…I’m watching Angel. (I had only ever seen the first season before.) And damn, I’d forgotten how good the theme song is!
No, but seriously, “Bats!” is the best episode of Friendship Is Magic in a long time. I’d have to rewatch “Magic Duel,” but it’s at least the best since that episode, and possibly the best since Season 2.
|Pop between realities, home in time for muffins.|
Let’s talk about a pair of boxes.
In his excellent, ongoing project TARDIS Eruditorum, Phil Sandifer discusses the so-called E-Space stories of Doctor Who, a period in which the Fourth Doctor and his companion was thrown into an alternate universe by a deep-space encounter with a phenomenon referred to as a Charged Vacuum Emboitment. Sandifer makes the point that “emboit,” etymologically, looks like it should mean “to place in a box,” and a Charged Vacuum Emboidment is therefore a box containing a vacuum that has a charge differential across it, not a bad description of a CRT television screen. The TARDIS, in other words, smacks into the TV screen and ends up slipping into another universe (read: TV show).
Sandifer has a lot of fun with this concept of emboidment throughout the rest of the series, and of course he does not fail to notice the presence of another prominent box that contains the series, the TARDIS.
As I noted in my article on Time Lords and Terror, the TARDIS is a mobile version of a classic staple of British children’s literature, the everyday object that contains liminal space. Well-known examples include Narnia’s wardrobe, Harry Potter’s Platform 9 3/4, and (most importantly for the work we’re tackling today) Alice’s looking glass. These gates to another world normally lead to a new space where adventure can occur; what makes the TARDIS near-unique is that the space within it is entirely liminal; it is when one emerges that one finds oneself in a new world.
This pair of boxes is a large part of what gives Doctor Who its longevity; the power of the TARDIS is that it can emboit almost any genre or story, bringing it into Doctor Who and playing with it.
Early in the fan-made audio drama series Doctor Whooves and Assistant, Ditzy Doo mishears “paradox” as “pair of box,” spawning a minor running gag through the rest of the series. This is, of course, a complete coincidence, but it’s a fun coincidence. Let’s run with it.
Interestingly, just as the rigid structure of Ace Attorney ensures that any crossover with it becomes Ace Attorney with some unusual guest stars, the flexibility of Doctor Who has the same effect. Because Doctor Who is so readily able to emboit any other story it comes across (even, contra Sandifer, “the story where the Doctor is a serial rapist”–you just have to add the final twist that it was the Valeyard or the Dream Lord), almost any fanwork crossing Doctor Who with something else will tend to deform toward standard Doctor Who with characters from that something else as companions. Friendship Is Magic has the slight advantage in this regard of having no humanoid characters, but in the end this just means that Doctor Whooves and Assistant evolves toward standard Doctor Who with Friendship Is Magic characters as companions and a pony-shaped Doctor.
Most tellingly, Doctor Whooves and Assistant‘s serial nature (to date, four of the six stories occur across multiple episodes) causes it to develop a similar property to Classic Who, which is that it is nigh-impossible to marathon. (A fact which I learned to my dismay this past week.) The pacing of episodes makes attempting to watch them back-to-back extremely grueling, which isn’t helped by the fact that this is amateur work. Most of the episode ideas are quite good, but the execution is sometimes lacking, most notably with the painful age-regression sequence in Episode 5 and the interminable, mediocre musical numbers in Episode 8 Part 2. Like the classic series, there is quite a lot of padding, especially in the crossover with Doctor Whooves Adventures that comprises episode 7, where the split across two series means that many scenes depicted twice, those which aren’t frequently have to be summarized for characters that weren’t present, and on top of that many ideas and debates are recycled for no apparent reason. Coupled with the lack of any banter between the two Doctors (the primary source of entertainment value in any multi-Doctor episode) and the total run time of three and a half hours, this makes episode 7 the most grueling slog of the series. (Though it could be rather a lot worse–the same writer, under another pseudonym, is responsible for the vile “Ask Discorded Whooves” Tumblr.)
At the start, the series seems to invert the emboitment which Doctor Who usually performs. The first story, which takes place across episodes 1 through 3, places the Doctor entirely within Friendship Is Magic. Indeed, his presence is entirely irrelevant; he ends up (together with Ditzy Doo) witnessing but not influencing the events of the Friendship Is Magic premiere, reflecting his and Ditzy’s roles as background ponies. The next story, episode 4, appears to continue this trend of placing the Doctor on the fringes of a Friendship Is Magic episode, as the Doctor returns to Equestria for Winter Wrap-Up and is guided through the pony holiday by Ditzy. However, once the two of them stumble upon and thwart an alien invasion of Equestria, the story becomes one of the most familiar and well-established story structures for Doctor Who, the pseudo-historical.
In a pseudo-historical, the Doctor lands in an established period of history (or at least, that period as filtered through the popular consciousness), but rather than interacting with that history itself, he instead deals with some science-fictional menace that threatens to disrupt that history; examples from the most recent Doctor’s run include “Cold War” and “Vampires in Venice.” However, because Doctor Whooves and Assistant takes place in the world of Friendship Is Magic, the equivalent to history is aired episodes of the show; it is thus the stories set in the “present day” of the program that function as pseudo-historicals.
In other words, episode 4 (as well as episode 6, which is set during “Over a Barrel”) emboits the Doctor within an episode of Friendship Is Magic, but then emboits that episode within a standard Doctor Who formula. Episode 5 then takes this further by placing all of Equestria within a Doctor Who episode. In this episode (on of the series’ best), the Doctor travels to the future of Equestria only to find a Cyber-pony invasion underway, having an adventure which is both recognizably in Equestria and in a Doctor Who episode (notably, the episode’s climax is reminiscent of both Doctor Who‘s “Closing Time” and Friendship Is Magic‘s “A Canterlot Wedding”).
The most recent episode, episode 8, is notable for introducing the first real continuity to the series, something which is much more pronounced in Doctor Who than Friendship Is Magic (the vague hints of a season-long arc in Season 4 of the latter notwithstanding). The presence of another time traveler, the introduction of a new companion, and the first defeated villain to swear revenge all suggest that the series is starting to develop an overarching plot in addition to the individual stories making it up, becoming more serialized and thereby more Who-like.
In the end, Doctor Whooves and Assistant has little to say about Friendship Is Magic or Doctor Who. Increasingly, it is just a fan-made Doctor Who audio drama with a lot of pony puns. But that’s a fairly entertaining thing to be, especially if taken in chunks no larger than a half-hour or so.
How to participate in the liveblog chat:
Option 1: Whenever you watch the episode, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting!
Option 2: Go to http://webchat.freenode.net/. Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Capcha and hit Connect! We’ll be watching the episode and commenting there starting at just before 2:00 p.m. EST. After the chat, I will update this post with a log of the conversation.
Just a quick reminder, there’s another liveblog for the new MLP episode this Saturday at 2:00 p.m. EST. We’ll be meeting up at http://webchat.freenode.net/ in the channel ##rabbitcube.
Some time ago I wrote about an episode and friendship lesson I’d like to see the show tackle. And here’s the synopsis of tomorrow’s episode. Pretty similar. I hope it ends up being the friendship lesson I talked about, just because I think “friends don’t need to get along all the time to be friends” is high on the list of things kids need to hear.
Is that the collective fandom deathwish represented by harping constantly on the regeneration limit has now been legitimized. The premise of Doctor Who is infinitely extensible; the only thing that can end it is the viewers not wanting it to continue, and that’s what the regeneration limit has always represented. By explicitly giving the Doctor a new cycle as opposed to saying the limit is gone forever, the series has embedded the limit even more strongly into the series’ DNA. That the Doctor will eventually run out of regenerations and die permanently is now inevitable. It might be in 2060 with the 23rd Doctor or 3015 with the 405th, but it is unavoidable now.
In the video I linked yesterday, I referred to myself as a Jewish atheist a couple of times. As is usually the case when I mention it publically, there were some comments questioning how such a thinG can exist.
When discussing religion from a high-level perspective, I prefer to use the dimensional approach laid down by comparative religion professor Ninian Smart. This approach treats religions as social constructs that contain seven distinct dimensions of variance:
- Ritual/Practical: The active, participatory elements of the religion, such as holidays and celebrations, rites of passage, prayers and observances, and so on.
- Ethical/Legal: The behavioral restrictions imposed by the religion, such as moral precepts.
- Experiential/Emotional: The personal, emotional elements of the religion. Most mystical traditions usually fall here, but so also do personal epiphanies and numinous moments.
- Narrative/Mythic: The stories of the religion. Note that these are usually a mix of mythology (that is, events which are treated as having occurred but likely never did, such as the Exodus from Egypt), history (events which probably did occur, such as the destruction of the Jewish Temple by the Romans), and parables/marchen (stories which illustrate a point but are not intended to be statements of fact, such as the Four Sons in the Passover ritual).
- Doctrinal/Philosophical: The cosmological, metaphysical, and epistemological beliefs of the religion.
- Institutional/Organizational: The structure of the religion as a social phenomenon, such as hierarchies of clergy, educational institutions, charity organizations, and so on. This is the dimension which spreads the doctrinal and narrative beliefs, as well as enforcing the ethical/legal dimension.
- Material/Artistic: The creative output of the religion, such as sacred songs and art, temple architecture, and so on. Can be created at the institutional level or the individual (the architecture of a cathedral and the Easter eggs a Christian child decorates in Sunday school are equally part of this dimension).
The first thing that you may notice is that this approach works equally well for non-religious worldviews. Contemporary secular American society has its own equivalents to all of these: We have rituals such as elections, driver’s license exams, graduation ceremonies, and retirement parties; a legal system; shared experiences such as national mourning over tragedies like the Newtown shootings; narratives both mythical (Washington and the cherry tree; nobody except Columbus believed the world was round) and historical (the Continental Congresses, the Civil War); doctrinal beliefs (it has been said that most people in our culture find it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism); institutional and organizational structures such as public schools (which indoctrinate and educate) and the police (which enforce), and a massive artistic output, from New York publishing companies to Hollywood movies, that makes up one of our chief exports.
Of course, like all social constructs none of this exists except within the context of a human mind, and as such any given person’s worldview is going to be unique to them, albeit likely built out of bits and pieces of culturally available worldviews. When we speak of the “Christian worldview” or the “Jewish worldview” or the “American worldview,” therefore, we are talking about the consensus worldview of individuals within the group in question.
What about when we discuss the “atheist worldview”? I would argue that there is no such thing; atheism is a doctrinal position that can serve as one element in a worldview, not a complete worldview in itself. Communism, scientism, skepticism, Theravada Buddhism, and humanism are all examples of worldviews in which atheism is a doctrinal/philosophical component.
Given that atheism is a doctrinal position, it is easy to imagine taking a typical religious, theistic worldview, and just swapping atheism into the doctrinal/philosophical dimension. However, this is where the treatment of Christianity as normative becomes problematic: that swap is absurd in a Christian context, because the Christian religion, as a general rule, heavily emphasizes the doctrinal and experiential dimensions. Christian ethics depend on a concept of salvation, which has no meaning if the underlying doctrine of a particular understanding of the divine is removed.
The Jewish worldview, however, is less dependent on the experiential and doctrinal elements and focused more on narrative, ritual, and ethics. Thus I am able to be a Jewish atheist:
- On the ritual dimension, I celebrate the holidays I like as a means of bringing structure to my year and connecting with my heritage.
- On the ethical dimension, I merge Jewish ethical precepts such as tikkun olam (a form of deontologically constrained utilitarianism) and the importance of debate and discussion between a plurality of voices, with a generally humanist approach and a healthy dollop of third-wave feminism.
- On the experiential dimension, I basically have nothing, because I have no sense of spirituality or the numinous. But that would be true no matter what my religious views were.
- Narrative: I tell the story of Passover, not because I believe it is true (archeology strongly suggests it is not) but because it connects me to generations of ancestors and millions of contemporaries who have told the story before. I also maintain an awareness of Jewish history because it is my ethnic heritage.
- On the doctrinal/philosophical dimension, I’m an atheist and a postmodernist/post-positivist, and a materialist skeptic.
- Institutional/Organizational: I don’t really participate in any larger institutions or groups.
- Material/Artistic: Every once in a while, I write an essay (like this) about my Judaism, as well as quite frequently doing postmodern media analysis (you may have read some, possibly) and the occasional feminist piece.
I think “Jewish” and “atheist” are both adjective that make sense applied to the worldview I describe, so calling myself a Jewish atheist makes sense to me.
I am in the Christmas special of the webshow Viga Loves Comics–I voiced Scrooge and the Narrator (the latter of which I ad libbed). If you’re interested, you can watch it here.
Viga Loves Comics is an indie comics review show created and hosted by my friend/ex-fiancée/roommate/kith/cover designer/illustrator Viga. I’ve had cameos in it a couple of times before, but this is my first time real participation.
Would there be any interest in me using the Wednesday Whatever slots to do an episode-by-episode analysis of Madoka the way the Sunday posts do with Friendship Is Magic?
|“I got this at Hot Trotic, do you like it?”|
Joy is not shallow.
We as a culture tend to treat it as being somehow less worthy, less deep, than other emotions. We associate joy and happiness with childhood, and cynical world-weariness with adulthood (the precise opposite of my own experience of maturation), and so we tend to see happy, joyful things as less important, less serious, than the somber, the despairing, and the angst-ridden.
Angst, however, is itself an adolescent phenomenon. In English, the word originates with Kierkegaard, who used the term to refer to the anxiety that comes with freedom, the fear and stress created by the need to choose between possibilities. It is, in other words, an emotion felt by one who is no longer bound by the strict rules and supervision that encompass childhood, but has not yet attained the equanimity, confidence, or self-assurance to make decisions without agonizing unnecessarily over them.
This does not mean that only adolescents experience angst; rather, any experience of angst is an opportunity to mature past that angst. Maturation is not a linear process with a fixed end-point; no one living is ever completely grown up. This also does not mean that any anxiety or emotional pain is adolescent; rather, it is self-inflicted anxiety, anxiety in the absence of something actually worth worrying about, that is immature. Anxiety because of a probability of something going wrong is natural and inevitable; self-destructive angst because something might not go right enough, or might go right in the wrong way, is childish–the Internet meme of “first world problems” is a close equivalent. However, this should not be taken to mean that angst is somehow not a legitimate emotion; it of course is precisely as legitimate as any other emotion, because legitimacy is itself a purely emotional concept–but by the same token, there is no reason to treat angst as more legitimate or more serious than any other emotion, joy included.
Finally, angst should not be confused with genuine clinical depression or anxiety. These are medical conditions, and the emotional distress they produce is a symptom of a disease and source of genuine suffering. At the same time, as symptoms of a disease, the feelings produced by clinical depression and anxiety have no greater philosophical or artistic depth than an impacted tooth or a collapsed lung.
All of which serves as preface to the following statement: Background Pony is half a million words of pure adolescent angst, a determined rejection of joy and light in favor of wallowing in despair for no better reason than a delusional belief that misery is somehow more serious and worthy than the fun offered by the source text of Friendship Is Magic.
The premise of Background Pony is actually a fascinating idea, filled with potential: What if a background pony–those characters who recur throughout the series in the backgrounds of shots but rarely or never speak–existed as such in an intradiegetic sense as well as extradiegetic? What, in other words, if she were in some sense invisible to the other characters? Thus we have the story’s main character, Lyra Heartstrings, one of the better-known background ponies in the fandom. As the story opens, she has been living in Ponyville for nearly a year, cursed to be unable to leave the town and to be almost immediately forgotten by anyone she talks to.
As a metaphor, this forgettability could be deployed in countless ways. It is an excellent metaphor for the breakdown of community, for instance–the way in which most of the people we encounter in modern urban life are strangers, alienating us from the geographic community in which we exist. It works well as a metaphor for homelessness and poverty (a concept which early chapters flirt with and then largely ignore). Most of all, it works well as a metaphor for feelings of isolation, loneliness, depression, and angst, which is largely how the story uses it.
This is where the trouble begins, because the nature of a metaphor is that one concept signifies another. The presence of the signified undermines the metaphor. To use an example, part of Lyra’s curse is that she feels cold when it takes effect–the reason she cannot leave Ponyville is because she feels colder the farther she gets from the center of town, and she gets chills whenever a pony forgets the interaction with Lyra they just experienced. This chill serves well as a metaphor for fear and loneliness, except that at the same time as she feels cold Lyra is talking (and talking, and talking, and talking–this story never deploys a few precise words when it can vomit up dozens of sloppy (and frequently straightforwardly wrong) words instead) about how frightened and lonely she is. The result is that the declaration feels even more blatant and unsubtle than it already is, while the metaphor, with nothing left to signify, ceases to be a metaphor and becomes just a chill.
That, of course, is only a problem with the metaphors that are actually explored. Many, many more are simply declared and then left to sit, a recurring feature of the story’s purple prose, along with what later chapters describe as “philosophizing,” which appears in this story to mean the declaration of aphorisms and leading questions without any attempt to construct an argument or address questions of ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, politics, or any other known branch of philosophical inquiry.
Which is not to say that the story is all bad. It does do some things right–certain chapters, most noticeably the self-parodying Pinkie Pie encounters in Chapter 10 and the four musicians’ stories in Chapter 14, work extremely well because they are able to temporarily set aside the angst and bathetic, interminable purple prose and tell a story. The breakdowns of reality in chapters 16 and 17 are likewise well-handled, paying off the use of first-person perspective throughout the story.
This last requires some expansion. In some ways, first-person is the most natural perspective to tell a story in, because the context in which most of us tell stories is in response to questions about ourselves–for example, when a parent asks “What did you do in school today?” Amateur writers thus often instinctively default to a first-person perspective in their stories. However, first-person is the most limited of all perspectives, unable to convey any information to the reader except for what is filtered through the perceptions of the perspective character; anything outside those perceptions is lost. Thus, more mature writers will generally avoid first-person unless there is a reason to employ it, either to explore the way in which the character perceives reality (most obviously, in the use of an unreliable narrator) or to deliberately hide information from the reader. Background Pony does an excellent job of the latter; magic is at work that obscures perception and erases memory, and as the story enters its second (vastly superior to the first) half, we learn that Lyra herself is not immune to these distortions.
Chapters 16 and 17 also benefit from the horror element at work in them; in general, the story is at its most effective when dealing with objects of terror and fear, where the purple prose helps disorient the reader, and at its least effective when dealing with Lyra’s feelings, where the prose is simply pompous and self-serious. The entire story remains continually at a register of maximum emotional intensity for everything (for example, Lyra, not suffering from any sort of heightened sound sensitivity, describes the sound of a quill scratching on a parchment as setting her nerves on fire), with almost no contrast, so rather than seeming poignant or sad Lyra’s continual losses and failures blend into an indistinguishable blur of misery. Those rare moments that appeal to other emotions (most particularly the horrific description of the Unsung realm) are thus an extremely welcome touch of color in an otherwise gray emotional landscape. Unfortunately, the story does not permit them to last for long; the horror-humor (as I’ve argued before, these are closely interrelated genres) of Chapter 16, for example, gives way to the absurd bathos of Discord–Discord, the unflappable trickster god!–giving up on life in despair over memories of a lost love.
Ultimately, the biggest problem is that the premise of the story makes it impossible to take its relentless despair seriously. We know it can’t be that bad to be Lyra for two reasons. The first is that she is someone who observes the lives of the residents of Ponyville, comes to know and care about them, while remaining utterly unknown to them and able to influence them only indirectly and with great effort. This is precisely the relationship between the fan of any work and the characters in that work, and we know, because we experience it, that fandom is much more a source of joy than despair.
Second, we know that it can’t be that bad because nothing in Equestria is that bad. This is a world where curses explicitly do not exist according to a highly accomplished scholar of magic, where friendship and love are the most powerful known sources of magic, and where the cosmically empowered ancient evil has become an ally of the heroes by the end of the second episode. Simply put, the problem of Background Pony is the problem of any grimdark pony fic: since Equestria contains no grimness or darkness to speak of, the only grimdark is that which the author brings with them–it is not recognizable as a derivative work of Friendship Is Magic, but rather appropriates the names of a few characters and locations to tell an entirely unrelated story.
When it comes down to it, the problem with Background Pony is in the claim that Equestria began with a song. Oh, there is nothing surprising in that suggestion itself; that Equestria began with a song is self-evident. The fundamental error of Background Pony lies in the suggestion that this song is an elegy or suite of elegies; there is nothing elegiac, mournful, or grim about the song that began Equestria. After all, by this point we all surely know it by heart:
I used to wonder what friendship could be
Until you all shared its magic with me…
Next week: Feeling a bit boxed in…