» The Real Princess of the Night

For a character with a small amount of screen time, Princess Luna was one of the runaway favorites after the first season of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. The younger royal sister, the Princess of the Night worked her way into the hearts and minds of fans with her story in the series premiere.

So when “Luna Eclipsed,” an episode featuring Luna was announced in the second season, fans went crazy with speculation. What would she be like? What story would it tell? Most importantly, would she stand up to the expectations inflated by months and months of fan art and fiction? What we wound up getting was beyond any expectations, good or bad. What did Luna have to overcome to keep the hearts of her fans? Read more to find out.

Arm The Headcanon!

The introduction of Friendship is Magic revolves around the history of the two royal pony sisters: Princess Celestia, raiser of the sun, and Princess Luna, keeper of the night. Though they weren’t mentioned by name in the opening, the two regal sisters shared the heavy responsibility of maintaining the cycle of day and night. Princess Luna grew resentful of the praise and delight their shared subjects heaped upon her sister’s day. Anger and distrust boiled over and transformed her into Nightmare Moon, the personification of darkness. She was no longer Princess Luna, but instead a wicked mare of darkness.

In the two-part series premiere, Nightmare Moon returns once again to bring eternal night, but her plot is foiled by the mane six and the elements of harmony. When she is defeated by Twilight Sparkle and company, Nightmare Moon reverts to her original form—that of Princess Luna. Much less threatening than the onyx mare she was, Luna’s cute, de-powered form spent a minimal amount of time on screen. Even so, the episodes were as much about the unknown Princess as about the megalomaniacal Nightmare Moon.

There was a lot left unsaid about the two princesses. What was their relationship really like? What was Luna’s true personality? Though the viewer learns about her through the lens of Nightmare Moon, the Elements of Harmony were like a magical reset button, bringing her back to her old self. But what this meant to Luna as a character wasn’t really explained, other than the royal sisters forgiving each other. The magical reset turned Luna into a blank slate, because so little of her time before Nightmare Moon was explored. What was her relationship with Celestia? What drove her to madness? Fans hungered for more, and started answering the questions themselves. To understand more about Luna, and how people thought about her, we must understand the thought process behind the complex fan construct of headcanon.

Boba Fett This guy knows a thing or two about projections.

Star Wars is a classic work of fiction that is well-known to many pony fans, and is easy pickings for comparisons. Think fast: what character in Star Wars do you think best parallels Princess Luna?

Her tormented past and dark trappings probably drew your thoughts to Darth Vader. However, it isn’t appearance or even motivation that I’ve got in mind; it’s characterization. Look instead at bounty hunter Boba Fett.

Fett is a prime example of a character who, when he first appeared, had very little characterization. He first bowed in the universally reviled Star Wars Holiday Special, perhaps the only positive to emerge from that misguided production.  George Lucas’ promotion machine lumbered into gear, producing figures and appearances for Fett, building up to his big role in The Empire Strikes Back. Though a relatively minor character, his few scenes were memorable. Fans were instantly attracted to this cool looking bounty hunter. His design translated well to action figures, and his “talk softly and carry a big stick” act left much to the imagination. Where did Fett come from? What gave him the edge against the other bounty hunters in the hunt for Han Solo?

None of these answers were given in Empire, of course, so viewers were free to invent their own ideas of who Fett was, aided by their action figures and Slave One toys. Fett had just enough characterization to do his job, while leaving the rest to the imagination. In a way, this lets the viewer own a part of the media they’re experiencing. This experience—the imagination of backstory—builds a deep connection between the reader or viewer and the source material. Thus you have the creation of headcanon, a self-constructed backstory or continuity for a character or story not of one’s own creation.

The dark side, as it were, is that this connection created in the viewer’s head can also foster a sense of entitlement. Working on these blank-slate characters is a tough tightrope all authors must walk. One day a fan praises the character, and the next she throws it away because the author unexpectedly took it in a direction she didn’t like. Authors still want to keep their audience, and they certainly want to keep readers following the arc of the character… but what if the two don’t match?

A Marvelous Night for a Moondance

Speaking personally, “Luna Eclipsed” was one of my favorite episodes of season two. I kept my expectations of Luna’s characterization enough in check that they didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of what the writers gave me. Because the creators could have gone in so many directions, it made no sense to chain myself to just one interpretation. That doesn’t mean I’d let them off the hook if the episode was bad; more that I was willing to give whatever they put up a shot. I was expecting the episode itself to be good, as most episodes of pony usually are. A full review of the episode itself is beyond the scope of this article, but the overarching theme is one that many people can identify with. Are you coming back to a place that you had trouble with in the past? Trying to fit in, or dealing with rejection? With being snubbed? Everybody’s felt that way at least once.

The episode had all the pitfalls of failure in front of it, yet it managed to dodge every single one. Is it perfect? No. Many questioned some of the incongruities with the pilot, like Luna’s new appearance (an upgrade) or how everyone had apparently forgotten that she wasn’t Nightmare Moon anymore. I chalk these up to the producers not wanting to be held too closely to a backstory that the pilot had barely begun to flesh out. Having Luna be more easily mistaken for Nightmare Moon adds to the tension of the story. “The old ponies’ tale” of Nightmare Moon is still plausible within this framework too—ponies didn’t forget about Nightmare Moon; she just became a mythical figure, like Santa Claus. The choices and changes they made improved the storytelling, and the theme of Nightmare Night was a fabulous way to blend the audience’s shared experience of Halloween into the fabric of Ponyville.

Like Halloween, Nightmare Night revolves around the traditions of costuming and treats. Children (and adults alike) dress in scary or silly outfits and collect candy, all in the name of good fun. But this fun is rooted in something more sinister, as detailed by Zecora. The Nightmare Moon of legend just doesn’t bathe Equestria in darkness—she’s also a cannibal! Costumes aren’t just for looking good—they’re a disguise from the watchful eyes of the Mare of Darkness. If she doesn’t see you, she doesn’t eat you. Even candy has a purpose, besides causing tooth decay. Every foal must submit an offering of candy to Nightmare Moon, so as to have her gobble it up instead of little ponies. “Give us something sweet to bite” takes on a whole new meaning in this light.

Luna makes an offering. Blink and you’ll miss Luna’s offering.

What makes it so enjoyable and heartfelt is the contrast between the boisterous façade Luna puts forth and her introspective moments. No scene shows this more than the one where Twilight rushes off to find Luna after her less-than-perfect introduction to the townsfolk. Look closely, or you’ll miss this moment—one that could be covered up by an inappropriately placed network watermark. Luna is literally sitting in the shadow of the statue of Nightmare Moon, pondering her botched meeting with the citizens of Ponyville. She pushes a single piece of candy towards her alter ego, asking to not be eaten up by her past. This piece of subtle storytelling could be missed easily, but it’s a treat for anyone that pays attention.

What’s more, when Twilight interrupts her, Luna has a quick about-face, turning on her princess mode, as it were. An observant viewer will pick up on Luna’s body language, which is her way of trying to hide her inner feelings. Luna is vulnerable—she wants her subjects to love her, but her position of authority is a barrier to her being just “one of the girls.” She is a princess, and must act like one (or at least, how she imagines one must act) in front of her subjects. She tries to hide this vulnerability, which is not unlike what a lot of people do in their every day lives. The quiet, introspective Luna is at odds with her public face, creating her social awkwardness, and to bring down this façade is her arc in the episode.

A Life of Illusion

While season one was still airing, there wasn’t much construction of the fan interpretation of Luna beyond discussion on message boards. The fandom was still growing during the season, but not at the breakneck speed that would be seen during the first Long Ponyless Summer. These breaks between seasons, with nothing much to do, are what spark those pesky fan creations that worm their way throughout the Internet. Pony fans, in need of their fix, increasingly turned to fanfiction and artwork to sate their desire for miniature colored equines.

Two popular interpretations of Luna’s character in the fandom are Egophiliac’s comic strips and a fanfiction series, Progress. The two are notable, but for two different reasons. Egophiliac’s comics were so popular that they influenced other fans’ interpretations, spawning knockoffs and working the nickname “Tia” into fan vernacular. Filled with d’aww factor, the comics tugged at heartstrings and painted Luna as an adorable figure. These concentrated on the sisters’ lives before and after the events that would turn Luna into Nightmare Moon—an attempt to paint a picture of a younger princess living in the shadow of her sister’s light.

Watch out, or you'll get cavities. Egophiliac helped create one of the popular fan interpretations of Luna.

More interestingly is the interpretation presented in the Progress series, which is a case of “so close, yet so far.” Author Andrew Talon has a similar premise as show writer M.A. Larson, but executes it in a completely different manner. It had the benefit of being around right at the time that fans were hungering for a take on Luna. It’s a silly, often strange story which spawned several memes amongst pony fans. Chapters like “Luna Versus the Microwave” created a mental image of an out of date pony woefully out of touch with modern times, one who would retreat to the safety of running numbers with her abacus. It’s an unpolished (and unfinished) piece of work, but it was notable for being one of the primary influences on the fan concept of Luna. Even if you never read fanfics, you had a high chance of running into artwork or something else influenced by Progress.

By around August to September, a predominant fan characterization of Luna grew from an amalgamation of several individual characterizations. Traits and ideas were picked from each, and an elaborate fan narrative grew. Nobody was in control of this Nightmare Moon-ish miasma at this point; each of the interpretations had their own flavor contributing back to the internet cloud headcanon. It was time for the show to drop a bomb, and “Luna Eclipsed” was armed and ready to go.

Great Expectations

When “Luna Eclipsed” was written, the fandom of the show was barely burbling on the Internet. Season two production was already well underway, and “Luna Eclipsed” was already written and probably recorded well before Egophiliac had her first idea for a Luna comic. There’s no way it could have been influenced by fans in the scripting stage. Nevertheless, fans hotly anticipated the episode, eager to see if the staff’s characterization meshed with their own preconceptions or headcanon.

These episodes often have a cycle of hype. Fueled by rumors and their mongers, visions of amazing things dance in eager fans’ heads, often wildly different from each other and contradictory in nature. This builds and grows into inflated expectations for the premiere, and when the episode finally bows there’s a time of chaos as fans obsess over every detail of the episode. Given repeat viewings and time to digest, a more rational (we hope) view starts brewing and the wild predictions and anticipation looks almost foreign to the same fan that dreamed it up.

Independent of this, the hype machine for “Luna Eclipsed” was further pushed by the Hub themselves. The network released preview pictures on Facebook of the ponies’ Nightmare Night costumes and Luna’s updated design. Hasbro even seeded preview screener DVDs to those in traditional media, and some negative opinions managed to get out in the wild, causing mild panic before the episode’s premiere. Still, even with all the hubbub, forums and individuals were wondering just how mainstream fans would appreciate something that rendered their beloved fanon moot.

The result surprised everyone.

Behold my booming voice! Sotto voce isn’t a concept familiar to Princess Luna.

Luna’s appearance in “Luna Eclipsed” was met with widespread enthusiasm. It was refreshing, really—and it’s because the show managed to give fans the expansion of Luna’s character that they wanted while simultaneously blowing their expectations away. Luna’s brash but well-meaning personality fueled by her regret and desire to change coincided just enough with the predominant fan projection that they were more than eager to eat up the show’s take. Some stood by, waiting for what they thought would be the inevitable backlash, but there was surprisingly little to none. Credit goes to the creative team to making a charming, three dimensional character instead of a simpering loner that would have pandered to them instead.

Part of what makes professional writers good at their job, and often what fanfiction writers lack, is a penchant to push the boundaries of their work to the next level. With inventiveness honed by years of experience and good friends to act as a test audience, the reach for the unexpected is what fuels our appreciation for this show. Fanfic authors did guess, correctly, that Luna would speak in anachronistic ways. But nobody predicted the Royal Canterlot Voice. Larson’s razor wit has several opportunities to shine, enhanced by the enthusiastic portrayal of Luna by Tabitha St. Germain. The biting sarcasm in lines like “Forgive me if I withhold my enthusiasm” and “Yes, I can tell, by all the adoring shrieks of the children as they run away” belie Luna’s frustration with her predicament without clubbing the viewer over the head.

Roll With the Changes

One of my favorite scenes in “Luna Eclipsed” is one of the most pivotal. Applejack and Twilight are helping Luna learn about the new and exciting concept of fun. Luna, being a princess, is so full of order that the thought of just enjoying life is foreign to her. In a short period of time, Luna goes from not knowing what fun is to trying as many fun things as possible. Her unadulterated joy at discovering fun (and how it could be doubled) is so endearing that we forget, if just for a moment, just how awkward Luna can be. This is the kind of thing Progress tried to do, but failed over the course of many chapters, while the show managed to nail it in about a minute.

Oftentimes, people are not quite sure what they want until you show it to them. Listening to a customer or a fan could be highly counterproductive. If the creative team had the opportunity and listened to fans and given them exactly what they thought they wanted, “Luna Eclipsed” would have been a boring, unmemorable affair full of awkwardness and none of the charm. Thankfully, due to the realities of production, that never happened, and “Luna Eclipsed” became a fan favorite precisely because it subverted these expectations.

Perhaps most importantly, “Luna Eclipsed” acted as a portent of things to come. With season two only just begun, and with the recent departure of Lauren Faust from the creative team, many were wondering just where the show would go and how things would work out. Would Lauren’s departure radically change the tone of the show? Could it carry on with her in an advisory instead of executive role? It turned out that the show was in good hands. Friendship is Magic has always been a team effort, even with Lauren in the driver’s seat. The creative team willingly picked up the torch and ran with it, producing a season of amazing highs, rare lows, and confirmed that the show could indeed carry on towards greater heights. 

Share your thoughts

  1. I really enjoy these analytical articles about characters from the show. They offer a lot of perspective on how the show’s writers develop the cast in unique and subtle details that could be overlooked upon a first viewing of the episodes.

    These are a great read and I’m looking forward to more in the future.

  2. Excellent editorial kefka, love the details in this.

    There are so many little bits of storytelling and detail wedged into this episode, you can tell there was a lot of buildup and emphasis on making it a good one. While fan works may not have had a significant influence, it’s obvious that they wanted this episode to be a kicker. I believe it was the first one aside from the S2 pilot that they began posting screenshots on social media sites a few days early.

  3. The biggest legacy of Season Two was that both the show and the fandom could reach greater heights even with Lauren taking a reduced role before leaving altogether. The first five episodes of Season Two provided the groundwork. What followed were some very good episodes, a couple of missteps along the way, more very good episodes, a super episode in “Hurricane Fluttershy,” and the best of the best in “A Canterlot Wedding.”

    The show is very much in good hands and the anticipation for Season Three could hardly be greater as a result.

  4. great article. i like how you pointed out the subtle details that make luna’s episode so wonderful. one of the best episodes of any tv show ever made! as far as im concerned!

  5. Applejack and Twilight are helping Luna learn about the new and exciting concept of fun. Luna, being a princess, is so full of order that the thought of just enjoying life is foreign to her.

    Actually I gotta make a note here. It wasn’t that she didn’t understand “fun”… it’s that she didn’t understand the use of the word. Back 1000 years ago, what we call “fun” would have been called “merry-making.”

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