I’ve finally figured out why you’re having so much trouble being liked! (The Crystal Empire)

“Wait, are we doing Stop Drop and Roll or Duck and Cover?”

It’s November 10, 2012. The top song–as it has been for more than a month, and will continue to be for the rest of this one–is Maroon 5’s “One More Night.” The top movie is Skyfall, a James Bond movie, taking over from last week’s top movie, the surprisingly excellent Wreck-It Ralph.

Since Season 2 ended in April, Lonesome George, the last known Pinta Island Tortoise, died of old age; the 2012 Summer Olympics were held in London, England; and CERN announced the discovery of a particle matching the expected properties of the elusive Higgs boson. In the week of this episode, the U.S. holds elections, resulting in the re-election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, defeating challenger Mitt Romney, who at the time of this writing has just been sued in federal court for racketeering; the Democrats increase their majority in the Senate while the Republican majority in the House weakens; and three states vote to allow same-sex marriage, two to allow recreational marijuana use, and one to allow marijuana for medical uses only. In other news, the Syrian civil war continues, with the U.N. predicting 4 million people could require humanitarian aid by 2013, the British government investigates former officials for involvement in child sex abuse and covering up the abuse by children’s television presenter Jimmy Savile; and a corruption scandal in the Russian government leads to the firing of the defense minister and the chief of the armed forces.

In ponies, we have the first episode of the first season to have no involvement from Lauren Faust, and it is not a particularly auspicious start, particularly because it has an almost entirely different set of issues from most of the subpar or problematic episodes in the first two seasons.

I say “almost” because the episode’s entire plot can be summed up as a variant on the White Savior archetype, in which one or more members of a European-derived culture (which, as I’ve argued before, Equestria quite clearly is) travel to an exotic locale, befriend the “good” natives, and rescue them from some existential threat, in the process mastering their culture to a native level or beyond. It is an intensely imperialist story, being ultimately a claim that white culture is superior and has a duty to save other cultures, which are framed as either aggressors or victims. Examples include much of H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ works (and the recent film adaptation of the latter’s Barsoom novels, John Carter), and the film The Last Samurai. Most egregious here is the (otherwise quite catchy) “Ballad of the Crystal Empire,” in which the Mane Six try to put on a traditional Crystal Festival using the information available in a single book. Imagine someone who had never heard of Christmas or previously encountered Western culture trying to put on a large public Christmas festival based solely on the Wikipedia entry–failure is guaranteed, and even to make the attempt shows an utter lack of understanding of the culture. True, the Crystal Ponies have lost their memories and the festival is an attempt to jog their memories, but why is it necessary to do this without consulting any of them? Shouldn’t they have a say in the reconstruction of their own lost culture?

Admittedly, this issue is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the Crystal Ponies have forgotten most of their own culture, and what little we do see–crystal towers and vaguely ancient Roman hairstyles and outfits–seems to be European in origin. Additionally, while the execution is bungled, the general concept that a culture needs to be occasionally reminded of its history in order to survive as a culture is fairly solid. Unfortunately, this is far from the episode’s only major issue–there is a much bigger one, and one relatively novel for the series.

Before we tackle that, however, consider how much went right for this episode. The songs by Daniel Ingram, while hardly his best work, are catchy and entertaining despite the problematic lyrics and circumstances. The role-reversal of Shining Armor and Cadance from their last appearance–in which she is casting the protection spell and he is providing assistance and comfort–is a nice touch that helps solidify their relationship as being mutually supportive. In addition, this is a solid character development episode for Twilight that continues her evolution as a leader, begun way back in “Winter Wrap-Up.” Here, she learns that she needs more than knowledge and strong organizational skills; she also needs to trust the people around her, delegate responsibility, and put the task at hand ahead of her personal interests, all very important qualities in a good leader.

There’s good humor, some great action set-pieces, and the scene where Twilight and Spike have to face their deepest fears is quite effective. What, then, is the problem with this episode? What causes it to fall so very flat? In a word: Sombra.

 King Sombra is very similar, as a villain, to the dragon from Season 1’s “Dragonshy,” written and directed by the same team as this episode. He is large, not very talkative, creates a vast cloud of darkness, and is spoken of with terror by Fluttershy. However, a number of factors support the effectiveness of the dragon as a villain: we already know, thanks to the premiere, that Fluttershy is generally fearless in the face of monsters (as opposed to social situations), so the fact that the dragon frightens her is very frightening indeed. Additionally, the dragon does not appear until late in the episode, so our first impression of it is Fluttershy’s terror and its earthshaking roars.

Sombra, by comparison, is first encountered in Celestia’s flashback, which depicts him being defeated. He then appears onscreen as a vast cloud of darkness, which is being successfully held at bay. True, the crystal ponies are terrified of him and traumatized, but since this is the first we’ve met them, we don’t know how much to credit that fear. In addition, while the dragon spoke little, when he did speak it was in complete sentences. Sombra speaks in one- and two-word phrases, suggesting a low intelligence, which is generally not helpful in making a villain compelling.

But why is Sombra depicted this way? Could he be made more effective by showing him as more intelligent or effective? Unfortunately, the answer is largely no, not without fundamentally altering the premise of the episode.

Consider the past major villains, Nightmare Moon, Discord, and Queen Chrysalis. Nightmare Moon and Discord are classic supervillains, which is to say that they have immense personal power, but stand alone. They demonstrate their villainy by appearing personally and doing bad things to the heroes and their allies, such as banishing Celestia and preventing the sunrise or turning Ponyville into a realm of chaos and corrupting the Mane Six. There is not much difference, in story structure terms, between the two of them and antagonists such as Trixie, Glinda, or the dragon–Nightmare Moon and Discord’s actions are more extreme, but effectively they remain the same, being individuals who create a negative situation for the protagonists, who must then defeat them.

Queen Chrysalis’ role is slightly more complex, as an invader and infiltrator. In her case, the structure is that she is initially hidden, and must be revealed, and in addition she has minions who can carry out her commands and must be faced before she is. (Not necessarily defeated, but faced.) Although Friendship Is Magic necessarily avoids the paranoia that usually typifies such stories, it nonetheless follows the standard structure for encounters with this type of antagonist, most familiar from spy narratives.

Sombra, however, is something else. He is not an invader of Equestria, but the ruler of his own dark realm in a distant land. He is described as a shadowy (literally in his case) figure, immensely powerful, and ruler of an empire of slaves. He is, in other words, an evil overlord, and so it is helpful to compare him with the defining evil overlord of modern literature, The Lord of the Rings’ Sauron.

This comparison makes it immediately apparent why Sombra cannot work. Sauron is a figure of overwhelming power, who singlehandedly dominates and controls a vast empire. The heroes are massively outclassed by him, and the only reason they stand a chance of success is that they never have to face him directly. Indeed, he never appears “onscreen” in the novel, and instead only his effects and minions are depicted. The danger he represents is shown by depicting powerful heroes as being afraid to face him (Gandalf thus serving the function Fluttershy did in “Dragonshy”) and by showing how powerful and dangerous his minions are. The implication is that if the Witch-King is as deadly as he is, how much moreso must be the Dark Lord that empowered him?

Unfortunately, neither of these apply to Sombra, who has no minions, is onscreen from nearly the start of the story, and whose empire appears to consist of one town that he is currently locked out of. And unlike Sauron, who is shown creating a vast choking blight, spreading fear throughout Gondor, and send out vast armies that destroy all in their path, we see little to nothing of Sombra’s effects. The only real suggestion of them is the terror which the Crystal Ponies feel toward him, and their general lack of affect mitigates against conveying that terror to the audience.

The problem, essentially, is that to be an effective evil overlord Sombra has to have terrifying armies that plunder, pillage, burn, and murder their way across the green fields of Equestria. We have to see the torments that created the Crystal Ponies’ terror. He needs to be a shadowy (pun intended) figure lurking on the edges of the narrative, while horrors afflict our characters. He has to, in short, be something that cannot be depicted in a cartoon for four-year-olds–a genuine, murderous, conquering tyrant.

Without darkening Equestria beyond what the genre and target audience allow, there is simply no way to make Sombra work as a villain as presented. He must either be another Discord or Nightmare Moon who confronts the heroes directly, or have an army of minions through which he acts like Chrysalis, or else become a Sauron-like overlord and cost the show its age rating.

There are severe limitations to the kinds of stories Friendship Is Magic can tell. We saw this throughout Derivative Works Month; Friendship Is Magic cannot tell the story of a murder, as in an Ace Attorney game. It cannot tell a Doctor Who story without becoming pony-shaped Doctor Who. It cannot tell a dark story of loss and pain without ceasing to be Friendship Is Magic. And now it cannot tell the story of fighting an evil overlord.

This is what Season 3 is going to be: a season of experiments, of pushing the boundaries of what the show can do and trying things that it possibly cannot. But the thing about experiments? Most of them fail.

Next week: Hopefully the guest post I was planning to run this week. The week after that? One that didn’t fail

0 thoughts on “I’ve finally figured out why you’re having so much trouble being liked! (The Crystal Empire)

  1. …Well, I had a really interesting post, but after writing it all out, I accidentally deleted it. So I'll try and summarize it:

    I think going at Sombra as a Sauron-style overlord is the wrong paradigm. The true villain is not smoky weird current-day Sombra, but the ancient Sombra and the fear in the hearts of the Crystal Ponies that he will come back. Since the Crystal Empire is literally the emotional heart of Equestria, what better way to rule than with insidious fear? Also, it is Past-Sombra who delays Twilight with his tricks in the dungeon. As I put it in my deleted post, Sombra has already won. The mane six are undoing his reign, not preventing him from coming back.

  2. You get one hint of the kind of threat the writers probably wanted Sombra to be in the insane kaizo traps he left guarding the crystal heart. Like Alicorn Priest says up there, Sombra came within an inch of outsmarting Twilight Sparkle despite being, for all intents and purposes, dead for a thousand years.

  3. A point which I've seen brought up with regards to this episode (as part of a larger piece on how the show treats international relations and authority figures) is that the Mane Six seem to*, and the audience to be intended to*, largely base their action towards Sombra on Celestia's testimony, and since she is the aunt of Sombra's rival for the throne Celestia is likely to be an extremely biased source on the subject.
    *Is it OK if I split infinitives here?

  4. Stepping away from Sombra for a moment, a thought occurred to me. If you look at it from the right angle, the Mane 6's attempt at recreating the crystal heart festival went exactly as well as your hypothetical blind Christmas party. They completely botched the single most important feature, the heart. They failed to understand what it was (a specific item, not just any pretty centerpiece), failed to understand that it was the most important part, and thus pretty much failed to understand what the festival was even about. After a point the entire festival became about distracting everyone from the fact that they didn't have the crystal heart. Asking any local (who remembered things at least) would have let them avoid this blunder and effectively would have removed the strict time limit from the episode's finale.

  5. That's an interesting view, and one that could have made for an interesting episode. The problem is that we don't see past-Sombra except very briefly, so our actual impression of Sombra is his shadow in the present. I think the fourth-season premiere does a MUCH better job of conveying that this non-threatening figure in the present was a much greater villain in the past, and those past actions caused the present crisis.

  6. It is okay if you split infinitives anywhere, at least in English. There is no grammatical rule of English that forbids splitting infinitives. For that matter, there's no rule against ending a sentence with a preposition. Both are completely acceptable in formal English prose, and anyone who tells you otherwise is objectively wrong. You can prove it by pulling out a collection of essays by any highly respected prose stylist (I recommend Auden or Orwell) and pointing out places where they've split infinitives, ended sentences with prepositions, used “they” with a singular verb to indicate a person of unknown gender, and so on.

    While you're at it, you may want to pull out a copy of Strunk & White and throw it in a fire. It is the only book ever written that deserves to be burned.

  7. Yes, that scene is highly effective, but this essay was already pushing 2000 words and I had a con to get to… Plus I have to leave SOMETHING for the book version… 😉

  8. Interesting. Certainly his effects on the Crystal Ponies fit, what with the timidity, reduced affect, and general air of hopelessness. I don't really see Sombra himself that way, though? Would you care to elaborate on how you see it?

  9. Very true… which leads me to suspect the real reason they didn't ask the locals is extradiegetic, to create that time limit. Kind of makes it worse.

  10. Well, the reason they didn't ask the locals is because the locals had forgotten, which was the whole point of the fair.

    Also, possibly because the show wanted to send that exact message, about making sure you know what you're talking about before trying to use cultural iconography in a work of art.

  11. Speaking only for myself, I also saw it in that trap he left for intruders behind the door, that illusion that shows them their nightmare… partially because it wasn't just their worst nightmare, it was actually a specific nightmare: being rejected by someone you deeply care about and look up to.

    (the fact that he chose that specific illusion is an interesting bit of indirect character development for past!Sombra)

    What I noticed in the Crystal Ponies was the “flashes” and flickers of memory. Like, remember when Twilight was talking to that one pony, who suddenly twitched and cringed as she saw Sombra glaring at her out of her memories? And on a large scale, this was repeated in the way the shield flickered. Those twitches are normally associated with trauma (and they've certainly been traumatized, if the flashbacks are any indication), but certain types of depression have them too.

    (I also noticed the twitches during Pinkie Pie's breakdown in “Party of One,” which was also written by McCarthy…)

    As for Sombra himself, well, there's a long history of fantasy stories using that creeping corruption (“why is the ground turning dark? And it's spreading…”) to represent hopelessness and despair, and how Sombra “leaked” past the barriers, growing from a fragment of his horn, seeping in with those tendrils that turn everything dark… it's probably a bit of a stretch (after all, the plunder seeds have similar imagery), and I'm probably overgeneralizing (after all, it affects everyone differently) but it's a surprisingly apt visualization of how it can feel to have that crawling through one's head.

  12. Also his name is a dead giveaway…

    In all seriousness, it's a theory I've seen before and it seems pretty plausible to me. The important clue is it seemed like the writers couldn't care less about the big floating shadow wraith, they're just interested in the effect he had on the crystal ponies. That certainly suggests a metaphor to me.

  13. Nah, it didn't seem like they were going for that at all; they didn't really seem to be portraying the mane 6 as “wrong” so much as “unlucky”. This is still a show for little kids. Even if they can afford a little subtlety, if they're trying for a moral they're going to at least spell it out a bit more than that.

  14. Well, they were “unlucky” given that they had no real way of knowing. The Crystal Ponies had forgotten, and the history book had that page torn out.

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