Sunday, 4 November 2018

The three ages of Pony

Note: A revised and updated version of this piece appeared in Equestria Daily's "Soapbox" feature on 21 January 2020.

Tagging this as an "essay" is really pushing it, but it's more than just "musing"... I've thought for quite a while that you can divide Friendship is Magic into three broad eras. The divisions aren't hard and fast, and it wouldn't be all that difficult to argue for a two-era classification instead. For what it's worth, though, here's how I see it:

Original Pony
This consists of the first three seasons – which in another reality might easily have ended up being all we got of FiM. I remember that we were all on tenterhooks until we actually saw the first ads for S4. In the Original Pony era, the show is strongly Mane Six-focused, with only occasional diversions to the CMC etc. The wider story is centred on Ponyville and the episodes are generally domestic and relatively low-stakes, apart from season premieres and finales. The roster of writers remains pretty stable, with only a few comings and goings.

Although Lauren Faust has said that the story she had originally planned could not have survived beyond "A Canterlot Wedding" – not least the introduction of a third alicorn princess – most S3 episodes could actually have been slotted into late S1 without too much difficulty. Other than the finale, the major exception is "Keep Calm and Flutter On" and it's arguable that Discord's reformation, rather than Twilight's ascension, is actually the beginning of the end for Original Pony.

Transition Pony
This covers seasons 4 and 5, a relatively short period but one in which we see some very large changes. The CMC get their cutie marks and Diamond Tiara is reformed. Starlight Glimmer makes her debut, even if she doesn't become a regular until S6. Twilight loses her home in the comfortable, homely library and has to start again in the new hard-edged castle, and in a two-era version of this post, that would be the dividing line. Many of the original writers depart: Amy Keating Rogers, Cindy Morrow, Merriwether Williams and (one S7 oddity apart) M. A. Larson, whose sublime "Amending Fences" provides the high water mark of FiM as we'd known it.

Meanwhile, a number of new writers come on board, including the likes of Natasha Levinger, Corey Powell, Nick Confalone – and most notably, Josh Haber. His debut episode, "Castle Mane-ia", is in retrospect very significant, and not only because it introduced the Journal of Friendship. It is also the first episode that could not have been made in the Original Pony era, being something more akin to Scooby-Doo with ponies. Haber would go on to be a major influence on the show's direction as both writer and showrunner.

New Pony
From here onwards, we're in the modern era. Apart from Dave Polsky who hangs on into S6, all the original writers are gone, and there's a fair case for saying that the show plays a little more fast and loose with lore and continuity from this point. You rarely now get a reminder that the ponies are directly responsible for much of Equestrian Nature, not like you did in the "Winter Wrap Up" days. FiM has become something just a little closer to a "wacky cartoon antics" show, albeit with the significant difference of characters with depth who are shown to grow on-screen.

Technically, the show is better than ever, with the sumptuous "A Hearth's Warming Tail" being a delight for both eyes and ears. On the downside (for some) there's less attention paid to keeping the universe consistent: the composition of the teaching staff at the School of Friendship is clearly a logical nonsense. And the Mane Six themselves become less central, with the likes of Starlight, Trixie, the reformed changelings and latterly the Student Six taking some of the limelight.

So, where are we?
It's understandable that this rather changed show is not to every fan's taste, and it probably is true to say that the quality of the writing has suffered a bit with no-one left in that department who was around for the Original Pony days when much of the world's lore was established. However, that doesn't make today's FiM a bad cartoon, just a different one. My guess is that S9 will be part of the New Pony era rather than taking off in a totally different direction, and you know what? I'm okay with that.


  1. This is a good post.

    I think it's become difficult to point out that the show has changed while leaving judgment calls to the side. A lot of people, myself included, point to the changes as inherently bad, while it seems a lot of others refuse to accept that any change has occurred, when in fact they likely just don't see the changes as bad, if not as good in the first place.

    And I still say we're in G4.5 as of S8 and the Movie, but I hate fun. :V

    1. I think it's pretty odd for anyone to talk as though nothing has changed. S1 and S8 have any number of differences, some very significant. The "inherently bad" (or good) argument is more of a judgement call, since it depends to a substantial extent on what you actually want from your Pony. I have simple tastes and want cute talking ponies doing fun things for 22 minutes. (Or, lately, other species too.) I think I still get that. Others need more than that to be satisfied, and not all of those still are.

      The G4.5 argument is interesting, but I think I'll wait to see how S9 turns out first.

    2. Like I said back around the start of S8, that call comes from the altered animation medium (which only actually includes the movie) along with changes and simplifications to the current cast's characters.

      Though I will say it's possible for S9 to pull an S7 and be generally better all-around than the season before it. I mean, the new writers should know what to do with the characters better, right?

  2. Very well done post, Logan. While I have a good grasp on all this, I doubt it can compare to someone who'd been able to watch these changes through the years.

    What's odd is, I have a long list of changes in my head the show has made, and nearly all of them fall in the "there's either both good and bad to this, or neither" category, though the balance varies, so it often comes down to the particular episode. There's only a few I'd call unquestionably bad.

    Heck, even the clear 'wish fulfillment' parts of the New Pony era, whereby writers who weren't there from the start are doing ideas that, at least in part, seem ready-made for us fan (cynical people might almost call them official fanfiction) works at times. The reappearance and reformation of the Changelings, Rainbow Dash's parents appearing, A Royal Problem actually focusing on the relationship between Celestia and Luna, the Pony of Shadows and Star Swirl appearing in the flesh (even if the former bore no resemblance to the version hinted at in earlier seasons). And, of course, A Perfect Pear. Point is, these all largely work, even if they pick up some problems along the way.

    And then there's some changes I am 100% behind - Spike's treatment within the show, and by the writers, is one of them. In the early seasons, he was more often then not the butt of the group, even by the writers, and this was reflected in his, often mixed, episodes during those first few seasons. I've even read some fans would groan when a Spike-centric episode came around. Heck, even in Season 3's The Crystal Empire, barely any focus is given to his saving of the Crystal Heart, even though it would become a key event later. It's almost all on Twilight's dilemma about saving the day herself or not. Not the mention the plethora of episodes where he is inexcusably left to the side.
    Through a variety of circumstances, some of them no doubt accidental, he's far less of a butt these days. Season 6 gave him two great moments in the spotlight in Gauntlet of Fire and To Change A Changeling. The expanded cast of season 6 onwards affecting the screentime of the Mane 6 has actually meant there's far less inexcusable cases of him being shuffles aside. And while there's still moments at his expense (stalling in Horse Play) and mixed-to-problematic episodes of his (Father Knows Beast, the fact that Molt Down's first 15 minutes feel disconnected from what comes thereafter), this is something I really appreciate, Spike being my second-favourite of the Mane 7.

    Would you say some FiM writers have unique styles to them? I've spent much time picking out the difference between styles in some of my favourite cartoons, namely Powerpuff Girls, so I've done that a bit for Pony too. Some obvious ones are Nick Confalone's comedy focus or Merriweather Williams' tendency for characters to be unusually jerk-ish. Others, like M.A. Larson, seem to be able to excel in just about any area and adapt to the episode's needs. Many of the writers Faust brought on that worked with her on Powerpuff Girls or Foster Home For Imaginary Friends bring a lot of the skills they learnt there - Amy Keating Rogers in particular displays many of the chops she honed there.
    Any others leap to mind - would you say Michael Vogel has a style? I realise I was a bit hard on the man. And what is distinctive about Josh Haber's style? I have my own opinions there, but you sound like you could say quite a bit.

    Also, Logan, how much have you found your opinions on old episodes change? I'm going back and looking at your Season 6 and 7 reviews - any ones there I should ignore as not being your current take anymore? That spring to mind, anyway.

    1. Thanks very much!

      someone who'd been able to watch these changes through the years

      Not so much with the first era, as I joined the fandom at the tail-end of S2. The main thing I'm missing is that initial sense of wonder and gentle happiness that the early, domestically-focused episodes brought. I've seen them all, yes, but I didn't experience what the fandom thought as it happened. (I'm glad you've joined in before the end for that reason: you're getting to be part of the experience.)

      Spike's treatment

      "Gauntlet of Fire" is generally seen (and I agree) as the moment when this changed. "Spike episode" was often a pejorative term up to that point, but since then Spike's done a lot better.

      Nick Confalone's comedy focus

      I also think he's the best of the current Equestria Girls writers. "Forgotten Friendship" was my favourite EqG thing since Rainbow Rocks.

      Others, like M.A. Larson, seem to be able to excel in just about any area

      I do remember rather disliking his characterisation of Fluttershy at times (eg in "Magic Duel"), but it's been too long for me to know whether I'd still feel that way.

      Back in the first five seasons, the writers were fandom superstars, really only a small notch down from the main VAs. At the BUCK convention in 2013, one of the guests was Cindy Morrow, and she was nearly as big a deal as the other, Michelle Creber. That doesn't happen any more, probably in part because of the higher turnover of writers. I mean, I really enjoyed "Buckball Season" in S6, but Jennifer Skelly has never returned.

      would you say Michael Vogel has a style?

      Vogel is interesting because he was there in the early days, albeit in the boardroom rather than on the writing staff. I recall tweets of his that made it clear he did regularly watch the show, though. I think his episodes tend to be visually impressive and contain quite a bit of humour. I also think he really does love FiM, which probably helped with the warm-heartedness of the special.

      And what is distinctive about Josh Haber's style?

      That's easier: he's heavily tilted towards "make things happen and make them fun", and he doesn't always worry too much if those things rather conflict with the established rhythms of the show or (more irritatingly to me) characterisation. "Castle Mane-ia" is the most blatant example, but "Simple Ways" does it too: Rarity trying to get the plough to work is funny, but it doesn't really fit with what we already know by that point about her intelligence and ability to empathise with others.

      I'm going back and looking at your Season 6 and 7 reviews - any ones there I should ignore as not being your current take anymore?

      I honestly haven't had the time to do much rewatching. When the show is over and done with for good, I intend to watch the entire thing from S1E01 to the end, in order, and see what I make of it. (I'll be blogging about that, yes.) I suspect that I might be a tad kinder to "The Crystalling" now Flurry Heart has grown on me a bit, and perhaps a little less kind towards "Newbie Dash" now we've had better Rainbow episodes since. I did rewatch "Fame and Misfortune" the other day, though, and I still find that lots of fun.