Sunday, 9 December 2012

Review: "Sleepless in Ponyville" (S3E06)

Scootaloo on her scooter
Scootaloo's gonna scoot
Now that was a surprise! After last week's action-packed Trixiefest, which I have to say I didn't like quite as much as a lot of people, "Sleepless in Ponyville" took us in an entirely different direction. Writer Corey Powell is new to Friendship is Magic, and she gave us something which in some ways wouldn't have felt out of place way back in season 1. It was certainly an unusual episode by current standards, but was it an effective one? This review is a lot longer than some of them will be, so be warned if you click on the jump!

A few days ago, I was involved in an online discussion about the nature of the show, and how it had changed since most of us fell in love with it back in S1. Several people, including me, expressed a measure of regret that the turbocharged, action-packed, fanservice-heavy episodes we'd seen in S3 up to that point had rather pushed out the somewhat gentler, more homespun episodes we used to get. In other words, while the show was still great fun, it had perhaps lost a little bit of its innocence and... well, charm.

If Corey Powell had read that discussion, she could have been excused a wry smile — because "Sleepless in Ponyville" was in many ways a return to FiM's roots. In particular, there were quite strong echoes of "Look Before You Sleep" both in the limited cast of characters (no Twilight, Fluttershy or Pinkie) and in that the plot involved friends spending a night in each other's company. Actually, there were some specific callbacks too, such as the "Headless Horse" from Twilight's own ghost story.

"Sleepless in Ponyville" was, of course the first true Scootaloo episode the series has ever produced. She's my favourite of the CMC, and I was crossing everything in the hope that this week's instalment would do the business. In that way it was, for me, similar to what "Magic Duel" was for another (huge) chunk of the fandom. It could all so easily have gone wrong, especially with a new writer at the helm; the last one to make a debut was Merriwether Williams with the ill-starred "The Mysterious Mare Do Well".

Luna appearing in Scootaloo's dream
Talking loud should do the trick!
But it didn't go wrong. It went very, very right. The storyline was at heart a very simple one: Scootaloo, in trying to impress Rainbow Dash, pretended that the latter's ghost stories hadn't frightened her. The filly's inability to reveal the truth gradually pushed her further and further into both denial and terror, suffering nightmares about the Headless Horse and the "olden pony" seeking a rusty horseshoe. Eventually, a combination of fear and shame resulted in Scootaloo having to be saved by her hero... and this led to a truly wonderful couple of scenes, which I'll come back to.

I've been a bit unhappy with the level of fanservice in S3 so far: I think it's been rather too high. (Making it ironic that that ultimate fandom nod, Derpy, has barely been seen!) But Powell demonstrated in "Sleepless in Ponyville" how such things should be done. This was by far Luna's most satisfying appearance, for one thing, giving her an actual reason for being there and a decent amount of dialogue. (And doubtless inspiring a new wave of fanfics!) Mind you, I can't be the only fan who thought of a certain Friendship is Witchcraft song when she said, "I am the Princess of the Night"!

Talking of which, there was no song once again: three episodes out of six have been devoid of singing, which surprises me a little given some of the pre-season talk from people working on the show. It could be that there are plenty to come; it could simply be a "The Doctor lies" scenario. Also very striking is that "Too Many Pinkie Pies" is still the only episode in which there's been a letter to Celestia. It wouldn't have been that hard to have made room for one in "Sleepless in Ponyville" if Powell had wanted to, so I can only assume that we'll continue to see very few of them.

This being FiM, you'd expect there to be plenty of little touches in the background, and so there were. During Scootaloo's opening scooter scene, these included Rainbow Dash first flying along jingling a couple of bits, then flying back the other way resting the juice she'd bought on her stomach. Granny Smith's wink was a nice touch, as was the sight of the CMC's horseshoe-shaped draughts pieces. A bit later on, the forest trees were very similar to those Pinkie Pie giggled at all those episodes ago. The funniest moment, though, was learning that Dash really does snore like we saw in "Read It and Weep".

The other ponies stare at Rarity's remarkable tent
Rarity puts on her Audrey Hepburn act
Applejack played a solid, dependable secondary role as the solid, dependable pony we know she is. It was also notable that she was the only one who made any attempt to get Scootaloo to open up about what was upsetting her. (I suspect AJ had a fair idea of what was going on, but didn't want to force the issue.) Meanwhile, Rarity was a bit of a pain at times, especially in making first Sweetie Belle and then Scootaloo pull her huge luggage cart, though there was a nice callback to "Sisterhooves Social" in the way that Sweetie persuaded Rarity to come camping in the first place. Rainbow Dash? Well, she was brash and a bit annoying, but that's Dashie.

It strikes me that pegasi don't seem inclined to discuss their families. Applejack lives with Apple Bloom, Granny Smith and Big Mac; we've heard about Pinkie's rock-farming family; Twilight has her BBBFF Shining Armor; and Rarity has Sweetie Belle. But we don't know anything about the parents of Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy or Scootaloo — and in the filly's case, we don't even know where she lives. We did get one clue, though: if Scootaloo wants Rainbow to be her (adoptive) big sister, presumably she doesn't have a real one.

I did have a few problems with this episode, although they were flaws rather than deal-breakers. For one thing, I really didn't like the human (or Lyra) sitting styles when the ponies were sitting on logs. That was a break from S1 territory, as I can't imagine Lauren Faust would have been pleased by such a non-equine pose when there were plenty of possible alternatives. I was also a bit irritated by Sweetie Belle's singing voice: it was so much less accomplished than what we've heard before that it didn't convince that no-one commented on it in-universe.

However, the last couple of minutes were completely irresistible. Having been rescued and scolded by Rainbow, Scootaloo finally faced her fears (as Luna had told her to) and confessed. Dash unexpectedly revealed that even she had once been frightened by the ghost stories, then literally took Scootaloo under her wing. We were then treated to one of the most wonderful scenes even this show has ever produced: Rainbow proudly holding up Scootaloo as the two of them stole the show in the race to the falls.

Rainbow Dash holds up Scootaloo as she flies
The Best Flight Ever
This episode might be described as a flawed classic, but one in which the flaws didn't hurt it much at all. Rainbow Dash showed the same mixture of expected bumptiousness and ultimately surprising tenderness that helped make "Hurricane Fluttershy" such a success. The fanservice was employed to advance the story, not just for the sake of pandering to the bronies. And most importantly of all, for Scootaloo and for the others, we had character development and depth. "Sleepless in Ponyville" was a welcome reminder that FiM can still do this.

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