Welcome back to another rousing edition of TRS Round Table! This edition examines “Spike At Your Service,” the episode of Friendship is Magic that first aired on December 29, 2012. The TRS Round Table is our group analysis and chat about the episode, and maybe you’ll learn something new or look at it in a different light. Joining the Round Table today are Dr.Dinosaur, Headless Horse, Wayoshi, ComradeCosmobot, drunkill, BartonFink, and KefkaFloyd. Find out our thoughts beyond the cut.
Headless Horse: I thought this week’s episode was just a whole bunch of fun. There were a few problems and a few things the team has never tried before, but overall it ended up being tremendously entertaining. Just the kind of thing I love seeing out of this show.
ComradeCosmobot: I completely agree. I think that this will definitely end up being one of the highlights of the season (which is saying something given that most of the eps this season have probably ranked in the top half of eps overall).
KefkaFloyd: I really liked today’s episode as well. In terms of gags it had some of the best so far. But we’ll get to that in a bit. First, let’s take a look at those updated Timberwolves. Unlike “Family Appreciation Day,” the timberwolves are animated in a new three dimensional technique which is visually different from anything else in the show. Did they succeed?
Headless Horse: It’s easy to see that it’s potentially divisive. I thought it was pretty visually jarring, more so in fact than the outline-less Sombra was.
Dr.Dinosaur: I honestly think the 3-D timberwolves worked really well. There has not been much 3D in the show before (if any at all), so perhaps the precise way of compositing the 2D and 3D together to make it blend smoothly has not quite been figured out. The thing that the 3D allowed was a little more dynamic movement in such a complicated creature. Those Timberwolves are made up of so many different items animating them purely 2D in Flash would have been a nightmare. The 3D allowed much more fluidity in these creatures.
ComradeCosmobot: Yeah, I’m not going to fault them for it, even though I’ve always thought that mixing cel-shaded 3D and 2D never really works. If I had any concerns about it though, I’d complain about the borders; most of the characters have thicker outline strokes than the cel-shaded timberwolves, so the timberwolves looked more out of place than normal.
Headless Horse: Some shows where blended 2D and 3D work really well are Futurama and Gravity Falls. I’m not sure this show’s solution quite reaches that level of seamlessness. But that said, I really do appreciate what it allowed them to accomplish—lots of great physical reactions, like the one wolf getting hit in the head with Applejack’s rock. But I’ve got to be honest, the run cycles on the old 2D timberwolves in “Family Appreciation Day” didn’t exactly look better than this.
drunkill: It looked more natural than the 3D heads of the CMC during the song in “Show Stoppers” and I can see why they used it for the timberwolves, they had to break into sticks by the end, it’s an easy way to save time and I don’t think it was too obtrusive.
KefkaFloyd: I know good ole Doc Dinosaur is just hopping to get in on this. As our requisite Spike episode for the season (so far, at least), Twilight’s #1 assistant is now on the job for Applejack, and let’s say that he wasn’t exactly Employee of the Month.
Dr.Dinosaur: This right here is what annoyed me most about the way Spike was acting in this episode. Spike can get excited, like any young child can, but this has never before overridden his ability to perform tasks. I can understand if Applejack had asked spike to do things he was unfamiliar with, harvesting, wood chopping, other assorted farm tasks, he may not have encountered, but Spike was being tasked with chores where he had shown great proficiency. Cleaning, organising, and baking are things Spike has done, and done well, in past episodes. How has he become so incompetent in performing these tasks now? I know they were intended as gags, but they weren’t especially funny, nor did I feel that the klutziness was needed for the overall plot.
Headless Horse: Agreed. I mean, it’s believable in the sense that this is what a kid would do and how he’d fail; but it’s Spike we’re talking about. He’s supposed to be good at helping ponies with menial tasks; it’s kind of his whole reason for being in the show.
BartonFink: I just want to express my agreement with Dr.Dinosaur. And it’s a shame – a solid majority of this episode was really good stuff, but the miss on the Spike characterization was notable and ate up a good chunk of the episode. Even more than that, a lot of the jokes in this area felt like Spike’s incompetence was basically the gag in and of itself – a direction they usually avoid going in.
Wayoshi: I’m in the minority that thought this could actually well be in-character. What has Spike been doing since his birth? Library work – dusting, organizing, checklisting, etc. Who is to say he isn’t terrible in a lot of other things? Maybe the desserts he was passing out in Dragon Quest were pre-made by someone else (OK, I admit I am stretching it here, but otherwise…). I don’t recall him ever explicitly being a super helper at everything.
ComradeCosmobot: I’ll grant that Spike isn’t going to be a super helper at everything, but the characterization went way beyond “not actually competent” to “a complete klutz at everything he does.” It’s really exaggerating his character given that the only major klutzy thing I can recall up to this point was his burning the Astronomer’s Almanac in “Owl’s Well That Ends Well.”
Headless Horse: Well, I will point out that a lot of the tasks he takes on here, he actually excels at—often well beyond the expectation of the ponies. Counting all the blades of grass? Piling up a giant stack of boulders? When they tried to make him quit by confronting him with something he was bound to fail at, he confounded them by not failing. This whole “incompetent Spike” thing could be a lot more complicated than it looks at first.
KefkaFloyd:Trying to pin down what we think is “good characterization” is a pretty subjective thing to a lot of us. If I watched this episode in a vacuum, I might have thought of Spike a little differently. But it’s our memories about what happened in the past that lets us enjoy the show so much, because characters play with or against what we expect of them, and this episode had a lot of great Mane Six moments.
Dr.Dinosaur: One of the best parts about the Mane Six getting together in this episode is that it happened fairly organically. Each pony had their own personal scene throughout the whole episode. It made the gathering of them all at the end seem like a natural extension rather than just having them shoehorned in there.
Wayoshi: How about every one of the Mane Six getting involved in this episode? This is something that has been lacking in Season 3, and it really propped this episode up from otherwise being a generic “I Owe You My Life.” I particularly found “Rainbow Dash writes self-insert fanfiction” to be the funniest thing and a perfect extension of her Daring Do reading.
Headless Horse: Not to mention her just sort of randomly showing up at Rarity’s window like a wacky sitcom neighbor. I loved that.
Wayoshi: Then R.D. underestimates Spike’s willingness to serve, unwittingly making her own bed. Not to be forgotten, Rarity realizes Applejack will not be able to act out the fake timberwolf scene well, but as Spike comes in suddenly, we get the best of both worlds – she tries to start helping, then acts over the top in only a way Tabitha St. Germain can, AND Applejack then proceeds to act in a way only she can as well.
Headless Horse: Rarity’s whole scene was gold. I still can’t get over her elated reaction to what it would be like to have a personal slave. She’s just so charmed by the idea—as you can see from the wide-dilated-eyes way she tells the Spike story to Rainbow Dash, whereas Applejack’s version was troubled and resigned.
ComradeCosmobot: Overall, I thought that this episode had a really nice contribution from the whole cast in a way we really haven’t seen so far this season (save during “The Crystal Empire” two-parter). I mean, yes, we’ve seen the whole cast in most of the eps this season, but the characters really came together in an organic way rather than simply playing a cameo. I think this episode definitely had a different feel than most of the other episodes so far for this reason.
BartonFink: And even in “The Crystal Empire,” it was pretty limited—we got the wintry trek up to the city, which played more like an action scene, some interaction (and a song) as they set up the plan, and then various split ups until the end sequence. Here, each character was brought into the situation so smoothly you almost had to stop yourself to notice. It also led to a brilliant payoff—the fake timberwolf sequence ranks among the best scenes they’ve done
KefkaFloyd: I also thought there were a lot of great little voice acting moments in this episode as well, which added to all of the characters. I was really fond of the “rule of three” joke where Applejack is looking around for tasks for Spike to do, and each cut is greeted with a different, yet wholly appropriate sound by Ashleigh.
Headless Horse: All the main-cast interactions gave rise to a ton of opportunities for weird little voice-acting stunts. I think my favorite is Twilight’s “Aaahh!” when Applejack bumps her inkpot. Something about her delivery there just slays me.
drunkill: The fake timberwolf attack had some brilliant sarcastic voicework by Ashleigh, the timing was excellent in that scene from all of the actors.
Dr.Dinosaur: At the beginning of the episode I think there was a very interesting, but ultimately sad aspect of Spike that was hinted at. Spike has no idea how to play. Most children, when put outside and given freedom from their chores, will play. Play does not have to be a structured rule based game, but could simply be building a fort, turning a stick into a sword, a laser pistol, a mighty pool cue, or a thing with which to poke things. Play is a free expression of creativity and imagination and is crucial to development. But play is not an inborn knowledge, play has to be learned through interaction with others and by having the free time to experiment oneself. Spike went outside not without the knowledge of freeform play, but instead he had a checklist. There is an underlying tone that indicates that Spike has never had the opportunity to interact with characters his age and that his entire life has been one of doing work and chores. And that just adds a tragic aspect to his character.
ComradeCosmobot: Good point. Thinking back on it, though, I kinda think that the situation was slightly hackneyed to prove the point. After all, shouldn’t Spike have Peewee to keep him busy?
Headless Horse: Twilight really is rubbing off on Spike, isn’t she? Her having a doll whose purpose was so she could pretend to do her homework was a great gag, but with similar itchy overtones. This is quite a pair of potential basket cases we’ve got here. Good thing someone’s keeping an eye on them and forcing them to learn what friendship’s supposed to be all about.
It also reminds me that Twilight (who seemingly had never encountered the concept of “fun” before the pillow fight in “Look Before You Sleep”) is hardly the best candidate to instruct Luna in the concept.
BartonFink: There was so much well-done non-verbal communication this episode. Facial expressions in particular: Applejack maintains a look of forced, painful friendliness with her dealings with Spike. The concept that Rarity knows the pie is awful – but should be nice because Spike worked so hard – is conveyed perfectly without a word. Even Apple Bloom’s small role, in which she asks to go to her water skiing session, had the perfect childish combination of pleading with a touch of optimism.
Headless Horse: Half the scene in Rarity’s shop is conveyed non-verbally. The little “go on” nod she gives Applejack, the sideways head-jerk AJ gives Rarity to prompt her to play along with the pie…
BartonFink: It’s something the show does regularly, but this week was a particular treat. You could watch this episode with the sound off and follow the plot.
Headless Horse: Even little things like how Pinkie “asks” whether she can wear the mustache—using nothing but a little dilation of the eyes. I can’t even guess what that must look like in the script, but things like that are where the DHX and Top Draw animators have shined since the show was in its infancy. I remember the ridiculously expressive eyes being one of the most overwhelming and novel things about the show the very first time I saw it, and now sixty episodes later they’re still somehow doing wonderful and surprising things with it every single time.
KefkaFloyd: And that’s it for this edition of TRS Round Table! Check in again for more analysis, discussion, and thoughts about Friendship is Magic! ■