Saturday was a day of new directions.
It often is, of course. Biblically, Saturday was the day after creation, a long deep breath before history began. In real life, as the day after the workweek ends for most of us, it’s a day for the sort of leisure activities that make self-discovery and expression possible, the day when we connect with friends or work on our hobbies and interests. Life-altering experiences tend not to happen when we’re going about our regular routines, and there’s rarely time for much else on workdays.
But this particular Saturday–the most recent, as of the time of posting–was in particular a day of new directions for the two current shows I follow most closely, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic and Doctor Who. Both episodes were milestones; “Princess Twilight Sparkle” marks the beginning of the fourth season of Friendship Is Magic, meaning it now has more seasons than the other two My Little Pony TV series combined–and later this season will surpass them in combined episode count, as well. More impressively, of course, this was the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who, which is a massive achievement for any television show (not quite a record, however; Guiding Light predates television and lasted until 2009). It was also, by the way, the largest simulcast of a drama to date, and the 123rd episode/serial of the series to use “The Thing of the Stuff” as a title.
Both were highly entertaining episodes, but not quite in the top tier of their respective shows. What both did do, however, was dramatically transform key elements of the show, removing long-standing plot devices and introducing new ones.
Interestingly, while my prediction partially happened (and neither my hope nor fear occurred) for “Princess Twilight Sparkle,” “Day of the Doctor” was everything I feared, nothing I predicted or hoped for–and yet both episodes were entertaining and satisfying. Part of that is that “Day of the Doctor” did something I have been wanting (but not daring to hope for) ever since the episode title “The Next Doctor” was announced years ago: a multi-Doctor special in which a future incarnation appears. Part is just the sheer fannish joy of seeing thirteen doctors on screen together, even if nine of them are stock footage. (Though I will say, with the sole exception of his last scene, and much as I love John Hurt, his part could have gone to Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor, and it would have been a stronger episode for it. Admittedly, that last scene does make him checking his ears in the mirror in “Rose” retroactively hilarious.) And it was wonderful to have Hurt stand in as the voice of classic-fan criticisms of the new series, criticizing the kissing, the way his successors held their sonics, the catchphrases, the youth of the new Doctors… it helped tremendously to reduce the weight of self-importance that threatens always to overwhelm any episode created as a celebration of a milestone.
“Princess Twilight Sparkle” in many ways was similar–both had strong running themes of time and memory, with significant flashbacks and a menace from the past, long-buried, emerging in the present. “Princess Twilight Sparkle” was rather lighter, of course, being mostly concerned with how Twilight and her friends deal with her new role as princess, and reassuring the audience that this will not derail the show or her character. A number of lines seem to be there just to reassure fans, such as Rarity saying that they need to meet to talk about redecorating her loft, Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie contradicting Rarity’s claim that every pony dreams of becoming a princess, and Twilight’s nervous freakout (now with added flight-based physical comedy).
Both episodes are heavily about visiting moments that have been teased from the beginning (well, a beginning in the case of Doctor Who, namely the 2005 relaunch)–the rise and fall of Nightmare Moon, Celestia and Luna’s battle with Discord, and the origin of the Elements of Harmony for Friendship Is Magic, the Time War and fall of Gallifrey for Doctor Who. In the case of the former, it was more or less what we expected, except that the origins of the Elements of Harmony were something of a surprise–they originate from the newly introduced, crystalline Tree of Harmony, which we must assume is the axis mundi of Equestria, its World Tree. Crystal trees have actually always been a personally relevant symbol for me, since they visually resemble a neuron and thus can be both the axis mundi and the axon, the Tree of the World and the individual soul. All of that now feeds into the Elements of Harmony–vessels of light representing aspects of the self, fruit of the Tree of the World (which is also, of course, the twin Trees of Life and Knowledge) that is also the soul–which are now revealed to have been the Sephiroth all along. Of course the focal Element manifested as a crown–it’s Kether!
The Time War, on the other hand, is depicted exactly the way I feared: as a series of explosions and laser beams. But I’m okay with this, because all we actually see is the final battle of a war of attrition that has stretched across all of history. I am willing to accept the beam weapons and fire as the Kardashev IV equivalent of being reduced to throwing sticks and rocks at one another. And yes, Clara is depicted as being Essence of Generic Companion, but in a brilliant twist, Ten and Eleven take on the companion role as well (Hurt–was he cast just so his character can be referred to as the Hurt Doctor?–explicitly names them as such) and together the three of them do what the companions do. Remember my (well, Phil Sandifer’s, really) breakdown of the four essential elements of Doctor Who: the TARDIS is the extradiegetic space that connects all conceivable diegetic spaces, the Doctor is the man who goes into those spaces, the monsters give him something to fight against once he’s there, and the companions give him something to fight for. That is what the War Doctor has lost that makes him no longer the Doctor, and it is what the Moment, Clara, Ten, and Eleven collectively give him back. (And why I adore that he earns his space in the ending credits as all the Doctors whoosh by, just after McGann and before Eccleston.)
What both episodes do, as I mentioned at the start, is take their respective series in fascinating new directions. In the case of “Day of the Doctor,” it’s a massive plot transformation. A big part of the premise of the new series has been the Doctor’s status as the last of the Time Lords, the sole survivor of Gallifrey. His survivor’s guilt has haunted all his new series incarnations, most visibly Nine and Eleven–but Gallifrey has been too important a part of the series’ history to stay gone forever. We’ve always known that sooner or later it has to come back. Yet ironically, by bringing Gallifrey back from the dead and giving the Doctor a quest to find it, the show creates a way to keep it gone forever. The universe is vast and the Doctor has no idea where to look–he can continue wandering at random forever now, always hoping to find Gallifrey.
The confirmation that Gallifrey stands (in direct contradiction to Rassilon’s claim in “The End of Time” that it must either rise or fall) from Tom Baker as a future Doctor repeating a past face. At last the show has firmly exploded the silly fan obsession with the regeneration limit! Including Hurt, Capaldi ought to be the last Doctor according to that one throwaway line in a crap episode everybody insists on treating as absolute fact despite being contradicted repeatedly in later and better episodes. At the same time, given Baker’s age, the pace of the series, and how long Doctors’ tenures tend to last, it is highly unlikely that we will see a future incarnation of the Doctor played by Tom Baker–which means the Doctor can never retire.
The transformation of Friendship Is Magic is, to a small extent, a change to the premise–the Elements of Harmony are now gone. However, they only ever really factored into five episodes: the premiere, the two Discord episodes, “Magical Mystery Cure,” and “Princess Twilight Sparkle.” They are not really an essential part of the premise, any more than Twilight being a unicorn and not a princess is–as Applejack and Twilight discuss in the episode, it is the continued friendship between the characters that matters. More important by far is the promise of the episode’s ending: a fruit has emerged from the base of the tree, a crystalline box (six Elements, plus three cutie marks, plus this box: it is the tenth and lowest Sephirah, Malkuth, the Kingdom, which is to say the World) with six locks opened by unknown keys. The very strong implication is that those keys will be created or found in episodes to come, an explicit story (as opposed to character) arc. The show has never had one of those before, and the possibilities it opens up are enormous. Not so much in the quest itself (presumably, they will collect the six keys and acquire the Infinity Gauntlet/Triforce/Conscience Machine by the end of the season), but rather in the very idea of a multi-episode arc. Unlike Doctor Who, Friendship Is Magic‘s premise is not inherently infinitely extensible, and as such fiddling with the structure of the show like this on occasion can have a profound regenerative effect. On the other hand, it is a sign that the show is starting to struggle to find stories within its original structure, necessitating the new one.
So, in Doctor Who, we have the promise of an end that opens up immortality, and in Friendship Is Magic we have a new beginning as a sign of aging. Either way, these upcoming seasons are going to be something new. My shows are evolving.