Sunday, 5 January 2014

Judgement is Magic - Season 4 Thus Far

Season 4 of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has proven, thus far, to be fairly perplexing to many members of the MLP Analysis community, myself included. I would not say that Season 4 has been a bad season up to this point; rather, that it has been a very confusing one. While the episodes Princess Twilight Sparkle and Flight to the Finish have been fairly well received, the other four episodes released so far have been extremely contentious. I have noticed a number of recurring elements that have raised concern as to the direction of the current season, and I am not the only person to make these observations or draw these conclusions. Digibrony discussed the matter at length in his review of Bats!, and Tommy Oliver released a video dedicated to this topic. I happen to share many of these views, but I feel that my position requires further clarification.

In order to understand the issues that I have with Season 4 thus far, it is important to consider the nature of the show in its earlier stages. Episodes of Friendship is Magic tended to fit into one of three categories. Adventure episodes appear very rarely as a season premiere or finale, and are usually in two parts. These episodes are used to give an exciting start (or ending) to a season, and to develop the show’s setting and build continuity (most notably in the pilot episode). The stories in these episodes are notable for their use of an epic conflict and scale to deliver a narrative with a very grand theme and message. The adventure episodes establish the history and philosophy of Equestria, building the setting in which all other episodes take place.

The most common style of episode is ‘slice-of-life’. These episodes tend to involve a fairly realistic conflict, and a realistic resolution, with fantasy elements appearing as a complements to the core narrative. While the adventure episodes present Equestria on a grand scale and develop the setting as a whole, slice-of-life episodes show how the inhabitants of Equestria live on a day-to-day basis, while exploring more minor aspects of the setting. The appeal of slice-of-life episodes is derived primarily from the characters. The subject matter and events of these episodes tend to be relatively mundane, so the core appeal comes from the portrayal and development of characters. Character development in slice-of-life episodes tends to be closely related to the episode’s lesson, and it is here that Friendship is Magic excels. Every episode must convey a philosophical lesson, to be recounted at the end of the episode in a letter to Celestia. Because of this, the writers have to ensure that the events of the episode actually match the lesson at the end, so a lot of effort is expended on developing the characters by having them learn these lessons in a convincing way. By using this format, each episode became an exploration of philosophical ideas, with complex characters who developed over the course of the show. I know that many people are critical of the letters to Celestia, but I personally consider them to be a vital component of the show’s success. They are largely unnecessary to the narrative, save for The Return of Harmony; however, they serve as tools for the writers, ensuring that each episode develops a character and explores a philosophical idea. This aspect of Friendship is Magic sets it apart, not only from other cartoons, but from other media in general. Very rarely will a television programme place this level of emphasis on exploring ethics and philosophy, and do so consistently in almost every episode.

The third episode style is more a subcategory of slice-of-life, which I like to call ‘slice-of-adventure’. These are episodes which, for the most part, maintain the same format as a standard slice-of-life episode, but involve a more epic conflict or scale. A notable example of such an episode is Dragonshy. In this episode, a slumbering dragon is polluting Equestria by breathing out smog, and the Mane 6 are tasked with getting the dragon to relocate. This is definitely not the sort of conflict that occurs in most people’s lives; indeed, this conflict is inspired by The Hobbit, an epic fantasy adventure story. However, Dragonshy is primarily a character study of Fluttershy, much like a slice-of-life episode, with the epic conflict used as a catalyst for character exploration and development. The episode never attempts to create an epic tone or serious dramatic tension, as the focus of the story is not the dragon or the fate of Equestria, but Fluttershy’s internal conflict. The dragon is there to bring out that conflict, without being the focus of the episode.

Having established these three categories for episodes, let us take a look at Season 4. Thus far, we have seen six episodes of the season (including one two-part episode). For the most part, I enjoyed the season premiere and Flight to the Finish, though there are a few problems that I will discuss later. Unfortunately, I have a number of significant problems with the other four episodes. A number of patterns seem to have established themselves, which could have ramifications for the show if they become a season-long trend.

My greatest criticism of Season 4 thus far is the relative lack of focus on the lessons of each episode. The episodes certainly have lessons, made clear to the audience through entries in the journal, but these lessons feel very poorly integrated into the narratives of the episodes in question. In Castle Mane-ia, I would go so far as to say that there was no lesson to be found. Twilight Sparkle claims to have learned that reading about the history of the castle in the princesses’ old journal helped her to remain calm in the present, but this lesson falls apart given that Twilight never showed any signs of anxiety to begin with, nor did she attempt to use her newfound knowledge to reassure Spike, who was showing signs of fear. The lesson given at the end of the episode is not apparent in the narrative.

Daring Don’t was much more effective at delivering a lesson, but the execution feels very clumsy. The lesson is that by putting Daring Do on a pedestal, Rainbow Dash diminished her own self-worth and failed to perform to her full potential. Unfortunately, the episode accomplishes this by having Rainbow Dash act in an extremely idiotic and flanderised manner. Rainbow Dash is extremely obtrusive and disrespectful of Daring Do’s personal space; she talks loudly around the enemy campfire, risking exposing Daring Do; she stands around while Daring Do is under attack (twice), at most offering to throw Daring Do her hat (which results in her defeat and capture); all despite being an established hero who has saved other ponies, and in some cases the entire country, in high-pressure situations. The issue is not that Rainbow Dash underestimated her self-worth. The issue is that Rainbow Dash acted like an idiot, in a manner contrary to established characterisation. For this reason, the lesson does not work for me, because it was built around Rainbow Dash’s behaviour being forced and out-of-character. There is no serious exploration of the idea of diminished self-worth, because of the over-the-top silliness of Rainbow Dash’s character.

Power Ponies is the episode that really started to worry me about the direction of the season. The episode is set up as a Spike episode, in which he will grapple with issues of self-worth before realising that he is just as important as a member of the Mane 6. I was particularly pleased that the writers directly addressed the fact that Spike is perceived as a bumbling sidekick who primarily serves as comic relief, as it seemed as though the writers were planning to subvert this portrayal and start taking Spike seriously as a character. Unfortunately, once the main characters are sucked into the comic book, the episode’s setup is largely dropped. Most of the remaining time is spent focusing on the new superpowers of the Mane 6. Spike, not having any superpowers, seems almost irrelevant at this point, as very little effort is made to explore his character. Fluttershy’s character arc is given more focus in this episode, despite the fact that she is supposed to be a secondary character. By the end of the episode, it seems that the status quo is largely unchanged with regard to Spike, and in the following episode he is written in the same way as before; that is, primarily for comic relief at his expense. It seems that nothing has changed, despite the setup of Power Ponies indicating that this was the intent behind the episode.

Bats! was, for me, a perplexing episode. It begins with the kind of character-driven conflict that I love to see in Friendship is Magic. A conflict arises, two ponies have different views on how to approach it, and they must debate with one another in order to come to a resolution. The first half of the episode provides a fantastic setup, establishing a conflict with no clear solution and presenting the positions of Applejack and Fluttershy. At this point, the episode has a brilliant foundation on which to build a discussion about ethics, and an exploration of the characters of Applejack and Fluttershy.

Then, Fluttershy turns into a bat pony.

I cannot fathom what the writers were thinking when they chose this direction for the episode. How is this a logical choice for the continuation of this story? How does it contribute to the narrative of the Applejack vs Fluttershy pest control debate? The episode forgoes its opportunity to explore a complex ethical issue, in favour of wacky high jinks that have minimal relevance to the first half of the episode. The episode’s lessons about peer pressure and the risks of taking shortcuts are both very important lessons, but they are essentially glanced over to make room for the Flutterbat subplot. I understand that the writers wanted to have some fun, but when an episode is subject to time constraints, a writer needs to prioritise the most important content and cut content that is not needed.

I could go into a great amount of detail, but I will withhold further criticisms at this point. The upcoming episode, Rarity Takes Manehattan, looks to be extremely promising, and might well dismiss a lot of the concerns I have as to the direction of Season 4. For better or worse, join me in the next instalment of Judgement is Magic.



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