Once upon a time in the magical land of Equestria, there were phonographs and quill pens and radiation-proof hazmat suits. Why is Equestrian technology such a weird hodgepodge? And despite that fact, why does it feel so natural? Read on to find out.
The first episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic opens with the turn of a storybook cover, establishing that Equestria exists in a self-contained fairy tale universe — fitting, considering that the first characters we meet are a dragon and a unicorn. But keep watching the show and you’ll notice that things start to get…strange. A steam engine here, a light switch there. A photo booth. A Technics turntable. At some point we abandoned the Middle Ages and we didn’t even notice.
So what’s up with this historical mishmash? And, more importantly, why does it still feel like Equestria is a believable world instead of an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink disaster?
The secret is an invisible design aesthetic, one that borrows from time-scrambled centuries while still feeling cohesive. If you sit down to catalog all the show’s elements you’ll lose sight of this unifying force, but take a step back and — like a Magic Eye picture — it will snap into focus. In fact, you can sum up Equestria’s worldbuilding in two words: “Old Timey.”
So what is Old Timey? Here’s the recipe:
HOW TO MAKE EQUESTRIA
1) One cup of fairy-tale fantasy
2) One cup of Gilded Age arrangement
3) One cup of 20th century nostalgia
4) Combine, mix well
5) Add funny anachronisms, season to taste
That’s it, and the 65 pony episodes making up Seasons 1-3 prove that it works. But even a tasty dish can turn out badly when the cooks aren’t careful.
Let’s take a look at each of the main categories of design, and how they contribute to the Old Timey fusion.
A Cup Of Fairy-Tale Fantasy
This is the foundation of the worldbuilding in Friendship is Magic. “It’s not really a technological world,” explained supervising director Jayson Thiessen during a panel discussion at 2012’s New York Comic-Con. “It’s a magical fantasy world.”
That’s apparent from the show’s very first scenes, set in a glittering city of Medieval parapets and waving banners ruled by a magic-packing princess. Series creator Lauren Faust admitted that she drew inspiration from familiar fantasy environments like The Chronicles of Narnia, and that the cliffside real estate occupied by Equestria’s capital city is a nod to Minas Tirith in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The city’s name, Canterlot, is both an acknowledgement of Arthurian legend and the first of many, many horsie puns.
But Canterlot isn’t a literal telling of life in the Middle Ages. It might be called “loosely ancient,” as if you were taking in the sights at a really casual Renaissance Festival. This becomes even more apparent when the show travels to other locales like the sky-city of Cloudsdale, where the Ionic-column architecture gives the proud pegasus community an aura of Classical Greece. Nor is the Greek influence a one-time thing. According to the episode “Hearth’s Warming Eve,” Equestria’s ancient pegasi warriors wear crested Spartan helmets (which, incidentally, were historically made from horsehair). And take a close look at Rainbow Dash’s Gala dress, and you’ll see an abundance of Grecian fashion cues including a grape-cluster necklace, a laurel crown, and high-strap sandals.
Or maybe you’d like a little Roman Empire? Chariots are a common mode of transport for the aristocracy, and one of them carries Twilight Sparkle to Ponyville in the first episode. If you’d prefer the era of the Spanish Conquistadors, Fluttershy wears a 16th Century morion helmet while portraying the historical figure Private Pansy, and Pinkie Pie (playing Chancellor Puddinghead) sports a collar ruffle that wouldn’t look out of place around the neck of Sir Walter Raleigh.
When Twilight Sparkle calculates a sum in “Hurricane Fluttershy” she relies on a suanpan abacus most commonly associated with second-century China. And, jumping ahead to the French aristocracy of Louis XVI, we see Rarity torturing Rainbow Dash by forcing her to model elaborate powdered wigs, while Canterlot’s intricate hedge maze would fit right in at the court of Verseilles.
A Cup Of Gilded Age Arrangement
We’ve established that Equestria is a historical hodgepodge, but until now the design influences have all been various flavors of antiquity. Now we move into an era that would definitely feel out of place at Ye Olde Ren Faire: the late 1800s, in which the show borrows liberally from both sides of the pond.
England during this age was in full Victoriana. This is the domain of Charles Dickens and Jack the Ripper, and Friendship is Magic freely skims its popular cultural tropes. Look at the silk hats and cravats worn by the high-society elite, or the traveling-show entertainments staged by Trixie in the Ponyville town square and by Pinkie inside her fortunetelling tent. Steam locomotives, the most common method of Equestrian mass transit, debuted in the Gilded Age. And when Twilight gets into the mystery-solving mood (“Mmmystery on the Friendship Express”), she whips out the deerstalker cap and calabash pipe made famous by Sherlock Holmes.
Across the Atlantic the Gilded Age represented frontier expansion. Friendship is Magic time-warps into this era whenever the characters visit outlying settlements, where they’re guaranteed to spot swinging-door saloons and tin-star sheriffs. The Equestrian town of Dodge Junction (“The Last Roundup”) borrows its name from the gunslinger hotspot of Dodge City Nevada, while the episode “Over a Barrel” features a tribute to the Western cinema classic High Noon.
A Cup Of 20th Century Nostalgia
As we move into the third category the design elements begin to seem almost modern. Yet they still fall under a “two generations removed” rule of thumb.
“We’ve been trying to keep the technology really limited,” explained Thiessen at Comic-Con. “When there’s machinery and vehicles and things, we try to keep them working in a kind of old-world sense.” If you translate a two-generations rule into actual numbers you get a figure of about 50 years as your nostalgia buffer, and indeed almost everything in the show fits this criteria.
Bonnet-style hair dryers, Groucho glasses, and canister vacuum cleaners? They were all common in the 1940s. Bowling alleys and roller-derby rinks? Already familiar sights in 1950s pop culture. You’ll find additional mid-century nods when Spike unspools black-and-white footage that apes 1950s educational films (“Hurricane Fluttershy”), or when the Cutie Mark Crusaders view a movie theater promo (“One Bad Apple”) that’s modeled after 1957’s “Let’s All Go To The Lobby.” When Rarity chooses a headscarf-and-sunglasses combo for her outdoor ensemble (“Sleepless in Ponyville”), it’s pure mid-’60s Grace Kelly.
Season To Taste With Anachronisms
Sure, sometimes the show breaks its own design bylaws. But when it does, it does so under the Roger Rabbit Rule: You can get away with anything as long as it’s funny.
There are dollops of modernity in the show if you know where to look, but in many cases they’re dressed up with antiquey greeblies (like Pinkie Pie’s night-vision goggles in “The Crystal Empire”) for a better Old Timey fit. And even when they aren’t, these anachronisms can usually be justified because they’re the focus of the funny and disappear as soon as the joke is over.
Music is one such example, with Pinkie channeling an ’80s Flashdance vibe (“A Friend in Deed”) or the Cutie Mark Crusaders managing to simultaneously swipe from Kiss, Queen, and Poison’s Bret Michaels in a single song (“The Show Stoppers”). The computer cursor that erases Pinkie’s mouth in “Magic Duel” might be the most current gag the show has ever done, but it gets a metaphysical pass for acknowledging the out-of-universe Adobe Flash assets that are the building blocks of in-universe Equestria.
But Don’t Add Too Much Spice!
“It makes the show really timeless,” said head writer Meghan McCarthy at New York Comic-Con, explaining the show’s design aesthetic. “Twenty years from now you’ll be able to watch this show and get the same level of enjoyment out of it. It won’t be like, why is Twilight tweeting?”
Friendship is Magic is too carefully constructed for the writers to include cheap gags about flavor-of-the-month social media platforms, but admittedly over the course of three seasons the show hasn’t gotten everything right.
Sometimes these elements break the two-generation technology rule, or maybe they imply a level of industrialization (construction cranes, hydroelectric dams) that seem awkwardly shoehorned into a setting that should never feel pinned down. More damningly, these elements often don’t get a free pass from the Rule of Funny because they’re not really jokes, they’re just…things that happen.
At other times its clear that a writer is in fact going for a gag, but the payoff sometimes isn’t worth the stretch. A James Bond parody seems a stale way to justify laser security systems and LEDs (“Mmmystery on the Friendship Express”). And Iron Will might be a decent guy, but his shtick (motivational speaker meets WWE wrestler meets the ShamWow infomercial guy) feels too ’90s for pony.
The easiest way to sum up the Old Timey aesthetic is this: It’s not about the technology, it’s about the design. Sure, we can invoke unicorn magic to explain how video games function, and therefore why Equestria should logically have its own version of satellite television and even an information-sharing ponynet. But to do so would risk breaking immersion in the world the show has constructed, which is a far greater sin than ignoring an “X leads to Y” commandment of scientific progress.
“[Equestria] has rules,” Meghan McCarthy affirmed during her Comic-Con appearance. “We’re not going to see robots attacking.”
And if, somehow, McCarthy is wrong? Just in case next season brings an onslaught of giant mecha-zoids, I’m keeping my eye on this guy: