FiM’s odd “in-between” worldbuilding, and why “Daring Don’t” didn’t break it.

I don’t deal very well with awkward humor.  It’s just not something I can enjoy that much, and it’s kind of hard for me to watch.  As a result, “Daring Don’t” was among the episodes of FiM I’ve enjoyed the least.  One of the higher-ranked comments on the ep’s Reddit Live Reactions Thread was “It’s so painful to watch”, so apparently I’m not completely alone in this.

I wouldn’t call this a problem with the episode, though — it’s more a case of a mismatch of tastes.  Criticizing a cringe-comedy episode because I didn’t like it would be kind of like criticizing a hammer because it’s bad at tightening bolts — there was no way it could have succeeded in the first place.

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“…I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men. This I have known ever since I stretched out my fingers to the abomination within that great gilded frame…and touched a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass.”  –“The Outsider”, by H.P. Lovecraft

As a result, it’s hard for me to reach any sort of conclusion regarding the overall quality of most of the episode.  It could have been the best-executed awkward humor in history, and I still likely wouldn’t have enjoyed it.

So I thought that (like the previous three episodes) I wouldn’t have much to say about “Daring Don’t” — or at least, nothing that hadn’t been said already by someone with far more talent and followers than I.  I was also pretty interested to see what Digibrony and BronyCurious would have to say on the subject, since I was a bit too busy grimacing to notice anything that I wanted to go back and analyze.

To my surprise, I found that someone else had enjoyed the episode even less than I had:

BronyCurious: No matter how hard I dissect this, I can’t not think of it as a terrible fanfic idea.  And this is coming from someone who writes terrible fanfiction…It just seems like a stupidly huge stretch, doesn’t make any sense, and serves no purpose that couldn’t be filled better by another character.

Well, that’s pretty unambiguous.

BC has several problems with “Daring Don’t”.  Among them, he accuses the ep of committing a cardinal storytelling sin: breaking the worldbuilding.  The idea that Daring Do “actually” exists with no one in Equestria knowing about her, he says, just isn’t believable:

This means that every Daring Do novel (of which Twilight has shown there are many) was an actual occurrence?  How does nopony know about this?  Do Celestia and Luna know about Daring Do’s escapades?  Or is her small cottage so far removed from Equestria proper that her adventures are off the princess’s radar as well?  Even forgiving that, the concept of this episode’s plot alone confuses me.  The ancient ceremony that the ring is needed for is supposed to affect the sun enough to bring 800 years of heat?  And yes, it controls the sun, since the shot pans up while whatshisname is monologuing.  This is fine enough for the plot of a fantasy story…but this is the (quote-unquote) “real world”, where the sun is controlled by Celestia.  How is this supposed to work?”

Even to many people within the fandom, the idea of criticizing an episode as “unbelievable” in a show about magical, pastel-colored cartoon miniature horses probably sounds thoroughly ridiculous.  But even in such a setting, we need some degree of consistency to tell effective and entertaining stories.  Umberto Eco makes this point in my favorite quote on the subject:

A completely unreal world can be constructed, in which asses fly and princesses are restored to life by a kiss; but that world, purely possible and unrealistic, must exist according to structures defined at the outset (we have to know whether it is a world where a princess can be restored to life only by the kiss of a prince, or also by that of a witch, and whether the princess’s kiss transforms only frogs into princes or also, for example, armadillos).

In other words, you don’t have to be realistic — you just have to be consistent.  And FiM generally sticks to this rule.  But BC argues that the idea of Daring Do being “real” (within the fictional world) is not consistent with what we’ve seen so far in the series.

I think he’s mistaken in this, but I also think that our disagreement raises a more interesting question.  So first, I’ll briefly summarize why I think the episode works, at least from a worldbuilding perspective:

We haven’t seen much of the rest of the world, or even of the nation of Equestria — for a show that opens with a threat to the entire world, most of the crises and action take place in or around Ponyville.  And we have no real reason to believe that Ponyville has a higher frequency of dragons, hydras, parasprite swarms, and miscellaneous crises than most other places in the world.  So it’s likely that we only see a small portion of that craziness that occurs in the world of FiM.  Furthermore, it seems like there are places in the world that Equestrian ponies haven’t fully explored, or even know about, which would be classic settings for the type of adventures we see in the Daring Do books.  So FiM’s world may actually be large and crazy enough for the mayhem depicted in “Daring Do” to exist with few people knowing about it.

Also, Twi and Dash’s conversation establishes that the ring doesn’t affect the sun itself.  Yes, I’m well aware that I’m overanalyzing a scene that makes fun of overanalysis.

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There is no way I am the first person who’s thought of this, but I hadn’t seen it done yet.

But here’s the more interesting question: how could two people who spend way too much time thinking about this show’s narrative techniques come to such different conclusions about this issue?  I think it has a lot to do with the odd way that FiM handles worldbuilding.

The increase in worldbuilding we saw in Seasons 2 and 3 is frequently thought of as a major shift catering to the older demographic.  That’s only partially true, though.  FiM has always had kind of a weird and uneasy relationship with its setting, even though the setting is generally interesting and well-executed.  Most shows fall into 1 of 2 categories; either the setting is a major point of the plot and (hopefully) is well-developed and consistent (e.g., Reboot), or the setting only serves as a backdrop for what’s happening between the characters, and is only developed as necessary to do that (Ed, Edd, N’Eddy).  The audience isn’t particularly concerned with what’s happening outside of the hometown of the Eds, because a) it’s fairly rare that the show gives us reason to ask what’s out there, and b) it’s similar enough to the real world that we can pretty much assume that it’s the same unless we’re told otherwise.

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Lore!? Oh, FiM Team, you didn’t have to get us anything for Christmas!  Best gift ever.

But FiM seems indecisive about which type of show it wants to be.  The very first scene of the pilot establishes a very interesting cosmology, which is further developed over the course of the two episodes; these creatures inhabit a world in which nature and civilization are thoroughly interconnected, such that they manage the weather and wildlife and their ruler controls the motions of the solar system.  In fact, those areas in which the weather changes independently are considered “unnatural” and are feared and shunned.

Forget about “an interesting premise for a kid’s cartoon”, that’s just an interesting premise, period.  That’s a decent setup for a Fantasy or Science Fiction novel.

And furthermore, the violation of that structure is the first major conflict of the story.  So saying “don’t worry about the cosmology” — as some fans do — doesn’t really work, because the narrative itself tells you “worry about the cosmology” right from the start.

And since we’re told “worry about the cosmology”, several question are naturally raised right after the pilot (as I’m sure most of you remember) — are Celestia and Luna gods?  Are they immortal?  Have they always existed?  If not, who are their parents?  Do other planets exist in this universe?  Do they have their own rulers who control *their* suns and moons?  And so on, and so on, and so on.  We get answers to some of these questions, but not for quite a while.

Now, if they just dropped the entire issue of the setting’s cosmology right after the pilot, this would probably be less of an issue (though I’m extremely glad they didn’t do so).  At that point, the show would fit fairly comfortably into Category 2 — the setting is just a backdrop for the characters.  And given the fact that Faust originally conceived of the series as more adventure-themed than Hasbro wanted, we might expect such a drop-off.  But this isn’t really what happens.  We’re frequently introduced to new and interesting laws of the world, even in Season 1:

Ponies not only manage the weather, they also change the seasons (“Winter Wrap-Up” and “Fall Weather Friends”).  Pegasi can walk on clouds, but Unicorns and Earth Ponies can’t (“Sonic Rainboom”).  A pony’s Cutie Mark is a major part of their identity (“Call of the Cutie” and “Cutie Mark Chronicles”).  Sentient animals other than ponies exist, and they are from places other than Equestria, many of which are poorly-understood (“Bridle Gossip” and “Griffon the Brush-Off”).

Furthermore, these aren’t just little bonuses — we have to accept and understand these parts of the world, or the central conflicts of many of the episodes don’t even make sense.  So while it might seem ridiculous that there’s an endless parade of questions about the finer points of the worldbuilding in a show about magical cartoon ponies, this is really just the reaction that we would expect of any audience.

Despite how it might sound, I’m not sure if I’d call this “bad storytelling”.  The desire to know more about the world can make the series much more compelling.  As Carbon Maestro has said, “always leave your audience wanting more, not less.”  But it’s also possible to run into trouble with this approach, particularly in a work with multiple writers.

And if this trap was going to catch any particular FiM writer, it was probably Dave Polsky.  Judging by his previous episodes, Polsky is far less concerned with worldbuilding than with getting laughs (which he’s quite good at, incidentally).  In a simple Category 1 or Category 2 show, this would be fine; in C1, there are certain established rules of the world that just aren’t broken, and as long as you keep those in mind, you’re fine.  In C2, the consistency of the world just doesn’t matter that much.

But FiM is in this odd place in which the worldbuilding is interesting and well-integrated into the story, but is being given to us piecemeal over a long period of time.  This means that anything that seems to be have bearing on the world is potentially important, and so it’s going to get scrutinized by (many of) the fans.  Which might explain why the writers have just started live-tweeting their episodes — presumably, they figure it will save everyone some time if they get all the questions answered at once.

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This woman has learned how we think.

Like I said previously, I don’t think “Daring Don’t” really breaks the show’s worldbuilding — as I said before, I can actually devise ways that it fits into the established narrative really well.  But that raises an interesting question: if I had to devise those ways, does that constitute bad storytelling?  “Daring Don’t” requires us to assume some things that haven’t really been established (e.g., “Equestria is partially unexplored”).  At the same time, though, there’s nothing that really contradicts that “implied lore” either.

So I guess another way of phrasing the question would be; “is it sometimes appropriate to rely upon Headcanon to fill in certain blanks in worldbuilding?”

In practice, it certainly seems like FiM’s “in-between” approach is working; we can quibble about worldbuilding inconsistencies, but by most indications a lot of people find the setting compelling.

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There is something wrong with this fandom. Gloriously, wonderfully wrong with it.

I’m very eager to see if they can continue to make it work — they’ve done well so far, but obviously the more lore they introduce, the greater chance they’ll trip over themselves.  I’m cautiously optimistic.


Want to know when I’ve thought of something new and interesting about the narrative techniques of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic?  Yeah, neither would I, probably.  But just in case, you can suscribe via email (top of the page on the right), follow The Pony’s Litterbox on Tumblr, or follow me on Twitter.

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This entry was posted in Analysis, Storytelling technique, Worldbuilding and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to FiM’s odd “in-between” worldbuilding, and why “Daring Don’t” didn’t break it.

  1. Pingback: “Twilight, you can teleport!”: How limits can make a writer’s job easier | The Pony's Litterbox

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