Episode [1.23] – “The Cutie Mark Chronicles”
This week, on My Little Pony…
“Ugh! These namby-pamby stories aren’t getting us any closer to our cutie marks! They’re all about finding who you really are and boring stuff like that!”
I‘ve mentioned on many occasions that I enjoy slice-of-life MLP:FiM episodes: they provide wonderful avenues for character development, often involve clever world-building elements, and are almost always paced so much better than episodes that try to cram too much action into too small a time frame. But surely cramming a slice-of-life story from each of the Mane Six into an episode which itself is a Cutie Mark Crusaders slice-of-life story is too much, right? Surely being able to devote no more than two or three minutes per story would water down the entire experience, right? Could I possibly enjoy such an episode?
I’ll let Twilight answer that question for you.
I’m so glad this episode happened when it did. It’s not so early on in the series that one says, “Okay, this is great and all, but at this point I just don’t care enough about these characters to really want to know their origin stories.” We’ve had nearly half a year’s worth of episodes to meet these characters, grow fond of them, and begin to wonder what made them the way they are. But at the same time, it’s not so late in the series that one says, “Okay, this is great and all, but at this point things are just so far along that going back seems out of place and largely irrelevant.” Consciously or not, headcanon begins to fill the void of an absence of background story after a while, and eventually there is a point where getting the “actual canon version” of a character or an event or a whatever absolutely ruins it for you. And if there’s one thing that bronies do well (okay, aside from artwork, and music, and literature, and cosplay, and charity mobilization, and…), it’s come up with — and staunchly defend — their headcanon. No, seriously, if Vinyl Scratch ever opens her mouth and it’s not Nowacking’s voice coming out, there will be blood.
So anyway, it’s time for our heroines to shake their manes and cutie marks. Applejack thinks she can strike out on her own in the big city, but a rainbow pointing back to Ponyville reminds her where her true passions lie. Fluttershy falls into a kaleidoscope of butterflies and discovers she can communicate with animals after they are all scared by a prismatic explosion in the sky. Rarity’s horn goes on a self-telekinetic rampage and drags her to a big ol’ rock that a rainbow explosion splits open, revealing a geode of beautiful gems. Twilight nearly flunks her entrance exam into the School for Gifted Unicorns, but a sonic rainboom awakens her insane raw magical energies and earns her privileged tutelage under Princess Celestia herself.
And Pinkie Pie? There were only rocks in her life.
And then BOOM and then PAARTAY! And, of course, it was Rainbow Dash who caused that boom in the first place, to the surprise of none.
Except… it was a surprise to everypony, at least insofar as evidently they had never shared their stories with one another. While this makes for an overly-sappy I LOVE YOU GUYS scene (to which Scootaloo is rightfully justified to make a face), it also perhaps suggests that discussing how you got your cutie mark may be something you do with your friends at the time you receive it but rarely after that (unless you’re Cheerilee, and you’re using your own cutie mark story to teach others about their mechanics). It’s like your first car, or your first kiss, or your first trophy, or your first tattoo: it’s such a huge deal at first with you and with your immediate friends, but over time may no longer register as anything really worth talking about unless someone who doesn’t know any better asks you about it directly. Or maybe not, I dunno. But I do know this: I liked learning about the Mane Six’s cutie marks. Some of their stories were a bit more exciting than others, but they all involved the respective characters learning something new about themselves, and that’s neat.
I could have gone without this episode’s Friendship Report, though. I mean, I guess learning about your friends is a wonderful thing and all, but… Scoots, how did you put it?
Yeah, that pretty much nails it. Thanks Scoots!
(Okay, I didn’t think it was that bad… I just wanted to use that screenshot somehow. 😛 )
One bit of “think too much about it and you’ll drive yourself batty”: having to hatch a dragon egg as part of the entrance exam poses an interesting conundrum. Can dragon eggs only be hatched with magic, or are they being hatched prematurely at the School for Gifted Unicorns? If the former, that would indicate the need for a very strong symbiotic relationship between dragons and ponies, but the events of Dragonshy certainly do not play well to this fiddle. Thus maybe it’s the latter, which raises all sorts of ethical and moral dilemmas. Where did the egg come from? Was it stolen? Given up for adoption? Are large numbers of dragons hatched prematurely because of this practice? I could blather about this more, but I’d rather direct the curious reader to the fanfic It Takes a Village, which in addition to being a wonderful slice of life story (albeit a very, very large slice of life story), dives headlong into this conundrum and weaves a sophisticated and gripping story around it. Seriously, this story is phenomenal. At the time of this deconstruction’s writing, the Hype Train about the My Little Pony movie slated for 2017 is just leaving the station, and part of me wishes so hard that this story would be that movie. It’s very smartly written with funny, sad, thought-provoking, and at times quite intense parts, all of which would lend very well to the big screen. Absolutely cannot recommend this fic enough.
Fluttershy’s little ditty this episode was cute and fun, but at least for me monumentally important in that it spawned one of the most iconic songs of the entire fandom: Flutterwonder, by Pinkie Pie Swear and presented here as an amazing SFM animation by Ferexes (you may recall me posting about this song once or twice before). You probably won’t hear it at brony raves, but if you were to plug my head into a speaker you’d certainly hear it then.
Much less iconic but also endlessly enjoyable is My Wonder by Kreühn Pöny: I could listen to that song for hours and watch the video that goes with it for just as long. Fun fact: playing this song on loop on speaker while your phone is in your pocket provides the perfect accompaniment to manual labor like raking leaves or helping friends load/unload a moving van. I never would have thought so either until I did it… and now I can’t think of a song I’d rather listen to when doing either of those activities than this one.
As contrived as it could have been, I actually like the big twist that Rainbow Dash’s sonic rainboom was unknowingly a turning factor in the lives of all of her friends. Not only does it take what could be a stand-alone ep and tie in into the continuity of a past storyline (one also written by Mitch Larson), but because I myself have had those moments where you know someone for a while only to find out you used to live a block apart as children or saw the same show at the same venue a decade before you met. These aren’t quite as life-altering revelations as here, but it’s an interesting feeling knowing you had a point where you were close to someone even before you actually knew each other. This takes that feeling and stretches it to a fantastical degree. Maybe a little far at times, as some of the moments do feel a little coincidentally tied to the rainboom, but in ways I’m still willing to go with.
Fluttershy landing on the butterflies is the most entwined of the bunch, revealing she and Rainbow both went to the same Pegasus flight school and knew each other. Applejack’s is touching because it involves her moving away only to catch a sight in the distance that leads her back home. Similarly, Pinkie sees a bright thing in the sky that inspires her to move out of her drab home of rock arranging. With Rarity, things start to fall apart a bit for me, what with her horn literally plot devicing her over to a giant rock that just so happens to be cracked by the rainboom and reveal the jewels within. I get why, that her mark isn’t just about fashion, but about dazzling fashion, but I still don’t buy the way they led her there.
With Twilight… I’ll go with it, but it does feel a little odd. As Gerf mentioned, they’re setting up some strange questions regarding the dragon egg containing Spike. Is magical intrusion intrinsic to the hatching process? Why would something so important to the birth of a life-form to which ponies are at least partially allied be used as a school entrance exam? Has this bonded Twilight and Spike in some way deeper than just being colleagues and friends? And regarding her sudden surge in magic, was she just channeling the energy of the sonic rainboom hitting her, or was that merely triggering some massive Phoenix Force lying dormant within? If so, really looking forward to the Dark Twilight plotline I know they’ll never ever actually do at any point. 🙂
Overall, this doesn’t hurt the episode at all, and there’s nothing wrong with raising questions as long as they actually plan to answer them at some point in a world like this. Given their track record, figure that’s less than 50/50 odds of happening, oh well. But I still like the episode. It’s a great plot setup, love seeing both baby and big Spike, Applejack and Pinkie especially have touching and insightful backstories, it’s always cool seeing a sonic rainboom, and how adorable is Fluttershy’s line “You’d never guess, but when I was little, I was very shy.” The CMCs are pretty much the CMCs, and while Scootaloo is a bit more of a but than she needs to be, I still like how their missing of the point, that Cutie Marks actually are tied to a person finding themselves, is continuing to be realized and acknowledged by the adults just waiting for them to catch up some day.
Occasionally this series will slip into certain concepts or tropes in a fairly clever way, and this is one of those times. This is a backstory episode disguised as a Cutie Mark Crusader episode, and I love how they manage to construct a very natural and valid reason for getting to tell the origin stories for all of our main characters (including Spike, if only tangentially). Had they just flat out had the main characters sharing their childhood stories or reminiscing out of the blue it might feel kind of forced or awkward, but it makes total sense that the CMC would wind up becoming the audience proxy for those stories to be told (especially as two of them have older sisters within the bunch).
It’s been pointed out before that the backstories as told by the Mane 6 in this episode contain a decent handful of contradictions to prior mentions or episodes, but I honestly think that sort of makes sense in a lot of ways. We’re not always the most reliable narrators when talking about our pasts, especially if the story is particularly important to us in one way or another. Things are often tied up in memory and nostalgia, and our own pictures of them can wind up being a warped version of the actual events, colored by our own ideas and biases. Occasionally they’re just outright untrue and they’re a story of what we would rather believe happened.
If you’re wondering where the heck I’m going with this train of thought, it’s this – and I have to preface this by admitting that it involves a lot of my own headcanon, although I think it’s backed up by a lot of eventual context and implications that we’ll see with her over time – I don’t believe that Pinkie’s being entirely truthful in her story.
To be honest, a lot of people were left scratching their heads at her story for a long time. The way she couches the telling kind of allows for the interpretation that she’s making the entire thing up, since according to her by the end she’s not even telling the story of how she got her cutie mark. Now granted, that could very, very easily be nothing more than random Pinkie humor that she’s throwing in to be silly and get a reaction out of Scootaloo (which in all likelihood was probably the intention of the writing), but… at the same time a lot of fans (yours truly included) were left wondering for a few years whether or not the rock farm in question really existed, along with everything else in her story. Of course, we eventually do get proof that the rock farm does exist and that she does come from there (yes, throwing forward again, but I can’t talk about this without doing so), but that doesn’t mean that other details of the story aren’t still in question. More specifically, how it ends.
I want so badly to dive further and further into the rabbit hole of this particular aspect of Pinkie and how it ties into part of why I love her so much as a character and relate to her so hard, but… really it’s far more appropriate that I cut this particular thread off for the moment. The episode after next I’ll be picking it back up (and I’ll be first that week, so nopony can stop me! HAHAHAHAHA!).
Suffice to say… keep that hairstyle she’s sporting in her flashback pre-rainboom in mind. This is, incidentally, also the first and really only time we get to hear Pinkie’s full name, Pinkamena Diane Pie. Unless I’m completely blanking on it, we never actually hear that name spoken in full again, but it definitely stuck around within the fandom. Once again, more on that in two episodes.
As far as Rarity’s cutie mark story, it’s always been a little vague as to just what exactly her talent is, as the implication is that it’s not exactly fashion. It may be tied more into her gem finding ability, which does make her interesting in that she doesn’t actively pursue that special talent with laser focus but instead makes use of it to fuel her actual passion (which is a really neat usage of the cutie mark idea and the question of how tied to it a pony’s ultimate fate actually is), although Noel is right that it does make her story the most deus ex machina of them all, with the universe essentially going “welp, we’re just gonna drag you to this place and plop this in your lap now”, which does kind of clash a bit with the general message that the cutie mark thing is supposed to embody (and that is still flying over the heads of the CMC). It’s also possible that Rarity’s talent is more vague than that (I’ve always described it as being the ability to find and create beauty in everything, but admittedly her characterization in the show doesn’t always gel with that either).
Twilight’s story raises an awful lot of questions along with answering a small handful. Gonna go ahead and just throw this out there – it’s unlikely that every student is given a dragon egg to hatch to get into Celestia’s school, given how rare a case Spike is pretty much implied to be. There’s a couple ways in which this could work. My roommate was watching this episode with me this time, and proposed that it might be a “glass candle” test. In other words the test isn’t intended to be passable and the real test is whether or not you can recognize that you’re unable to achieve what you’re being asked to, either to recognize that you have a lot of learning to do ahead of you, or to show that you’re able to realize when a task is impossible, and Twilight just happened to blow past it anyways (which would explain why everyone seems incredibly shocked when she actually manages to hatch the egg and she winds up getting apprenticed directly to Celestia out of the deal, but then again the fact that she turns her own parents into shubbery by accident and causes the newly hatched dragon to grow through the ceiling likely wasn’t an intended result of the test either and equally explains that). It’s also possible that the egg test was something in a potential variation of somethings to specifically spot out super-talented individuals. The comics show this same test being given to a certain other unicorn, but it’s something other than hatching a dragon egg.
Speaking of that, the timing of this test is possibly really interesting, as it likely lines up with something else happening just prior to it. Of course, it’s exceedingly unlikely that anyone had the backstory for that particular character in mind when writing this episode as she likely didn’t even exist in concept yet, but still, it adds an interesting bitter tone to Celestia’s words to Twilight in hindsight that probably weren’t intentional in the writing of the episode.
…I was vague enough about that, right?
Also, Twilight’s mother (who is never actually named within the show but who’s name is Twilight Velvet) in both color scheme and design is almost identical to that of Twilight from the original (G1) My Little Pony (they even pretty much have the same cutie mark).
One of the things I like about the CMC is how there’s no clear “leader” out of the three. All three of the characters at various points sort of wind up driving the actions of the group, and in this episode Scootaloo is very much in the driver’s seat, both in the types of activities they’re attempting, as well as their goal of who’s story they’re looking to hear. The tomboyish pony has a list of extreme physical activities in mind in the hunt for the group’s marks, and shrugs off Sweetie Belle’s pleas to find something more relaxed and less dangerous for them to try, and of course wants to beeline straight to Rainbow Dash once they decide to hear other people’s stories, because of course to her she obviously is going to have the best one, along with having the kind of skill that Scootaloo wants to emulate anyways. This also rounds out the three with their “big sister” idols – while Scootaloo isn’t related to Dashie and doesn’t have a particularly close relationship with her at the moment, she looks up to her in a major way, and pretty clearly wants to be just like her.
We’ve talked a bit about trying to pin down relative ages for the cast before, but this episode actually gives us a bit to work off of. Fluttershy is noticeably taller than the others (unless Rainbow Dash was particularly short as a kid), sort of awkwardly built, and her wings appear more adult-like and developed than young Dash’s. Overall she looks more like an awkward early adolescent than the little kid that the rest of them kind of look like, and while phyisical traits aren’t necessarily a perfect way to judge age (as different individuals do develop and mature at different rates, Flutters may have just been an early bloomer in some regards), there’s at least an argument to be made that Fluttershy may not just be a year older than Pinkie, she may actually be the oldest of the group.
Finally, “So Many Wonders” is such a short, sweet, and wonderful song. I love it for what it is, but it also for the rest of the series became my go-to comparison clip to determine which Pinkie songs are being sung by Andrea Libman, because while she’s got a fantastic singing voice and is very good at keeping Pinkie and Fluttershy distinct while talking, for a while the two kind of bled together in song (which is likely why Shannon Chan-Kent is used as Pinkie’s singing voice for the most part, although as the series has gone on Andrea has done more and more of Pinkie’s songs and has also gotten better at making her two characters have their own singing voices), and most of her turns at singing for Pinkie come out sounding very similar to the last third of this song.
Canterlot Episode/Sequence Missing A Certain Captain of the Guard : 2