Saturday, 30 April 2016

Episode review: "No Second Prances"

One of my least favourite aspects of the show recently has been the increasingly dull characterization of Twilight Sparkle. Now that she's a princess, the writers have struggled to figure out what to do with her, and although she's my favourite character at her best, the past few seasons have more often than not depicted her blandly. However, parts of season 5 were starting to play on her increasing anxiety about her responsibilities as a princess, and giving her a pupil in the form of Starlight Glimmer appeared to be a way to streamline and focus on those anxieties. By completely redefining Twilight's role in the series, there was considerable promise for this character to be taken in a new direction.

So it's greatly concerning that the second episode to address this is so redundant and blandly delivered.

In "No Second Prances," Twilight needs Starlight to make a new friend because friendship lessons or something. Celestia is coming over, and Twilight wants a tangible expression of Starlight's progress. In its own way, this is a continuation of Twilight's own stress about her own responsibilities, and it's made more interesting considering that it likely stems from a desire to impress Princess Celestia. The friend that Starlight winds up making is none other than the Great and Powerful Trixie, who Twilight doesn't trust because... reasons. Sure, her change of heart was unconvincing, but her great sin was never especially bad to begin with, and the worst things she did were under the influence of the Alicorn Amulet. Considering that Twilight seemed to forgive Trixie, what reason could there be not to trust her? Twilight's clearly overprotective for some reason, but that aspect is so underdeveloped as to seem almost accidental. It's a trait we understand she has at that moment, but only abstractly, which frankly makes it unconvincing.

The writer, Nick Confalone, appears to have gone for the approach of an emotionally detached plot dump that plays out more like a dry Wikipedia summary than an actual piece of entertainment or art. Both Twilight and Trixie have interesting character elements which are barely expounded upon and tediously exposited, respectively. Trixie is a character who I have grown to find entertaining in such appearances as the Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks movie, and I genuinely believe that she could have been excellent here, but although her characterization is nuanced, most of the flavour of her personality is drained out. Despite this, her explicitly stated jealousy of Twilight is one of the few bright spots of the episode, as is her loneliness near the end when Twilight convinces Starlight to abandon Trixie's show. It's unfortunate that, like Confalone's "Hearthbreakers," these interesting elements are stranded in an incredibly dull plot that only detracts from the themes and characterization that the episode sets up.

If Trixie is the best character, however, Twilight is the worst, and this is quite easily her worst characterization to date. Over the course of the episode, she rapidly becomes completely unsympathetic. She suspects that Trixie and Starlight, having formerly been "evil" ponies despite this being an oversimplification of both of their characters, might be a bad influence on each other. Although this motivation ignores the unique circumstances of both ponies' "evil" and demonstrates a much less empathetic Twilight than the previous season worked so hard to establish, it's not entirely unreasonable.

The problem, however, is that it's nowhere near strong enough to make up for her showing control freak tendencies which have very rarely been part of her character, and which previously only appeared under extreme stress that was barely built up or focused on here. All of this isn't great on its own, but it's forgivable since Twilight is the antagonist of the episode. The real problem, however, is that it leads nowhere interesting. The ultimate lesson she learns is a blatant rehash of what she learns in "The Crystalling," meaning that all of this added baggage amounts to nothing and, in light of the redundancy of her character development, her characterization here feels regressive more than anything.

However, although Twilight is the worst character, what really sinks the episode is the black hole of characterization that is Starlight Glimmer. I'm still holding out hope that she delivers on her initial promise, but in "No Second Prances," she is completely uninteresting. She is immediately shown as impulsive, but this character trait barely amounts to anything. I appreciate the attempt to link her pre-reformation character traits to her current characterization, but attempting to establish her impulsiveness through not following completely pointless instructions from Twilight isn't the best way to make us care. Making a cake unprovoked and casting a strange speech spell on Big Macintosh are better examples, but the exact cause of her questionable actions - a failure to recognize when an action is inappropriate - is barely touched on, which is a shame, because it's exactly the direction that I want this character to go in.

Unfortunately, her other key character traits don't fare much better. Her guilt regarding her actions in season 5 proves shallow and repetitive, consisting entirely of tedious references to her own past without her being given much of a chance to actually be a better pony.  Yeah, sure, mind controlling a village full of ponies was wrong, but this was established a long time ago, and it's all the more grating in comparison to how gracefully Sunset Shimmer's guilt was established in the Equestria Girls movies. Sunset Shimmer proactively sought to be a better pony; Starlight Glimmer waits for Twilight to stumble upon the next friendship lesson. This could very well prove to be important to her characterization, but considering the target audience, I doubt it, and here it again plays as a rehash of "The Crystalling" on a much smaller scale. Aside from the repetitive guilt and her underdeveloped impulsiveness, however, Starlight has little personality to speak of, and that's easily the most heartbreaking thing about the episode. This weight of characterization issues suggests that the writers aren't sure where to take Starlight and Twilight's character arcs.

Every single one of these issues is compounded by the dull-as-dishwater script. Almost every well of character depth is underdeveloped or appears through expository dialogue, and the various character dynamics apparent display precious little chemistry. Sure, Starlight and Trixie get along, but there's nothing particularly interesting about their friendship as there is about even my least favourite dynamics on the show. Rarity and Applejack at least have enough going on to irritate me, but Starlight and Trixie's dynamic is completely bland.

Worse still, every single gag is limp and forced, deriving their humour heavily from recognition and playing with expectations without ever being particularly subversive or surprising. Celestia's appearance, where she's granted almost zero personality or autonomy, is completely devoid of humour, which is a shame, because this character is woefully underutilized and way too often tragically misused. So many of the episode's issues are a combination of poor pacing and limp direction, without a single scene ever really managing to sing. The result is an episode which is thoroughly uninteresting to watch.

As the continuation of Starlight Glimmer's character arc, "No Second Prances" had the potential to continue what was perhaps the most exciting new element of season 6. However, instead of fleshing out characterization and developing the mentor/pupil dynamic between Twilight and Starlight, the episode is content to rest on its laurels, blandly rehashing ideas from the season premiere while flatly and tediously hinting at more character depth than it's actually interested in exploring. It's an episode that feels like a first draft, where the kinks haven't been ironed out and individual scenes haven't yet been spiced up with subtlety and flavour. I had my hopes up for Starlight's character arc, and while it's too early to abandon all hope yet, this episode has me worried.

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