Guest Posts: Tell me what’s doing; anything brewing? (Escape from Catrina)

 Once again, I’m happy to give you a guest post on the Generation 1 My Little Pony cartoon by the always-excellent Spoilers Below.

“Bushwoolies, unite!”
“Yeah, unite!”

The Letter: Dear Princess Celestia,

Everypony is is born free; and everywhere they find themselves in chains. One thinks herself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer. If I took into account only force, and the effects derived from it, I should say: “As long as a pony is compelled to obey, and obeys, it does well; as soon as it can shake off the yoke, and shakes it off, it does still better; for, regaining its liberty by the same right as took it away, either it is justified in resuming it, or there was no justification for those who took it away.” But the social order is a sacred right which is the basis of all other rights. The acceptance that you have no more or less rights than any other creature, and certainly shouldn’t be placing any yokes of your own, can be difficult for some ponies to understand, but once learned it frees you up from the addiction to power and control. You can learn to love yourself and others for who they are, rather than what they can do for you.

Your faithful student, 

Twilight Sparkle

What is it? Following the failure of Escape from Midnight Castle the year previous, Hasbro produced another 22 minute pilot/special for the MLP franchise. We have the year 3 ponies to sell, after all.

What’s it about? Megan is returning to Ponyland amidst great fanfare and celebration, and will preside this evening over a grand parade of costumes held in her honor for saving the ponies in our last adventure. Meanwhile, an enslaved group of cute, fuzzy little blobs throw off their chains and leave the evil dictator Catrina without workers for her Witchweed factory, which produces the magical fluid she needs to fuel her powers. What will happen when she sets her sights on the ponies?

Is there singing? Yep. One song about going to sleep, and one wistful memory of life the way it used to be. Guess which one is sung by Paul Williams.

It is worth it? Eh. This is a clear step down from the first special, despite music legend Paul Williams guest starring. Almost any randomly chosen Friendship is Magic episode would be better. Depending on how fast you read, you could enjoy a section or three of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grassor Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. Plenty of time to cook a pizza or listen to one side of the Electric Light Orchestra’s Discovery. But if you like seeing the proletariat throw off their chains to live in an anarchistic commune and the horrors of cartoon drug addiction, then I’ve got something for you…

What else was happening? 23 March, 1985 – Dutch anarchist, journalist, and philosopher Anton Constandse dies this morning at age 85, as does Zoot Sims, the jazz saxophonist who lent his name to the eponymous Muppet. Movies this week include Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (See? I wasn’t lying last time!), He-Man & She-Ra: The Secret of the Sword (best summed up by Janet Maslin: “Complicated but entirely predictable”), Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend (in which Ralph Hinkley and Rachael Tyrell try to keep Number 6 from stealing an apatosaurus) and The Last Dragon (which is easily one of the best films ever made, and one you ought to see right now). Musically we find REO Speedwagon at the top with “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” followed closely by Madonna’s “Material Girl” and Phil Collins’ “One More Night”. Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley get married today. The US performs another nuclear test in Nevada to intimidate the communists, as from the public US perspective the Cold War’s end is nowhere in sight. Whether this is actual blindness or willful ignorance depends on your politics.

Speaking of actual blindness versus willful ignorance, one of the big panics in the 1980s was over all the Satanic imagery present in Saturday morning cartoons, how they were desensitising children to violence, and how they promised to destroy American civilization as we know it. While most “Think of the Children!” books from the era focused on the supernatural elements that were turning our children into Satan worshippers and authority destroying Nazi-fascist-communists (the distinction between these three political systems being rather fuzzy to all the panicked authors sampled), or the excessive violence that was turning them into psychopaths the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Johnny Quest and Combat were on TV, in this case they missed the mark completely. This episode was summarized by Saturday Morning Mind Control author and professional panic wave rider Phil Phillips: “A character drank a potion, her eyes shot forth like lightning, she grew to an enormous size, and she received power. What a drug trip!”  He’s under the impression that the moral of the story is “Taking drugs is awesome, they give you magic powers!” which is just the kind of thing he does. In the same book, he couldn’t tell the difference between the My Little Pony Movie and the 10 part story, The End of Flutter Valley that came after it, which will tell you just how closely he was paying attention. Yet there is a political aspect of this episode he missed completely. Revolution? Destroying the means of production to return to nature? Following a strong leader to fight for freedom? Just imagine all the horrible things it’s programming your children to do!

And it’s partially because of statements like the latter that the nature of freedom is such a strange thing. Though it is easy to say at first that one is free, simply because of one’s personal philosophies or the nation one lives in, for the most part this subject is kept an a priori assumption. One may have duties, certainly, and may need to do the calculus of a given action to determine whether it is desirable, but we are free to choose, free to believe, free to do as we chose, though we are not free from the consequences. But simultaneously, there are clearly outside forces that act upon us, making it difficult to chose otherwise, or even in some cases completely obfuscating the alternatives. Coercion and deceit, mental illnesses and addictions, social situations and self images all impinge on freedom. It can be difficult to say no when someone bigger and stronger will throw you into a pit to die if you disobey.

Really? Philosophy? I thought this was a pony essay? Hold your horses, we’re getting there.

The Transcendentalist movement was an American philosophical and religious movement that began with the publication of Emerson’s Nature, and had the final bullet put into its head about a hundred years later with the publication of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. It was an optimistic and idealistic philosophy which believed in the innate goodness of all people and of the world itself, and that life required self-reliance and individuality for life to flourish. Political organizations and organized religion corrupted this individuality, made man a slave to expectations and cultural demands, and ground him down to a mere puppet or slave. They believed that each individual was part of a holy unity of nature and God, and that without the corrupting influence of artificial institutions which seemed to take on lives of their own and control humanity from above, peace and goodness would reign over the land naturally. There was no such thing as evil, there was merely a lack of goodness that could be added to any situation, and given free choice everyone would do what they believed was right. The flipside of this is the sociopathic individualism of Howard Roark, who is Frank Lloyd Wright with the serial numbers filed off, who simultaneously wants to work the way he wants to work, and wants people to pay him to do what he wants, rather than what they want, as if buildings were the product of one man and one man alone. The Fountainhead may contain some of the most beautiful and impassioned calls for artistic integrity ever written, but it is simultaneously the selfish and corrupted endpoint of the beautiful ideal that came before it: “Fuck you, got mine.”

Rather than an angry man sitting in prison for refusing to cut his beard, we have an angry young man blowing up a building he had designed and been paid for, simply because the actual creation was not built to his specifications, and raping the female lead “by engraved invitation”. The obsession with being “king in their own castle and master of all who fall into their dominion” is about as far from the “community of individuals who live in harmony with nature and far enough away from one another that they can have time to themselves” as one can get. The objectivist cares not for those who cannot help themselves; the transcendentalist seeks to empower them so they can coexist. (Aside: ironically enough, while Wright’s buildings are indeed very beautiful, a good number are also in constant need of repair due to shoddy ceiling, cantilevering, and structural planning. What this says about artistic integrity vs. practicality will be left to the reader.)

Isn’t this a gross simplification? Of course. The transcendentalists had their antecedents in the various gnostic movements of Europe and encompass a huge number of authors and political situations that we simply don’t have the time to cover, and objectivism doesn’t necessarily go as far as forgetting other people exist, merely seeking an acknowledgement that one is not obligated to help or sacrifice for others and that it is okay to do things that benefit no one but yourself. The history of the American individualism movement has a great deal more complexity, enough to fill all the present volumes already written on the subject and more, but it’s also a bit outside our present fractal snowflake. But for the purposes of this essay, one can accept that personal freedom can (not necessarily, but possibility) come at the cost of another’s freedom, and that said freedom has both positive and negative aspects both for the individual and those around them, ne?

Fine, for now. What does this have to do with the candy coloured friendship horses? Right, right, the ponies. Our little ponies themselves live a life that Thoreau would have killed for. Rather than having to squat in a shack in the woods as part of a labor exchange with Emerson, they have the run of all of Ponyland, living together in harmony with nature, beloved by all the creatures of the land, regularly interacting with the mystical gnomes Emerson dedicated his early journals to. Their non-conformity is magically imprinted into their very natures: no pony’s talent the same as another. They appear to have no rulers, no hierarchy or class system beyond a rather sensible one based on age (baby ponies are sent to bed, because children need naps), and everyone is invited to join them in their life style of play and comfort. In Ponyland, a queen is simply a fun costume to be assumed when you’ve no other ideas, and discarded when the parade is over, rather than someone who’ll toss you down a pit for spilling her drugs.

Sounds nice. Like an idyllic utopia. Unfortunately, as with all utopian communes, infighting is common. The treatment of Sundance is harsh, and such small mistakes, while frustrating, don’t necessarily deserve such rough words. So no, not a utopia for everyone. Mean people exist everywhere, even paradise. One could argue that it is only after Megan’s introduction of society and the idea of one who is superior to them that the pony’s simple and harmonious lives begin to break down. When Applejack’s bucket is overturned and the contents ruined in the previous adventure, it is laughed off and used as an excuse for a kiss. This time, an athletic/food related accident results in a pony running off crying into the forest, convinced she will never be good at anything. The queen costume is Megan’s idea, and it is Megan who ends up on the throne, presiding over the parade of costumes at this story’s end. Is it any surprise that their world is destroyed by the Smooze in the very next adventure, and that they never again achieve this level of harmony and safety? She has already effectively destroyed their way of life by her very presence. And yet, without Megan, they would be yoked to a chariot and transformed into dragons, enslaved to process witchweed under threat of being tossed down a pit or frozen to death, or depressed about their clumsiness. Utopias never last.

And what does this have to do with…? We’re getting there, don’t worry. Now, slavery is, of course, the antithesis of freedom. One is forced, be it through threat of violence or social conditioning, to obey the will of another. This isn’t the simple voluntary exchange of labor, nor the power imbalance present in the “do the job or you’ll starve” wage slavery, where at least the person has a chance to go home and perhaps through some windfall escape their situation, nor even the “voluntary slavery” of a Dominant/submissive relationship. No, the style of enslavement offered the bushwoolies by Catrina is one of hard labor and ceaseless toil in an underground factory, with no chance to escape and no hope of ever altering their circumstances. They aren’t even offered the transformation into mindless dragons that Tirek offered the ponies in our last installment. They are forced to toil in full knowledge of their place in life and their circumstances. As cruel a fate as can be devised for a sentient creature.

And why, one may ask?

Vanity, of course, that most vile of sins, the devil’s favorite. The dark mirror of self-confidence and positive egoism. The undeserved celebration of self for self’s sake, rather than for one’s accomplishments or abilities. Catrina loves power and being powerful, loves being superior to others, said power and superiority being dependant on the witchweed the bushwoolies are forced to harvest and process. The acquisition of power for its own sake continues to be the focus of our pony villains. She doesn’t need the magic to do anything, per se, she just wants it because she wants it. It, quite literally, makes her feel big. It lets her shoot lasers out of her eyes and control the weather. A slave to its addiction, one shudders to think about the DTs happening off screen at the end. Thankfully she’s utterly incompetent in magic’s use, or the world might have actually been in trouble. 

Where? Where did it all go so wrong? How so? 

Well, imagine a more competent villain like King Sombra or The Changeling Queen getting ahold of it. An entire Crystal Empire devoted to witchweed cultivation, the surrounding area kept frozen and permanently impassable, or the passing of the seasons completely in the hands of someone who exists only to drain love and devotion from her innocent victims. Catrina seems to have no desires other than getting her way and lounging around in her huge bed.

Having a professional sycophant doesn’t help either, as Rep is far too impotent in his attempts to stop Catrina’s self-destructive behavior and facilitates her horrible desires. It is fitting that he provide a mirror of the reptilian Spike and his helpful reassurance and advice. The ultimate enabler, he literally changes at a moment’s notice to acquiesce to her desires, and makes excuses for her behavior. It isn’t necessarily bad to encourage others and help them to do better, but when what they are trying to do is enslave an entire race to continue a drug addiction? When he assaults a child to steal her necklace, any doubts about the lengths he will go are put to rest.

Why does he do it, one may ask? The answer is found in the song “Good (Before You Turned Bad) Old Days”. He loves her and wants her to change, but feels powerless to do any of the things that might actually make such a change happen. A tragic yet familiar situation to anyone who’s encountered an abusive relationship, especially when one of the partners is a drug addict.

But she’s still awful. Enslaving others is wrong, full stop. No question there. If she were processing the witchweed herself, no one would have any problem with her. She could lay in bed, get high, and harm no one. Still a sad situation and hardly a full life, but not one that is actively destructive. But the lust for power and the jealous desire to see herself as better than others turns her into the villain. She used to be nice; but not anymore.

It is little surprise that the bushwoolies revolted and escaped when they had the chance. The purple bushwoolie’s call to action is, of course, far superior to Rep’s attempts at capitulation. All revolutions at their heart involve a strong leader who can sway the masses to hir side, and lead them to rise up against their oppressor. They shut down the machinery and return to nature, despite all the concessions the petit bourgeois Rep offers (“Better hours! A week off every Summer! A window so you can see outside!”). Designed to be completely toyetic and cute (the ponies even comment on this, after the Bushwoolies ask how they look), the bushwoolies’ anonymous horde of voices mirrors the minor ponies’ to a T. Whether they will continue their crusade into a state of permanent revolution, band themselves together with a strong national identity against the outsiders, or simply co-exist peacefully in the forest remains to be seen.

But why didn’t they escape earlier? Isn’t it the case that a slave asks for freedom, while a free person simply declares themselves so? Not exactly. A better definition would be “A slave is someone who will be harmed or killed for declaring that they are free.” Their ruler has shown no compunctions about murdering them for failure. They escape only when Catrina is at her weakest, asleep and waiting for more of the potion that was “accidentally” spilled earlier.

So, then they kill Catrina or she gets killed by her own evil scheme backfiring or something, right? No, she gets some actual character development. After the rainbow of light soundly defeats her magic, and even Rep turns on her, after seeing how far she’s gotten him to, she’s given one last chance and reforms, destroying the machine and returning to the simple life of leisure that she and Rep shared before the addiction became all consuming, happily bedecked into their Victorian garb and taking part in the parade of costumes celebrating Megan at the end. If only all recovery narratives went so cleanly.

The moral seems an awful lot like One Bad Seed’s though. Forgive the person who subjugated and enslaved you, who arranged for the theft of your civilization’s most precious artefact, and was moments away from insuring that you never saw the light of day again? A simple death via falling is almost too good. Why forgive? What possible reason could there be to give such a person a second chance? Because the revolution must have enemies if it is to remain in power, and the need for successful converts to the cause is paramount when it comes to further recruitment. Which is the better image: “We’ve joined up with the bushwoolies, who are already of the same philosophy as us,” or “We’ve convinced the arch bourgeois to abandon her old ways and join us! We’ve gotten her to kick that nasty drug habit, destroy the machine, and live freely as an individual alongside the rest of us, her dress a return to the old style she and Rep shared back in the old days.” What better symbol is there than a reformed enemy? Megan can trick baby ponies into going to sleep, trick Sundance into having self-confidence, and even find a place for their mortal enemy. Everyone should join and come live in a pony paradise!

But what does that have to do with…? Can an idea be a form of enslavement? Can the introduction of a meme destroy a previous held social paradigm? Seven years later the ponies live in a completely humanized society, with rock music, television sets, cassette players, roller derbys, hair salons, ice cream parlors, and garbage dumps. The city and the society exists as a concrete thing now, and though both the G3 and FiM societies roll back the urbanization of Tales, never again do they achieve the single dwelling naturalism of the early days. Megan, by her very presence, makes the old ways impossible. She can lie and use reverse psychology, something the honest to a fault ponies would never before do. She exists as a constant reminder of their perceived helpless. Why wouldn’t they try to emulate someone “stronger” than them?

And in the future…? With hindsight, it is obvious that the natural revolution failed. The bushwoolies were (somehow) a failure, relegated to the “add on” spot to a line of pony princess. The Luddite machine smashing lasts a single episode, and the Smooze is on the horizon in our very next adventure, destroying everything and forcing the ponies to retreat further into themselves.  As with the purple bushwoolie, the emergence of a strong leader who centralizes a disparate group usually happens in response to a perceived threat, and Megan takes an even more controlling role with the ponies. Their home is replaced by the next best thing, the plastic commercialism of capital and the greedy desire for the new winning out over the safe forest where they lived together in harmony. The Smooze tries to force them to grow up, to deal with their anger, resentment, and disappointment, to realize how unsustainable their way of life is. The petty abuse of Sundance for her mistakes will be writ large in Lickity Split’s attempt to be herself. The sea ponies will see themselves replaced by the newer and more exciting Flutter ponies. Even the cast find themselves replaced yet again. Only Megan remains, presiding over her little ponies by holding their salvation around her neck.

But no one knows that yet. The movie is still a year off (though we covered it first, for reasons which will become apparent in time, I assure you). The tone of the ending is much like Edmund Wilson’s hagiographic To the Finland Station, which couldn’t imagine in 1940 that Vladimir Lenin would turn out to be one of the worst monsters history has ever seen, and that the USSR was not on “the right side of history” — that indeed even that line of Hegelian thinking was completely misguided. Wilson admits such in the various introductions and appendices he wrote to the book over the subsequent years, and thought it best to treat the work as a record of what the feelings were at the time, of what the revolutionaries believed they would bring about, of where people thought they were going.

And just so with this episode. It seems like it wants to try something different: if the show can’t be the pure adventure of Firefly fighting dragons, it will be the gentle pressure of Posey and Megan putting baby ponies to bed and the conversion of villains into friends. But it simply wasn’t good enough. It would take the heavy brutality of the film to get the show into regular rotation on Saturday mornings, which would open with a direct sequel to the film, the 10-part End of Flutter Valley.

Next Time: Hope you like Spike, and aren’t afraid of bees…

Other bits: 

  • Though this was the 2nd special created, it also ran at the tail end of season two, hacked into two parts to suit the format of the program, and with the song “Good (Before You Turned Bad) Old Days” cut for either time or rights issues. Needless to say, the removal of the song removes a lot of what makes the story work. 
  • Apparently ponies breathe helium. How else could they get their balloons to stay aloft? That also might explain some of the tonality of their voices… 
  • Baby Moondancer’s costume is that of a princess, and her coloration certainly looks familiar, doesn’t it? What color do all the fan artists use for young Celestia’s hair? 
  •  Paul Williams is at a point in his career here where one wonders if he’s slumming it or not. His singing is rather limp and uninspired, a far cry from the Phantom of the Paradise or the Muppet Show. It’s certainly a quick buck for relatively little effort.  
  • The Bushwoolies ended up not being a success. Only six toys were released, each packaged with a different princess pony. You’d think a line of plush toys similar to the Popples would have sold like gangbusters, but what do I know? 
  • There is an old Persian legend about the origin of the pearl. It is said that the pearl was created when a rainbow met the ground during a storm, the flaws and imperfections said to be the result of the thunder and lightning. Megan is a diminutive of Margaret, itself derived from the Greek margarites, meaning “pearl”. Couple her stewardship of the Rainbow of Light with her emergence from an oyster in the previous adventure, as well as the special attention she pays to Moondancer over all the other baby ponies (Pearls are also said to be hardened moonlight) and I cannot think of a more appropriate name.

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