MLP:FiM Episode Reviews: Character and Story Analysis by Half the Battle

Previous: Introduction: Why I Like What I Like Friendship is Magic, part 1 Next: Friendship Is Magic, part 2

Episode 1: "Friendship Is Magic, part 1"
(aka Mare in the Moon)

Aired 10/10/2010, written by Lauren Faust (her first episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: Twilight Sparkle reads the story of a time when Equestria was ruled by two sisters, one of whom grew bitter and threatened the kingdom, and was sealed within the moon by the Elements of Harmony.
  • Act 1: Twilight rushes to Canterlot's library to learn about the Elements and alerts Princess Celestia to a prophecy of Nightmare Moon's return.
  • Act 2: Celestia sends Twilight to Ponyville to oversee preparations for the Summer Sun Celebration, and she is befriended practically against her will by five odd ponies.
  • Act 3: Pinkie Pie throws a surprise welcome party for Twilight, depriving her of the chance to study the Elements before the Celebration, where Nightmare Moon appears in Princess Celestia's place and declares that night will last forever.

Character: One thing that sets MLP apart is its use of a smart, introverted female as the main/perspective character. This personality, when represented at all, is almost always a male side character who only provides comic relief or exposition. Imagine if G.I. Joe focused on Dial-Tone rather than Flint, or if Julian Bashir were captain of the Enterprise.

It's interesting to note the traits the characters display as they are introduced. I would argue that of the Mane Six, Applejack is the only one who gets a wholly positive introduction:

  • Twilight = not interested in friendship, convinced of her own rightness and living in an ivory tower;
  • Spike = put-upon common-sense sidekick;
  • Applejack = family-oriented and welcoming;
  • Rainbow Dash = jocular show-off quick to laugh at others or fly off the handle;
  • Rarity = beauty-oriented and pushy in her generosity;
  • Fluttershy = shy around new ponies;
  • Pinkie = friendly but random, prone to cause misunderstanding.

Though unseen in this episode, it's actually Princess Celestia whose character is driving the plot. She knows the history of Nightmare Moon and the secret of the Elements of Harmony first-hoof and is responsible for assigning the festival preparations, and probably its location. The irony of this episode (as explained in the next) is that Twilight thinks the Princess is dismissing the threat while she is actually sending Twilight on the exact journey necessary to meet that threat successfully. We'll see as the series goes on that such a subtle/sneaky approach is precisely the way the Princess likes to operate. Princess Luna/Nightmare Moon, by contrast, is much more direct and transparent than Celestia and seems less willing to take risks. (Fanfics often get these traits reversed. Princess Sunnybutt is in fact the more shadowy of the two.)


Lesson: Most of the two-part episodes focus more on the adventure than on a moral, and if there is one it's usually not spelled out until part two. Yet in this first episode, irony injects moral significance into the character introductions. Both the series subtitle and the original title for this episode are "Friendship Is Magic," and yet the central magician character is the least friendly one we see. The Ponyville ponies have their quirks, but none of them is objectionable and it should strike us as odd as Twilight frowns, rolls her eyes, groans, or even seems to show fright as they express their desire to consider her a friend. Why does she do this? For the same reason most unsociable people do: Friendship is a distraction from some all-important thing she's given herself to do. The reveal in the next episode that these friendships will accomplish that very thing adds another layer of irony.


Logic: Background Ponies. I don't consider the placement of background ponies to be any sort of inconsistency. Here and in most episodes, they are duplicated and placed willy-nilly in crowd scenes. From all the evidence, including most of their dialogue, they're not really presented as individuals whose identity carries over from one episode to the next, but as generic ponies filling out the canvas. For example, Nightmare Moon addresses an audience filled with Sparklers, Time Turners, Candy Manes, and about nine other ponies copied over and over. Colgate (aka Minuette) is seen in Canterlot and Ponyville, both in a balcony and on the ground with Twilight in the final scene, etc. In fact, Colgate is used so much, she has more screen time in this episode than any character except Twilight, Spike, and Fluttershy. In some future episodes we'll see background ponies situated more consistently in pairs (most famously Lyra and Bon Bon), but for color coordination more than for personality considerations. Don't expect any of these characters to really be fleshed out or have an episode in the spotlight. They're used more as recurring extras, a la Mr. Hadley from the original Star Trek, or Lt. Ayala for most of Voyager's run. Nevertheless, the crew sure designed a lot of these. We see over sixty pony characters in this episode alone.

Also, it bears mention that background ponies are distinct from secondary characters such as Cheerilee, Big McIntosh, and the Mayor, or rarely occurring extras such as Vinyl Scratch and Octavia. These are definitely individuals with a consistent presentation, while background ponies are basically blank slates in each scene, subject to being cloned and placed anywhere.

Body Count: Since the writers usually avoid them, I will be keeping track of uses of "everybody/anybody/nobody" and the like, as well as references to hands. It's a trivial note, not anything that weighs down an episode, but it should be as easy a mistake to catch as it is to make. (There is no attempt to avoid uses of everyone/anyone, etc.) For the record, this episode introduces the -pony suffix with Applejack's line, "Soup's on, everypony." Pinkie uses it second, and Spike third.

 

Connections: As this is the first half of the premiere story, everything starts here. More specifically, this gives us a foretaste of the "slice of life" side of the show, leaving the "adventure" side for Part Two.

 

Resonance: The overall mood is light fun, with a classic fairy-tale feel in the intro, and just a twinge of foreboding in the Canterlot Library and in Twilight's bedroom. Pinkie's off-kilter commentary blunts the impact of Nightmare Moon's appearance, probably to keep the story from getting too scary for young viewers. (The creators have made numerous comments about the difficulty of finding the right balance between cute and scary in the early episodes.)

A general mood of neighborly charm makes this a pretty warm episode. Each of Twilight's new friends provides one moment I found particularly fun: Applejack's many relatives; Rainbow's efforts to "help" Twilight culminating in her inability to avoid laughing at her predicament; the costume montage in Rarity's boutique; Fluttershy's sudden gushing over Spike; and the drink mishap at Pinkie's party. Twilight's snarkiness is expertly delivered. However wise, friendly, and understanding Twilight becomes in this series, I want that snark. It makes me smile.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: The show takes a risk in presenting almost no redeeming qualities for Twilight in this episode. By the title and the theme song, we know this is just the beginning of her character arc. Likewise, we have only the initial outline of the characters, whose depths are explored throughout the first half of the season.

The show also leaves the story of Nightmare Moon's banishment very simple and open to interpretation. Until the fourth season, the events are not been elaborated upon beyond the 90-second synopsis that opens the series. As for the relationship between Nightmare Moon and Princess Luna, writer Lauren Faust has said "NMM is the jealousy residing inside her that came forth." In a QA session on 5/1/13, Faust elaborated on her idea for the backstory of Celestia and Luna at the time of NMM: "They were still young and still lived in the same castle together--- perhaps with their parents. It was the ruined castle in the Everfree Forest that was featured in the premiere episode." Also, "before she appeared in Ponyville, NMM went to Canterlot to find Celestia and use magic to banish Celestia in the Sun."

Back to the last episode's prophecy, "The stars will aid in her escape": the escape of Nightmare from the moon, or the escape of Luna from her Nightmare form (with the ponies being the stars, per Twilight's cutie mark)? A brilliant double meaning if it was intentional.

Finally, the mildly irreverent but warm attitude (nicely illustrated by the theme song) is a nice departure from stereotypical shows for girls. On a more technical note, the show has excellent pacing for as much as it gets done.

With all the resources poured into them, the season premieres and finales naturally end up a cut above most of the middle-of-the-season episodes, and this one is no exception. However, the excitement, character progression, and overall quality build over the course of the series. On my scaled rating system, as of post-season 6, Friendship Is Magic merits a Diamond Vest.

 

Friendship Is Magic, parts 1-2 armor rating: Diamond Vest
Ranked 3rd and 4th of 26 season-one episodes
Ranked 55th and 56th of 147 stories overall

Click HERE for Character Appearance List and Screentime.

Previous: Introduction: Why I Like What I Like Friendship is Magic, part 1 Next: Friendship Is Magic, part 2