Episode [3.07] – “Wonderbolts Academy”
This week, on My Little Pony…
“The Wonderbolts are the fastest, best precision flyers in the world. But spin-outs can still happen. And when they do, a Wonderbolt must be able to recover quickly. This is the Dizzitron. It’s gonna make you very – I repeat – VERY dizzy. Your task is to try and recover and fly straight again, as soon as possible. Once you have recovered you must come in for a smooth landing. Now, who’s first?”
Rainbow Dash is accepted to Wonderbolts Academy and meets another version of herself. Speedy hijinks ensue, lessons are learned.
The Mane Six picnic next to a mail box where Pinkie Pie is on pins and needles to see if Rainbow Dash has been accepted to Wonderbolts Academy. Dash is excited too, of course, and as soon as the letter arrives, she throws on her saddle bag and flies off. Arriving with the other recruits (Bulk Biceps YEAH!), they’re immediately put through their paces by drillmaster Spitfire, and Dash quickly forges a bond with equally rowdy, confident, and thrill-seeking Lightning Dash as they best all others during laps.
Their first big test is the Dizzitron, to see how fast pegasai can recover from mid-air spinouts. Dash of course takes the top score, with Dust right behind her despite asking the machine operator to crank it to its highest setting. Despite her placing, when recruits are paired off, Dash is devastated to see she’s been made a wingman with Dust being assigned leader. Dash confronts Spitfire, who reveals she did so because Dust has more of a drive to push herself harder.
The next day is a round of capture the flag, where Dash does her best to keep up with Dust, but Dust drives them to a point that becomes reckless when Dash clips a wing. Dust brushes it off and Dash says nothing because she doesn’t want to fall behind. Next is an obstacle course used to train precision flying in simulated conditions of extreme weather. Again, Dust & Dash are in the lead and Dash tries to keep her partner focused on impressing the teachers with their synchronized flying, but Dust gets impatient when she’s slowed down by other teams and plows through them, leaving all the other students tossed off course. Dash tries to confront her partner, but Dust gives her a big speech about “best of the best”, and Dash hesitantly follows her lead.
During all of this, Pinkie Pie has gone mad with worry as she camps out near the mailbox, fearing that if she doesn’t receive and immediately reply to any letters Dash may send, either Dash’s Academy experience may be ruined, or she may forget all of her friends and never return. This balloons into a care package, which balloons into all of them hopping into a hot air balloon to pay Dash a visit.
During the next training session, to see who can clear the most clouds, Dust again isn’t satisfied with just coming in first, she wants to literally eliminate all other competition, so she drags Dash into creating a cyclone with her. It gobbles up clouds left and right, but then spirals out of their control and… oh look, it’s a balloon arriving with the remaining Manes, and now they’ve been sucked into the cyclone which destroys their balloon and sends them plummeting to their deaths. Until Dash races beneath them and creates an ultra-dense cloud that bounces them back up to where they’re rescued by the other students.
Dust’s response is to brag about how awesome that was, leading Dash to tear into her over her recklessness and disregard for others. Dash even goes to the office of Spitfire and says, if that’s the attitude it takes to be a leader among the Wonderbolts, then Dash quits. Dash sulks back to her waiting friends, but Spitfire marches after her, tearing the leader pin off of Dust’s suit and having the pony expelled. She gives the pin to Dash, who zips off to continue training with her fellow recruits.
There isn’t a whole lot to say about this episode, because there really isn’t too much to it. Rainbow Dash gets into the academy, aims to be number one, is made number two, and ends up furthering her arc of learning responsibility as she sees the ego of being number one go to Lightning Dust’s head. I do like the first meeting of Dash & Dust, that they’re a very fitting pair to the point of practically being clones, but that, instead of being instant rivals, they instead click and become best friends. I even like that, when the leader/wingman assignment is given, they don’t instantly set out to team up, because why would they? They’re both alphas, both already the most skilled in their class. It would be madness to think you could team them up by asking one to take a backseat to the other. I actually thought there would be more to Spitfire’s assigning of them, that we’d have a revelation that it was so Dash could learn to think as a team player instead of always going for top gun, and that she thus may also pull Dust into line since what comes super naturally to Dash is something Dust still fights for. That they didn’t does leave the episode feeling a bit thin, and the ending feeling a little hollow, with Dash resigning and Dust being booted from the camp. I’ve read the released script excerpts of the original ending where they just had their assignment flipped, but even that feels under-developed because we never actually get to see that dynamic. Better would be to have them both made wingmen, having to learn how to support and backup lesser skilled students who nonetheless may have other skills that could then rise to the surface.
It feels like an odd note to end it on because Dash going off to the academy feels like just a chunk taken out of an alternative season as a whole, where this is just one of many chapters Dash will go through at the academy, and the others being sick at home for her being gone could have had room to be a building thing. I’ll get to Pinkie in a minute on that one. The other cadets, Dash & Dust having to learn to manage themselves in all the roles a Wonderbolt would require. There’s a lot more here than you can possible cram into a single episode. It all fits about as well as Bulk Biceps adorably does into his unitard. We never even got a story about Dash applying to the academy, no build, no wait, nothing. She just talks about wanting to be one for two seasons, then poof, she’s received an acceptance letter. Dust especially feels unceremoniously discarded in the end. At least the original version would have kept her around for potential future appearances.
I don’t know, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself and a lot of what I’m missing will indeed come up in future episodes. And maybe a lot of this is due to the compression of this being a 13 episode season instead of 26, that they’re mooshing a number of stories down into one. If that’s the case, you think there’d be a bit more crammed into this one, because it still ends up feeling thin and expected.
Which isn’t to say it’s bad. It whooshes along in the air like a streak of rainbow and lighting battling for first, but while it’s gone in a blink and doesn’t linger, it’s still exciting for the flash while it’s there. The Dizzitron hurling ponies out like skeet, the course of cloud obstacles and storms, the clearing of weather where Dust unleashes a twister. It’s all exciting, colorful stuff, up to and including Bulk Biceps biting a cloud out of existence and bellowing his trademark “Yeah!”
And then there’s the entire subplot of Pinkie freaking out. Again, it’s entertaining, but there’s not much to it, and it ultimately feels there just so we can find a way to work the other Manes into the show and put them in danger somehow. I like a lot of the gags and that Pinkie is again showing her insecure side as her fears of potential friend loss just keep snowballing away from her, but it is a little much. And when they show up at the end, I like the little bits of Dash building a cloud to catch them and the other pegasai plucking them from the air (I love Fluttershy sheepishly leaping from her rescuer and revealing she can also fly), but their entire presence, and the scene after when they’re all waiting for Dash just feels so artificial and out of place. Removing them from the episode entirely and having someone else (the other students?) getting swept up by the tornado wouldn’t have changed the plot one bit.
We haven’t had the most positive things to say about Merriwether Williams’ episodes, and not without reason, but I don’t think she’s a bad writer. I had frustrations with this one, feeling it both didn’t live up to its potential for a broader arc, and also feeling it was a bit underdeveloped, slapped together, and the ending didn’t hold up much for me. And yet I still like it. It was a good character piece. The Manes were all in character and there for one another instead of turning on each other, like we’ve criticized Merriwether for in the past. It’s also neat getting a glimpse into the airforce training world of the Wonderbolts. For a thin episode I have issues with, I’ll still gladly take it.
O kay, this is totally Top Gun. The Spintron is completely training to recover from a flat spin,
Maverick Lightning Dust’s recklessness gets Goose Rainbow Dash injured, and Dust is so focused on being the best that she sees her teammates as obstacles. I’m trying to figure out if Iceman fits in there at all, if maybe Rainbow Dash is him instead of Goose, but I suspect that I’m trying to force the episode to fit the metaphor.
Rainbow Dash has gone off to an actual military academy. Given her attitude towards authority and general inability to take criticism or instruction, this should end very poorly. It does, of course, but Dust does a better job of being a total butt than Dash, and that’s really saying something. Having Dust and Dash together gives us a chance to see how competitive and focused Dash used to be, and how far she’s developed with the good friends she’s found. All things considered, I’m not sure how well it works as a plot device. Dash’s entire thing is being fastest and best. I’ll bet Dust can’t even produce a sonic rainboom.
The B plot is Pinkie Pie being Pinkie Pie, which is always a decent fallback if there’s nothing else going on, but it’s also not much to write about. Pinkie Pie invents a crisis and yells about it while warping reality to fit whatever whimsy has seized her for the moment.
I don’t really have a lot in my notes beyond that. Top Gun, Dash 1.3 meets Dash 1.0, Pinkie Pie.
Oh, Spitfire! We’ve seen her a couple times in the series so far. She was running the show during Hurricane Fluttershy, and she was one of the Wonderbolts that SuperSpike smushed during his rampage.
Any bets on whether Dash retains her Wonderbolt trainee status in future episodes? Continuity being what it is, I kinda doubt it.
Both of the Wonderbolt Sergeants have the Wonderbolt symbol as their cutie mark. That’s… kind of a high expectation to live up to.
Big McLargehuge is back. Good gravy, he’s big.
Sure, Twilight and Fluttershy live in trees, which is nice and environmentally considerate. Sure, Applejack and Rarity live in rather large homes built to their particular preferences, which is nice and comfortable. Sure, Pinkie lives in a bakery, which is nice and… erm, sweet. But Dashie? She’s rockin’ a house made of clouds, and it’s awesome. The exterior popped up a few times in Season 1 and the exterior once in Season 2, but for whatever reason this is the first time I really paid attention to how awesome of a structure it is. Either Cloudsdalesque homes are all super-ornate by default or Dash is seriously raking in the bits for her weatherpony duties.
One thing that always rubbed me the wrong way about this episode (and continues to rub me the wrong way) is how Spitfire is such a jerk to everypony, even to Rainbow Dash. I get that somepony in her position needs to put on a tough face and command a certain amount of aggressiveness to wrangle all the new enlistees, and that this contempt needs to be meted out in equal amounts so as not to let any of the newbies think they have a leg up over their comrades. That said, it seems that everypony at the Academy has forgotten all the previous events of the last two seasons: Dash winning the Best Young Flyer Competition (and saving Spitfire’s life in the process), Dash’s role in defeating Nightmare Moon and Discord, Dash tearing through more Changelings than all the royal guards of Canterlot put together could muster… but nah, it’s like Spitfire has never even met Rainbow Dash until this episode. Again, this is not to say that she should be giving Dash preferential treatment over the other enlistees, but some kind of acknowledgement of these previous feats would have been very much appreciated. The events of this show don’t occur in a vacuum, after all.
That being said, Issue 11 of the My Little Pony: Friends Forever official comics does an excellent job at addressing Spitfire’s character and providing a bit of context as to why she is the way she is at the Academy. As with the rest of the official comics, it’s not entirely clear if these events are really “canon” or are more in the realm of “official fan-fiction” (much as official Hasbro MLP merchandise is… erm, woefully incompatible with the show itself). In any case, I think it’s one of the stronger arcs of the Friends Forever series (and darn cute, if you ask me).
As I’ve mentioned before, one of the reasons I tend to find myself liking the Rainbow Dash-and-Applejack friendship more than the Applejack-and-Rarity friendship is because AJ and Dash are both so headstrong and charge at things together in the most delightful of ways. In a similar vein, the immediacy and brashness with which Rainbow Dash and Lightning Dust hit it off on day one has great appeal to me: here are two mares who are exceptionally good at what they do, and they both know that their only real competition in their art is each other. That’s some wonderful positive reinforcement right there that can turn a “great” into a “star,” and it only really works well if both parties involved are pointing in the same direction. It’s such a shame, then, that Lightning Dust is an even bigger jerk than Spitfire: such raw talent tragically blemished by the wrong attitude. It’s not the last time we’ll see this concept arise in the series, so be prepared for some real emotional uppers and downers, folks, as characters that could be “stars” fail to reach that status by a long shot… or, in at least one case, reach “star” level but in the opposite direction. Rats.
(Get it, because that’s “star” read in the opposite direction..! Eh? EH?)
Pinkie Pie’s overreaction at the mailbox reminds me of stories my friends and I used to write back in middle school whereby some innocuous action such as throwing a snowball, riding a bike, or (in Pinkie’s case) not checking for a letter would result in some ridiculously catastrophic outcome, which was more often than not the complete destruction of the entire planet. I’m sure Pinkie would have come to that same world-ending conclusion had she gone at it for a bit longer, too.
In other news, Pinkie’s “Yep!” response to AJ’s statement-question that she’s just going to stay by the mailbox is 1000% adorable. Normally if I’m pulling out the “adorable” word it’s to describe something Fluttershy-related, but the adorable factor of that split-second scene is through the roof and straight to the moon.
Back to srs bisnis: it seems like every time the group goes to meet up with Dash, somepony ends up nearly plummeting to her death. At this rate, their safest bet may be to just build a huge pile of dirt that reaches all the way up into the clouds so when somepony takes a deadly tumble there’s solid ground just inches away. On a somewhat orthogonal note, that Dash says Lightning Dust nearly “smashed,” “demolished,” and “took out” her friends with that tornado sounds like a slightly out-of-tune instrument in the orchestra that is this episode: these are clearly euphemisms for “killed,” a word that may not be allowed in a TV-Y program but I think would have sounded much more natural and, frankly, appropriate. If you’re trying to make a point, especially to your superior, beating around the bush only serves to dull that point so the end result is a mild prod rather than an impactful stab.
I have many mixed feelings about the episode. It touches on some very powerful and relevant topics for anyone who participates in competitive sports (or anything that pits you against others, sports-related or otherwise), but I feel it botches Spitfire’s character (and the Wonderbolts at learge) so badly that it mars the entire episode. True, prior to now we never really got a chance to sit down with Spitfire for more than a few seconds here and a brief flyby there, so I can accept that her personality could indeed be coarse and harsh like this. But callous and misguided? Forgive me for making the common mistake of assuming that with amazing athleticism comes flawless character, but for her to be so shallow as to want nothing more than to win is just… disappointing. Not only do the Wonderbolts tend to be more inept than adept where the rubber hits the road, but their moral codes are out of whack, too. I guess I’m feeling a bit like poor Rainbow Dash: I had built up my own grand expectations of the Wonderbolts, but when the chips are down they’re just… not all they’re cracked up to be. I was hoping that Spitfire was gruff but wise, but no, she was just gruff. Yes, it’s entirely possible that the intent of the episode all along was to reveal the uglier side of the Wonderbolts, but for whatever reason it just felt disappointing to me.
That grumbling out of the way, I think this is an absolutely wonderful Rainbow Dash episode, and an enjoyable one overall. It comes hot on the fetlocks of last week’s wonderful Dash episode and is almost enough to counterbalance the sound shellacking she got last season. Last episode we saw Rainbow has at least some semblance of a compassionate and even affectionate side; this episode we see that she has a sense of honor and sportsponyship, even if it takes a rather unsportsponylike mare to reveal it to her. One might even say she’s loyal to her ideals of what a real Wonderbolt is supposed to embody. Her relationship with Lightning Dust throughout the episode really brought out a lot of Dash’s best qualities, culminating in her quitting the Wonderbolts: probably the hardest thing she’s ever done emotionally: the look on her face immediately after leaving Spitfire’s office is a superb mixture of “Did I do the right thing?” and “What have I spent my entire life up to this point actually pursuing?” It’s a blink-and-you-missed-it thing, but very powerful and exceptionally well-done. The abrupt about-face that occurs over the course of the next 60 seconds kind of messes with that whole emotional knot, but at least it does so by turning Spitfire around (’bout time) and showing how all the other cadets respect both Rainbow Dash’s skill and character. I’m truly glad that’s how the episode ended, as my aforementioned disappointment with the way things went would have otherwise made this a really difficult episode to appreciate. Yes, it was very much a “pull up at the last possible second” sort of thing and felt extremely abrupt, but I can’t complain: when the sun comes out on the last day of a beach vacation that was marred by storms and cold weather up to that point, you don’t dwell on how lousy the last week was… you get out there and enjoy the sun!
So, yes: like I said, lots of mixed feelings, but all things considered, everything averages out on the positive side.
What happens when you combine My Little Pony, Source Filmmaker, the Stanley Parable, and a lot of talent? You get the short-and-sweet Wonderbolts Initiation by Argodaemon. Don’t know what else to say: if this doesn’t put a grin on your face, you may be doing it wrong. The rest of this guy’s YouTube channel is stellar (if sometimes spoilery, though that applies to pretty much the entire Internet), so if you like high-quality pony SFMs, this guy’s one to watch.
I want to dig into Pinkie’s side of things a bit more than anything else here. It’s my favorite part of this episode by a landslide, and I’ve used the scene by the mailbox as a way to illustrate to friends of mine exactly what anxiety (or at least my own particular brand of it) looks like. I’ve been through the ridiculous snowballing mindset of blowing a completely innocuous action (or lack of action) up into an utterly disastrous course of events. It’s usually just as silly as Pinkie’s version of it here, and in hindsight after the fact when things haven’t ended in the total collapse of my world or social life, it’s easy to look back on the whole thing and giggle over what a doof I was being. But when you’re in the moment of a massive anxiety spiral, even the most unlikely scenarios feel like very real threats, and your brain has a way of convincing you that your imagined potential outcomes are a lot more realistic than they probably really are.
Pinkie’s insecurities come in a variety of flavors, and this touches on one we’ve seen before (her being convinced that her friends will abandon her at the drop of a hat, namely), but this is something a little more specific. I have to give Merriwether Williams a lot of credit for absolutely nailing the depiction, and giving me something to relate so strongly to in this episode.
That said, I’m really not the biggest fan of the rest of this one. There are bits that I like, definitely. I love that we get to see Bulk Biceps back, and that he’s gone a bit beyond the one-beat “YEAH” gag. The like the setting of the Wonderbolts Academy, and it’s nice getting a nod towards Rainbow Dash’s time with them in the past getting something of a payoff.
My problem with the episode comes down on the Wonderbolts themselves. Taken in a different direction, this would have been a fantastic (if somewhat depressing) chance for Rainbow Dash to grow past them, to realize that they don’t live up to her values, and exercising that sometimes ignored core of Loyalty with her character. They almost go there. Rainbow Dash does make the hard decision that her values are more important to her than the group she dreamed about joining, and had they stuck with that, it would have been a real major bit of progression to her character, and would have let us move past a part of her that otherwise always sort of hangs over any part of her story. It’s weird that, given everything she’s done and specifically how much she’s proven herself in front of them (occasionally even outdoing them), Rainbow Dash hadn’t had some kind of place in the Wonderbolts yet. Sure, there’s still some kind of protocol to follow (and presumably that’s what this is), but (spoilers, I guess, but whatever), shock of all shocks, seasons are going to pass from here and Rainbow Dash still won’t be among their ranks. Had this been the cap on that storyline, where Rainbow Dash realizes that her heroes aren’t everything she built them up to be, and that she can be better among her friends than she could in a group which has the prestige of being the best but values things that run against what she wants to stand for, it would not only solve this problem, but it could have been a significant and lasting development for her character. Instead we get what feels like a last second “just kidding” from Spitfire and Rainbow Dash immediately 180s back around to where she was at the beginning of the episode.
Spitfire is really at the core of the problem here. Even though Lightning Dust is supposed to be the antagonist of this one, I can’t even really pin the majority of the blame on her. Yes, Lightning is a ruthless bully only interested in putting herself on top (and makes for an effective foil for Dashie who can often seem like this extreme at times), but Spitfire continually enables her throughout the episode, rewarding her behavior and reinforcing her belief that this is just how you have to be in order to qualify for the Wonderbolts. Even her most extreme actions impresses Spitfire rather than giving her pause and thinking that she might not be going about things the right way. The authority figure not stepping up and calling her actions into question, and instead doing the exact opposite and praising those actions makes for the real antagonist of this episode. Of course Lightning Dust is going to continue behaving the way she does, and her escalating doesn’t seem that surprising either. Why would she do it any differently, when what she’s doing is not only putting her on top, but getting the explicit approval of the pony in charge of the whole thing?
Which is why the ending of this episode actually makes me kind of angry. After spending the entire episode rewarding Lightning Dust’s behavior and methods, Spitfire suddenly and drastically reverses course, publicly reprimanding Lightning Dust in a rather extreme way (she physically rips the badge off her chest), and… well, it’s left kind of vague what happens then. The implication is that Lightning just gets kicked out of the Academy outright, as she’s escorted off screen by the staff and doesn’t rejoin the others when Rainbow Dash flies up to regroup with them. Spitfire gets to maintain her great hero image, Lightning’s stamped with the “bad guy” marker and gets thrown under the bus, and Rainbow Dash is right back to being all-in on the Wonderbolts thing again. Sure, alright, we can make the argument that Spitfire wasn’t really aware of what Lightning Dust was actually doing (and the episode sort of seems to hint towards that at points), but, uh… isn’t that the entire reason why she’s present at the Academy drills? If Spitfire isn’t implicitly approving Lightning’s behavior, then that means she’s downright incompetent at the job she’s supposed to be fulfilling in this scenario.
Spitfire is a butt. We’ve seen it before in other episodes, and we’ll see it again in following ones. I really don’t like her. We see her repeatedly both encourage the kind of behavior we see in Lightning Dust here and occasionally take part in it herself, and if the consequences for those actions ever actually landed on her, I’d be significantly less bugged about it. But she always seems to spin around with a “you proved you have Wonderbolts values” speech whenever she seems to realize how bad she’s looking, and her own behavior never really seems to get addressed. In part because for whatever reason, we can’t possibly have a scenario where Rainbow Dash isn’t obsessed with the Wonderbolts, no matter how useless they prove themselves to be or how bad a group for her they keep seeming like they are based on the attitudes and actions of their most prolific members.
It’s worth mentioning that this episode at one point did have a different ending written, where Lightning Dust’s reprimand was a little less harsh, and had her explicitly being bumped down to wingpony with Rainbow taking lead (as well as a follow up scene of Rainbow Dash coming home from the Academy and not being a Wonderbolt but saying that Spitfire would be keeping an eye on her). I haven’t been able to find anything saying exactly why they didn’t go with this version (speculation is that it was either for time or that they wanted a more tangible punishment for Lightning’s actions), and it wouldn’t have fixed all of my problems with this episode, but it would have felt a little better to me. At the very least, Spitfire’s attitude towards Lightning Dust wouldn’t have spun quite so drastically on a dime, and it also would have had Lightning acknowledging her approach was wrong.
Still, at the very least, it is a very good showcasing of how far Rainbow Dash has come from the start of the series, and an episode where she comes off as one of the more upstanding characters in it. Regardless of the episode’s problems, that at least is a win for her.