Do it again, Megan! Make it go away! (The Ghost of Paradise Estates)

Well, that escalated quickly.

I’m at a convention this weekend, so have another guest post on Gen 1 My Little Pony by the ever-excellent Spoiler Below.

Apologies for the wonky formatting, I don’t know what’s going on.

The Letter:

Dear Princess Celestia,

Sometimes it is difficult to understand that the world can never be returned to the way it used to be. Nostalgia can be a powerful feeling, and change can be hard to accept. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t hurt others trying to undo what has happened. Some things simply can’t be undone, and have to be gotten used to. But in time, you’ll soon find that there are things to enjoy about the new status quo, and a place for yourself in it.

As always, your faithful student,
Twilight Sparkle

What is it? A four parter about a terrifying ghost that haunts the baby ponies and prevents them from getting to sleep.

What is it about? The nature of cultural forces imposing an external narrative onto events that transforms them into a continuity and retroactively implies that said forces have been present all along, thereby making said events inevitable and correct according to the nature of the world and thus not worth resisting. But this is clearly not the case, as a simple paradigm alteration will show that said events can be viewed through many different lenses, and things which seem inevitable in hindsight are almost never necessarily so.

Is it worth watching? Sure, it’s pretty good. This is the last episode George Arthur Bloom will contribute until Tales, and he displays here the same energy and style that he used in Escape from Midnight Castle. As has been pointed out by others, he seems to work much better when he’s not trying to fill a movie length feature, and instead has to cram all his ideas into 40 minutes. Sure, there are 4 songs, 3 of which are, to be charitable, not so great, but that’s the nature of the beast for children’s television.

What else was happening? 29 September-2 October 1986. Ronald Regan signs the Goldwater-Nichols Act into law, reorganizing the US Department of Defense so that command is structured by region and function, rather than branch, and streamlining the chain of command, in an attempt to cut down intra-branch rivalry and allowing the commander in charge of an operation to exercise full control over the all differing forces involved without having to negotiate with each individual branch. An assassination attempt is made on Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who had taken over from his mother, Indira, in 1984. He will be killed along with 14 others by a suicide bomb about five years later. “Stuck with You” by Huey Lewis and the News is number one on the charts this week, off of their quite excellent album Fore! and Crocodile Dundee is released this week, letting us all have a good chuckle at how bad some folks are at surviving outside their native habitats, a theme we’ll revisit in just a moment.

A frequently cited cliche is to never judge a book by its cover. But how about by its title? Some are purely functional (e.g. The Communist Manifesto), some are symbolic (e.g. If on a winter’s night a traveller…), some are descriptive (e.g. The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest, and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums), and some… Well…
Sometimes the title of an episode contains a major giveaway of its contents. This is often the case with titles with names, events, and other descriptive bits. No one could tell you what Don Delilio’s White Noise is about based purely on the title, but it’s a fair bet that Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo probably has something to do with the Count. This isn’t always the case (Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory isn’t about a place where they build White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman are far more heavily the latter than the former), but often times it is. This is especially true in the naming of serial television episodes, where the title would often tease which episode the hero would be facing. The classic example here are the many adventures of Doctor Who with a named monster in the title, where the first episode wouldn’t feature the enemy at all until the cliffhanger, “Oh no! Not that monster!”, as if the audience hadn’t been waiting for 22 minutes for the Cybermen to show up in “The Continuity Error of the Cybermen”. 
And so the fact that there isn’t actually a ghost at all is really a neat trick to pull. We should have come to accept by now that My Little Pony is a show where weird left turns in plotting are the norm. Where lesser authors would be content to walk out 4 episodes with continually escalating ghostly escapades, perhaps drawing out Molly offering to stay with the baby ponies until the end of the first episode, until Danny too agrees to spend the night in the room and is too convinced of the ghost’s existence and making Danny’s ghost catching plan the entirety of the second, Megan’s unbelieving glower staring down imperiously on all her subjects all the while…
Megan is right, of course. There aren’t any ghosts. Not in a world with talking ponies, anthropomorphic cats that grow to the size of buildings, magical mushroom wizards, volcano dwelling witches, Shelob-sized spiders, the Smooze, evil centaurs that can transform princes into monsters and ponies into nightmares… The existence of ghosts would be a ridiculous thing to consider. Instead we get a completely separate plot about an evil octopus trying to flood the valley to restore it to the way it was when he was younger, before the waters receded and he was replaced by the shapeshifting bird tribe that stole his magical Flash Stone and forced him to accept the changes that nature had wrought on Dream Valley. But “The Shapeshifting Bird of Paradise Estates” just doesn’t roll off the tongue the way the actual title does.
But that’s because Megan is always right. Such is her prerogative as lawgiver and ruler of the ponies, and as such, it would be strange if the world didn’t also obey her and alter to suit her whims, the way it does when children play with their toys. A land with houses and pools doesn’t have room for ghosts. And this is what the ponies want, mind you. For episode after episode, all they have wanted is a nice, safe place to live. Are things as basic as shelter and security really such bad or unreasonable things to want? Of course not. They’re basic human (pony?) rights, up there with food and water. But the pony’s overwhelming desire for a place to live, the focus on civilization and permanence… None of this was here in the carefree days of Midnight Castle. Sure, they already had the formidable fortress of Dream Castle, but they seemed to spend most of their days sleeping on the fields or in the orchards. Paradise Estate is a modern home for a modern world, which needs to be painted a slightly different shade of pink to make it just right. Their old home is gone, destroyed by the Smooze. Dream Valley is a different place, and it has different creatures with different desires living in it now.
Considering its inhabitants and its history, we get a grossly simplified version of the march of evolution from aquatic creatures to birds to mammals… Now, far from being a sure or predestined thing, evolution merely is a winnowing down of that which cannot survive to produce offspring in the current environment. It does not favor the weak nor the strong, and traits which are well suited to one environment may be terribly unsuited to another. The ability to process airborne oxygen is useless in a watery environment, while the ability to withstand massive water pressure is likely to result in death on the land. The idea that evolution has somehow colluded to create the best or most perfect species that has ever lived is appealing to some, but is utterly unscientific. And very few species ever reach the point where they can alter their environments drastically to make otherwise hostile places suitable for life. Humans are the most obvious example, but ants and beavers do it too. Certainly this is what Squirk is doing when he plans to re-flood Dream Valley. But isn’t that exactly what Megan and the ponies were doing with Paradise Estates at the beginning of the episode also? Dream Valley may not be flooded anymore, but it doesn’t contain any natural bright pink building with inground swimming pools.
Unlike the ponies and the horrible Smooze, Squirk lost his old home to the force of nature, which Phluma is unable to explain. No one knows why the water receded, but it did. He has to live somewhere different now, and is obsessed with expanding back to the boundaries of his former kingdom, and regaining his former power. Squirk is the third enemy in a row, now, to have an extreme focus on the past and “the way things used to be”. But while Rep longed for the days when Katrina wasn’t an evil drug addict, and Hydia pined for the days of her foremothers when the witches were powerful and respected, Squirk himself remembers the old days firsthand. He is hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years old. However unlike the contentious and ill-considered land rights dispute of Over a Barrel, it is difficult to see how Squirk’s claims to a land he occupied hundreds, maybe thousands, of years ago, which no longer can sustain him without massive overhaul that would destroy the environment presently there, and which was completely unsettled before the Moochick gave the ponies a home there, can possibly be valid. The world has changed, but he refuses to change with it.
He will do this via the Flash Stone, a magical amulet similar to the Rainbow of Light, which runs on willpower and will do whatever the possessor desires. Like most aged rulers, it should come as little surprise that Squirk isn’t much of one for thinking or creativity. All he does is shoot small blasts of energy and shift water about. His one brief moment of inspiration, changing sea creatures from one to another, hybridizing and chimerizing them into all sorts of different things, seems only a brief infatuation he soon grows bored with. He’s old, he’s stale, he can’t think past himself. He doesn’t even know what to do when Danny and the ponies pretend to surrender and submit to his rulership. Even when we saw him in charge during the flashback, all he did was shoot at his starfish and slap Crank around, no different than his actions now, hundreds or perhaps thousands of years later. The old bullying tyrant who just won’t go away.
There’s an odd criticism of some forms of government that I never understood before reading Buruma and Margalit’s Occidentalism. One of their major theses is that one of the major differences between worldviews of the “West” and the rest of the world is the very stark separation between the church and the state, and that as western liberal democracy is incompatible with a divine or otherwise “special” ruler, there is necessarily a tension between the two ways of thinking. Thus, it would not be inappropriate to describe otherwise atheistic systems like Maoism or Stalinism as “religions” in this sense, as they rely on this style of devotion to a powerful and special ruler and/or party, and a strictly enforced view of the world that is laid out in advance and which permits no deviation. It doesn’t matter if the world is saying otherwise, and suggesting that the old theory should be discarded or altered, as it is in proper science. The world must be changed to fit the view, be it a disastrous agricultural misunderstanding that leaves millions to starve to death, or an misunderstanding of how literary interpretation works that leaves the world being only about 6,000 years old. Or, in Squirk’s case, trying to bring about another flood to destroy all this nasty civilization that has cropped up since his time passed, and to remake the world the way he remembered it being. Tyranny does not require God; it simply requires a tyrant and followers to build the tyrant up.
Megan, on the other hand, has bigger dreams than that. She has the power to transform the world, reshape it to her vision. “In no time at all, we’ll put things back in shape. Everything will be the way it was” she sings as she repairs all the damage from the flood, effortlessly using the Flash Stone in ways of which Squirk never could conceive. But it isn’t the same, not quite. It’s the way it was after she arrived and started changing things. Paradise Estates is filled with human furniture, which would be quite uncomfortable for ponies to use, but perfect for Megan and her siblings. But the ponies will learn to use it. A proper and dignified pony like Rarity would never consider sleeping on the ground, even when out camping. Megan then destroys the Flash Stone; she already has the Rainbow of Light. Why keep more power than she needs? It could be used for evil, after all.
But, quite importantly, she differs from a tyrant like Squirk in a major way: she desires no legacy. There are no statues to her, no holy book of her teachings, no mention of her in Tales, G3, or Friendship is Magic. The only time she is placed on a throne, it is at the pony’s request as guest of honor as their costume party. She may be their ruler for now, but after she has taught them the way to live, she will pass into memory and then be forgotten completely. The important things: caring, friendship, responsibility to one’s offspring, fairness, duty, having fun… these will remain. It will not be all good, of course. There will be petty jealousies and bullying and pollution from industry and a loss of the old ways that will never fully be regained. But without her, they would have been wiped out entirely. Civilization is never perfect. But in this case, it is was not communism that was haunting Dream Valley. It was the ghost of tyranny.
And you thought this was just a silly animated series quickly dashed off to sell cheap plastic toys, didn’t you?

Other Bits:

-Why does Spike live in a storage closet? Poor guy. It’s the one dirty and unfurnished room in the entire estate, too.

-From invisible and multiplying beds to ponies changing color to the humans suddenly having time to get dressed between episodes, this is one where a lot of mistakes crept in. I’m not going to be cool and seize on one of these and make some huge metatextual point about something. Sometimes animation errors and just animation errors.

-George Arthur Bloom, as mentioned above, now bows out of the series for a few years, reappearing as a writer of Tales. But the framework which he built is obvious, even today, and without his contributions to the world and its lore, there is no doubt that none of us would be here reading or writing these words. Bloom was finally able to get Travis Fine to help him make a feature film that he’d been trying to put together for years and years. Any Day Now, the story of a gay couple trying to adopt a child with Down’s syndrome, is well worth your time. If you needed any more proof that a deeply open and inclusive message has been with MLP from the very start, you need only look at its first writer and his work.

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