|Even back in the 80s poor Applejack could
never catch a break…
Last week, I promised flashbacks, secret origins, and the power of history to shape the present. By which I obviously meant it’s time for another Generation 1 guest article by Spoilers Below!
(Aside: click on the links whose words interest you, don’t worry about chasing down every little thing (unless you feel so inclined…))
The Letter: Dear Princess Celestia,
Sometimes it feels like the way you think about your life and the way the world should be just don’t match up to the way things really are. There are some really horrible things out there, and it can be really difficult to keep living your life in the way you choose when they turn their attention towards you. But that doesn’t mean you you should give up! You can always meet new friends who can help you! Sometimes asking for help can be difficult or feel strange, but in the end you lose nothing by the attempt. Be brave! In the end it’s much better than suffering alone. What else are friends for?
Your faithful student,
ps. Why am I pink in this episode? And my mane! Did the animators mess up again?
What is it? A 22 minute special produced by Hasbro to hock the new “year two” line of pony toys.
What’s it about? A horrible monster is attempting to enslave the ponies to pull his chariot so he can release the Rainbow of Darkness to conquer Ponyland. With the help of his two vile minions, he kidnaps nearly enough to enact his evil plan. Can the ponies find someone who can help free their friends and stop the monster’s reign of terror?
Why is it significant? This is where it all begins, creating a web of relations and links that proceed outwards, encompassing everything without leaving the confines of its very small boundaries. Without George Arthur Bloom’s pilot, none of this happens. The Sea Ponies and Year Two toys aren’t a huge sales success and Hasbro shutters the pony development division. There’s no reason for Megan to come back and help the ponies defeat Catrina, no movie, no television show. Lauren Faust doesn’t have a character to get her screen name from and, already having much experience with round and stubby armed female protagonists, instead ends up revamping her other childhood love, the Strawberry Shortcake franchise. Shorties, a band of periphery demographic male fans of the show, take the internet by storm. The trials and tribulations of Strawberry Shortcake, Ginger Snap, Plum Pudding, Angel Cake, Huckleberry Pie, Orange Blossom, and their mascot/familiar Custard the Cat teach us the importance of friendship and the magic of eating delicious desserts. Moony Muffin, a background character with a silver mailbag who ends up crosseyed due to an animation error, inspires the internet to pay especially close attention to the backgrounds, and soon fandoms for all the various minor characters spring up. The “Baker’s Half-Dozen” inspire cosplays, comics, podcasts, fan art, music, and transformative life experiences in millions world wide. Conventions are held…
Is it worth it? Hell yes! I mean, come on, it’s only 22 minutes. You weren’t doing anything important right now, were you? And you are a real fan of the show, aren’t you? Don’t worry, the essay will still be here when you get back from the YouTube tab.
Are there songs? Yep. One of them performed by a broadway singer, too. Shame they couldn’t write as well as she could sing, but that’s why you can do live scrubbing, isn’t it?
What else was happening? April 14, 1984. I have been alive for less than a week, and thus miss the first showing. The day before, the Indian military launches Operation Meghdoot, and succeed in claiming the disputed Siachen Glacier from Pakistan. This kicks off the Siachen Conflict, which is still being fought today. The day after, fez wearing comedian and magician Tommy Cooper will die of a heart attack on live television in the middle of a sketch, and it takes way longer than it should for people to figure out that he’s not faking it. We are 9 days away from the public announcement of the AIDS virus’ existence in the United States. Kenny Loggins remains at the top of the charts with Footloose, the title song from the film that was released back in February. Movies this week include Friday the 13th IV: The Final Chapter, which needless to say wasn’t, and Swing Shift, a strange film notable for the inability of the two stars, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, to realize that they were supposed to be in a serious drama, rather than a lighthearted romantic comedy, a misunderstanding of genre we’ll revisit in a little bit. And that morning President Reagan, a firm believer in the domino theory, says he will continue aid to El Salvador despite many vocal critics, believing it to be an important step in stopping the influence of the Soviet Union in South America.
Speaking of President Reagan, one of the most important — whether good or bad is debatable, but important — things he did as president as far as we’re concerned was push through deregulation of children’s television programming. As Dr. Toon tells us: “The impact of deregulation on children’s programming was astounding. Cultural historian Tom Englehardt noted that between 1984 and 1985 cartoons featuring licensed characters increased by some 300%. By the end of 1985 there were more than 40 animated series running concurrently with licensed products and active marketing campaigns.” Half-hour toy commercials were now A Thing, with the various companies and conglomerates pumping out as many toyetic characters as possible. If you were nervous about Reagan Appointee Mark “Regulate It Like a Toaster” Fowler’s FCC trying something (yeah, right), just be sure to tack on a little message at the end or somewhere in the broadcast to let the children know what they should have learned and you’re good to go. It’s educational now! It didn’t really matter what you wrote, provided it displayed the toys in as many exciting and fun scenes as possible. Kids of that age and era would simply turn on the television and watch whatever was on, so if you were on the right channel, you had it made. No one can get parents to open up their wallets like an excited child.
Before this, the ponies were just injection moulded hunks of plastic shaped into vague pony forms. The special quite literally animated them into actual characters… well, kinda. It’s a slow process, with a two year gap in between two specials and the film, and another before there was an actual television program. But it is a beginning, and however unintentional it may have been, it’s not hard to see Friendship is Magic as the logical endpoint. This is the pebble that starts the snowball rolling down the hill. This is the raindrop that is responsible for the storm.
Faces familiar to viewers of Friendship is Magic abound: there’s Applejack working the fields, there’s Twilight trying to teleport down off a cliff face, there’s Rainbow Dash Firefly doing her aerial acrobatics. As is typical of those who don’t obsessively cut out and keep the info cards on the back of the packages, we’ve long since forgotten the name of the white and purple unicorn (Glory, maybe?), but Rarity sounds like a pretty name, doesn’t it? And we’re of course shipping her with Applejack less than 2 minutes in. What’s more romantic than licking apple off of someone’s cheek? And from the opening, we’re no doubt poised for a program about blank-flank Ember learning to like herself even though, as an Earth pony, she can’t fly or do magic. Twilight assures her that she’ll find her own special talent sometime soon. It’ll be an easy way to kill 22 minutes into forgettableness, and considering the generally low expectations for children’s entertainment, Bloom could have simply pulled a Terry “Good Enough” Nation and packed it in early: Ember runs away, is chased after by one of the older ponies who doesn’t want to see her hurt, saves the both of them by making a campfire (her special talent!) so they don’t freeze during the terribly cold night in the forest, is found by her other friends the next morning who assure her that they missed her, everyone hugs, someone makes a pun on the word “fire” (“And I bet you’re all fired up to take another camping trip!”) and everyone laughs, roll credits. Took me 30 seconds to come up with. I’m sure a professional television writer could do it even faster.
But consider this: disposable genres are often where the most interesting things happen: pulp novels, anime, comic books, etc. To be fair, this kind of mercenary media usually ends up as garbage. Expectations are low, and honestly most of the results are crap, but sometimes due to a magical combination of lowered expectations and the relative freedom to produce literally anything that can be published or animated, amazing things happen. And also consider this: one of the best parts about being a kid with toys is that there are no world boundries or continuity or canon to worry about. It may have taken 20 years for a GI Joe/Transformers crossover comic to be produced, but no such boundaries exist on the playroom floor. You can invent your own world, and what you say goes.
So just when we’re getting comfortable, about 2 minutes in, the show turns on the caps lock and swerves left into a really heavy and dark kidnapping and enslavement plot. One moment Applejack is trying to collect apples and cope with Firefly messing up the Cutback Drop Turn Sonic Rainboom Double Inside Out Loop above her, the next she’s running for her life as dragons wyverns stratadons swoop in from the sky to kidnap her friends, yoke them to a chariot, and transform them into horrible monsters. It’s almost as if another program has invaded this one. Viewed through this lens, the appearance of the Cen/Minotaur Tirac, his winged baboon minion Scorpan, and his minion the baby dragon Spike isn’t really that odd. Our young players have access to some He-Man and Thundercats toys as well. And the only thing that’s going to fix that is a girl who really knows what’s going on, a regular girl just like you, dear viewer!
(aside: And doesn’t having a centaur crossed with a minotaur work just wonderfully as a dark mirror of the ponies? He’s still a four legged, hoofed creature, capable of all the pulling and farm work that a pony would be, and every bit as sentient and capable of thought, but with the added strangeness of the minotaur torso jutting out of the horse body making the sentience more explicit. And what was the minotaur but the horrible son of Queen Pasiphaë of Crete, created as punishment for King Minos’ greed?)
Because we are working from a formula, a recipe if you will, that was established over 100 years ago. It was fully explicated in George Orwell’s seminal essay on Boys’ Weeklies, which pretty much codified how children’s serial entertainment works. You keep the characters just vague and broad and varied enough that there’s a good chance that any given reader will have something in common with one of them and want to see more of their misadventures, and make sure they all make appearances often enough that the reader will sit through an episode that isn’t about their favorite (ask any given fan, and I’m sure they’ll be able to tell you which pony each of their friends are, and which one is Best). And of course, there’s a tent pole character around whom all these characters will swirl. Megan is, without a doubt, intended to be this character, a viewer projection figure allowing you, the viewer at home, to have adventures with her favorite ponies. Having so few traits of her own (she likes horses, she is a girl, she likes friendship, she gets mad when people try to hurt her friends), it’s beyond simple to mentally fill in whatever gaps you need to make her likable.
And this demand for an easy to relate to Point Of View character is a strange thing in retrospect. Back in the 80s the world was much more closed off and close minded, and there was a general expectation that people had no interest in people unlike themselves — a view which sadly persists today in too many places, but is nowhere near as prevalent as it was in the past. (aside: witness how many shows with “breakout characters” quickly quit focusing on the bland male lead with emotional problems and start focusing on the funny and/or interesting person) Needless to say, this is demonstrably false: I can relate to the mental state and reactions of a fictional purple unicorn far better than I can most television characters despite not being myself a purple unicorn. Our host feels similarly about a yellow pegasus, and I’m pretty sure he’s a human. We can understand things just fine through the eyes of a purple unicorn; it doesn’t need to be someone like us. As a result, Megan feels superfluous. There’s no reason Firefly couldn’t go straight to the Moochick to get the amulet and rainbow herself. But this is the old show; we’re still solidly in the nigredo phase of the great work. The elements are all on the table, but it will take someone a lifetime to put them together. And so Firefly kidnaps brings back a normal human girl to fight for them, despite Megan’s insistence that she can’t do anything to help.
There’s a tradition in children’s literature to abstract violence, to shield young eyes from the absolute brutality that even one punch can inflict on someone. Whether this is good or not is debatable, as children probably don’t need to see, for example, what it really looks like when someone is shot, but at the same time hiding the real horrors behind red and blue laser rifles belittles just how serious and deadly armed conflict is. Sailor Moon’s shining light attacks are perhaps the logical endpoint of this: the enemy is simply washed away with a flash of light or battered with a gigantic heart and ends up a puff of ash and a symbolic object related to their gimmick (with the added benefit of allowing you to save about 4 minutes worth of animation per episode with recycled attacks and transformation sequences). What violence could be cleaner than that? The Rainbow of Light is not quite so rough as that, but the comparison holds. (And wasn’t the original Friendship is Magic pitch essentially a magical girl show?)
But magic isn’t all good. It can transform innocent ponies into horrible dragons. They need a worthy foe after all, and what else but darkness could be the opposite of a rainbow? One could question why a cen/mino-taur needs a chariot to get around, but that’s perhaps the wrong nitpick for a character as focused on control as Tirac. Of course he could walk or gallop on his own; he wants you to do it for him. Hence why he forces Scropan to do it for him, why he abuses Spike and manipulates his desire to be included in something, anything, his insistence that Scorpan address him on one knee as master… Tirac doesn’t want friends, he wants servants and slaves. Though as astute viewers may have noticed, Scorpan simply isn’t trying very hard, which is the problem with relying on fear and intimidation to make people do what you want. It takes the threat of decapitating Spike to get Scorpan to finish the job, and, as any good media viewer ought to know, threatening the cute mascot character is the surest way to get a villain killed.
(Aside: That the entire scenario effortlessly reads like an older sibling stealing your toys and the quest to get them back can’t possibly be accidental…)
Spike ends up imprisoned alongside Ember (who is too small to be transformed and pull the chariot), always the misfit of whatever group he’s in, but a loyal friend nevertheless. Spike not fitting in and being isolated from his peer group, then finding another which is more loving and accepting, will be a reoccurring theme throughout many stories over the next 30 years, and that he has endured as a character this long speaks to the necessity of this story being told. It’s one thing if the ponies all get along with one another and with the stand in for the viewers at home; it’s quite another if they can be friends with their opposite and make him feel more included than he ever was among the other dragons. (aside: It’s tempting to say here that it’s because the nice boys aren’t scary and you ought to play with them too, but it reads just as well as an allegory for learning to love your stepfamily after a divorce, or dealing with all the mental confusion of being adopted. You don’t need to be biologically related to someone for them to be family, just as you don’t need to be a pony to be a pony.) Not that Scorpan will allow Spike to be hurt. Just as he insured Megan didn’t die from being dropped when Firefly kicked the stratadon that was kidnapping her. Why would an evil monkey creature do that, dear viewers? Have you guessed our twist ending yet?
It is decided that the only person who can help them is the Moochick, a mushroom-dwelling, absentminded magician who keeps losing things in his horde. After a literal song and dance, the ponies and Megan receive the Rainbow of Light, the only thing that can defeat the Rainbow of Darkness, and Tony Randall gets an easy paycheck. On the way to the castle, Applejack slips through the slats of a rickety old bridge, and Megan dives into the river after her. Our last concession to “traditional” girl television entertainment is given in the form of a Busby Berkeley style musical number (Girls love musicals, right?) with the Sea Ponies, who disquietingly have the exact same heads as the regular ponies. They save Applejack and Megan from drowning, and give Megan a shell to summon them whenever they need aid. Given how horribly catchy their song is, it’s the least they can do.
This favor is cashed in almost immediately, so the ponies can get across the moat and enter Midnight Castle. Tirac is almost too delighted by this turn of events, as he now has the last pony he needs. Applejack is transformed into a horrible dragon, and Tirac soars into the air to unleash his power and let eternal night reign forever. Not that this can be allowed to happen. Firefly can fly like the wind, and the ponies play keep away for as long as they can, battling the guards, teleporting all over, making prodigious leaps, and soaring quick as can be. Betraying his master, Scorpan ascends to the air and battles Tirac directly, the two beasts grappling savagely, before Scorpan is shoved from the chariot, thankfully landing on a bale of hay to keep him from being dashed on the rough stone roof below.
And then Tirac opens the bag around his neck and lets the Rainbow of Darkness free. This was supposed to be a show about magical friendship horses. What happened?
Just selling toys, that is all this is meant to do, right?. It had no other intended purpose. It’s a commercial you get to watch in between the other commercials on Saturday morning. For those of us at a certain age, the undeniable truth is that almost all of our beloved childhood characters and heroes were created to sell us things. Optimus Prime was killed not to provide dramatic tension and introduce children to the idea of death, but because Hasbro wanted to introduce a new line of characters and needed a convenient excuse to get the old toys out of the way. The MLP movie, as we discussed before, didn’t even bother with explanations; they simply rolled out a new cast and pretended they were the old one, then tried to sell us a new playset, Paradise Estates. It would be easy to be cynical. After all, we grew up in a time when every other story was about the horrible world our parents were leaving for our children, the sports heroes we looked up are now murderers or drug addicts, the jobs we went to college for have 300 better experienced and better connected applicants than us, and good luck finding someone to love when you live with your parents and are unemployed. Said parents who probably got divorced at some point during your childhood, by the way. By any stretch we have the right to be annoyed and dark and bitter.
And yet, and yet, there is something there that can be loved anyways, despite the commercial nature of its creation, without irony or appeals to camp. Something sincere in spite of the cynicism. These are cool toys, aren’t they? They do things. Sure, the hunk of plastic might be permanently affixed in one pose, but look what it could do with your imagination? They run and fly and fight! Look at the adventures a normal young girl can have with them. Can you even dream of the adventures you’ll be having once you have some of them for your very own? That’s the message, isn’t it?
If “The purpose of art is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable,” then this is art, isn’t it? What would be so wrong about dreaming of a better world? Why not let it in? Why not become the change you wish to see in the world? as that banal old platitude goes. Much like Plato’s Republic, the world already exists if you act like you’re a citizen of it. It doesn’t mean you can’t be angry or upset about things that are wrong. But rather than wallow in it, why not try to change? Be a little nicer and a little more forgiving of others faults? (aside: if you skipped all the rest, this is the link to follow and watch. It’s the important one.) Why not give someone the benefit of the doubt? Why not help someone with no expectation of something in return? Why not be a little less selfish, a little more compassionate, a little more willing to stand up for what’s right? Everyone acts like it’s some horribly complicated and difficult thing, and while the latter is true, the it still only requires a little effort and sacrifice to figure out. It doesn’t matter if you’ll never fly like Firefly and Medly, or jump far like Bowtie, or disappear like Twilight. Everyone can be nice. Everyone can figure out what’s really important to them. Everyone can let a little light into their lives. Effort does not require talent or skill.
(aside: Isolationism isn’t the answer, by the way, and unlike the film the special in no way endorses it. Kindness and forgiveness do not preclude self-defense or getting angry. Get help. Get your friends back. Don’t just lay there and take it. Remember that Ponyland is constantly under assault from horrible monsters and really genuinely terribly people, often who want to destroy the ponies for no other reasons than petty jealousy or selfishness. Equestria is right on the border of the Everfree forest, home to horrible hydras and gigantic lunar bears, where the plants grow and the animals take care of themselves and the clouds move all on their own! The gates to Tartarus, Hell itself!, lay within walking distance. And yet the ponies remain, happy to forgive those who repent, and accept those in need.)
And it is then, after all their options are exhausted, that Megan unleashes the Rainbow of Light. It’s a tiny thing, barely bigger than her palm. What could it possibly do?
Light is a strange substance, especially when compared to darkness. Because of the way it works, outside of a black hole, there is literally no way for darkness to be so dark than even a little light can’t brighten it. Darkness is an absence, a lack, a void waiting to be filled. There’s a bit in Alan Moore’s Top Ten that has stuck with me ever since I read it years and years ago. In it, two men have been fused together by a teleportation accident and will soon die. The one is a follower of the Great Game, an intergalactic chess match being played across the galaxy between the light and the darkness. The fellow he’s bonded to, an ordinary businessman, asks how the gamer can keep going. He’s going to die and there’s nothing he can do about it. Hasn’t he wasted his life on this silly game? Looking up at the night sky, the points of light are so few. Surely the light side must be losing. What hope is there? No, the gamer replies, a serene smile on his horse-like visage. We are winning. It used to be all dark.
And it is just so here. It doesn’t matter how dark and tenebrous the Rainbow of Darkness is. It is useless compared to even a little bit of color. Tirac is obliterated in a wave of light, never to be seen again, all alone in the end. The transformed ponies are returned to their original states and placed gently upon the ground. The stratadons return to being butterflies. The guards turn back into bluebirds. And Scorpan becomes his old self again, a noble, nameless, mustachioed prince who can resume ruling his kingdom. But Spike? Spike doesn’t change back into anything. He’s always been a baby dragon. He’ll always be a baby dragon. There’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone can share a laugh at Ember sneezing so hard she falls into the shallow river, and in the end even she can laugh too. She’s learned no lesson, hasn’t discovered any special talent, has had no transformative journey or life changing realization. And that’s alright, too. Someday, when she’s ready, she will. Everything was lovely once again.
Because friendship is optimal. I would submit that that’s been the thesis of the series from the very start.
Coda: In 2005, Lauren Faust decides to create a DeviantArt account. Aliases are hard to come up with, so why not the name of a favorite character from her childhood? The common spelling is long since claimed by fans of the Joss Whedon program, but in true internet fashion, a few letter swaps that preserve pronunciation work out fine. And the rest is history. And as we all know now, Fyre-Flye is Best Pony…
But wait, wait, wait! In the opening credits who’s this silent red and white unicorn, hanging out in the background, then getting carried off by the stratadons?
|Moondancer? Yeah, right, sure. That’s her name. I believe you.
So why don’t they her that ever, huh?
We should have known. The seeds were there all along. She just needed to find her wings and transform into her full alicorn self.
“Look out Twilight! Here I go!”
-Some fanon holds that Firefly is Rainbow Dash’s mom. Works for me. I’m sure there’s fanfic of her and Rainbow Dad Bolt meeting for the first time somewhere on the internet.
–Sandy Duncan is one of those strange performers who adults think children are aware of and care about. It’s a small class, usually featuring young women who’ve played Peter Pan, and someone else can unpack the various implications of thinking kids will love a woman who dresses up as a young boy and carries children off to have adventures in Never Never Land. But Sandy Duncan must be important to this program, because all the commercial breaks remind us she’s in it. It’s quite rare to have an actress repeatedly credited in the subtitle of every commercial bump, after all. Now, please don’t take this to mean she’s bad, because honestly she’s not. She’s quite talented as a singer and dancer, and she’s the best pony voice actress in the show chiefly because she doesn’t go for an odd breathy high pitched rasp whenever she speaks. She’ll reprise this role for years and years, too, in between being the cool aunt on The Hogan Family.
-The parallels between the special and The Mare in the Moon/Elements of Harmony are pretty obvious, and as you’d expect, the more modern show avoids almost all of the things the Special gets wrong. Twilight doesn’t need a human girl nor a magical mushroom wizard to give her special powers; she acquires the magic jewelry through the powers of filibuster and sophism friendship and sagacity. They don’t need a deus ex sea ponies to keep themselves from drowning in the river, because they can work out a solution for themselves (“Oh, it’s fine, my dear. Short tails are in this season. Besides… it’ll grow back.”). Applejack doesn’t slip off any bridges, and Rainbow Dash can catch Twilight before she falls. Twilight manages to learn the magic of friendship, rather than nothing. And in the end, it is not the villain’s lieutenant that is redeemed and transformed back into his old royal self, but the villain herself, turning out to be as much a princess as Celestia herself, a much more powerful ending.
-The reason Firefly and many of the other original ponies aren’t in FiM is due to a huge and complicated copyright kerfuffle that Hasbro is in over the original rights to the characters. They managed to keep Spike and Applejack due to their inclusion in the G3 line of toys, but seem to have lost the rest. Sadly there is very little authoritative and properly sourced information I can find on the details of this. In the end, it doesn’t much matter. The show is just as good with the names and colors being a little different.
Next week: Flashbacks, secret origins, and the power of history to shape the present. And you still still don’t know whether I’m going in production order or broadcast order!