Hello everypony! Did I miss anything? (Luna Eclipsed)

OBJECTION! TAKE THAT!

It’s October 22, 2011. Adele still owns the pop charts, and the top movie is Paranormal Activity 3. We’re in for a long stretch of awful on the movie front, honestly; I peeked ahead and, except for one bright weekend of Robert Downey, Jr., there’s nothing good in the top spot from here until late March.

In real news, crazy rich person Richard Branson opens a spaceport, utterly transforming manned space exploration from a publicity stunt Cold War nations used to remind everyone they had rockets capable of dropping nuclear warheads anywhere on the planet into a publicity stunt Richard Branson uses to remind everyone he’s crazy rich. The Libyan National Transitional Council ends a month-long siege of the city of Sirte, kills deposed dictator Muammar Gaddafi, and consolidates their control of the country. And the European economy is struggling, which I’m sure has nothing to do with the austerity measures they passed despite every economist on the planet screaming at them that it was economic suicide.

On TV, we have “Luna Eclipsed,” written by M.A. Larson and–in a first for the series–not directed by James Wootton, but rather by Jayson Thiessen. Thiessen co-directed “The Return of Harmony” with Wootton, and will co-direct every two-parter in the second and third seasons with him, along with solo directing half the episodes in the second and third seasons and taking over as Supervising Director in the fourth season. Also, he’s the voice of Snowflake.

This is a great episode to bring him up in, because this episode has a lot of crowd scenes, and Thiessen excels at them. Take a look in the backgrounds as Twilight or Luna walk around town; they are full of ponies doing things. Too often in animation–and sadly, this includes some episodes of Friendship Is Magic–background characters either don’t exist or just stand there. Here, even when the characters aren’t moving, they active.

Consider the first shot after the opening credits: We open on Nightmare Moon’s face as the music makes this creepy high-pitched howl. The we pan over to a long shot where Twilight and Spike walk and talk. What’s interesting is that there are three separate planes of motion here–the two ponies dressed as a lion and a bee in front, then the top-hatted pony pulling the hayride quite a distance behind them, and then Twilight and Spike quite small in the back. It’s a very interesting choice, since it means we have to look past all this other action to watch Twilight. In turn that means we can’t focus on any one of the several actions going on, giving the impression of a bustling, lively evening. It’s impressive, especially considering the shot lasts a matter of seconds before it switches to one that keeps Twilight out in front; it lasts just long enough to give the impression of a street festival but not long enough for the viewer to count how few ponies there are.

Throughout her first speech in this scene, Twilight moves quickly from scene to scene, and in each one she’s in a different layer, meaning the viewer has to keep looking around the town, ensuring they catch all the little details the animators put in. In turn, that means those details all work to full effectiveness, actually reducing the number of ponies needed to make this seem like a massive event. All told, there are maybe a couple of dozen ponies shown actually attending Nightmare Night; compare the numerically much larger, but much more static and statically shot crowd scenes in “Super Cider Squeezy 6000” (probably the Wootton solo episode with the best crowd scenes) to see what a difference there is between using framing and carefully placed details to suggest a well-attended event and just pointing a camera at a large number of ponies. Which is not at all, of course, to say that Wootton is a bad director, just that Thiessen is astoundingly good at crowd scenes.

There’s also a ton of great background and sight gags, musical puns, and really clever jokes in this episode, to the point of almost being distracting. My two favorite examples come in the first few minutes of the episode–the fact that the music at the start of the cold open is extremely reminiscent of In the Hall of the Mountain King, and the “amniomorphic spell” gag (which, despite the etymology being off, is almost certainly an impressively subtle Harry Potter reference).

On a story and character level, the primary function of this episode is to flesh out Luna’s character a bit and set her up as a way to show how far Twilight has come. The Moon, in addition to being a feminine symbol and a symbol of dreams, is also the lesser light, a reflection of the Sun, and thus it’s fitting that Luna in this episode is a lesser version of first-episode Twilight, a newcomer who doesn’t fit in and is strikingly ambivalent about whether she wants to.

Though the cause of Luna’s problem is that she is time-lost and missed a thousand years of social evolution, her problem itself is one virtually everyone has experienced, that of being new to somewhere or something, and being rejected by more experienced peers. Luna is, in other words, every kid who’s ever started a new school, every newly minted fan who’s ever been called a noob, every traveler who’s found themselves trying to live in a new city or a new country. She tries to behave the ways she’s used to behaving, what her experiences have taught her is the right way to be, and everyone around her rejects her. Is it any wonder she lashes out?

By contrast, we have Twilight, once the noob, now become the forum diplomat who takes noobs under her metaphorical (for now) wing. Freed from the requirement of learning a friendship lesson every week, she can now begin sharing them with others, guiding and teaching Luna in the basics of relating to other ponies–which Luna has clearly never done, as regardless of era the Royal Canterlot Voice seems designed to create a distance between the ruler and her subjects. Twilight has, in academic terms, moved on to graduate work, and with that comes her first teaching assignments. After all, they say the best way to truly learn something is to try to teach it to someone else.

But what’s best about this episode is that, unlike most fish out of water comedies, it doesn’t put all the burden of change on either side. There is no message here that Ponyville has been unaccepting and needs to change while Luna stays the same, or conversely that Luna needs to change to fit in and the ponies were right to reject her. It stays exactly where it should be, which is acknowledging that most conflict between people requires some change on both sides.

To the children, it says “Yes, sometimes you have to make a little effort to fit in, but don’t change who you are.” And to the bronies, it says, “Yes, those people who picked on you were mean, but that doesn’t mean that you are a flawless saint. You could do a better job of relating to people.”

Because look around you. How much of the trouble in this world is because of people rejecting others who are weird or different and therefore scary? How much of it is because people go among strangers and expect not to have to change the ways they’re used to behaving?

And what could a generation of kids raised to know better do? What could an army of fans learning it, better late than never, do?

Because that’s another great secret of Friendship Is Magic: True alchemy, true transformation, isn’t a flare of light and a new pair of wings. It’s a process, bit by bit, tiny incremental changes, almost unnoticeable. Drops in the bucket, until one day suddenly the bucket overflows and the change seems to happen all at once, even though it was really happening all along.

Next week: Surprise guest post! I’m taking my birthday off, so in my place Spoilers Below has an article for you all. I’ve read it, and it’s a cracking good one. No spoilers beyond that–if zie wants to give you hints about what it’s on, zie can do so in the comments. Anyway, the week after that I’ll be back to talk about sisterhood, solidarity, and noobs.

Pony Thought of the Day: Upset Fans

I’ve discussed this before in my articles on the episodes, but some of the comments on the Pony Thoughts of the Day this week make me think it’s worth reiterating:

There are basically two kinds of fan: People who are fans of something because they like it, and people who are fans of something because it’s important to them.

(Yes, there are people who are both, and other ways to categorize fans, and what I’m doing here is constructing a binary and I’ve already pointed out the problem with binaries. Still, for the discussion we’re about to have, it’s a useful binary.)

When things change in Friendship Is Magic, there are always people who like the change and people who don’t. If someone really strongly dislikes the change, and they belong to the first group, they may stop being fans of Friendship Is Magic. But if they’re in the second group, that’s a problem, because Friendship Is Magic is important to them. They can’t just leave it behind just because it made a change they don’t like, at least not without a lot of thought and emotion and, yes, trauma.

This is the important bit: It is neither right nor wrong to like a show. It is neither right nor wrong for that show to be important to you. And if you feel bad that something you like is no longer likeable, or that something important to you has changed in ways you dislike, you have every right to express that you are upset.

That’s not “being butthurt.” It’s not entitlement or weakness or anything of the sort–as we just covered with “Lesson Zero,” nobody gets to tell anyone else what “should” be important to them or what they “should” feel.

All of us have things that are important to us. And no matter what it is, for every single thing that is important to you, there is someone somewhere who thinks it’s a trivial concern. And for every single thing that you think is trivial, there is someone somewhere who thinks it’s important.

And every single one of them is right, because everything is trivial and everything is the most important thing in the world. It’s all a matter of perspective.

What matters, in the end, isn’t what you feel, it’s what you do with those feelings. Any feeling can be expressed creatively and constructively. Don’t like Equestria Girls, and feel too strongly to do nothing? Write an essay on why you don’t like it, or draw some fanart of humanized ponies done right, or post to your Facebook wall or Tumblr that you don’t like Equestria Girls. But don’t go around attacking people who think Equestria Girls is a great idea or people who work on the show. (Same goes for people who don’t like that other people don’t like Equestria Girls–feel that way all you like, but express it creatively and constructively!)

tl;dr: The problem isn’t that some people care about something too much, or that some people care about the wrong things, or that some people have the wrong opinions. The problem is that a small number of people are choosing to express their feelings destructively instead of creatively.

Pony Thought of the Day: Father of the What?

Rewatching “Luna Eclipsed” for the upcoming article, I started thinking about when Twilight refers to Star Swirl the Bearded as “father of the amniomorphic spell,” and specifically what “amniomorphic” might mean. Now, it’s not actually a word, but it’s comprised of two roots that do have meaning:

morphic means “having to do with shape.” A spoomorphic spell would therefore be either a spell that in some way is shaped like spoo, or a spell that makes things spoo-shaped or turns things into spoo.

Amnio- has a couple of possibilities.

The one that’s gotten popular in the fandom is that an amnion is a kind of bowl, which eventually results in the joke that Star Swirl is Harry Potter. There’s just one problem–the Greek word for pottery isn’t amnion, it’s keramos. Amnion was the Greek word for the placenta. Etymologically, yes, it comes from another amnion that was a bowl used to collect the blood from animal sacrifice, but in all modern words it refers to the placenta. The amniotic sac is the membrane that develops into the inner lining of the eggshell in egg-laying animals and the placenta in placental mammals, amniomancy is the art of predicting a baby’s future by examining the afterbirth, and so on.

So, basically, amniomorphic spells? Whatever they are, they’re gross and you probably don’t want one cast on you.

Pony Thought of the Day: “Keep Calm and Trot On”

I don’t have much to add to this EQ Daily post pleading with people to stop harassing DHX employees, but here’s a couple of things. First, I’m quite confident it’s a small number of people being jackasses, because it’s always a small number of people being jackasses. “Small numbers of people being jackasses” is the second-most powerful force in human history, responsible for pretty much every war, every massacre, every horrific crime, and the reason we can’t have nice things like anarchy and have to have nasty things like laws instead.

Second, the post kind of conflates the small number of jackasses harassing DHX employees with the rather larger number of people who are not happy about recent development in the show. It is entirely okay to be unhappy about Twilight becoming an alicorn (I mean, I find it silly, but Lesson Zero and all) or apprehensive about Equestria Girls. But that unhappiness has to be expressed appropriately. Want to bitch and moan on your own blog or a discussion forum? Cool–but make sure you’re bitching and moaning about the work. Even, if you like, criticize the people who make it–to share something you’ve created is to invite criticism of your skill at making it or the ideas that appear to underly it. But–and this is key!–there’s a difference between criticism, which is based on a reasoned argument that uses evidence and suggests or implies a path to improvement, and insults or harrassment. Learn the difference, and try to stay on the criticism side of the line.

Finally, the most powerful force in human history is a small number of people doing their best to oppose and heal the damage done by jackasses. If you have Twitter, maybe you could say something nice about the show or the people who make it under the #thankyouDHX tag. Tell them I sent you, if you want–I don’t have Twitter, so it’s the best I can do.

Pony Thought of the Day: Equestria Girls Trailer, Overreaction and Overanalysis

As promised, the trailer.

So, on the one hand, after initial reports that Equestria Girls was not going to be made by the regular pony team, it looks like we’ve got Meghan McCarthy writing, David Thiessen directing, and Daniel Ingram doing music. So that’s promising, as far as it goes.

But… first off, it’s set in high school. Part of the appeal of Friendship Is Magic for me is that it depicts its characters as people, doing people things like having jobs and making friends and so forth. Putting them in high school means the movie will probably be about high school things like cliques and endless social climbing and complicated, backstabby games that make Versailles look like a friendly game of checkers.

And Twilight has an apparent love interest. That’s dangerous. There’s a long tradition of female characters becoming defined entirely by their romantic relationships, and it exerts a powerful gravity that can be difficult to escape.

And then there’s the apparent plots: Twilight is a fish out of water who doesn’t understand how humans do things. Yay. That’s not a story I’ve seen ad nauseam. Oh, but we have another stunningly original plot: there’s a mean girl who is inexplicably the top of the social ladder despite everyone hating her because of how mean she is. Woo.

Oh, and I sincerely hope the song for the trailer wasn’t an example of the kind of music the actual movie will have, because it was kind of awful.

I mean, I get it. The implied viewer for this trailer is clearly not me, it’s the sort of five-year-old girl who sees a trailer for The Smurfs 2 and thinks, “That looks good! I want to see that!” It’s entirely possible there’s a lot of things in the movie to appeal to me, and they just didn’t put them in the trailer because the trailer’s not for me. And certainly the movie implied by this trailer is nowhere near as bad as the movie implied by the aforementioned little blue annoyances.

But so far, this isn’t particularly promising. Cautious pessimism continues.

Pony Thought of the Day: Equestria Girls Trailer, Initial Reaction

The trailer for Equestria Girls is out.

I’ll have a more detailed response (and a link to the actual video) tomorrow or the next day, but for now, my initial response is that it looks like it’s trying to be Trollz, and I take it as further evidence that the movie is going to be excruciatingly terrible.

All the ponies in this town are crazy! Do you know what time it is?! (Lesson Zero)

WWF: Wildlife Wrestling Federation

It’s October 15, 2011, and when’s the last time I got to start an article like that, huh? Adele still wants to stalk “Someone Like You,” and the top movie is Real Steel, about which all I know is that when we first saw the trailer, before they said the title my then-fiancee thought it was a live-action Medabots movie and I thought it was going to be Rock’em Sock’em Robots: The Motion Picture.

In real news since the last episode, Google, unable to decide whether they are Skynet or SEELE, make a deal with Israeli antiquities authorities to publish some of the Dead Sea Scrolls online. China launches their first space station module. The war in Afghanistan turns 10. And, continuing the odd synchronicity between Friendship Is Magic and Occupy, the day this story airs is the day Occupy goes worldwide, with coordinated protests in Sydney, Rome, Bucharest, Taipei, Tokyo, Toronto, Berlin, and Madrid.

And with ponies, well, I may as well just say it: This is my absolute favorite episode of the entire series, and a major reason why I still consider Meghan McCarthy my favorite writer on the show. Not that I make any pretense to objectivity in my other articles, but it’s completely out the window on this one. So with that warning aside, let’s just dive right into “Lesson Zero,” shall we?

First off, the animation in this episode is just astounding. Twilight’s facial expressions get progressively more hilarious as the episode goes on, and the big chase sequence is far more varied and frenetic than the equivalent back in “The Ticket Master,” with a lot more variety in how the ponies in the crowd move. Tara Strong nails it, too, working her way up steadily from “Twilight is worried” to complete freakout, so that by the time she is merrily chewing the scenery in the third act it manages to feel natural despite being made of pure, industrial-grade ham. Then, the instant Celestia shows up, she dials it straight back down to sad, contrite Twilight. Tabitha St. Germaine is also deliciously hammy, with her successively more over the top declarations of events as “the worst possible thing.”

As far as the story is concerned, it is a natural follow-up to the previous episodes. “The Return of Harmony” was a narrative collapse, as I said in the article on it, but perhaps it would be best to examine what that means in this less gonzo essay. The term “narrative collapse” originates with professional overreactor Douglas Rushkoff, who uses it to describe what he sees as the modern state of living so much in the present that we can no longer handle linear stories and need constant interruptions and cutaways, as in Family Guy or reality shows. Because apparently we’re all just imagining the explosion of dramas with season-long linear arcs in the last few years?

Anyway, Philip Sandifer of TARDIS Eruditorum has rather cheekily repurposed the phrase into something actually useful, a new kind of conflict in a serial work that relies on the audience’s awareness both of the premise of the work and its artificiality. Generally speaking, conflict occurs in fiction when something threatens the well-being of the characters or interferes with their ability to accomplish their goals. Note that this conflict occurs entirely on the level of the story itself–it is a threat that originates within the world of the story, and all of its impacts are within the world of the story.

Given an ongoing story in a serial format, such as a TV series, however, there is an option to do another kind of collapse once you’ve fully established the premise of the series and the kinds of stories it can tell: introduce a conflict that threatens not only the characters, but the show itself–a conflict that, if not resolved favorably, destroys the ability of the show to tell stories in the same way that, according to Rushkoff, the supposed overemphasis on the present destroys our ability as a culture to tell stories. For example, from the perspective of the characters, Discord is threatening because he can hurt them and prevent them from achieving their goals. However, from the perspective of the viewer, there is an additional and greater threat, that he will end the characters’ friendship and obviate the premise of the show.

Of course by the end all is better and the characters’ friendship is restored, but on the other hand there’s a sense in which Discord does successfully destroy the show. That’s the thing about narrative collapse: it always carries a heavy price. A restoration can never be quite the same as the original.So “Lesson Zero” starts with Twilight Sparkle discovering that cost, that difference between the restored and original shows: There is no friendship lesson for her to learn.

Diegetically this isn’t that big a deal, and Twilight’s overreaction is thus played for comedy. But non-diegetically it’s a serious problem. Part of the show’s remit is to help fulfill the Hub’s legal obligation to provide educational programming for children, and tacking friendship lessons onto the ends of stories is how it accomplishes that. Finding a friendship lesson really is as important as Twilight makes it out to be.

Twilight’s real error is the assumption that she has to be the one to learn it. Of course, it’s a reasonable assumption for her to make, as throughout the first season she was, but remember what triggered this latest (and more or less final, at least so far) attempt to reboot the show, namely an episode that ought to have been a lesson for Pinkie Pie and had to be shoehorned into one for Twilight. It thus makes total sense that there’s no friendship lesson for Twilight this week, because that lesson is going to someone else.

This is where the title comes in: “Lesson Zero.” There are several meanings here, of course: Most obviously it refers to the absence of a lesson, which is the crux of the plot. But it can also be read as referring to the lesson learned, which is much more interesting. If it were “Lesson One,” that would imply that this week’s friendship lesson is for some reason necessarily the first, but “Lesson Zero” goes further, implying that this lesson is before the first friendship lesson. In other words, what we have this week isn’t itself a friendship lesson, but something that must come before all other friendship lessons, thus enabling the rest of the Mane Six to start documenting their own.

But does this week’s lesson support that interpretation? On the face of it, “If your friend is panicking about something, take it seriously even if you don’t agree they should be panicking,” isn’t any more fundamental than most of the lessons in the first season. But what it’s really saying is vitally important, and something all too often forgotten, which is recognizing the subjectivity of others. It’s wrong of them to assume that, because they would not be hugely upset in Twilight’s shoes, Twilight will not be; Twilight is a different person from them, and therefore what matters to her is different from what matters to them.

In other words, it’s about not making assumptions regarding what other people need and want, about recognizing that other people are both other and people. That is to say, it’s the underlying lesson that Fluttershy and Rarity needed in “Green Isn’t Your Color,” that Pinkie Pie needed in “Party of One,” and that Spike needed in “Owl’s Well That Ends Well.” And it absolutely is fundamental enough to make a case that it must precede starting to learn about friendship at all: You cannot truly be a friend to someone unless you recognize and respect their subjectivity, open yourself to the fact that they are different from you, and actually communicate instead of making assumptions about what they want and how they feel.

And now the field is wide open for the characters. It doesn’t just have to be about Twilight’s growth and Twilight’s concerns anymore; the show is fully free to use any of the characters to explore any aspect of the magic of friendship. It is finally done becoming, at least as far as anything can ever finish becoming, which is not all that far at all. It already transformed itself into a philosopher’s stone, but one curiously limited on what it could transform. Now, however, it can transmute any of the characters–but remember, the characters were created to represent the “ways of being a girl.” And since there’s nothing true of all women that isn’t true of all people (other than the trivial “they’re women,” obviously), it follows that they represent ways of being a person.

This is what we have been building up to for a season and change, the true alchemy of Friendship Is Magic. It’s time to start changing the world, one brony at a time.

Next week: An outsider is uncomfortable and unable to fit in at a party. Clearly this will have no relevance to teen and adult geeks in the slightest.