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 crossover fanfiction Time Lords and Terror by Hephestus.
|You were expecting somepony else?
It’s November 23, 1963 and June 6, 1986 and March 26, 2005 and October 10, 2010, and a children’s show is beginning that will eventually have a strong adult following as a massive geek hit.
Mostly, though, it’s somewhere around April 2011 (finding the precise date at which a fanfic posted turns out to be surprisingly difficult), so if you really want to know what’s going on in the world, read the Season 1 posts from “A Bird in the Hoof” on.
For starters, we have to address something important: This story is, from an objective, technical standpoint, not very good. It’s amateur work made by an amateur, as fanfiction almost always is (Neil Gaiman being the obvious exception). There are frequent punctuation errors, especially comma splices. The diction is extremely uneven: some scenes feel like the author was consulting a thesaurus throughout, especially in the early chapters, while others use the much plainer and simpler language with which the author is clearly more comfortable. The characterization is extremely basic, and the plot makes heavy use of lucky coincidences and deus ex machina resolutions.
None of which matters, because this is a story that reimagines the villains of 1986’s My Little Pony: The Movie to fit them into the Doctor Who canon, and then has the Doctor team up with the modern-day Mane Six to fight them. Any remotely readable story with a premise that glorious would be enjoyable, and this story manages to be more than remotely readable and therefore immense fun.
There is a feeling of inevitability to crossing over Friendship Is Magic and Doctor Who. Not just because both series are popular among a pretty similar group of people, or because there was a background pony with an hourglass cutie mark who vaguely resembled a pony version of the Tenth Doctor. There’s a host of reasons why this crossover had to happen sooner rather than later.
The most superficial is the mirror nature of the shows’ default plots. After “everypony in this town is crazy,” the second-most-common premise for a Friendship Is Magic story is that some alien element enters Ponyville (or, if it’s a season premiere or finale, Equestria), accounting for 23 of the 61 stories in the first three seasons. The go-to standard plot for Doctor Who, meanwhile, is that the Doctor arrives in some place or time and serves as an alien element that stirs things up.
A more important reason requires explaining Doctor Who a bit. The Doctor generally arrives via TARDIS, a magical blue box that is also a machine, the point at which Clarke’s Law and alchemy collide into something that doesn’t so much travel through time and space as smash its way from genre to genre. Doctor Who can be (to use the three most recent episodes at the time of writing this essay) a Victorian horror story about possessed snow in one story, a modern-day techno-thriller about people being forcibly uploaded to the Internet the next story, and a fantasy-space adventure about balancing the importance of story and memory with the need to defy authoritarian belief systems that feed on those stories in the third story. What makes them recognizable as Doctor Who stories is the presence of four key elements (and a hat tip to the ever-brilliant Philip Sandifer for laying these out in his article on “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”). First is the TARDIS, the liminal space that bridges the familiar and the strange, a sort of cross between Platform 9 ¾ and the Enterprise, able to change which Faerie it links to every story. Second are the monsters, the reification of the strangeness the TARDIS brings, sometimes terrifying, sometimes benign, and always alien and weird. Third is the Doctor himself, the ancient wizard-scientist (alchemist, in other words) who jumps from story to story so he can play with the monsters. The Doctor is a mercurial figure, always transformative and transforming, not just in his famed regenerations when he changes face and personality, but in his ability to swing between moods and moral statuses mid-scene and even mid-line. Part trickster god who destroys systems he finds unworthy, part wandering adventurer, part eccentric Victorian inventor, and part bum, he is the cosmic hobo and the hobo cosmic. Last but not least are the companions, who serve as a restraint on the Doctor. He loves them, wants to protect them and have them think well of him, so they are able to hold him back when he goes too far and spur him to action when he’s fooling around too much.
The TARDIS goes where the Doctor is needed, not where he wants, so of course it lands in Equestria. Not so the Doctor can save everypony from the villains; the story establishes from the start that the only reason the witches land in Equestria is the appearance of the TARDIS, not the first time it’s been suggested that the Doctor brings the monsters. No, he’s not here because Equestria needs him; he’s here because, with Season One drawing to a close, Friendship Is Magic needs him. The series has increasingly found itself trapped in the constraints it laid down for itself, and it needs to break free. It needs a force of chaos, a harbinger of change, a mercurial being who tears down oppressive systems and then wanders away, leaving others to pick up the pieces.
All season, as I’ve mentioned repeatedly, there has been a recurring theme of change and transformation. It’s employed some powerful symbols of that concept: the Eclipse, the Dawn, the Phoenix. Our culture has no shortage of symbols of the power of change to tear down old orders that seem unbreakable–it’s one of the functions of the Cross, among other symbols. But for me, the single greatest symbol of global transformation, the breaking of the world that lets a new world grow in its ruins, is the Police Box, and the odd man who lives inside.
To make a long story short, the series has increasingly found itself trapped in the constraints it laid down for itself, and it needs to break free. It needs a force of chaos, a harbinger of change, a mercurial being who tears down oppressive systems and then wanders away, leaving others to pick up the pieces–and of the two such beings in long-running English-language TV science fiction franchises, the Doctor is by far the more benevolent.
But what, precisely, does it need him to do? As I mentioned in discussing “Double Rainboom,” crossovers are generally at their best when using one set of source material to comment on the other. The best crossovers use both to comment on both simultaneously, and that very nearly happens here in perhaps the greatest moment of the story, the moment at which two unstoppable forces of generally benevolent chaos collide, and Pinkie Pie meets the Doctor.
Now, Pinkie Pie is not the main companion here. There’s a clear hierarchy to the characters, which I suspect but cannot confirm has to do with how much the author likes them. Twilight is clearly the companion who gets closest to the Doctor, and the one who resolves the plot in the end. Rainbow Dash and, weirdly, Applejack and Zecora form the next tier; they do not have the rapport with the Doctor that Twilight does, but they do get to be very useful. Finally, Fluttershy, Rarity, and Pinkie Pie have almost no impact on the plot and appear to be there just to fill out the “Doctor meets the Mane Six” requirement, with Rarity not even showing up until the third act.
Despite this, the two characters who get the best scenes with the Doctor are Pinkie and, to a lesser extent, Fluttershy. Pinkie meets the Doctor once before the team-up really gets rolling, and it’s delicious. First, the Doctor (who is definitely Ten here, despite an error at one point that implies he’s already regenerated ten times and is therefore Eleven) employs one of his typical character tics and asks a question to which he is the only person present who could possibly know the answer (“How many species use Z-Neutrino weapons?”) Pinkie immediately and correctly guesses the answer, throwing the normally unflappable and somewhat smug Tennant Doctor off his stride. Even better is what happens after the Doctor invites the Mane Six into the TARDIS: while everyone else goes through the usual “flabbergasted at it being bigger on the inside” set piece, Pinkie vanishes into the depths of the TARDIS, eventually finding the pool and library (they’re the same room), where she reads the TARDIS instruction manual.
Keep in mind that the Doctor has never been very good at flying the TARDIS, right back to the beginning of the show. He is surprised, in this story, that it even has an instruction manual, which means Pinkie, after no more than a few minutes in the TARDIS, knows more about it than the Doctor does.
Which, once stated, is obvious. Pinkie Pie is constantly dancing on the edge of the story in Friendship Is Magic, able to interact with the medium, hang off the top of the frame, or import knowledge from outside the story. The TARDIS, meanwhile, is a device for smashing the Doctor and his companions from story to story, while its interior occupies a stable “other dimension”–in other words, the inside of the TARDIS is outside any story, beyond the fourth wall. Of course Pinkie Pie has an affinity for it, of course she understands it immediately on entering it! And of course she unsettles the Doctor by doing so; he has repeatedly been shown to have quite an ego, especially the Tenth Doctor (though Three and Six could be quite self-aggrandizing, too), and the notion of not being the most potent force of genre-bending chaos in the room is extremely disconcerting for him.
The other truly great scene, for me, is the Doctor’s first meeting with Fluttershy. At the time I read this story, I knew Fluttershy was my favorite pony, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Then the Doctor, after knowing her for only a few moments, realizes what neither she nor her friends does, that Fluttershy’s greatest strength and greatest weakness are the same thing, her hypervigilant monitoring of the behavior and attitudes of others. That scene, rather than one actually in the show, is the point at which I realized that Fluttershy has Avoidant Personality Disorder, and thus serves as the basis for my article on “Stare Master.”
As I said, other than those two scenes, the main draw of this story is its villains,taken from My Little Pony: The Movie, but with the plot of that movie entirely discarded. Past and present collide, as they tend to do when Time Lords are around, but not in a literal sense; this story does not try to imply that Friendship Is Magic shares continuity with the original My Little Pony. Instead, it presents us with characters close enough to the villains of that movie to be recognizable as versions of them, but at the same time very much Doctor Who villains. By making Hydia, Draggle, and Reeka into a coven of Carrionites, the story not only makes them much more effective and frightening than they ever were in My Little Pony, but goes a long way toward redeeming the Carrionites as a part of Doctor Who lore that’s never quite fit in.
Once the witches are fixed as a part of Doctor Who that sneaks into Equestria, the transformation of the Smooze into the Lovecraftian S’Müz is as inevitable as it is brilliant, as it transforms him into an occult foil for both the Doctor and the Mane Six. Most of the Doctor’s iconic villains are foils–that is, characters that share some of his traits while being his opposite in other ways. The Master is an immortal time-traveling genius, but seeks to dominate rather than engage and enjoy. The Daleks destabilize any narrative they enter and reshape it with themselves at the center, but are violent fascistic mass-murderers. The S’Müz, meanwhile, is a foil to both the Gnostic elements of the Doctor and the Qabbalistic elements of the Mane Six.
Gnosticism is an early Christian heresy, likely predating both the canonical Gospels and the (little-o) orthodox form of Christianity from which all of the modern (big-O) Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant sects descend. Gnosticism, to oversimplify to the point of absurdity, holds that the material world is the accidental creation of an emanation of God named Sophia, and now lies in the tyrannical grip of a mad, evil entity that thinks it’s God, called Ialdabaoth. Sophia is trapped within the world she created, and the souls of humanity are her essence, sealed away in our bodies. Sophia’s male counterpart/other half, Christ (who is here explicitly not the same being as the human Jesus) entered the world to spread knowledge, bring enlightenment, free the trapped souls, and eventually destroy the prison that is material existence. Christ appeared to die, but a divine being can’t; Jesus (who was a normal, albeit enlightened, human who acted as a sort of conduit for Christ) died in his place.
Qabbalah is a very complex mystical tradition with many variations, including the original Jewish version, the medieval European version that influenced alchemy, and multiple descendents and variations thereof, but for our purposes (and again to elide and oversimplify to the point of absurdity) the important part is that, as in Gnosticism, something went wrong at the beginning of time. The material universe is not itself a mistake, but the divine light that was supposed to fill it was shattered and scattered, resulting in human souls. Certain special sparks among us have the power to ignite the light of human souls, not to destroy the material world but to remove the corruption from it and transform it into something better, the originally planned perfection something created by a divine being ought to have. There’s also these things called sephiroth which would at least quadruple the length of the essay if I explained them, so for our purposes we’ll just say they represent stages on the path to enlightenment, and in some traditions have dark mirrors called the qlippoth, which represent various ways to fail to reach enlightenment.
The Mane Six are pretty easy to read in a Qabbalistic way thanks to the Elements of Harmony. They possess inner light, sparks which can ignite to restore things to their proper, uncorrupted form, as they do when they transform Nightmare Moon to Luna. In the context of “Time Lords and Terror,” this light is identified as psychokinetic energy, and works more or less like mana or the Force. The Doctor, meanwhile, is very much a Gnostic figure. He is a nonhuman and superhuman savior from outside who is frequently mistaken for a human, appears to die without actually dying, possesses great wisdom and knowledge, brings enlightenment to those who listen, overthrows tyrants and destroys systems he finds unworthy (for the best example of this side of him in action, I recommend the tragically underrated Seventh Doctor story “The Happiness Patrol”).
The S’Müz is a foil to both, balanced between a dark read of the Gnostic Christ and a manifestation of the qlippoth. Like the qlippoth, he is a manifestation of the primordial chaos and darkness, seeking to recover the Light taken from it at the creation of the universe. Also like the qlippoth he can be taken as a dark alternate read of an ostensibly good thing. The relationship between the Lovecraftian and the Gnostic is analogous to that between the qlippoth and the sephiroth: knowledge that brings madness/enlightenment, beings that destroy physical consensus reality without malice, the universe in the tyrannical grip of a vast, mad idiot, even the notion of an ancient alien being sealed or sleeping within the world are all found in both. If you happen to like physical existence, the Gnostic Christ is a terrifying monster that can look like a human but wants to tear out your soul and destroy the universe, not really very different from Nyarlathotep.
The S’Müz as dark reflection of the Doctor works on more than just the mythical level, though. The ponies respond to them in not dissimilar ways: both are immediately obviously alien and unsettling, as when Twilight is disturbed by how ancient the Doctor’s eyes look, or when all the ponies feel frightened and nauseated by the mere sound of the S’Müz’s voice. They instinctively feel that the Doctor is trustworthy and want to impress him, and just as instinctively fear and hate the S’Müz.
This mirroring of the two makes it fitting that one of the S’Müz’s first acts on arriving in Equestria is to absorb the Doctor, revealing yet another parallel. Removing the Doctor so abruptly from the narrative makes it clear just how much he has absorbed and replaced Equestria with his own mode of being. The Doctor’s usual function is to crash into some other genre of story and make it his own, and this story is no different. The Mane Six fall into companion roles swiftly, the villains are recast from their My Little Pony origins to become Whovian entities, and the general tone of more-or-less kid-friendly horror is a typical Doctor Who register. Even the main villain, for all that he works on an occult or mythic level as a foil for the ponies, only works as a personal foil for the Doctor.
In short, even though it’s the Doctor who crosses dimensional boundaries to enter Equestria, the end result is that the Mane Six find themselves in a Doctor Who episode. The only way to get any element of Friendship Is Magic back into the narrative is to remove the Doctor so that Twilight can be the hero instead, and even then the solution she finds is a typically Doctor-y combination of the sonic screwdriver and technobabble (including, in the most jarringly out-of-place gag in the story, an Insane Clown Posse reference).
Sandifer posited in his article on “The Reign of Terror” that the disappointing episodes of Doctor Who, the ones ripe with potential that never quite clicks, are a large part of why the series could potentially continue forever. If so, then the same is true of fanfiction: the compellingly awkward works, the ones whose reach exceed their grasp, are often the ones that stay with the reader. We remember the potential and the brilliant bits, while the awkward prose and shaky characterization fade. More to the point, we remember the almosts and might-have-beens, things the story almost but not quite managed to do, and take joy as much from them as from the things that worked.
Case in point, this story has a sequel, “The Mines of Dragon Mountain,” which is noticeably better in terms of characterization and writing quality, and better about balancing the Doctor Who and My Little Pony elements of the tone and plot. At the same time, there’s simply nothing in it as glorious as an alien starship commander commanding his crew to engage in a heroic, last-ditch sacrifice to save the multiverse with the words “Let it be known… that the Hervoken race stopped the S’Müz!”
Next week: More genre collision, this time with the intrusion of ponies into a genre still in its infancy. No, not the one you’re thinking of. This one has more dice, fewer robots, and updates much more often.