Sunday, 27 January 2013

Review: "Just for Sidekicks" (S3E11)

Spike searches for Angel
Spike — airborne without Rarity being present!
This weekend's Friendship is Magic episode was written by Corey Powell, who surprised a lot of people with her ability to turn a seemingly unpromising setup into a great story with her debut episode, "Sleepless in Ponyville". The setup for "Just for Sidekicks" also looked rather filler-ish, but could Powell make it a double and repeat her earlier triumph? As ever, join me after the jump to find out the answer!

That answer is a qualified yes. "Just for Sidekicks" was certainly a filler — albeit one moved later in the season than its originally intended eighth spot — and I don't think it was quite as impressive as "Sleepless in Ponyville". However, it certainly passed the time and counts as an enjoyable episode. It was also one of the better Spike-centric stories; there really haven't been too many real successes with him. (But "that's a really big one," he says here. Um, moving swiftly on...)

The storyline was simple enough, with Spike looking after the Mane Six's pets while the ponies gallivanted off to the Equestria Games. (And yes, Spike, I'm with you: you saved the Crystal Empire a few weeks ago. Why aren't you invited?) The critters do of course vary in popularity with the fanbase, though I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who actually dislikes most of them, especially good ol' Tank (who is a tortoise, though!) and equally good ol' Gummy.

Fluttershy says a sweet goodbye to Angel
Only Fluttershy can make an Angel picture look cute
Despite Opal's irritating fussiness, Angel is the odd one out there. It's obviously deliberate that there's antagonism between Spike and Angel, but in this case the bunny did seem just a little softer-edged than sometimes; he certainly appeared a lot warmer towards Fluttershy than on some previous occasions. The peaceful pegasus has had a little more character development, too; this time around, she was surprisingly cute (in both senses!) in negotiating with Spike.

I'm not sure whether this episode counts as having a song or not, given how disjointed it was, but Spike has at least now had two chances to sing! I'm sure the fandom will manage to come up with some interesting remixes in any case. Spike's greed for jewels was an obvious reference back to "Secret of My Excess", so it was a slight shame there was no hint of a growing effect this time. Given Zecora's distinctly unimpressed reaction, maybe he's a little bit scared to try it any more!

On the admittedly thin evidence of two episodes, Powell seems to be a writer who creates a nice "Season 1" atmosphere to her stories. Except for the fact that not all the pets were seen until Season 2, "Just for Sidekicks" would have fitted in quite well. It wasn't too frenetically paced, most of the action was domestic, and so on. We didn't get a letter to Celestia, unsurprisingly given that we've had only two all season, but otherwise it was an old-fashioned yarn.

The CMC are thrilled to arrive in the Crystal Empire
Told you Tank tops were back in this season
One thing that was different was the number of visual gags and references, which was far larger than would have been possible in those early days. From the quiet acknowledgement of Peewee's absence, through the Rainbow Dash balloon pony in the CMC clubhouse, to the train's on-board catering being handled by Donut Joe, there was plenty to enjoy. Not to mention Berry Punch on the train, and Big Mac and Cheerilee setting off for a walk together!

Near the end, I noticed Cloud Kicker in front of the queue of ponies by the train. This isn't the first time this pony has been slipped in somewhere: she was sitting next to Time Turner in the cinema during "One Bad Apple". Here's one for all you conspiracy theorists: given her colour-scheme, was the pony in each case originally intended to be Derpy, but changed at a late stage due to pressure from Hasbro High Command? I haven't seen this suggestion anywhere, so probably not — but it's an intriguing thought!

I was pleasantly surprised by how well the flying visit to the Crystal Empire worked near the end. A less skilled writer might have been tempted to squeeze in a rushed visit to the castle so that Cadance could meet the pets; she's already met the CMC, of course, when they were flower fillies at her wedding. It was the right decision by Powell to leave that out, and to confine the action to the railway station and its immediate environs, with just a distant shot of the castle.

Rainbow Dash and Tank rub noses
You thought we wouldn't notice that, didn't you, Dashie...?
Oh, and of course I must mention the gems. As several people spotted more or less instantly, their worth to Spike as food does not necessarily correlate with their worth to ponies as currency. Witness the CMC buying a humungous pet hairdryer with the smallest jewel of them all. It does make you wonder how much Fluttershy's vast emerald was worth... and for that matter, where she got it from! (Did Rarity pay her with it for looking after Opal at some point?)

So, all in all this was a solid, enjoyable effort. It was still a filler episode, and it didn't hit the soaring heights of "Sleepless in Ponyville", but it did enough with potentially unpromising material to make me want to watch out for Corey Powell's name in the future. In spite of the fact that the S3 finale is a one-parter, it's fairly obvious that there's a mini-arc regarding the Games, given the title of next week's instalment. This wasn't a classic, but it was a good, often funny episode.


  1. Replies
    1. Personally, I suspect that one was a deliberate Stealth Pun. It came to my mind on the first viewing.

  2. Agree with everything that you wrote - Corey Powell's definitely a writer to watch! The Dash and Tank interaction was the cutest thing ever...Dash has been really well-written this season, I think.

    I was actually glad, at the end, that Spike got away with it and the Mane 6 remained oblivious - felt like a real hark back to older cartoons like Animaniacs (specifically the Buttons and Mindy shorts) where the adults are always blissfully ignorant of the increasingly frantic efforts of the put-upon babysitter to contain the antics of their charges...

    Random thought...the Crystal Empire certainly built that railway station quickly, compared with the wooden hut in the middle of nowhere that we saw in the season opener! Wonder if they're getting aid from Canterlot to help adapt and rejoin Equestrian society?

    1. I do like commenters who agree with everything I write! So in return, I'll agree with you. Especially about Rainbow; I didn't like her much in the bulk of S2, and I much prefer her characterisation this time around.

      As for the station... in our own world, the temporary Workington North station was built from scratch after the 2009 floods in six days, so in a world with magic I don't think the Crystal Empire would have too much of a problem.