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

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Episode 168: "Shadow Play Part 1"

Aired 10/28/2017, written by Josh Haber (his eighteenth episode)
  • Intro: The last writings of Star Swirl the Bearded tell how he and his team of pillars set out to confront a former teammate who became the Pony of Shadows.
  • Act 1: Princess Celestia confirms the authenticity of the record, and Twilight Sparkle and her friends examine the book and determine the pillars vanished at Ponehenge. There, the book magically replays the moment the pillars banished the Pony of Shadows and disappeared along with it.
  • Act 2: Twilight studies the banishing spell and learns the pillars are in Limbo and can be brought back. The Map displays the locations of the five pillars' artifacts. Applejack retrieves Rockhoof's shovel and Rarity finds a flower associated with Mistmane, but Rainbow Dash and Spike must confront Garble to get Flash Magnus's shield.
  • Act 3: Dash succeeds using guile, Fluttershy obtains Mage Meadowbrook's mask, and Pinkie Pie locates Somnambula's blindfold. Against Starlight's cautions, Twilight uses the artifacts to bring Star Swirl and the pillars back to Equestria, but the Pony of Shadows arrives with them.

Character: There are a lot of characters in this story: Not only do we open on an account of Star Swirl and six other legendary ponies, but our return to the present has us in a room with the two sisters, the Mane Six, Spike, Starlight Glimmer, and Sunburst, all of whom (except for the sisters) will be essential to the plot. There's not a lot of new ground for the familiar characers here, but the writers do a masterful job of letting everypony have establishing character moments. Sunburst gets the spotlight in the throne room scenes, Twilight and Starlight debate the main strategy, and the other main ponies each get a quest for an artifact, with Spike getting an all-too-rare scene with Rainbow Dash. A season finale may seem like an odd place to bring in new viewers, but anyone starting out here will have a good feel for all the present-day characters by the end of Part 1.

Long-time viewers will focus more on the long-awaited reveal of Star Swirl the Bearded in his first appearance aside from costumes and still pictures. Recall that his student Clover the Clever was present at the founding of Equestria, and that Star Swirl befriended Scorpan in the early days of the royal sisters. The series has always been vague about when these things happened, but Shadow Play's dialogue says "over a thousand years" six times and "thousands" twice. If anyone's concerned about Star Swirl's ability to speak in the modern tongue while he wrote in Old Ponish, recall that scholars in Europe wrote most of their books in Latin until the end of the seventeenth century, despite speaking their local languages in day-to-day life.

We'll get a more personal look at Star Swirl in Part 2. I'm thrilled to see him tied in with the diverse array of legendary ponies introduced this season. The setup with him and the pillars sealing the villain in Limbo reminds me of the Seven Sages whose power keeps Ganondorf locked away in various Legend of Zelda games. However, the basic concept goes back at least as far as the Titans of Greek mythology and is featured in many classic stories, so I wouldn't be too quick to assume a video game reference here.

The Map is a character again in this story, as the magic behind both it and Star Swirl's book plays a providential sort of role in the episode. Through various timely revelations, the ponies are essentially railroaded into restoring and ultimately confronting the Pony of Shadows in Part 2. The omniscience implied by this magic makes unsurprising things that would be considered contrivances in an average episode, such as Dash happening upon Garble's shield, and the superpowered displays by Applejack and Rarity. It's likely the characters' previous encounters with the pillars' legacies this season are similarly prearranged by the Map, even though none of them occurred in "Map" episodes. And I'll also just mention that the Map's first mission is where the Mane Six met Starlight Glimmer, whose part in all this becomes clearer in Part 2.

Starlight has a Cassandra role here that leans on the fourth wall quite a bit, as she reminds Twilight of the show's priorities, the well-established dangers of meddling with magic, and how her own history might relate to the project at hand. You know, the things we'd be shouting at the screen as we observe Twilight's foolhardiness, if Starlight wasn't there to do the nudging for us. You can't blame Twilight too much for not realizing she'd be freeing the Shadow Pony. It's not evident from the book or the playback that the pillars' continual presence was required to keep their enemy in place. It's just as likely, as Applejack says, that "they got stuck." But I'm glad, for the show's sake, that Twilight defends her idea by pointing to the importance of having Star Swirl back, as opposed to the show hitting us over the head with her overconfidence. She's not on a power trip, she's just starstruck.

Lesson: The main lesson of the story is brought forth in Part 2, so I'll focus here on the moral of the Twilight-Starlight dynamic that runs through both parts. From Twilight Sparkle's perspective, no matter how far you go in life, don't neglect reasonable advice. Or, to quote the Book of Proverbs, "Plans are broken in the absence of counsel, but by an abundance of counselors they stand."

And from Starlight Glimmer's position, don't be afraid to offer advice when it's helpful. Starlight is polite, humble, and constructive, though persistent, as she raises concerns about Twilight's rush to restore the pillars. And the pink pony has the same disposition in Part 2 toward Star Swirl the Bearded. It's a good demonstration of how her boldness plays out at this point in her understanding of friendship, and a good example for viewers to follow. By contrast, Star Swirl's criticisms will be rude, prideful, and inhibiting, but he'll eat crow before the story's over.

Resonance: I love this whole thing. Each scene is a thrill; even the exposition scenes in the castle are peppered with delightful moments. It starts with a captivating opening narration that calls to mind another legend. (Compare Star Swirl's tale with the wizard's first words in Conan the Barbarian.) There's plenty of humor, from Sunburst's attempt to high-hoof Spike, to Twilight defying Sunburst's "years of study" comment, Rarity calling out Twi's overexcitement, to Rainbow Dash making an absolute fool of Garble. There's not a lot of serious drama until Part 2, but Rarity does tear up when she's slapped with a garden trowel. Most of all, there's a tremendous satisfaction in seeing all this come together, as the Tree-Chest-Castle-Map and the Elements of Harmony are explained and the connection between magic and friendship is affirmed once again.


Other Impressions and Final Assessment: I give high marks to this two-parter. It's MLP's most ambitious story to date for all its lore, and what it does, it does extremely well. However, it suffers a little from the TV series' weekly format. If it had been a Monday-to-Friday show, we could have gotten a five-parter out of this, like the season premieres of G.I. Joe and Transformers that I grew up with. Because of the time constraint, the events of Part 1 are very compressed. The gathering of artifacts spread all across Equestria, no doubt involving a separate adventure for each of five ponies, takes just seven minutes. Compare this with how much the ponies went through just to reach the Castle of the Two Sisters in the series premiere. Nevertheless, the rushed pace has a positive impact in at least two ways: It conveys how much the team is rushing through their plans without really thinking them through, and it drives home just how much help they're apparently receiving from the magic behind it all, giving the sense that this is all being handed to them on a silver platter by forces unseen. With its strengths more than overcoming any of its weaknesses, Shadow Play lands just short of Twilight's Kingdom.


Shadow Play Parts 1 and 2 armor rating: Crystal Armor
Ranked 2nd and 3rd of 26 season-seven episodes
Ranked 13th and 14th of 175 stories overall

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