Episode [3.01] – “The Crystal Empire – Part 1”
This week, on My Little Pony…
“I am simply to tell you that it has returned.”
The Crystal Empire, an ancient city forgotten in the deep recesses of time, has mysteriously reappeared on the northern outskirts of Equestria. But along with it has come a dark force that threatens to spread its evil throughout the land. Princess Celestia and Princess Luna task Twilight Sparkle with protecting the Crystal Empire from this evil… but is she prepared for the test?
All right! New season, new adventures, new villains, new friendships, new new new! Given that the hiatus between Seasons 1 and 2 was only about four months, that the gap between Seasons 2 and 3 was closer to seven had many in the brony fandom wondering whether pony would fizzle out or continue going strong. (As an aside, I’m laughing on the inside having typed that sentence. A four month hiatus? How quaint. Seven months? That’s nice. Just you wait until the Season 4 to 5 hiatus rolls around.)
To the surprise of some but not to others, we just kept on truckin’. While there was no new pony on the airwaves (er, okay, cablewaves), there were piles of brony conventions, fan-art, fanfics, and fan-music to fill the void. I myself went to two conventions during that time (TrotCon 2012 and Canterlot Gardens), and more or less confirmed that I was pretty darn-well committed to this show, no matter how long the wait between the new content. Many others had similar experiences, I’m sure, and we all eagerly awaited the coming of the new season as we would the new year. Or maybe new decade. Maybe not new century, but you get the picture.
And thus we began the interesting ride that is Season 3 of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.
Dateline: Canterlot castle, 1000 years after every important event in Equestrian history ever. Enter guard: “It has returned!” CUE THE OPENING CREDITS. I guess that’s one way to start the ride! And then we’re treated to Twilight being abso-friggin-lutely adorkable as she runs around her library trying to figure out how to prepare for Princess Celestia’s completely-out-of-nowhere test. “Spike, I’m gonna need you to quiz me. On everything. Everything I’ve ever learned. Ever.” Awesome. And everypony else is there… standing and watching and knowing full well that Twilight is overreacting but also knowing full well that they’re pretty much powerless to do anything about it. Were this Season 1, I’m sure they’d be more concerned… but they know better by now!
When Twilight reaches Canterlot and meets Princess Celestia, we get the sharp end of the exposition stick once again, but at least it’s pretty interesting: the Crystal Empire, an ancient but exquisitely beautiful city that acted as a sort of nexus of happiness and sense of community, fell to the evil King Sombra 1000 years ago (what’s with 1000 years?!). Princess Celestia and Princess Luna worked together to banish Sombra’s sorry plot to the icy north, but in the process Sombra managed to place a curse on the empire that caused it to vanish. Memory of the empire was lost to the annals of history over the ensuing millennium, but now for some inexplicable reason it’s back… which means Sombra is sure to be back as well, which is bad news for all of Equestria as he’s now some freaky smoke monster capable of scary-looking dark magic. It seems Celestia knows a bit of this dark magic as well, and it sure does look… scary. And unique, for that matter: it’s completely different than what we saw from other evil villains such as Nightmare Moon and Queen
Cheeselegs Chrysalis. Equestria is indeed quite a dangerous place to live!
So what of all this exposition? Of course, Celestia wants Twilight to take care of the situation. As in, she literally gives her the job that she alone must complete, pushes her out of the royal throne room, and then slams the door in her face. At this point, she’s most certainly thinking, “Ah, good, another problem I can shunt off to my most faithful student. Glad I don’t have to worry about that hogwash any longer. Now where did I put that cake?” It’s worth noting, however, that during all of this the princesses are dropping all these vague hints at… something. Before I knew what they were talking about I didn’t really pay much attention to them, but watching the episode again after so long it’s pretty tough to miss them.
Twilight, oblivious to all these subtle undertones, heads out to meet back up with Spike and head back to her friends… which brings us to the first song of the season: The Failure Song.
If memory serves me, the above screenshot is one of the first glimpses of Season 3 we got before it aired, and upon seeing it the fans went nuts. Look at how much the animation has improved! Dat hair! Yowza! And, truth be told, the animation in this song is exquisite and definitely an excellent showcase of what the new season has in store. The song itself on the other hoof is… um, confusing. It’s quite the musical number to be sure, something one might hear at a Broadway theatre show, complete with the showy dancing and overdramatic poses, and is orchestrated quite well. However, the message and emotion it conveys doesn’t seem to fit in with the storyline… or, rather, it could have had the emotional trajectory of the episode been a bit different. Let me try to explain.
So here’s Twilight: she’s just been charged with saving the Crystal Empire, a task that seems outrageous and for which she is given no real advice or guidance. All she has is Celestia’s blessing and assurance that she will do a good job, which is perhaps soured a bit by Luna’s “Do Not Approve” glare (which also happens to make for a pretty darn good “I’ve Had Enough of Your Horseapples” glare). Given the sudden enormity of the situation, Twilight could be absolutely forgiven for being nervous and for second-guessing herself (though knowing her, I would have imagined said second-guessing be less of the glum sort and more of the neurotic MONITOR EVERYTHING sort), so the song seems to fit pretty well. However, as soon as her friends show up to greet her at the train station, all that self-doubt is expeditiously defenestrated and she’s suddenly full of confidence, vim, and vigor. Now, this is confidence is another position I could see her take too: after all, this is the same girl that once boldly announced to Ponyville that she was going to go stop a huge, gigantic, terrifying, enormous, teeth-gnashing, sharp-scale-having, horn-wearing, smoke-snoring, could-eat-a-pony-in-one-bite, totally-all-grown-up dragon. But flip-flopping between these two demeanors so abruptly and for no apparent good reason? Confusing. In that case, what was the point of the song in the first place?
As is wont for me to pontificate, I view this oddness as a missed opportunity for some strong character development. On one track, Twilight sings about not being prepared for this monumental task, and a cloud of impending failure looms over her for the remainder of the episode. However, with the emotional support of her friends, she gradually overcomes her doubt over the course of exploring the Crystal Empire and learns that friendship can help lift one out of fear and doubt (much like the Crystal Ponies are lifted from their catatonic state when reminded of their prior friendships and community). Nice overarching moral, plenty of opportunities to show the different ways her friends provide support, bing bang boom. On the other track, Twilight takes the “Dragonshy approach” and exhibits a fully confident attitude from the very beginning, artfully punctuated by an upbeat variation of the song that has a more “I’M GONNA WHIP THIS TEST’S SORRY FLANK AND IT’S GONNA BE AWESOME” vibe. However, the enormity of the situation slowly wears her down as the episode progresses, as it seems that at every turn the challenge seems to become more and more insurmountable; the only reason she doesn’t en up crushed under the resulting weight of her charge is because her friends are there to support her. Different but still effective overarching moral (don’t be too cocky, but even if you are a true friend will be there to help you in your time of need), still plenty of opportunities to build character, bing bang boom. In both situations, Twilight gets to trust her friends, which ultimately becomes important in the next episode (yeah, sorry, cheating a little here by knowing how the opener ends). In other words, both tracks tracks would have brought us to the same final destination without having to put us through the abrupt and confusing track-change mere moments after pulling out of the station.
So again: not a bad song by any means, but oddly out of place given Twilight’s polar-opposite demeanor not even a minute after she finishes singing it.
Song out of the way (and Pinkie having warped reality so much that the confetti she shoots out of her party cannon reverses course and goes back in), the Mane Six head to the frozen north to check out the Crystal Empire. There they meet Shining Armor (who is sporting some wicked cool snow shades), who escorts them to the city. However, in short time they find themselves pursued by an evil force (spoiler alert: it’s Sombra); Shining buys the rest some time by making a heroic stand against the incorporeal beast, and while successful in ensuring everypony makes it on the safe side of the protective barrier surrounding the city, he gets swarmed by the monster and develops a bad case of… uh, crystal-horn-itis?.. that prevents him from using his magic.
At this point you say: wait, isn’t Shining supposed to be the shield guy? If he can’t use his magic now but the barrier is still up, then it must have been coming from somewhere else all along. And who else but Princess Cadance! Evidently, this place is so attuned to friendship and community that Cadance’s love magic is able to interact with it enough to put up a barrier powerful enough to keep King Sombra out. Not sleeping or eating as a result royally sucks though; what a lousy honeymoon.
With Cadance preoccupied and Shining out of commission, it’s up to the Mane Six (and Spike, of course) to comb the streets and try to gather information about what to do next (and here every D&D DM ever groans in unison). Unfortunately for the party, none of the crystal ponies seem to know what happened over the course of the past 1000 years. Not only that, but they don’t want to remember: whatever Sombra did to them must have been pretty horrible, so much so that they’ve lost their crystal luster and are all in a kind of catatonic daze of collective amnesia.
And here I take a break to point out that Fluttershy’s reaction here is Celestia-tier priceless, and that this screenshot captures the “Best Clip of the Episode that has Nothing to Do with the Episode.” Moving on.
While nopony is able to find anything particularly useful (other than introduce the characters’ unique personalities to any new viewers of the show; very slick), AJ does catch wind that there’s a library where they might be able to find some useful info. The mere mention of a library makes Twilight literally spin in circles with joy, but one unhelpful (if only because her brain was frazzled from 1000 years of non-existence) librarian later the team finds themselves fruitlessly poring over hundreds of books trying to find anything even remotely helpful. By pure dumb luck Twilight manages to find The History of the Crystal Empire, a tome that explains how the inhabitants used to hold a Crystal Fair that would help to renew the love and friendship of their empire and protect it from harm. With that newfound knowledge, the team sets out to recreate the Crystal Fair in hopes that it will make the empire self-sufficient on the defense front once again.
Cue song #2: The Ballad of the Crystal Empire. Whereas the first song kind of felt out of place, this one fits right in and feels rightfully majestic. It’s got an excellent medieval vibe to it and a memorable refrain that’s catchy and fun to whistle (even if the lyrics are slightly hokey at times: “tiny ewes“?!). Impressively, the Mane Six manage to pull off a pretty faithful reproduction of the Crystal Fair over the course of the song (either they work really fast or it was a really long song… or, of course, I’m just being silly, which is often the case), and with a little coaxing and flugelhorn they get the crystal ponies to come out of their homes and participate. As soon as they start partaking in their beloved traditional activities, the crystal ponies’ old happy memories begin to return and they change to their normal vibrant crystal-ly selves (which they seem to take in stride, having presumably not been that way for a millennium).
Everything seems to be going so well… until the librarian then remembers the significance of the Crystal Heart and how it was what channeled the residents’ spirits into the protective barrier. Oh, you mean that thing Twilight hurriedly carved out of a spare crystal because the book said it should be there? Oops. Why didn’t anypony know that was actually the most important piece of this entire puzzle? Oh, missing page. How nice.
Right then, Cadance passes out from exhaustion and overexertion, and the shield goes down.
You said it, Rainbow.
As is standard fare for the series, the Season 3 opener lays the adventure on hard and heavy at the expense of pacing and sensibility here and there. Fortunately, though, it doesn’t feel quite as frantic as the previous openers, which is a welcome change. Oh, and it’s shiny. Pull up The Season 1 opener, take note of the animation quality, and then come back to this episode. Go ahead, I’ll wait. It’s quite clear at this point that pony is Serious Business™, and the attention to detail certainly reflects that.
For your closing song, I’ll leave you with The Ballad of the Crystal Empire (Aftermath Remix) by Aftermath. Yes, it’s pretty much your generic electro-dance remix, but given the somewhat difficult source material to work with I think it still works pretty well. Before you know it, you’ll be bobbing your head like the Mane Six all were around that table while they sang the same song… minus the electronica, of course.
And we’re back! Season 3 is a go!
I’m especially interested in going through this season compared to the others, considering it tends to be considered the red-headed stepchild of the series. I mentioned in our wrapup for Season 2 that this season doesn’t have a particularly great reputation, and the overall opinion on it is, at best, that it’s on the weaker end of the series. I also mentioned not altogether being certain that it deserves said reputation, as going down the lineup there isn’t much in the way of episodes prior to revisiting that I consider to be really all that bad (or even bad at all, at least one of my favorite episodes of the series resides in this season)… but that said, I also viewed Season 1 through nostalgia-tinted glasses prior to starting this project, and it didn’t hold up quite as well as I expected it to originally, so I also could be way off and the reputation for this season may be well deserved. We’ll just have to see, and I’m extremely interested to find out how the whole thing holds up on reflection.
There’s quite a lot I like about this opening two-parter. My recollection of this opener was that its strength lay in its individual character moments, and that seems to be holding true on the second time through, as we get some really fun bits with most of the Mane 6 in this episode. I love watching all of them take completely different and totally them approaches to attempting to gain information from the Crystal Ponies, even though some of their approaches aren’t particularly constructive. Rainbow Dash is blunt and to the point, but far too aggressive and overbearing; Fluttershy is far more polite, but soft spoken to the point of being predictably ignored (although she works herself up to almost going Iron Will on one of them but reins it in at the last second); Rarity is too caught up in her own dazzled daydreams as she’s completely overwhelmed by the splendor of the empire and isn’t even trying; and Pinkie… well…
Pinkie just steals every scene she’s in and I absolutely love it to death. She runs away cackling with the two best moments in the episode by far : “sneaking” about in full-on spy gear in the complete opposite of stealth, and then popping out of an eerily-perfect Fluttershy disguise to the utter confusion of Twilight (and Fluttershy herself immediately after, who can’t seem to figure out what to make of the her-suit on the floor in front of her).
The other fantastic part of the opener is definitely the world building aspect – we get introduced to a formerly unknown portion of the world, far on the outskirts of Equestria. It’s the first time we’ve really gotten to see beyond the kingdom’s borders, and while the region’s claim to “empiredom” is a bit shaky (it’s relatively small, especially compared to Equestria, which the title would be far more fitting for), I pretty much love everything about it. The design of the place is awesome (both the architecture and the fact that it’s a land smack in the middle of the frozen north magically untouched by the otherwise harsh climate), and I like the fantasy elements of an entire kingdom simply blinking out of existence for a thousand years and then suddenly popping back in, its citizens dropped right back into reality, time-shifted forward a millennium.
I also like Twilight delving into the history of the empire to find her answers, and the mistake she makes is reasonable – given what Celestia had told her about the empire, it makes sense that the kingdom would be protected through the overall disposition of its citizens… put happy feelings and love in, get that amplified and spread back outwards, and as it’s the love and light that Cadence’s magic provides that’s keeping Sombra at bay, it follows that getting the spirits of the Crystal Ponies back up would do the trick. I also like the flaw in that reasoning – the Crystal Heart that Twilight mistakes for symbolic winds up actually being the key relic needed for the empire’s protection. It also nicely sets up the goalposts for the second half – of course Sombra did away with the thing that would keep him from holding power, so the name of the game will become figuring out where it’s at and just what the heck it even is.
…wait, Crystal Heart? Somehow that sounds like something we might have seen before…
There’s also hints towards bigger-picture development in this episode, with Celestia and Luna discussing Twilight’s readiness for a vague “something” that will involve her studies moving to a higher level. Speaking of Luna, I do like that we’re at least shown an out for her not being involved in this particular story beyond her brief appearance at the beginning this time.
I also love that Cadance and Shining Armor are back so soon – Cadance was one of my favorite parts of the finale last season, and it was a pleasant surprise when I first saw this episode that she and BBBFF were right back into things again, reinforcing that they were going to be lasting members of the cast on a secondary level, at least. I like that this time around, it’s Cadance who’s doing the heavy lifting (so to speak) of supplying the protection, although by the end of this episode she’s been pushed past her limit (but then, the Crystal Empire is a much larger area to protect via magical means than Canterlot was, so it’s not surprising that she burns out so quickly).
There is a “but” attached to all of this, however it’s not actually much of an issue in this episode, so I’ll save most of my rant for the second half… but suffice to say that Sombra might be the biggest miss of a villain in the entire series in terms of sheer potential (although in a weird bit of deja vu to last season’s opener, that’s a position that recently had competition open up for it *potential spoiler in that link*) . I do really like his setup in this episode, and I actually do like that our context for what the guy might have been like so far comes from the absolute traumatized stupor his former subjects are stuck in at the mere memory of his reign.
Song-wise, I like both The Failure Song and Save The Crystal Ponies, although neither quite measure up to anything from A Canterlot Wedding. The former also lets the series show off an uptick in the animation quality (it’s notable that it was used in an early sneak preview of the season in that year’s SDCC prior to airing). That said, the song sort of feels a bit oddly tacked on to the situation – Twilight hasn’t actually failed at anything yet, and it seems kind of disproportionate for her to react as if she had given the situation. While it’s definitely not out of character for her to panic and overthink things (especially when living up to Celestia’s expectations), it’s slightly less in character for her to go into an ordeal feeling like she’s defeated already.
There are a few other points sitting on my mind with this first episode… but I’ll sit on them for the moment, since I can’t actually remember whether they’re addressed in the second half or not.
Wow. So we’re following up a massive, fantasy action two-parter about an evil villain everyone’s stopped talking about resurfacing to unleash horrors upon a magical kingdom with a massive, fantasy action two-parter about an evil villain everyone’s stopped talking about resurfacing to unleash horrors upon a magical kingdom. I absolutely love, again, how cinematic these two-parters have become, and this opener is no exception, with some astonishingly lovely visual effects and a score straight out of Lord of the Rings. We don’t get to see much of King Sombra, but he’s got a nice design, and I again love the Tolkienesque visual of him literally locked beneath a sealing crevasse of earth. Hopefully in the second half, he’ll play much more strongly than Princess Luna did way back in the pilot two-fer.
I also love the Crystal Empire. Does it count as an empire when it’s just one city instead of a broader networking of cities and resources? Regardless, I love it. I love how it’s been Brigadooned out of reality and has become such a buried myth that not even Twilight has read about it. I love how the people have lost their luster and wander about like those NPCs you keep finding in RPG games who just say the same useless phrases over and over again as they monotonously go about tasks that they no longer even remember the meaning behind. Even outside of the “let’s inspire everyone with a fair!” happiness of MLP, this is a great fantasy setting which could make for one heck of a story. And I love how, trapped in the midst of it all, are Cadance, who’s pushed to the point of absolute exhaustion due to her constant need to keep a protective field around the city, and Shining Armor, who’s all decked out for action with his arctic blinders, and quickly falls victim to a crystallized horn.
This is all great stuff, and the unfolding of the backstory, the arrival to the city, the attacks from the shadowy mass King Sombra’s become, I love it.
That said… yep, dropping the big ol’ but…
There’s a lot about this episode that just doesn’t entirely feel like it clicks together. Mostly, I’m talking about Twilight. For some reason, they’ve decided to also fold this into being one of Twilight’s insecurity episodes as she completely assumes she’s being summoned for a test and does a mad scramble to gather books and flashcards and study as much as she can. This isn’t bad stuff, but it feels a bit strangely grafted on, and doesn’t fit the more relaxed mentor/student relationship she has with Celestia and how easy-going she usually is when she pops off to Canterlot. Is this all setup to show how much of a reader she is for when we get to the library? That’s not really a character trait we haven’t seen before. Is it just to show how insecure she is to have so much responsibility thrust upon her? Then why isn’t her big flustercuck coming after she gets the mission instead of before? It just doesn’t feel like they’re coming at this from the right angle.
And she’s specifically told she has to go off and do this alone… which is instantly followed by her setting off with the entire Main set in tow? Don’t get me wrong, I like the addition of the group, with them trying to get info from the populace as Pinkie goes all ninja and Rarity swoons over how glorious it would be to be crystalline. My favorite bit actually is Fluttershy walking up, only to be revealed as Pinkie Pie in a Fluttershy suit, then Fluttershy walking up and balking at the realization that she’s standing on her discarded self. I like how they decide to inspire everyone with a fair, which is very out-of-left-field for an epic fantasy plot, but perfectly at home in this show. I don’t get the whole bit of them making a fake heart only to be shocked to learn there’s a real heart and they may have messed everything up with the fake, but ok. Gives them something to find in Part 2. I get it.
I don’t dislike this episode, it just feels
Discord discordant at times, like it has one story grafted onto another without them fully fitting. It feels like one of their one-off character pieces set was set atop one of their epic two-parters, which isn’t bad per se, but it’s far from as seamless a fit as when we had Twilight dealing with jealousy and suspicion in Part 1 of the previous season finale. Even “The Failure Song”, while delightful, feels like a continued over emphasis of what this story isn’t about. The second song, “The Ballad of the Crystal Empire”, is a much cleaner fit, transitioning us from backstory dump to “Let’s throw a fair!”
I’ll be very curious to see how things resolve in the second half. I want to know why Luna is being so cold. I want to know what’s up with King Sombra. I want to know what’ll happen when the fake heart is revealed a fake. I want Shining Armor to have his pretty horn back. And holy crap, did Princess Celestia unleash some actual dark magic when she demonstrated the threat to Twilight? That was shocking. Was it just an illusion to make her point or can she delve into the more sinister arts alongside the positive?
Wow, major art upgrade. It was Princess Luna’s new colors that really drove it home. The conversation between the princesses, each standing in light and casting long shadows, was pretty cool.
Princess Celestia giving tests to Twilight Sparkle is nothing new. Celestia teaches, Twilight learns and tests, rinse and repeat. That this test is a more of a practical than a written exam is still nothing new. Twilight has mastered the Elements of Harmony, defeated legends and dragons and the embodiment of chaos itself, and even fought off an invasion by skittering shapeshifting beetle-ponies. Now she’s being tasked with saving an ancient empire populated by a new breed of pony and her song is… about doubts and fear of failure. That kinda breaks the mood. I mean, yes, Twilight is prone to panic and has confidence issues, but she’s spent two seasons building competence and self-worth and a solid support network of ponies who keep her going through the roughest times.
The first song seems out of place, is what I’m saying.
The Crystal Empire itself is puzzling. The Canterlot Express goes out to it, it’s younger than Equestria but older than Princess Celestia, it has the power to influence love or fear throughout the pony kingdom (a kingdom that’s never ever had a king, now that I think about it), and it’s populated by a breed of pony that is completely new and has never been mentioned ever before not even in the play about the founding of Equestria. Clearly, the Crystal Empire existed in Equestria before the Earth Ponies, Pegasi, and Unicorns migrated from wherever they were before, King Sombra was all like “get off my lawn!”, and just took his empire and noped out. OH. Maybe King Sombra is why Equestria is a kingdom. Yes, this is a good theory. (This is a terrible theory.)
So! Actual things that happen. I love that Shining Armor and Princess Cadance are back so soon. They really do deserve some character development outside times of crisis. Shining Armor’s specialized massive barrier spell has been ineffective against King Sombra, and the only thing that’s keeping him out is a very similar effect constantly maintained by Cadance. Her love-rekindling ability is pretty well suited to counter his fear and anger, and… wait. *squint* Isn’t her cutie mark a crystal heart? Okay, if the crystal heart is a pony Princess and not a physical artifact, that would be pretty cool.
The Crystal Ponies experience a significant physical change at even the idea of hope. The moment the Crystal Fair is announced, they transform from greyscale depressed ponies to colorful vibrant well-bejeweled ponies with amazing blended eyeshadow.
Rarity will be so very pleased. They’re not quite as crystalline as she imagined, but they are very classy.
The story progression from test to quest to research paper to library to fair is pretty neat. Twilight Sparkle is using all of her developed skills here, from her well-honed library search to deduction to building new friendships to organizing a giant party. This is pretty much her thing. Y’know, right up until they run out of time, Cadance passes out, and King Sombra invades. Then it’s TIME FOR ACTION! Which is also her thing.
In conclusion: *unzips his Weston-shaped suit, climbs out as a slightly beardier Weston*