Saturday, 15 October 2016

Episode review: "Top Bolt"

One of the biggest challenges facing My Little Pony at the moment is how to best approach its desired angle of turning the mane six into mentors of friendship. While I'm no fan of this direction, I can see the potential, as it can bring to mind just how far these characters have come from the start of the series. Season 6 has made the very wise decision to isolate this sort of episode mostly to three episodes based around the Cutie Map, leaving the six's other appearances to focus on character growth. "Top Bolt" in some ways loses the balance achieved by "Viva Las Pegasus," but it makes up for that with the most charming set of new characters yet, legitimate emotional weight, and one of the best character/setting combinations the map has offered yet. If this particular formula can get any better than this, I will be surprised. 
Right after leaving the Wonderbolts base for a week off, Rainbow Dash is summoned by the Cutie Map alongside Twilight Sparkle. To her annoyance, their destination is right back to the base. At the academy, they encounter Sky Stinger, a talented but egotistical lead pony, and his close friend Vapour Trail, who appears to be a weaker flier, However, Twilight and Rainbow soon discover that Vapour has been providing significant assistance to Sky's flight without his knowledge, and with the solo exams coming up, they struggle to stop this before it becomes too late. 

Seeing Rainbow Dash as a Wonderbolt again is something I had been waiting for ever since "Newbie Dash," and to see her getting along so well is great. She's not gotten the best deal this season, and as much as I like her in that episode, it's pretty refreshing to see a much more positive portrayal here. Unlike Twilight, Dash isn't regularly placed on a pedestal, and her experience with the Wonderbolts becomes especially important when dealing with Sky Stinger, as she understands a lot more about flight than Twilight probably ever could. She's well aware that flight performance will decline significantly if the flyer lacks confidence, and this perspective ultimately proves valuable. 

Meanwhile, this is among the best depictions of Twilight all season, and while that's not an especially high bar, "Top Bolt" checks the two most important boxes: she's a bit dorky, and she's not infallible. Her own experiences give her a different approach from Rainbow Dash, and the most interesting dynamic between the two is when they're struggling to figure out which approach to take. While Twilight's is ultimately the one which is implemented, it's Dash's which prevails in the end, as Sky's performance falters significantly once he learns that all of his skill was a sham. 

Comedically, though, their dynamic doesn't always do a whole lot for me, especially as it's very often defined by adversarial undertones. Rainbow Dash finds Twilight's love of knowledge boring, and Twilight Sparkle is occasionally irritated by Dash's ego. These only arise in small doses, as "Top Bolt" isn't an especially comedy-centric episode, and in the one instance where a full joke is based on this conflict, the punchline isn't actually about how Dash and Twilight's personalities clash. Still, I would have preferred a little less boasting from Dash, as even with her stronger characterization here, it's been a while since she's had a strong display of modesty. Some of the themes from "Newbie Dash" about being part of a team don't entirely show through here, either, and given that they're here to solve someone else's problems, there are large stretches where neither gets to display their personality a whole lot. 

None of that particularly matters, but while I'm still nitpicking, I would also like to point out that this is a slightly less polished map episode than "Viva Las Pegasus." Part of this is because it strays away from the formula, but without that element of both ponies being equally important to solving a large-scale problem, using the map as a plot device makes a little less sense. The issues with Sky Stinger and Vapour Trail are also by some margin the least significant friendship issue the map has picked out, as it makes very little impact on anyone aside from those two. But then, this episode makes it very easy to ignore that it's a map-based episode, as Twilight and Rainbow Dash help with the recruits almost entirely because Twilight wants to teach rather than because they think it might be the friendship problem. This makes it more akin to "The Mane Attraction," only with more flavourful new characters. 

Since this season's map episodes have primarily excelled on the strength of those new characters, it's to the benefit of "Top Bolt" that these are some of the best new characters this season has created yet, and in such a crowded field, that's saying something. Sky Stinger's boastfulness initially seems to be much like Rainbow Dash's, in that it's a mask for his insecurity, but instead it's the consequence of Vapour Trail working to make him seem like a better flier than he is. This boastfulness isn't the most endearing trait, but it's tied with legitimate concern for Vapour, who he's clearly very close to. Later, we learn that he grew up in a large family, and likely often felt overshadowed by his numerous siblings. This gives him an extra layer of depth, and it's confirmed by his listless resignation after he discovers his flight isn't so good after all. 

Vapour Trail, meanwhile, is a lot more content to stay in the sidelines, derived from how much she hated the attention her parents gave her as an only child. She knows Sky really likes to stand out, and because she's close to him, she wants to help him succeed. The problem is that by assisting him like that, she's not allowing him to develop the skills which he truly needs to succeed in the Academy. Their dynamic is truly adorable, and it's satisfying to see Sky regain some of his confidence and to see Vapour start to enjoy standing out as a flier. In this, maybe we do see a reflection of "Newbie Dash:" It's not about standing out, and it's not about the attention. It's about the flight itself, and to be a Wonderbolt, teamwork and skill are equally essential. 

Lewis & Songco at the helm of a map episode is effectively a guarantee that main characters will receive zero development, but the pair's strengths at having small details of characterization and backstory define relationships does wonders for detailing how Twilight and Rainbow interact here, both with each other and with the issue at hand. Besides, seeing Twilight and Rainbow fitting into their new positions and using their own knowledge as authority figures is legitimately satisfying, even if it'd be better were it more of an anomaly for the former. Twilight is able to relate her own struggles with friendship to Sky's difficulties with flying, and while the reminder that Twilight becoming the princess was a terrible idea isn't entirely welcome, it's still very satisfying to think of how far Twilight has come.

"Top Bolt" is not the episode to justify the map's existence, but it is a legitimately excellent episode which takes the mane-six-as-mentors format to its very peak. For all my minor complaints, the friendship problem in this episode is one of the best this show has ever had, boasting sympathetic and nuanced characters and a strong moral. Rainbow and Twilight might not grow a whole lot here, but they're still delightful to watch, and having the occasional bout of them helping new characters amidst other episodes which are very much about their issues ain't a bad thing, and when it's in service of an episode this good, it's very hard to complain. 

With only the finale left, I feel pretty confident in saying that season 6 has been a huge step towards this show getting its act back together. 

Entertainment: 9/10
Characters: 9/10
Theme: 10/10
Story: 10/10
Overall: 95/100

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