|100% show-accurate. What, you don’t remember the
episode when Celestia banished Domo-Kun to the moon?
April is Fanworks Month, where we take a break from the show for a few weeks and celebrate the creativity of the brony community by examining fanworks with the same seriousness and critical eye as regular episodes. This week is the fan animation “Double Rainboom” by FlamingoRich and a small army of associates.
It’s March 30, 2013. The top song is “Harlem Shake,” because corporate media love memes, and the top movie is “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” because it’s March 30 and there won’t be any actually good action movies for at least two months. Major news stories include the new Pope violating centuries of Catholic tradition by treating women as people, sequestration (the American equivalent to Europe’s disastrous austerity measures) taking effect in what is, to date, the single greatest triumph of right-wing obstructionism and determination to burn the world and rule over its ashes, and the Supreme Court hearing two cases regarding gay marriage bans and looking likely to overturn both.
The third season of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic ended a few weeks ago, and hype has been building around the “fan-made episode” “Double Rainboom.” The brainchild and senior project of Savannah College of Art and Design student Zachary Rich, the project has exploded across the brony community since its inception. Hundreds of background artists, animators, and voice actors, all of them students or amateurs, have worked together to create what is being touted as a “show-accurate” production, even receiving an official nod of approval from Hasbro to pursue the project.
Early in March, some of the members of the project screened the first 15 minutes of the episode at Cloudsdale Congress, and I was very excited by what I saw there. The animation was very nearly spot-on, the voices were solid, and the character humor felt like the sorts of jokes the show tells. Even the sequence of Twilight imagining how the enhancement potion would work on the different characters, though animated in a style not seen in the show, was reminiscent of both the storybook style of the legend of Nightmare Moon in the series premiere and the papercraft sequence in “A Friend In Deed,” among others.
There were a few moments that felt a bit fannish throughout, especially the lengthy sequence of Rainbow Dash flying through town, sowing chaos in her wake. Some of the gags in that sequence, such as Applejack’s cart being smashed or Fluttershy fainting at the apparent vaporization of her chickens, were solid, funny character moments. However, others were pure fanservice, jokes that only those aware of fan memes would get: Scootaloo crashing into an adopt-a-chicken sign, for instance, or a certain cross-eyed pony eating a muffin.
Still, overall the work seemed to be shaping up to be truly excellent, a paragon of what fanworks can be. Fan expectation was still that the episode would be show-accurate, although at the Cloudsdale Congress event one of the animators said that applied to the animation and characterization, not necessarily the jokes and plot.
As it turned out, the plot most assuredly was not show-accurate, as the second half took a surprise turn into a crossover with The Powerpuff Girls. There was almost no foreshadowing of this twist: of the many other cartoons rapidly referenced in Rarity’s and Fluttershy’s segments of Twilight’s imagination sequence, only The Powerpuff Girls has allusions in both, and an empty container of Chemical X is visible when Rainbow bursts out of the lab, implying it was used in making the enhancement potion. Nothing else in the show implies that The Powerpuff Girls is in any way involved; instead, the only moment that seems coded as foreshadowing, the “troll face” and evil laughter from the potion itself, has no payoff. The crosser is clearly supposed to be a surprise: the disclaimer at the beginning of the film mentions only Hasbro and DHX Media; Cartoon Network and Turner don’t get their disclaimer until nearly 20 minutes in. Nowhere in promoting the film did its makers ever mention it was a crossover; in short, both text and metatext do nothing to warn the reader that the Powerpuff Girls are en route.
We haven’t discussed metatext very much, though it will start to matter more in the second and especially third season, so perhaps this is a good time to address it. The text of a work is the work itself; it may be words, images, sounds, or in the case of a cartoon all of the above. The text contains both diegetic (exists within the characters’ universe) and non-diegetic elements (does not exist within the characters’ universe, such as most background music), but is limited to the confines of the work, independent of the packaging that surrounds the work. That packaging is the domain of metatext: all the things which are not actually a part of the work, but which nonetheless affect the audience’s experience of the work. Metatext for a typical episode of My Little Pony includes promotions and advertisements for the work, the opening and closing credits, the Hub or other network watermark, the commercials which air during breaks (or, obnoxiously, sometimes over top of the episode itself), and so on.
Metatext is generally secondary to text, of course, but it can still be very important in understanding a work. Metatext helps to shape audience expectations and can influence the impact of the work. If the metatext and text work against one another, the results can be quite disappointing for the audience; classic Doctor Who, for example, had a tendency to do episodes where the revelation that the Daleks (or whoever) were the villains was a major second-act plot twist, and then display the title “Revenge of the Daleks” at the beginning and heavily advertise that the Daleks were returning. On the other hand, contrast between metatext and text can be a very effective tool; the notoriously dark Neon Genesis Evangelion has an energetic, upbeat opening credits sequence that becomes more and more ironic as the series progresses.
Metatext is possibly even more important for fanworks than other kinds of works. Fanworks are very much like folklore in that they do not exist in isolation; by their very nature they are tied to a particular community and steeped in its traditions. Any fandom has its own values, beliefs, legends, traditions, and even rivalries and conflicts, which collectively form a body of lore most fans referred to as fanon (a portmanteau of “fan canon,” arising from the confusion of canon and continuity I’ve discussed previously). As with folklore, fanon is not monolithic, but exists in tension between tradition and innovation, with each fan applying their own interpretations and twists to the shared elements, some of which may then be adopted by the rest of the community. And just as any particular folktale can embrace or defy, but never ignore, its culture’s traditions, so a fanwork can embrace or deny fanon, but never simply ignore it. Even if the creator makes a point of avoiding other fans in an effort to keep from being tainted by fanon, readers will apply their interpretations of fanon to the fanwork and judge it accordingly.
Fans can be a demanding and fickle bunch. Like any community, there is only so much innovation they will accept at a time; beyond that point, the defenders of tradition step in with their criticisms and their demands. There’s nothing wrong with this; it is the natural behavior of any folk culture, and we’ve all done it at some point. However, it creates an enormous pressure to conform to fan expectations. The original work, even a serial format such as a TV show, can isolate itself from this pressure–fans, in the sense of members of a community surrounding the work, are always only a fraction of the audience, and can (and usually should) safely be ignored. Fanworks, however, are products of that fan community, and therefore cannot fully isolate themselves from its pressures.
The “Double Rainboom” team thus unknowingly did themselves a serious disservice by cultivating fan expectations for a “show-accurate” episode. For obvious reasons of both copyright and tonal incompatibility, Friendship Is Magic and Powerpuff Girls could never do a full crossover. References and allusions, sure–certainly there’s nothing particularly alien to the show in the notion of three cute elementary school-aged characters who go off and have adventures in which they are oddly more competent than the adults around them–but never a full crossover. Its premise makes it impossible for “Double Rainboom” to be an episode of the show, and the resulting conflict between expectation and execution–between metatext and text–left many viewers feeling disappointed.
It certainly doesn’t help that the crossover is barely used once introduced. There is only a minimal amount of interaction between Rainbow Dash and the Townsville characters, and much of the time is swallowed by another reference-loaded chase sequence. One of the few ways to make a crossover really work (and we’ll get deeper into this next week) is to use the juxtaposition of the two works to comment on both, highlight the contrasts and similarities. That almost starts to happen here, with the difference in the way Rainbow Dash deals with the monster from Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup, but it doesn’t end up going anywhere.
What “Double Rainboom” does succeed in doing, however, is to show us what a group of hundreds of fans thought other fans would want to see. They gave us is memes, allusions, crossovers, and in-jokes, like an animated version of Tumblr. These are the things of which fan culture is made, arguably (though they thankfully left out shipping), but they are not how good cartoons happen. Back in the series of articles I’ve taken to calling “Friendship Is Alchemy” I posited that the two leading categories of contemporary television for geeks are meme depots and cult shows. Cult shows are older, dating back to the 1980s and Twin Peaks, and rely heavily on metatext for their entertainment value–specifically, much of the entertainment value of a cult show is in the paranoid theorizing of fans in a conspiratorial mode, trying to guess where the show will go and figure out the underlying mysteries. Meme depots, on the other hand, are a little more recent (the earliest example I’m aware of is Family Guy in the late 1990s), and rely for their entertainment value on either generating or repeating memes that can be shared between fans.
Fans, being human, are frequently blinded by their expectations. Thus many fans try to approach Friendship Is Magic as either a meme depot or a cult show. Trained by cult shows to scour every line of dialogue and throwaway reference for “clues,” fans engage in elaborate theoretical exercises to try to construct back stories and answer questions the show has never particularly asked: What happened to Applejack’s parents? What does Fluttershy do for a living? Who was Starswirl the Bearded? At the same time, trained by meme depots to find intertextuality inherently funny, they crow in delight at every allusion to another work or fan meme, and propagate every funny one-liner or cool moment as a new meme.
There’s nothing wrong in any of this; it can be a lot of fun. (Ask me sometime about Sombra, Cadence, and “Hearts and Hooves Day” for my own absurd engagement with the paranoid viewing style.) The problem lies in forgetting that while some shows (Doctor Who, for instance) may be clearly operating in a cult tradition, and others (Regular Show) in a meme depot tradition, Friendship Is Magic does neither. The value of Friendship Is Magic is in its text. It’s not about familiar, easily repeatable gags, or the illusion of an overarching plot coming together to an inevitable conclusion; it’s about characters we grow to love and an opportunity to retreat to a utopian vision of a world in which everyone loves their neighbor as a person like themselves.
One of the dangers in alchemical transformation is stopping too early. The xanthosis stage results in gold, which might seem quite good enough, but it is not the magnum opus, the philosopher’s stone. Like a fanwork or a folktale, mid-first-season Friendship Is Magic suffered from a tension between the old, the option of being a typical My Little Pony show, and the new, being a cult show or meme fountain in an attempt to reflect the likes and interests of a fan community of geeks. In my article on “Fall Weather Friends,” I identified the former with Applejack and the latter with Rainbow Dash. It is a very good thing that neither of them won that contest, because only by synthesizing these opposites can the rubedo stage be achieved and something truly new and transformative be created.
“Double Rainboom” is like a glimpse of a dark alternate reality where Rainbow Dash won the race, and Friendship Is Magic became a meme depot. Its first half depicts the best-case scenario of that path, a reasonably funny, colorful, and well-animated, but ultimately unsatisfying and soulless, filler of time. Its second half shows where the path ultimately leads: nonsensical chaos, and a great deal of noise to no purpose.
In the end, it seems the most valuable thing the “Double Rainboom” team provided the fandom is animation resources. This shouldn’t be taken as a knock to them in the slightest; creating something that other fans can use to make great fanwork is nothing to sneeze at. Already the puppets they created have been put to use in other projects–including “Snowdrop,” which despite featuring none of the mane six and being set almost entirely a millennium before the show, still manages to come far closer to capturing its spirit.
Next week: Old and new find themselves in tension in an entirely new way when a mercurial force of chaos arrives in Ponyville. No, not Discord, he’s next month. I’m talking about the kind of mercurial force of chaos that arrives in a mysterious blue box…