This is the article that should have gone up last Sunday, but didn’t because of lack of buffer, plus mild fever, plus depressive episode, plus definitively confirming that I need to avoid butternut squash soup in the future, plus furlough from work… it’s been a rough five days.
|Can you imagine what a series would be like with
THESE ponies as the mane (GET IT?) characters?
Especially that yellow one, she looks pathetic.
It’s February 4, 2012. Rihanna’s deathgrip on the charts is finally broken by Adele, whose “Set Fire to the Rain” combines actually pretty good music and lyrics for pop with her obnoxiously nasal, twangy voice to accomplish something more interesting than it is good. The top movie is Chronicle, a found-footage movie about kids acquiring superpowers that neither makes them savvily aware of superhero cliches nor calls attention to the total absence of a superhero genre in its world, making it an extremely rare, possibly unique specimen of a movie whose themes were better addressed in something by M. Night Shyamalan.
Meanwhile, on TV, we have the latest episode in The Adventures of Daring Do, “Daring Do and the Quest for the Sapphire Stone” (apparently aired in some markets as “Read It and Weep”), written to well above her usual standards of comfortable mediocrity by Cindy Morrow and directed by Jayson Thiessen. This episode starts very oddly–indeed, almost like a different show entirely–with an extended framing narrative in which a pony (who looks remarkably like a more colorful version of our heroine) is injured performing aerial stunts and, with nothing better to do, finds herself reluctantly reading a book, called, of course, Daring Do and the Quest for the Sapphire Stone.
The decidedly strange episode that results functions primarily by paralleling the experiences of this “Rainbow Dash” with our more familiar heroine, who of course is still injured after the events of the prior episode. Rainbow Dash suffers a similar wing injury, and while at first resistant on the grounds that she is an athlete and books are for “eggheads,” ultimately begins to read and enjoy the adventures of Daring Do, serving as a surrogate for the adult (and especially adult male) members of the fandom, the so-called “doods,” many of whom were likewise troubled by the contrast between the self-projected image required of a man in a society defined by anxious masculinity and patriarchal competition, and the pleasure of watching a “show for little girls.”
The actual plot of the Daring Do story is a bare-bones pastiche of the Indiana Jones films, themselves pastiches of the adventure serials of the 1930s and 40s, so the story-within-a-story is fittingly also a pastiche-of-a-pastiche. There are also a number of musical references to the film of The Neverending Story, itself something of a mosaic of many different story fragments interacting. The novel in particular is fond of introducing interesting story premises and then refusing to follow up on them, saying instead “but that’s another story for another time,” and is therefore an excellent reference point for this episode–Rainbow Dash’s adventures feel like an attempt to test the waters for a spinoff, but there is no evidence one was ever considered, truly another story for another time.
As Daring Do is captured by Ahuizotl, Rainbow Dash is released from the hospital, and thus no longer has access to the book. She breaks into the hospital to steal it and escapes, continuing the parallel between the characters as her flight mirrors a chase sequence between jungle cats and our heroine earlier in the adventure. Rainbow Dash is ultimately caught, however, and forced to admit that she actually does enjoy reading despite her self-image. Her friends neither reject nor make fun of her, and she resumes reading, allowing us to see another clever escape by Daring Do and the capture of the Sapphire Statue from Ahuizotl.
There are a number of oddities to resolve in understanding this episode, the least of which is its structure, which is actually an inversion of the fairly typical “reading is fun” episode of a children’s show. Normally, such an episode would use familiar characters as a frame story around the book they are reading, so that a main character of the show can learn a lesson about reading. Of course, it’s already well-established that Daring Do is an archeologist, albeit a rather active one, and thus she’s a scholar and a reader. We’ve even seen her reading, with apparent pleasure, in past episodes. Unlike an ensemble show, which would likely have a main or prominent secondary character, The Adventures of Daring Do maintains Daring Do as the only main character, with no secondary character sufficiently important to get their own episode (at least until “Ahuizotl and the Persistant Pegasus” in Season 3, which is arguably as much an origin story for Daring Do as it is an Ahuizotl episode). It is thus necessary to make Daring Do the main character of the inner story, and create a frame story with new characters.
And of course it is worth remembering that the ultimate goal of The Adventures of Daring Do is to sell toys, so the existence of a group of colorful, distinctive friends who act as fans for her could help sell more toys, albeit ones more closely allied to the traditional “girls’ show” aesthetic than the more adventurous and not particularly colorful Ms. Do. But once again, there is no evidence of any planned spinoff, in either toy or show form, so it seems likely the apparent resemblance to a stealth pilot is just that, an appearance.
No, a much more interesting conundrum is the presence of a kitten in the jungle, and its apparent equation to the “barking mad” pony in the Rainbow Dash escape sequence. The kitten can be mostly explained by Ahuizotl’s keeping it in his lap as a pet later in the episode, as both a typical villain gesture and as a chilling reminder of his mythological namesake’s propensity for drowning things, given the nearby river and the fact that the cat makes no appearances in future episodes. The pony seems similarly out of place, a rather heartless pun mocking the mentally ill in what seems an otherwise rather sweet and gentle setting, given that their version of Battleship involves peacefully finding and “raining on” various cloud formations. However, it does not seem to have an equivalent explanation, being instead a not particularly funny gag in an episode with some much funnier sequences. (If there’s one thing the frame story does better than the Daring Do series in general, it’s humor–the lengthy montage of Rainbow Dash’s boredom, followed by the reveal that it was in real time and not a montage at all, is just one hilarious example.)
If instead we think about what the kitten represents, it becomes more apparent what the barking pony is for. In the initial chase sequence with Daring Do, the kitten represents the safe path to the temple containing the Sapphire Statue; kittens are a common signifier of harmlessness, as in the phrases “weak as a kitten” and “gentle as a kitten.” The “barking mad” pony, on the other hand, represents Rainbow Dash’s continued derangement, as her decision to leap over him represents the final loss of her ability to think rationally and distinguish between Daring Do’s adventures and her own life (consider that, while she’s not supposed to strain it, her wing is nonetheless functional when she chooses to attempt a rope swing after leaping over the pony). Only when presented with the closed book–a sealed door between her world and the world of Daring Do–is she able to return to normal.
As, perhaps unfortunately, must the audience. The closed book is followed by Rainbow Dash digging into the next adventure, leading directly into the next episode of The Adventures of Daring Do, but this is the last we’ll see of this curious parallel character to the stripy-maned pegasus. As a reminder, we receive our own slammed-shut door between our world and theirs, in this case in the form of closing credits.
Next week: How do you follow up the inevitable “reading is fun” episode? Did you forget we’re in February? The dreaded inevitable “Valentine’s day episode,” of course.