Saturday, 31 October 2015

Episode review: "Scare Master"

Season 5 episode 21
Oh, c'mon, My Little Pony, you're better than this.

It's actually possible to have "Scare Master" before today, as this episode leaked from iTunes a few weeks ago. Back then, there was a bit of buzz for it, and watching it now, I absolutely fail to understand why. "Scare Master" attempts to address Fluttershy's fear of Nightmare Night through having her participate in Nightmare Night festivities, but the writing is just too sloppy to support the potential of such a premise, and despite the occasional amusing moment, the episode is ultimately dull and pointless.

Fluttershy is a character that I have a love/hate relationship with. In the first three seasons, she was on par with the rest of the main cast in excellence, but somewhere in season 4, it seems everyone just forgot how to write her well. Suddenly, the writers like to exaggerate different parts of her personality, and unfortunately, "Scare Master" is a particularly nasty example. In the first act in particular, Fluttershy is depicted as overly cowardly, being terrified of silly, innocuous things. This Scooby Doo-esque characterization for Fluttershy is always a chore to sit through, and this is no exception, especially because this element of her personality just isn't fresh anymore. Worse than the innocuous things that make her nervous, however, is how she justifies them. In a few particularly painful parts, she attempts to explain how various Nightmare Night activities and costume ideas would be a source of danger should some monster show up. Except it's just Nightmare Night. There are no real monsters, and nothing is going to attack her. These explanations are stupid, and if there's one thing I will give this show, it's that it hasn't been stupid in a long time.

And then, suddenly, almost out of nowhere, she's suddenly game to try Nightmare Night. This is at Spike's urging, but it's still abrupt. It's not quite as abrupt, however, as later in the episode, where, after failing to participate in the festivities because of her fears, she suddenly decides that she'll make something especially scary for her friends. It's a decision made basically at the drop of a hat, and while Fluttershy's efforts to enjoy the holiday with her friends could make for a much sweeter, perhaps even deeper episode, here it's choppy and barely even goes anywhere. In the end, she decides she doesn't enjoy Nightmare Night. This isn't accompanied by any real lesson. Nowhere does anyone say that she can be sure of that because she tried it, for example, and even if they did, the episode sure as hell wasn't building up to it. If we're meant to see this as Fluttershy getting over her fears, the character arc is so flat that the only real way to notice is that her composure is different at the end. I don't want the show to spoon-feed me, but there's a way that character development is supposed to work.

The other main issue here, aside from Fluttershy herself, is that this episode is boring. It's not necessarily that nothing happens, but what does happen is distinctly shallow and superficial, even compared to some of the weaker episodes this season. Again, there's something to be said about Fluttershy moving outside of her comfort zone, but in the end not much is built upon that base. Consequently, the episode feels like fluff. The humour is lame, too. Where something like "The One Where Pinkie Pie Knows" is dull because its humour is based on a single joke for its entirety, "Scare Master" has a variety of jokes that are never especially clever and are more often than not based on an obnoxious reference, even down to the title, a dull pun on the earlier title "Stare Master." Probably the worst example is during a scene where Fluttershy is trying to scare her friends, where she at one point dangles cardboard cut-outs of ponies that are direct references to various famous anime characters. "Annoying references" was also one of my complaints for "Do Princesses Dream of Magic Sheep?," which is no coincidence, because this episode also features the return of Flutterbat.  Am I the only person who is so over this? Stop pandering, show.

What I did like, however, was the characterization of Fluttershy's friends. For the most part, they're uninteresting, but Pinkie Pie at least stands out as striking just the right level of randomness that doesn't feel exaggerated. Like "Hearthbreakers," this randomness feels grounded in some semblance of reality, and that makes for better characterization. For the others, I really liked how sensitively they treated Fluttershy. They were respectful of her nervousness, and did their best to accommodate that, even if Rainbow Dash was somewhat rude. Surely by now Rainbow has grown a little bit of sensitivity, but that's a nitpick.

There's the occasional entertaining moment, too. Muffins dressed as Twilight is neat, especially because it shows just how well-known Twilight has come since becoming a princess. Another stand out moment is in the climax, where Fluttershy finally makes an effort to scare her friends, and what appears to be Granny Smith turns out to be a skeleton, which is a tiny bit more morbid than is expected for this show, especially given that the skeleton is wearing a wig which resembles Granny's hair. A bit more of that morbidness would make this episode considerably more entertaining.

Unfortunately, "Scare Master" was not worth the wait. I sure hope this season picks up again soon, because these past three episodes have been outright heartbreaking after the run of "Canterlot Boutique" to "Raiders of the Lost Mark." In a season that has been united primarily by its ambition, this episode stands out as perhaps one of the least ambitious, and that's really a shame, because it had potential to be considerably better than it is. Instead, it's a chore, and I'm tired of it.

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