Saturday, 20 May 2017

Episode review: "A Royal Problem"

This is not what I wish it was.

The Celestia and Luna episode I wanted was a light-hearted, humorous slice-of-life. This is a semi-serious moral-driven episode. But it wouldn't be fair to begrudge the episode for that, especially since the episode we got is still very entertaining and hugely admirable. This entire season has had a laser-focus on moral-driven stories, and while that's often been for the worse, "A Royal Problem" demonstrates how well this formula can go with the right jokes and sufficient, well-thought-out character depth. Indeed, stuff like this is even enough to make me tolerate the Cutie Map at its most nonsensical, because otherwise a plot like this would likely not happen in the first place.

When Starlight is sent alone by the Cutie Map to the Royal Palace, she intuits some kind of tension between Celestia and Luna. Soon, she learns that neither have an appreciation for how hard the other's job is, and resolves to get them to speak to each other. Once this is unsuccessful, she swaps the sisters' cutie marks so they can walk a mile in each other's shoes and actually experience how hard the other's job is.

It's clear that Celestia and Luna have grown distant due to being both busy and exhausted all the time, and it's entirely understandable that, from the outside, their own job would seem so much harder than the other's. As far as sisterly disputes between these two go, this is quite possibly the most plausible, and exploring their jobs also subtly introduces us to some of their smaller character traits. Celestia is a fairly sociable pony, whereas Luna prefers to be alone; Celestia adopts a strong persona so often that she forgets to take it off; it's possible that Luna talks to herself a lot. Both voice actresses flex their range with the two characters: Nicole Oliver gives a slight edge of forcefulness to Celestia, whereas Tabitha St. Germain allows a degree of moodiness to enter Luna's voice. The episode does a lot to humanize both, and does a much better job than "Celestial Advice" and its heavily restrictive showing.

That makes it more frustrating that they spend most of their time serving the plot. "A Royal Problem" doesn't let a scene go by which isn't essential to plot progression, and this doesn't give the characters any time to breathe. They need to share the story with not only each other and Starlight Glimmer, but also Twilight Sparkle, who has used a spell to talk to Starlight as she tries to fix the sisters' problem. Watching the Sisters is still frequently delightful, but they're rarely allowed to emote anything beyond exhaustion and smugness, simply because nothing else fits into the plot, and this makes them less endearing or distinctive than they otherwise might have been. But again, that might not have fit, and arguably that's more the fault of the show at large for not giving these characters more screentime. Besides, it's not like the sisters are dull or anything; at one point, Luna peels a banana and then eats the peel. Just because an episode is plot-focused doesn't mean it can't be funny, even if it doesn't have room for ideal character moments.

However, Starlight gets the worst of it, with any distinguishing features vanishing except for reckless use of magic, which the episode doesn't even treat like a flaw. The closest thing to a genuine flaw she gets is worrying too much, but this is prodded by Twilight freaking out at every new development, and could apply to nearly any character regardless. That's the problem with Starlight: she's not without her charms, but none of those charms are unique to her, and the one thing which is unique to her is that tendency to use magic recklessly and without her target's consent. I'm genuinely troubled by how this episode turns out, because while I haven't previously believed that Starlight gets rewarded for messing up, that's literally what happens here. Celestia and Luna quickly accept their swapped cutie marks, but this is a big change which Starlight never asks permission for. Using magic impulsively is not cute, it's worrying, and seeing her only get positive reinforcement is discomforting.

And yet, her blandness works here, because it allows her to drive the plot without intruding on it. The depth of the conflict and the relative nuance of Luna and Celestia take center stage, and Starlight's strong intuition helps her get right to the meat of the conflict without screwing around. She doesn't waste time before getting the Sisters to talk, and acts as soon as she realizes her previous plan wasn't working. Almost none of this makes her more distinctive or endearing, but it does reveal Starlight's value: she's an inconspicuous plot shortcut. Because Starlight has these traits, the plot can cut down on wasted time without feeling unnatural. In retrospect, this is why she worked so well in the two-parters, and although her self-doubt here is a lot less meaningful than in those episodes, its return is still welcome after its absence for most of the season.

Twilight is certainly the best character here, however, finally achieving some sort of purpose aside from aimlessly correcting others' mistakes and doing dull princess things. "A Royal Problem" depicts Twilight at her most neurotic, but unlike "What About Discord?" or "No Second Prances," it keeps her likeable, and this balance is the closest the show has come to her original appeal since season 3. Twilight overreacts to every single development, and that tendency to become stressed over even inconsequential problems was always one of her most relatable traits as well as one of her funniest. The episode also emphasizes her hero worship towards the Sisters, and surprisingly, Twilight actually serves as the strongest bit of comic relief. The others also have funny lines, but Twilight's histrionics are the most blatantly humorous part of the episode, and they're fantastic.

Appreciating others' work even when it seems easy is quite possibly one of the show's best morals, too. There are a lot of different kinds of work, and they can all be exhausting in different ways. It's easy for many people not to understand how exhausting different kinds of work are, and a moral about appreciating the hard work which even those who might seem to have easy jobs have to do is a genuinely great message, especially for children. I've always said that the show's best morals are those which have equal importance to all age groups, and knowing what many adults say about careers other than their own, this is undoubtedly one of those morals.

While the episode's plotting is mostly tight, it still suffers from the use of the Cutie Map, which has somehow become even more asinine and nonsensical. If the cutie map can send Starlight on a mission, can it send anyone? Why hasn't it sent anyone outside of the main characters, then? And, as usual: How does it work? Why do the main characters trust it? Why has nobody questioned it at all? The show will never answer these questions, because the Cutie Map is not a logical plot device. It's an excuse for stories to happen, not unlike Starlight Glimmer, but whereas Starlight is a generally cosnistent, believable character (if not a terribly interesting one), the map always sticks out like a sore thumb, and its only merit is saving time.

That and Starlight's impulsiveness are the only real flaws in the plot, however, Otherwise, each beat feels organic, and it's easy to sympathise with Luna and Celestia as they're worn down by the other's job. Luna feels guilty about messing up a photo shoot at a school, but is forced to ignore that and deal with various other appointments, while Celestia struggles to face Starlight's own anxiety-ridden nightmare. The climactic scene involves Twilight's nagging getting to Starlight, who worries that swapping the Sisters' cutie marks might have been the wrong move, and that not only might Luna become Nightmare Moon, but Celestia might give in to darkness as well. Celestia's nightmare form adopts the name "Daybreaker," and while the ensuing fight between the two nightmares is as thrilling as one might hope for, it's also livened up by the emotional depth of Celestia's own reactions to the events and the possibility that she might fall just as Luna did, as well as some genuinely funny dialogue from Daybreaker herself.

While I still hope for more relaxed episodes in the future, "A Royal Problem" is surprisingly wonderful. The depth of its conflict, as well as of its characterization, is more than enough to overcome its constrictive focus, and while the characters don't get much time to breathe, they're able to fulfil their respective story roles excellently, and getting more character development for Celestia and Luna is wonderful - almost as wonderful as the second straight episode where Twilight is entertaining again. Starlight remains indistinct, and I'm increasingly troubled by how the show treats her missteps, but she too plays an essential role here, and she's endearing enough in spite of her blandness. Most of all, though, it's great that such a plot-focused episode could be this funny, proving again that a deep episode doesn't need to be a boring one. What a surprise this was!

Entertainment: 9/10
Characters: 7/10
Themes: 9/10
Story: 8/10
Overall: 83/100

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