it mean to ask "Who is best pony?" To define the term "best pony" is to already know the answer to the question, because "best" is a value judgment. Define what values qualify a pony to be "best," and instantly whichever pony comes closest to those values is best pony. Change that definition, and the best pony changes.

The question thus can be said to have no answer, or more accurately to have as many answers as there are ponies. Every pony is best pony for some value of "best," and so the challenge of arguing that a given pony is best pony is actually the challenge of identifying the value-set for which that pony is the closest fit.

For Rarity, that is very, very easy to do, especially if one has already written dozens of analytical essays on Friendship Is Magic. It was, admittedly, rather less easy before I began this project; when I started, Rarity ranked ahead of Applejack, but behind the rest of the Mane Six, the Cutie Mark Crusaders, and assorted other secondary ponies.

My reasons for disliking her were simple: she is vain, a social climbing status-seeker, harshly critical of others at times, fussy, and affects an accent that isn't hers because she thinks it makes her sound posh.

All of which is, at least arguably, true. But once I started writing in detail about ponies, I discovered something: Of all the characters in the show, Rarity is, by far, the most interesting to analyze and the most fun to write about. As a result, over the course of this project, Rarity has leaped up my personal rankings until she is now my second-favorite character in the show, a position above which it is impossible to rise without entering into the pantheon of best characters in anything ever.

The value of best for which Rarity is the best pony can be summed up in more or less one word: complexity. Rarity is the most complex and layered character in the show, bar none. Consider her role in "Sweet and Elite": on one level, she is a shallow social climber who temporarily abandons her friends and shirks her responsibilities because she is too busy being the latest favorite toy of the elite. She clearly loves having wealthy, presumably powerful ponies hanging on her judgment, listening to her opinions, and allowing her to function as a trendsetter.

But set aside that she breaks promises and lies to her friends to maintain this situation and look at the actual status she gains. Is there really anything wrong with wanting people whom you respect to respect you? Perhaps we may question the basis on which Rarity chooses whose respect is worth pursuing--I would consider the respect and friendship of Applejack, Twilight Sparkle, or Fluttershy to be a far higher token of worth than the respect of Hoity Toity or Jet Set--but we really have no basis to do so; she values what she values.

And note what she does with her newfound power and status: she aids other underdogs. She brings attention to struggling artists, garners bids for unpopular auction items--she does not forget where she came from or look down on people who are not in the elite. In this respect she is much like Fancy Pants, who gives her access to high society in the first place; she wants to be in high society because she values the elite status, but that does not mean she shares the norms and values of that society. She is a trendsetter, not a trend follower, and because of that she is ultimately resistant to the decadence, corruption, and judgmental arrogance that is typical in depictions of high society.

Those same sequences also showcase how fantastically generous Rarity is. Of all the Elements of Harmony, Rarity's is the only one that inherently requires sacrifice; Rarity is most freely giving of the things she values most. The easy and obvious route for the Element of Generosity would be a character who throws herself into charitable causes and gives away everything she acquires, but that's not Rarity; Rarity is no saint or savior. Her generosity takes the form of self-sacrifice; she gives others what she herself values, freely and without hesitation, but it would never occur to her that others might need what she herself does not want. She thus is not charitable in the way, say, Applejack would be charitable; the latter would most likely donate apples to food banks or give her winnings in an athletic competition to make repairs around town, while Rarity's generosity takes the form of chopping off her beautiful, carefully maintained tail and giving it to an unhappy sea serpent.

Nowhere is Rarity's generosity more evident than in "Green Isn't Your Color." She spends that episode intensely envious of Fluttershy, who has the high-society and fashion-world attention Rarity craves, yet when Fluttershy (apparently) makes a fool of herself on the runway, Rarity does not hesitate to turn the crowd in Fluttershy's favor. Whether she currently possesses status or not, Rarity is generous in bestowing it on others--or, to put it another way, she is always willing to give away the single thing she values most, no matter how much of it she currently possesses herself.

Rarity is also quick to criticize others, as I said, but her criticism does not appear to be judgmental in nature. Rather, as an artist, she values beauty and presentation, and equally values honest critique of her work. One of her main artistic media is her own appearance, and so when she criticized others' appearance and presentation she is once again giving something she values, honest, constructive criticism. Her very first appearance is an example of this form of generosity at work; she does not criticize Twilight's mane out of a desire to put Twilight down or position herself as superior, but rather out of concern, and she immediately tries to help Twilight improve her appearance. That this isn't what Twilight wants or needs points toward Rarity's genuine flaws as a character, in particular her difficulty in understanding that her personal values are not universal, objective truths of the pony condition, but it nonetheless stands as an example of Rarity's giving nature.

"Suited for Success" is yet another outstanding example of Rarity's incredible generosity. In the course of this episode, she dedicates enormous quantities of her time, raw materials, and artistic skill to make not one, but three dresses for each of her friends. In part this is with the intent of catching Hoity Toity's interest as a potential client, but initially she embarks on the project solely so that her friends will have something nice to wear to the Gala that will meet the approval of the high-society ponies attending; once again Rarity is trying to give others what she herself most wants. At the same time, she is also completely willing to take their wishes and desires into account once they tell her what those wishes are, even to the point of sacrificing her artistic vision. She knows that the second round of dresses aren't good enough to impress Hoity Toity, but she is perfectly willing to sacrifice her career and artistic integrity in order to give her friends what they want.

Where her complexity comes most into play, however, is with consideration of those flaws I mentioned above. Rarity's social climbing is, as I said in regards to "Sweet and Elite," tempered by her willingness to aid others. She is not the typical social climber character, who is as willing to push others down as lift herself up; Rarity wants to enter the elite, but she is not particularly competitive, and does not presume status to be a zero-sum game. In almost any other media for girls her character would, as the beautiful, fashionable social climber who's a little bit too willing to mention the flaws and errors of others, be depicted as a bully and a villain. Rarity, however, is genuinely happy to share her successes, and has no desire to be alone at the top. She simply wants to be surrounded and adored by elites, which is really no different from Rainbow Dash's ambitions, except for how they respectively define "elite."

Her other flaws are equally balanced or contradicted by virtues. She is fussy and vain, but at the same time will reluctantly get dirty if it's necessary. She doesn't enjoy camping and insists on bringing along a ridiculous pile of supplies, for example, but if she needs to go into the Everfree Forest to save the world or follow Spike for days across Equestria she seems to rough it without complaint. Her second significant act in the series, after Twilight's makeover, is to join the rest of the Mane Six in insisting on accompanying Twilight into the Everfree to find the Elements of Harmony; her third is to kick a manticore in the face. She is not the fainting flower she at first glance appears to be.

Instead, her fainting flower persona, accent, and upper-class manners are all a conscious affectation. Her accent is the most obvious; she speaks nothing like her parents, which is not that surprising--Sweetie Belle also has a different accent. The difference between the two sisters, however, is that Sweetie Belle has a typical accent for Ponyville citizens, which makes sense--a person's accent is defined largely by the community in which they grow up, not their parents, so her accent is easily explained by the family moving to Ponyville at least a few years before the present of the series. Rarity, however, speaks with an accent not associated with any location in the series, implying that it is not the accent where she grew up, but rather consciously chosen to make herself sound wealthy and sophisticated. That the same accent (called Trans-Atlantic or Mid-Atlantic) in real life is not associated with any geographic community, but instead deliberately cultivated by the upper classes of the Northeast U.S. and by Hollywood to combine elements of American and British English, suggests this is a deliberate implication; we are "meant" to read Rarity's accent as affectation.

She has deliberately shaped her persona, in other words, to fit in with the elites she hopes someday to be accepted by. But affectation is not the same as fakery; one could equally say that Twilight's scholarly knowledge or Rainbow Dash's aerobatics are affectations, as those are skills have acquired as a means to accomplish their goals. More accurate would be to say that Rarity has consciously pursued a program of self-improvement, to more closely approximate what she sees as her ideal self. The show does not judge; Twilight is a scholar, and therefore building academic skills is valuable self-improvement, not fakery or living a lie; Rarity is a social climber, and therefore building the skills to fit in with the upper classes is likewise.

And so we arrive at a picture of Rarity: vain but not selfish, fussy but hardworking, critical but giving, status-conscious but not a bully. No one in the series approaches her for complexity--not even Luna comes close--and so we can say that, in this regard at least, she is without question Best Pony.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Breaking Bad: Friendship Is Magic

The two TV shows I am most engaged with at the moment are Breaking Bad and My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, and they actually complement one another very well; the first is an all-out assault on hegemonic masculinity by depicting its disastrous consequences, and the latter an equally determined attempt to undermine emphasized femininity by showing a viable alternative.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Like a Water Ski over a Cartilaginous Fish

I watched two episodes of Breaking Bad on my 3DS last night. Reality has jumped the shark. I know I already said that years ago when I saw a truck drive past with a flatscreen TV mounted on the side playing the trailer for the then-new Professor Layton game, but there appear to be a series of sharks alternating with ramps on the road ahead.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Give us all a lesson on your amazing loop-de-hooping! (Hearts and Hooves Day)

Judge all you like, but he's harming no one and seems happy.
The top song is still Adele's "Set Fire to the Rain," and the top movie is something called The Vow, about which I know nothing beyond the title. Sadly, I suspect it is probably not about some kind of vengeance blood oath. In the news, the U.S. Supreme Court overturns California's anti-gay Proposition 8, the government of Greece inches closer to default on their national debts, and a cold wave sweeps Europe, killing hundreds.

While on TV, well...

Our culture's view of time exists in tension between two alternatives. The first, historically more common, view sees time as being essentially circular. Each day is fundamentally similar to the previous day, moving from dawn to dusk to night and back to dawn. Each year follows a similar cycle through the seasons. And most people's lives have a fundamentally familiar arc as well: birth, childhood, work, marriage, more work, children, still more work, old age, death--an arc which becomes a cycle when viewed across generations, as children follow the same arc as their parents.

In tension with these cycles is the modern awareness that our culture is rapidly changing, which leads to a second view of time, as a linear progression. In this view, we are not cycling but either ascending or declining, and the emphasis is not on the fact that we get married like our parents did, but that we do so at a different age and met our spouses in different ways. That the seasons cycle, but do so more erratically every year (he said, writing on a 90-degree day in October).

As is nearly always the case with perspectives, these are alternative expressions of the same underlying reality, and the tension is thus illusory. If you choose to emphasize the similarities between successive chunks of time, it appears circular; if you emphasize the differences, it appears linear. Other alternate views of this same reality exist; for example, one can make the case that time is a linear progression, but our experience of it is largely governed by circular motions both literal (in the case of the Earth that define daily and annual cycles) and metaphorical (in the case of the reproductive and life cycles that define the birth and death of generations).

A television show exists in a similar tension. Like any show, Friendship Is Magic is inherently episodic and thereby circular; it always starts with a cold open, followed by the opening theme, three acts separated by commercial breaks, and the closing theme. At the same time, it is a linear sequence (for the most part; I argued in the book that the first season's broadcast order is the chronological order in which episodes take place from the perspective of the characters, and in the second season the same order seems reasonable, with the option of switching "Family Appreciation Day" and "Hearth's Warming Eve") of episodes, with character arcs extending across and between entire seasons.

A significant number of episodes, this second season, have dealt with time, and in particular the circular perspective on time. "Hearts and Hooves Day," written by Meghan McCarthy and directed by James Wootton, is no exception. At the core of the episode is the celebration of an annual holiday similar to Valentine's Day, so of course we have the cyclical return of a festival, but more interesting are the other cycles it brings into play.

Specifically, the episode deals heavily with love, albeit from a child's perspective. The Cutie Mark Crusaders are at first enthused about the idea, even while recognizing themselves as too young for it; their goal in the first part of the episode is to find a "special somepony" for their teacher, Cheerilee, and they settle on the eldest of the Apple siblings, Big Macintosh, as the perfect candidate. However, when their initial attempts are unsuccessful, they turn to magic (complete with musical references to "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" as they mix their potion), and of course it all goes wrong.

How is this referencing the cyclical nature of time? Well, first of all, it is a recurrence of a previous plot; both this and "Lesson Zero" involve a spell intended to evoke desire producing dangerous obsession instead (and in both cases Big Macintosh is among the most affected). The book also subtly calls back to previous episodes depicting the history of Equestria, in that it tells the story of a prince and princess who neglected their duties, causing chaos to reign--the love poison may be the reason Equestria fell to Discord, in other words.

In an additional reference to a previous episode, when the CMC take the love potion book from Twilight, she offers them another tome, which we've seen before in the first episode--it is the book which contained the legend of Nightmare Moon in that episode, and in addition it's the book which opened to reveal the show to us in its very first cold open. Given the references to The Neverending Story last episode, and the fact that the same cover design was later used for the Elements of Harmony guidebook sold to fans, it seems reasonable to conclude that the entire series is contained in that book, and had it been read, we would be returning to the beginning of the series.

But there's a much more important cycle here, both in terms of real-world import and the themes of the season, because this is the first episode to really bring in love as a significant factor in the pony world. There has been very little in the way of romance prior to this episode--other than Rarity's fantasy of what the Grand Galloping Gala would be like in "The Ticket Master," and her awful experience on her date at the Gala itself in "Best Night Ever," romantic love has not been so much as mentioned. But by bringing in romantic love as a significant story element with this episode, the series opens itself up to two other forces that it has successfully kept away; this is also the first episode to hint at sex (with the about-to-be-wed couple sharing a bed, as well as arguabl the jelly fetishist pony) and death.

It's the latter that's most important for our purposes. During the musical number, the Cutie Mark Crusaders disrupt what is clearly a funeral (including a pony in a priest's collar, the only reference to religion of any sort existing in Equestria in the series to date). This is the first time in the entire series that death has been acknowledged, the first outright proof that ponies are not immortal (though there have been hints before, most notably the absence in the present of anyone except Granny Smith from the flashback sequences in "Family Appreciation Day"). Love, and specifically romantic love and the usually accompanying sex, are the means by which life perpetuates itself. They make birth possible, and to be born is to be under sentence of death.

Like us, ponies are born, live, love, die. They wax and wane like the moon's phases or the sun's seasons, an eternal cycle. But they grow, they learn, they progress. Both linear and circular, progressive and cyclical.

The second of the season's main themes, love, enters here. It may perhaps seem late, seventeen episodes in, to add a new theme, let alone the one that will close out the season. But ultimately, love is life is death is time; there is really only one theme here. It's the weekend before an annual holiday dedicated to love, one which I am typically enormously cynical about because it really was just created to sell greeting cards and chocolate. But if there's one thing Friendship Is Magic has taught us, it's that sincerity, authenticity, and goodness can arise from cynical sources, so just this once, why not celebrate love and the cycles of life.

After all, it's only a few days to Valentine's Day; specifically, it's February 11, 2012...

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Add a Word, Ruin a Movie

Stayed up WAY too late on Twitter last night playing "Add a Word, Ruin a Movie," where you, um, add a word to a movie title to imply a new, much worse movie. My favorites to come out of last night:

The Girl with the Temporary Dragon Tattoo
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Malfunction
Batman Forever Stamps
The Cabin in the Hundred-Acre Woods (one of mine, albeit slightly cheatery)
Equestria Mean Girls
Romy and Michele Bachmann's High School Reunion  

How about you folks? Got any of your own?

Friday, October 4, 2013

Pokemon Origins!

Watched the first episode of Pokemon Origins. The target audience is clearly older Pokemon fans, not the kids watching the anime. The animation quality is excellent, the character designs are much closer to the games, and the fights are just one notch more vicious--no blood (at least in the first episode), but there is biting and screaming that's a bit uncomfortable to watch. Basically it's got a good level of intensity of the sort that's usually lacking in the TV series.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

I acted pretty awesomely heroic that day (Daring Do and the Quest for the Sapphire Stone)

This is the article that should have gone up last Sunday, but didn't because of lack of buffer, plus mild fever, plus depressive episode, plus definitively confirming that I need to avoid butternut squash soup in the future, plus furlough from work... it's been a rough five days.

Can you imagine what a series would be like with
THESE ponies as the mane (GET IT?) characters?
Especially that yellow one, she looks pathetic.
It's February 4, 2012. Rihanna's deathgrip on the charts is finally broken by Adele, whose "Set Fire to the Rain" combines actually pretty good music and lyrics for pop with her obnoxiously nasal, twangy voice to accomplish something more interesting than it is good. The top movie is Chronicle, a found-footage movie about kids acquiring superpowers that neither makes them savvily aware of superhero cliches nor calls attention to the total absence of a superhero genre in its world, making it an extremely rare, possibly unique specimen of a movie whose themes were better addressed in something by M. Night Shyamalan.

 Meanwhile, on TV, we have the latest episode in The Adventures of Daring Do, "Daring Do and the Quest for the Sapphire Stone" (apparently aired in some markets as "Read It and Weep"), written to well above her usual standards of comfortable mediocrity by Cindy Morrow and directed by Jayson Thiessen. This episode starts very oddly--indeed, almost like a different show entirely--with an extended framing narrative in which a pony (who looks remarkably like a more colorful version of our heroine) is injured performing aerial stunts and, with nothing better to do, finds herself reluctantly reading a book, called, of course, Daring Do and the Quest for the Sapphire Stone.

The decidedly strange episode that results functions primarily by paralleling the experiences of this "Rainbow Dash" with our more familiar heroine, who of course is still injured after the events of the prior episode. Rainbow Dash suffers a similar wing injury, and while at first resistant on the grounds that she is an athlete and books are for "eggheads," ultimately begins to read and enjoy the adventures of Daring Do, serving as a surrogate for the adult (and especially adult male) members of the fandom, the so-called "doods," many of whom were likewise troubled by the contrast between the self-projected image required of a man in a society defined by anxious masculinity and patriarchal competition, and the pleasure of watching a "show for little girls."

The actual plot of the Daring Do story is a bare-bones pastiche of the Indiana Jones films, themselves pastiches of the adventure serials of the 1930s and 40s, so the story-within-a-story is fittingly also a pastiche-of-a-pastiche. There are also a number of musical references to the film of The Neverending Story, itself something of a mosaic of many different story fragments interacting. The novel in particular is fond of introducing interesting story premises and then refusing to follow up on them, saying instead "but that's another story for another time," and is therefore an excellent reference point for this episode--Rainbow Dash's adventures feel like an attempt to test the waters for a spinoff, but there is no evidence one was ever considered, truly another story for another time.

As Daring Do is captured by Ahuizotl, Rainbow Dash is released from the hospital, and thus no longer has access to the book. She breaks into the hospital to steal it and escapes, continuing the parallel between the characters as her flight mirrors a chase sequence between jungle cats and our heroine earlier in the adventure. Rainbow Dash is ultimately caught, however, and forced to admit that she actually does enjoy reading despite her self-image. Her friends neither reject nor make fun of her, and she resumes reading, allowing us to see another clever escape by Daring Do and the capture of the Sapphire Statue from Ahuizotl.

There are a number of oddities to resolve in understanding this episode, the least of which is its structure, which is actually an inversion of the fairly typical "reading is fun" episode of a children's show. Normally, such an episode would use familiar characters as a frame story around the book they are reading, so that a main character of the show can learn a lesson about reading. Of course, it's already well-established that Daring Do is an archeologist, albeit a rather active one, and thus she's a scholar and a reader. We've even seen her reading, with apparent pleasure, in past episodes. Unlike an ensemble show, which would likely have a main or prominent secondary character, The Adventures of Daring Do maintains Daring Do as the only main character, with no secondary character sufficiently important to get their own episode (at least until "Ahuizotl and the Persistant Pegasus" in Season 3, which is arguably as much an origin story for Daring Do as it is an Ahuizotl episode). It is thus necessary to make Daring Do the main character of the inner story, and create a frame story with new characters.

And of course it is worth remembering that the ultimate goal of The Adventures of Daring Do is to sell toys, so the existence of a group of colorful, distinctive friends who act as fans for her could help sell more toys, albeit ones more closely allied to the traditional "girls' show" aesthetic than the more adventurous and not particularly colorful Ms. Do. But once again, there is no evidence of any planned spinoff, in either toy or show form, so it seems likely the apparent resemblance to a stealth pilot is just that, an appearance.

No, a much more interesting conundrum is the presence of a kitten in the jungle, and its apparent equation to the "barking mad" pony in the Rainbow Dash escape sequence. The kitten can be mostly explained by Ahuizotl's keeping it in his lap as a pet later in the episode, as both a typical villain gesture and as a chilling reminder of his mythological namesake's propensity for drowning things, given the nearby river and the fact that the cat makes no appearances in future episodes. The pony seems similarly out of place, a rather heartless pun mocking the mentally ill in what seems an otherwise rather sweet and gentle setting, given that their version of Battleship involves peacefully finding and "raining on" various cloud formations. However, it does not seem to have an equivalent explanation, being instead a not particularly funny gag in an episode with some much funnier sequences. (If there's one thing the frame story does better than the Daring Do series in general, it's humor--the lengthy montage of Rainbow Dash's boredom, followed by the reveal that it was in real time and not a montage at all, is just one hilarious example.)

If instead we think about what the kitten represents, it becomes more apparent what the barking pony is for. In the initial chase sequence with Daring Do, the kitten represents the safe path to the temple containing the Sapphire Statue; kittens are a common signifier of harmlessness, as in the phrases "weak as a kitten" and "gentle as a kitten." The "barking mad" pony, on the other hand, represents Rainbow Dash's continued derangement, as her decision to leap over him represents the final loss of her ability to think rationally and distinguish between Daring Do's adventures and her own life (consider that, while she's not supposed to strain it, her wing is nonetheless functional when she chooses to attempt a rope swing after leaping over the pony). Only when presented with the closed book--a sealed door between her world and the world of Daring Do--is she able to return to normal.

As, perhaps unfortunately, must the audience. The closed book is followed by Rainbow Dash digging into the next adventure, leading directly into the next episode of The Adventures of Daring Do, but this is the last we'll see of this curious parallel character to the stripy-maned pegasus. As a reminder, we receive our own slammed-shut door between our world and theirs, in this case in the form of closing credits.

Next week: How do you follow up the inevitable "reading is fun" episode? Did you forget we're in February? The dreaded inevitable "Valentine's day episode," of course.