Saturday, 30 July 2016

Episode review: "Stranger Than Fan Fiction"

"Stranger Than Fan Fiction" is yet another example of season 6's endless deluge of good ideas, featuring an analytical fan taken from a Daring Do convention into a literal Daring Do adventure. The setting of a convention had been a popular idea in the fandom for a while, especially given the prominence of conventions in the MLP fandom, and it's a great fit for a new Daring Do episode, considering how the Daring Do books have been revealed to be autobiographical. With season 6, the episode premises have never been the issue so much as execution, and thankfully, "Stranger Than Fan Fiction" isn't just a particularly strong example of an episode following through on its promise, but it's also the great Rainbow Dash showcase that the show has sorely needed. 
As the above paragraph suggests, this episode revolves around Rainbow Dash attending a Daring Do convention. While there, she gets into an argument with a pony named Quibble Pants, an analytical fan who has the good luck of possessing the same coat and mane colours as Daring Do herself. Dash, never one for subtlety, immediately takes issue with his claims that later entries in the series are unrealistic, a conceit which is challenged when Quibble Pants and Rainbow Dash get caught up in one of Daring's own adventures. 

As the premise might suggest, the combination of Quibble Pants's analytical personality and the "real-life" adventures of Daring Do is nothing short of comedic gold. He doubts it even as it's unfolding around him, slowly realising that what he initially thinks is some kind of role-play event is way too dangerous and realistic to be staged. Quibble's criticisms are surprisingly detailed, belying a delightfully dorky script which indicates a clear love for the adventure genre. Some of the episode's best moments come when Quibble's awareness of Daring Do tropes and affinity for logic puzzles renders him an asset to Daring Do in beating villain Dr. Caballeron to the treasure. 

At points, it's indicated that Quibble is a more three-dimensional than a mere stereotype of a nitpicky fan. He's ostensibly a fan of analysis and puzzle-solving, and at the end of the episode, he states that he enjoys the earlier Daring Do books' focus on puzzles more than the focus on action in later instalments. Not only can I identify with this, but it gives his character a little more depth and appeal and provides some legitimacy to his character development. He's not the strawman I'd feared he might be. Season 6 has yet to introduce a new character who I haven't loved. 

Rainbow Dash, meanwhile, isn't quite at her most mature here, but this is still a near-perfect character showcase, featuring many of the characteristics that make her entertaining while also showcasing some of the more subtle aspects of her growth. She's finally regained some of her humility here, still showcasing her naturally showboat-y personality without ever devolving into self-aggrandising. Initially, I wished she had shown more self-awareness, but her irritation at Quibble's criticisms of later books reflects on her passionate nature. When she cares about something, as she ostensibly does the Daring Do series, she strives to defend it, something only intensified by knowing Daring personally. To an extent, defending the later Daring Do books as "realistic" comes down to defending her friend. I have to question why Rainbow didn't try to shake Quibble Pants off when she was looking out for Callaberon, but once they had been captured, bringing him along was arguably easier. 

Of course, aside from the solid comedy, what really brings this together is the downright fun adventure on the episode's surface. "Stranger Than Fan Fiction" is too comedic to perfectly affect the tone of a classic adventure story, but it's a loving parody of those tropes which is occasionally not only funny but even a little exciting. This kind of story complements Rainbow Dash perfectly, and Quibble Pants is very effective as a foil for her even as her excitement wears off. Josh Haber, whose more action-driven episodes have often been criticised, displays a much better sense of balance here, and shows promise for future two-parters if he can find that balance in more plot-intensive episodes. It's a shame that we still don't get to see Twilight expressing her inner nerd, but she has her own diplomatic summit to attend - something which, if I'm allowed a tangent, I'm sad we may never get to see. 

Then, as if this episode wasn't solid enough, it concludes with easily one of the season's best morals. You see, knowing the later Daring Do books are non-fiction doesn't make Quibble Pants enjoy them all that much more, and he comes to the conclusion that he simply enjoys different things about the series from Rainbow Dash. The real conflict of this story, more than the need to stop Dr. Callaberon, is the tension between Rainbow's and Quibble's perspectives on Daring Do books, and the climax comes when Quibble and Rainbow decide that they like different things about the series - and that's okay. Arguably, this is the best possible moral lesson to impart with this story, as it remains respectful towards both attitudes while still promoting good behaviour. 

There was a part of me which feared season 6 might begin to slump in its second half, and while it's only just begun, "Stranger Than Fan Fiction" goes a ways towards putting those fears to rest. Season 6, while imperfect, has been surprisingly satisfying for a show way past its prime, and if it continues like this, it could easily be in the upper half when I rank the seasons. This episode is a delightful action-comedy with great characterization and a great lesson, and from this show, I don't know how much else you could ask for. 

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