Does anypony have a toupee? (Swarm of the Century)

Pinkie’s very glad that worked. Her Plan B was to
bounce a graviton beam off the main deflector dish,
and that always leaves a mess.

Sorry all for the late update. I ran out of buffer and I was sick a couple of days this week, so this ran right down to the wire and then an hour over it. Sorry.

It’s December 17, 2010. Geeks rule the weekend: The top song is P!nk’s “Raise Your Glass,” which is both the least insipid song we’ve encountered to date in this blog, and the least terrible party anthem I’ve heard, a celebration of unpopular kids partying. Equally geeky, but in a bad way, the top movie is Tron: Legacy, which I have not seen on the grounds that I hate Tron and the “there is a world inside your computer where all the programs come alive” trope with a passion. (That I love Kid Radd and Wreck-It-Ralph anyway are testaments to just how excellent those two works are.)

In real news, archaeologists in China find a 2,400-year-old pot of soup. The U.S. appears to be about to file espionage charges against Julian Assange, but does not actually do so. Somalian pirates continue to be an issue, as is the presidential succession crisis in the Ivory Coast. A Federal District Court judge in Virginia overturns the insurance mandates in the Affordable Care Act, and the U.S. House of Representatives votes to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

In ponies, M.A. Larson writes his first episode, “Swarm of the Century.” Larson is one of the show’s better writers, especially in the first season; he has written some truly excellent episodes (most notably the two-part Season Two premier “The Return of Harmony” and last weekend’s “Magic Duel”), but he has also written one of the worst episodes in the show’s entire run (though not the absolute worst; that one’s still a couple of years away). Thankfully, his first episode is pretty good.

In keeping with geeks ruling the weekend, Larson writes some of the most geek-friendly episodes of the show. What I mean by “geek-friendly” is that Larson’s episodes tend to be less about developing the characters and more about expanding the continuity and canon of the show–two things geeks tend to love.

Before we continue, let’s take a moment to define some terms, because I am using both in a more technical sense than is common on the Internet:

Continuity is diegetic truth. Put another way, the continuity of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is the set of statements established as true by and within the episodes, including the events depicted onscreen, character backstories, the history and geography of Equestria, the way magic works, and so on. When Twilight Sparkle implies that there are not normally adult dragons in Equestria in “Dragonshy,” that indicates an element of continuity; continuity is thus identical to what the Internet usually calls “canon” and opposes to “fanon” or “non-canon.”

In technical useage, however, canon is the nondiegetic reference pool available to the work. Put another way, the canon of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is the set of works to which the show can allude with the expectation that some or all of the audience will notice and understand the reference. When Pinkie Pie momentarily has the face of her Generation 1 counterpart in “Too Many Pinkie Pies,” that indicates that the original My Little Pony is part of Friendship Is Magic‘s canon, even though it is most likely not part of the continuity.

“Swarm of the Century” establishes little in the way of continuity. It adds a new town, Fillydelphia, a new creature, the parasprites, and implies that Pinkie Pie previously encountered the parasprites. Unless I am much mistaken, it also marks the first time a character or location introduced after the premier returns; unfortunately, the character and location in question are Zecora and her hut.

In terms of canon, however, this is one of the most important episodes of the show, because the parasprites are a clear allusion to a work that previously was most definitely not part of any version of My Little Ponycanon. I refer, of course, to their obvious similarity to Star Trek‘s tribbles: cute, cuddly creatures that coo charmingly and continually, but whose voracious appetites and absurdly rapid asexual reproduction create a crisis.

By building an entire episode around an extended allusion to the original Star Trek TV series, Larson tacitly assumes that a significant portion of the audience is familiar with the show, which seems deeply unlikely for an audience of five-year-olds. It is not to much of a leap to regard this as the first episode that is in some sense created for bronies, as opposed to the previous episodes which bronies appropriated and made their own. Further, by opening up the canon to include a geek classic, it becomes a much smaller stretch to reference other geek classics; future references to Star Wars, Terminator, Indiana Jones, and The Big Lebowski all got their start with the parasprites. Even this episode contains at least one more addition to the canon, with a Gremlins reference: the parasprites multiply frantically from the start, but they don’t start causing any actual problems until after Spike gives them a late-night snack.

Certainly there have been allusions and references here and there in past episodes, but this is where My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic begins to rely increasingly on intertextuality (that is, the tendency of viewers to perceive a work differently based on their familiarity with other works) as a way to communicate on multiple levels. The Star Trek and Gremlins allusions here shoot right over the heads of small children, but the episode works just fine for them without that knowledge. Without knowing Star Trek, it’s a cute and funny episode with a serious-yet-silly menace and an absurd resolution.

Watching the episode with knowledge of Star Trek, however, and it becomes something else: a welcome mat. “Oh, you’re a geek?” it says. “So are we. You know how you’ve been trying to convince your friends this isn’t the My Little Pony your little sister watched when you were kids? Have some Star Trek.”

Geeks, as I mentioned, love canon and continuity. One possible reason for this (though it’s something of a chicken-and-egg situation) is that status in geek communities is frequently determined by knowledge, the more arcane the better. In a given geek community, the fastest and most reliable route to acquiring respect is to demonstrate knowledge of the community’s focus, the more arcane the better. In-depth knowledge of a work’s continuity and the ability to recognize obscure references are both excellent tools to accomplish this in media fandom. Being able to list every Doctor Who companion (in order by first appearance) or describe Batman’s first encounter with the Joker are useful social skills in the right circles, serving as conversation starters or sources of social currency.

Intertextuality multiplies the opportunities for fans to demonstrate their knowledge exponentially, because they require knowledge of multiple works. Being able to refer to the time The Dude showed up in My Little Pony not only demonstrates arcane knowledge of MLP, but knowledge of The Big Lebowski, establishing social currency on two fronts.

(Incidentally, this is likely a significant reason why many geeks are uncomfortable with postmodernism even while they embrace its self-referential and intertextual elements with glee: naive constructions of postmodernism, including some influential constructions by prominent early postmodernists, tend to deny the existence of truth and thereby the possibility of knowledge. If knowledge does not exist, then the entire geek social hierarchy collapses.)

Of course the classic creation myth of geek culture is that the possession of arcane knowledge leads to outsider status, and that is definitely the case here. Pinkie Pie is rejected by her friends because she possesses knowledge they need but lacks the social skills to express it in a form they can understand. However, instead of the lesson of the episode being that Pinkie needs to work on her communication skills (which she very much does), it’s the more geek-friendly lesson that you should listen to the knowledge of others (which is also true). This is another gesture of welcome to the bronies watching, many of whom (especially at this early stage in the evolution of the fandom) are themselves possessors of arcane knowledge (that My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is actually a good show) likely to be rejected by their friends if they try to share this knowledge.

This is probably not a calculated move. The rest of Larson’s output suggests that he himself most likely identifies as a geek (indeed, I would be surprised if many people involved in the production of the show didn’t identify as such). Larson is simply writing the kind of episode with which he himself is comfortable, and by extension naturally creates an episode which is geek-friendly.

The temptation would be to overdo the intertextuality, of course. To a degree, an intertextual  problem demands an equally intertextual solution. That’s why none of the attempts by the other ponies could be reused after initial failure, even though at least Rainbow Dash and Applejack’s only failed due to external interference and could have been retried. No matter how many times they attempted their solutions, these are solutions that arise organically from within the context of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, and therefore cannot work against a threat that originates outside that continuity. The only options are either an intertextual solution or a deus ex machina, but the Star Trek approach is not workable here. In the original Star Trek episode, the tribbles died to reveal a trap set by the real villain. Killing all the parasprites would be much too dark and the introduction of a villain behind them too complex for a 22-minute children’s cartoon, so a different solution is needed.

The typical Star Trek solution would be to pull from science and science fiction (or to pretend it is, by way of technobabble), but that’s not how My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic can or should solve problems. In its own way, that would be just as inappropriate as killing the parasprites. However, Star Trek does this because it is science fiction of a sort, while My Little Pony is children’s fantasy. It has its own antecedents to draw upon, and does so, resolving the episode’s dilemma by referencing the Pied Piper of Hamlin. This is the one major reference without which I’m not sure the story makes sense; for a viewer lacking the cultural context of that story, does it make any sense for her song to control the parasprites? But then, that’s why it has to be Pinkie–not just because she’s the pony most likely to be ignored by the others; not just because, as the Fool, she’s the one most likely to possess the knowledge the others are too wise to see–because as the “random” pony, she’s the one who can do something as ridiculous as assemble a one-pony band and have it work, and because as the one who comes closest to transcending the confines of the narrative, she is the one who recognizes the parasprites as alien to it and the one who can bring in the intertextual knowledge needed to stop them.

This is where the show fully embraces the bronies, and thus marks the end of the first leg of our journey. From here, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is on its way to being a geek icon, transforming the way in which many fans watch the show. There is a clear line from here to games of Spot Derpy, to elaborate Wikia sites that chronicle every background pony that appears to reference another work, and ultimately to fans dissecting thirty-second preview clips frame-by-frame to see which elaborate fan conspiracy theories will be supported and which will be rendered invalid by the next episode.

Of course like any change, something must be left behind. There is a certain innocence lost; with a growing tendency to intertextuality that will only become more pronounced as the series goes on, it becomes a little less unique, a little less different from other nostalgia- and reference-heavy shows like Adventure Time and Regular Show. The main advantage My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic has over those shows–indeed, over every other show on television–is its sincerity, its ability to connect with both children and with the children inside its adult viewers in a way that is honest and heartfelt without being cheesy. The challenge in the next stage of its evolution will be to find a way to explore the newly opened vistas of Everything Geeks Love without absorbing the cynicism and irony that so permeate adult culture.

Next Week: The identity crisis begins.

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