Sometimes it’s just really fun to be scared (MMMMystery on the Friendship Express)

Sergeant Sherlock Pie inspects the new recruits.

It’s April 7, 2012. The top song and top movie have not budged. In the news, less than 1% of the population of the District of Columbia votes in its Republican presidential primary, the 30th anniversary of the Falkland War occurs, and Sky News (part of the Rupert Murdoch empire along with a number of newspapers, Fox News, and some sheep ranches) admits to hacking email accounts, which would have fit well with last episode.

But this episode is “MMMMystery on the Friendship Express,” directed by Jayson Thiessen and written by a nigh-unrecognizable Amy Keating Rogers. None of her problematic signatures are on display here; there are no reflexively applied toxic memes or stereotypes, no Applejack worship (indeed, she’s barely in the episode), just some silly fun with Pinkie Pie being weird and lots of allusions. 

Most notable, of course, is Murder on the Orient Express, of which this episode is straightforwardly a parody. The most immediately obvious references are in the plot: a train suspiciously devoid of passengers unrelated to the story (in the novel, excuses are given as to why no one outside of one sleeper car could be involved, but the train nonetheless feels curiously small) becomes a crime scene. A skilled detective (Twilight in the show, Poirot in in the book) investigates, accompanied by an incompetent detective (Pinkie Pie here merges the characters of the doctor and M. Bouc) who falls for red herrings and makes accusations based on spurious reasoning. In the end, it turns out everyone is guilty except for the investigators themselves, but a solution is found so that no one is punished. One of the criminals even disguises themselves as a worker on the train, while another fakes leaving it while remaining on board!

More interesting, perhaps, are the structural similarities. “Friendship Express” does not match “Orient Express” beat for beat, even when one takes into account that the cast of the episode is half that of the book. However, both the book and the episode have an intricate, nested structure: a first part that introduces the characters; a series of short vignettes featuring each suspect in turn; a period of clue-gathering in which the incompetent detective is baffled and the competent detective confident and businesslike; and finally a denouement in whih the truth is revealed. The biggest differences are that the vignettes are the second phase in the episode and clue-gathering third, the reverse of the book, and the occurrence of a second crime in the episode, committed by all the characters Pinkie Pie falsely accused in the first. Additionally, the vignettes in both establish innocence for the characters featured in them, but in the show this is because they are falsely accused, while in the book they are providing alibis for one another. 

These vignettes, along with the scene where the lights go out, followed by the revelation of a new crime, and the fact that the second incident involves three simultaneous acts of vandalism, all recall the film Clue, itself a parody of the Agatha Christie-style upper-class closed-circle mystery of which Murder on the Orient Express is frequently upheld as a paragon. Rather famously, that film was released with three different endings, which were distributed to different theaters, but nearly twenty years on from that, the TV and home video versions are far more familiar, which play all three endings in sequence–each is shown, then immediately dismissed using silent movie-style placards, and the next is shown. In much the same way, each of Pinkie Pie’s accusations is shown, then dismissed by Twilight Sparkle–her first accusation is even done in a silent movie style!

There is quite a mix of media going on here, connecting a novel, two films (as the nearest source for the episode is not so much the Agatha Christie novel itself as the 1974 film based on it), and the board game from which Clue is adapted, and the episode reflects that, connecting styles and eras of film that deal with suspense and uncertainty. The episode as a whole, of course, references the closed-circle mysteries of the 1930s, while the griffin chef’s vignette references silent film, and more specifically the action serials typified by The Perils of Pauline. Doughnut Joe’s vignette is a 1960s martini-and-tuxedos spy thriller of the type today best remembered for James Bond, and the mule’s is a pastiche of the kung fu films of the 1970s.

We are back, in other words, on the theme of time, and in particular in the way in which different periods of pop culture expressed and experienced suspense and action–largely the domain of predatory figures in the silent film era and the 1930s, but a source of pleasure and excitement in later periods. It is a demonstration that even our feelings are subject to cultural shifts, can change their meaning from generation to generation.

There is an oft-repeated truism that the popularity of film genres shifts with the times: in times of war and economic turmoil, comedies and fantasies are more popular, while in stable periods of peace and prosperity dramas and thrillers are more popular. People who are afraid and stressed want to laugh and to escape; people who are comfortable and safe want pathos and adventure. What kinds of emotional states are experienced as pleasurable is in part dependent on the state of the culture, in other words.

It is a direct challenge to the season’s other major theme, love. If even our emotions are mere to signifiers, changing according to cultural context, does it not follow that love is a cultural construct? For all the claims that it conquers all, that it is eternal and can outlast time, can it really be just a matter of cultural programming that makes us regard it as one of the loftiest goals, where another culture might place duty, glory, responsibility, any of a host of other ideals? How far can this be extended? Is it possible to imagine a culture so boring that fear becomes the most sought-after emotion, so that horror movies and amusement parks become regarded as among the highest forms of art? Is it possible to imagine a culture where love is not desired at all?

Or, perhaps, are there limits? How we feel about feelings is clearly at least partially determined by the culture around us, yes, but is it a matter of influences tugging one way or the other on emotions that do have an underlying tendency to be viewed as positive or negative by most people? In other words, is love something that most people want regardless of culture, but culture influences how much they want it?

These are likely not questions that have solid, certain answers. We may never know the answer, but an answer can be assayed–and the show is about to do just that.

Next week: Amorivorous doppelgangers, giant glowing hearts, and some seriously excellent music.

0 thoughts on “Sometimes it’s just really fun to be scared (MMMMystery on the Friendship Express)

  1. MLP:FiM is already a what-if story in this regard, since it depicts a world in which friendship is not merely a cultural constant but a physical, measurable force of nature, and the power source of the magic that holds their very world together. It depicts a world in which these questions do have solid, certain answers.

    Of course, since it's a work of educational fantasy-allegory and not a work of science fiction, the show doesn't concern itself with exploring the true societal consequences of this idea, other than using them as narrative conceits. Still, you could get some incredible “Big Idea” stories out of that concept… especially given the presence of the creatures we'll learn about next week. I'll elaborate then.

    (oh, and I know exactly which quote you're going to use for next week's post title, too…)

  2. (oh, and I know exactly which quote you're going to use for next week's post title, too…)

    That's pretty impressive, considering that I don't know yet. It's generally the very last thing I do.

    And yes, within the context of the work those questions may have absolute answers, but the work itself is a cultural product. Hence it presenting *an* answer, not *the* answer.

  3. That's pretty impressive, considering that I don't know yet. It's generally the very last thing I do.

    Really? I assumed the only reason you didn't use it for H&HD was because you were saving it for ACW. Huh…

    (sorry if that came off as presumptuous, though. I probably should have said “I have a prediction as to” instead)

    And yes, within the context of the work those questions may have absolute answers, but the work itself is a cultural product. Hence it presenting *an* answer, not *the* answer.

    That's why I drew the science fiction comparison, since the best usage of science fiction is to explore what would happen if some of these big questions in life actually did have solid answers. I'm surprised more fantasy literature doesn't deal with those ideas, but of course fantasy is the traditional domain of social allegory and kiddie adventure, not of philosophy.

    Among the half-finished fanfics clogging up my hard drive is an in-universe essay on Changeling physiology, in which… well, again, more on this next Sunday.

  4. I honestly have no idea which quote you're referring to. Be interesting to see if I stumble on it anyway.

    I am looking forward to your comments Sunday!

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