Saturday, 15 April 2017

Episode reviews: "Celestial Advice" / "All Bottled Up"

At long last, the two-parter is dead. Season 7 is the first My Little Pony season to open with two entirely disconnected episodes, and while they aired on the same day and share a (very) small degree of continuity, for all intents and purposes these are two different episodes, neither of which shares even the skeleton of an epic adventure plot. The formula is finally, finally gone, and so here's two episode reviews for the price of one: "Celestial Advice," which boasts novelty and continuity but lacks much going on or a conflict I have any interest in, and "All Bottled Up," which drags a good moral and some solid ideas through a relatively tired conflict. Neither are terribly exciting, and "All Bottled Up" is rather tedious, but while both are a massive step down from season 6's "The Crystalling," they both have points of merit and serve as a fresh change of pace for the show.

"Celestial Advice" begins soon after Discord, Thorax, Starlight Glimmer and Trixie have returned from defeating Chrysalis in the season 6 finale. They are being awarded the Equestrian Medal of Honor, and Discord has decided to pester Twilight about her plans for Starlight's future. This leads Twilight to ask Celestia for advice, and in the ensuing brainstorm session, Twilight concludes that she'll need to send Starlight away like how Celestia sent her to Ponyville, and Celestia opens up about her own concerns about sending Twilight from Canterlot so long ago.

And that's it. In the end, Starlight doesn't even leave, exclaiming that she's not yet ready, and this already lightweight plot doesn't even generate anything resembling a point. The episode is most resembles is "Castle Sweet Castle," and like that earlier episode, it depicts a very specific emotion - in this case, Twilight's sadness about letting Starlight go - and doesn't do a whole lot to make this anything more than moderately amusing and somewhat sweet. Of the two, "Celestial Advice" has more humour, especially in the form of Discord, but even he is far less inventive than usual, and the newer episode has even less subtext. Like "Castle Sweet Castle," it moves at a leisurely pace and nothing significant ever really happens, but I'd stop short of calling it boring, because it does have small touches of humour, and focusing its warmth on Twilight's feelings about Starlight and relationship with Celestia has more novelty than when it was focused on the friendships and accomplishments which we're already familiar with.

However, this is the first time that Celestia has been one of the focus characters in an episode, and the episode deserves credit for that, especially because it's highly successful in making her seem more human. Celestia reveals that, even though she knew sending Twilight to Ponyville would be beneficial and help the latter get out of her shell, she was still sad about letting Twilight go, and came up with excuses to have her stay. I have absolutely no idea what message this is supposed to contain for the target demographic, but I guess that it can reflect real concerns for families with a young adult moving out for the first time, and Celestia's past concerns are sympathetic and make her more three-dimensional as a character.  I've wanted a Celestia episode for a while now, and it feels good to finally get it.

Unfortunately, she could have used a bit more time developing her quirks, because the mischevious side we've seen in the past is largely absent here. At one point, Twilight fantasizes about possible scenarios for sending Starlight away, and they all eventually turn into worst-case scenarios. This eventually leads to Celestia breaking out into laughter, but rather than laughing at Twilight's heartfelt but clearly absurd anxieties, she says she's simply laughing because she felt the same way in the past. Certainly, that's much less rude, but it also doesn't allow her much of a life beyond her archetype. She's never allowed to step out of her parameters as a mentorly figure, and while she's deepened within those boundaries, we still get no indication that she has any real life outside of the roles others project onto her. That's much better than nothing, but it's much more pleasant than actively fun, and I'd hoped for more.

Twilight is the real weak link, however, because I have a real hard time caring about her struggle here. Not wanting to let go of someone who you've grown close to is a realistic worry, but it's also not an especially compelling one for fiction unless you've built up a relationship far, far more than My Little Pony has built up Twilight's relationship with Starlight. The most interesting depiction of that relationship for me was in "No Second Prances," when Twilight appeared to consider Starlight as more of a project than anything, and no following episodes have shown us the two growing closer, so it's hard to be invested in Starlight's character arc when it appears to be over so fast, and when we don't really understand why Twilight feels the way she does. Furthermore, it's never explained why Twilight feels the need to send Starlight away, and as such it just appears to be her neuroses acting up again, only in a way which is too subdued to be entertaining.

And, again, Starlight doesn't even leave at all, so the already low emotional stakes of the conflict are reduced to nothing. Which would be one thing, except that Twilight is limited by her role just as much as Celestia, and the knowledge that she used to have so much more to her than her boring competence at being a princess and a mentor makes the fact that she rarely seems to think about anything else anymore all the more galling. There were moments of her old personality peeking through in season 6, but the second she has the spotlight, she's back to being boring. It's been nothing but this for over three seasons now, and I can't stand it anymore.

Which is why it's exciting that "All Bottled Up" has her do something entirely different. In this episode, Twilight and her friends go on a trip to an escape room challenge. which is exactly the kind of cerebral challenge which brings Twilight's dorky side out. This is unlikely to be a sign for things to come, as we had a similar moment in season 6's "The Saddle Row Review," but I'm glad to see slivers of her old self wherever I can get them. It's a shame that this subplot really only serves for a stale joke about breaking into song and for contrast with Starlight's difficulties, but Twilight and her friends are not the focal point of the story, and despite an ominous line or two, they face no real conflict in busting out of the room aside from failing to beat the world record, and their story is meant to contrast with one focused on Starlight and Trixie.

With Starlight's help, Trixie is beginning to learn some real magic, and she wishes to begin with teleportation to help with disappearance acts. The problem is that Trixie is impuslive and pushy, and frequently ignores Starlight in her enthusiasm, often leading to such mishaps as ruining cupcakes Starlight was making for Twilight and friends, or accidentally teleporting the friendship map outside of the castle. Starlight doesn't want to get angry at Trixie for fear of ruining their friendship, and being the maladjusted lunatic she is, she decides to literally bottle up her anger, which for confusing reasons was manifesting itself as red smoke billowing from her horn. Following this, the two set out to find the table, Trixie bringing them on constant detours along the way.

"All Bottled Up" might be the most obnoxious the show has been in a good while. Like many weaker My Little Pony episodes, it has a shortage of jokes, and its main conflict is regressive for both Starlight and Trixie. For the latter, I was finally won over by her usefulness and generally good company in the season 6 finale, but here she's once again driving the conflict by being obnoxious, as if it's season 1 again. This time, she's not entirely at fault, but the entire plot revolves around her acting in a way which causes Starlight severe aggravation, and frankly this doesn't translate into a character who is fun to watch. Trixie's enthusiasm at learning real magic is genuinely endearing and has potential for future development, but that added layer to her character isn't enough to counteract her plot-necessary obnoxiousness. Once again, she's too wrapped up in her ego to think about others around her, and that's just not fun to watch, which makes the fact that it's the punchline to almost every joke in the entire episode particularly aggravating.

Starlight might not be doing anything as heinous as her mind control hijinks in season 5, but trying to remove her anger and leave Trixie to do as she pleases demonstrates yet again Starlight's inability to consider the consequences of her actions. As if to prove Starlight's assertion in "Celestial Advice" that she's not ready to move on, she continues to handle the situation poorly until the very end, and in case we didn't get it, a late montage cuts between Starlight and Twilight, as if to demonstrate the weakness of Starlight and Trixie's friendship in comparison to the main six. This doesn't contribute anything to the moral, and it's certainly not funny, so I have absolutely no idea what purpose this serves aside from as a taunt towards the viewer. Once again, Starlight fails to have a solid personality beyond her flaws, and at this point it feels like she's running in circles. I get that she has a lot more to learn, and her cosnideration for Trixie's feelings is a step forward for her character arc, but if the show isn't going to do much with Starlight's instability, why does it keep acknowledging it?

The smoke billowing from Starlight's horn doesn't make a whole lot of sense either, and the episode makes zero effort to address it after its initial explanation. Why is Starlight's magic in particular so unstable? Is it special in some way? If so, where does it come from? If it's not, why does she have this issue when Twilight never did? It's one of the main driving forces of the plot, and yet it doesn't make any sense in a greater context. I've never been bothered by Starlight's power level, but if they're going to start introducing weird new aspects to it, an explanation which makes sense would be very helpful.

However, the ending does a lot to lessen the episode's problems, in no small part because of how both Starlight and Trixie admit wrongdoing. Starlight admits that she never let Trixie now how upset she was, and although Trixie still really should have known better than to do most of what she did, that does put her actions in a better context, and Trixie's apology serves as a solid reminder that she really does care about Starlight. I really hope these two don't spend too many episodes in conflict like this, but when they're on the same page, they're one of the show's more fun pairings. The moral about not immediately forgiving a friend for every mistake is a strong one, and it might be satisfying for those who felt Starlight got away too easily, but what won't be is Twilight's reaction when she comes home. Starlight and Trixie bring the table back just barely in time, and when Twilight wonders what's going on, Starlight simply says she solved a friendship problem. Instead of asking more about it, or wondering what the loud noise was, Twilight... praises her for her initiative. I know Starlight knew what she was doing wrong, but there's no way that Starlight messing up and then getting praise for hiding it can be healthy for her.

Neither of these episodes are particularly good, but I still appreciate the break from the two-parter formula. "Celestial Advice" in particular is at least sweet enough to be diverting, and finally getting an episode with Celestia in a major role is genuinely satisfying no matter how limited that role might be. She'd increasingly lost her presence as an actual character, and it's nice to have her reclaim some humanity. If we're lucky, this could lead to more appearances from secondary character later on - but I've said that before, and I wouldn't count on it. It still suffers from Twilight's usual dullness, and it's easily the weakest premiere since "Princess Twilight Sparkle," but I have to confess a fondness for it just for finally being the one-part slice-of-life premiere which I've always wanted. I'm a lot less fond of "All Bottled Up," however, but its strong moral, good ending, increased depth for Trixie and brief glimpse of Twilight's dorky side serve as just enough redeeming value to keep me from entirely despising it. Not the best note for the season to start on, but at least it's something different.


"Celestial Advice"
Entertainment: 6/10

Characters: 6/10
Themes: 4/10
Story: 4/10
Overall: 50/100

"All Bottled Up"
Entertainment: 3/10
Characters: 4/10
Themes: 8/10
Story: 4/10
Overall: 38/100

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