» TRS Round Table 029: Power Ponies

We’re five weeks into the pony season, and there’s been episodes ranging from the epic Princess Twilight Sparkle to the more down to earth Flight to the Finish. This week brings us an episode hinted at way back at San Diego Comic Con: the superhero pastiche Power Ponies, which originally aired on December 21, 2013. The TRS Round Table is where members of our community get together to write a communal review. Joining the Round Table today are ComradeCosmobot, Dexanth, Wylie, Headless Horse,  The Doctor, and KefkaFloyd. Find out our thoughts of the episode beyond the cut.

KefkaFloyd: This was an episode teased by the animatics at Comic Con, and we’ve all been wondering how the team would handle their second chance at a superhero episode after the much maligned Mare-Do-Well.

Headless Horse: I almost hate to say something that sounds like “the current team pulled off a gimmick episode like this way better than they did back when Lauren was approving the scripts”, but, well… there it is. They nailed it.

ComradeCosmobot: Absolutely. I avoided the animatics myself, but I think the episode itself stayed strong and I had no fears of this turning into another “Mysterious Mare-Do-Well”. And we got a good Spike episode out of it to boot! (Any bets if this was a story idea that comic author Heather Nuhfer said was vetoed before she settled on the Nightmarity arc?)

Wylie: It’s likely, but unless Heather tells us, we’ll never know for sure. To be frank, my problems with “Mare-Do-Well” had nothing to do with the superhero homages, so I was glad to see the team go to that particular well again. There’s so much ground to cover in the superhero comics genre that it’d be a shame if they didn’t. And as a bonus, this time around they executed the friendship lesson much more cleanly.

The Doctor: I’m with you that the superhero angle with “Mare-Do-Well” was not the problem. This episode took a totally different approach and ended up being really fun. They embraced the Superhero motif and were able to bring us a very entertaining 22 minutes.

Dexanth: It is not that a gimmick is a bad thing; it is that it is so easy to make an episode where the gimmick is the only thing going for it, and everything else suffers as a result. Thankfully, pony elegantly sidestepped this.

The Power Ponies Meet Up Where’ who in the what now?

Headless Horse: As it did with “Castle Mane-ia”, for that matter. So now this season they’ve done a superhero parody epsiode and a Scooby-Doo haunted house riff, and in both cases they’ve managed to keep from feeling like they’re running out of original ideas or stretching the universe’s boundaries uncomfortably. They’re still in charge of the conversation here, defining the show the way they want it to be defined, and not falling prey to the kinds of pernicious creeping rot that makes other shows tiresome or generic after a while. This wasn’t the writers saying “I dunno, let’s do a superhero parody I guess?” This was the writers making a Spike episode, and letting the superhero stuff fall into place from there.

Dexanth: And much of it is that they are managing to do ‘If the characters were in this, how would they be?’ much more successfully than they have in the past with episodes like MMMMystery or Mare Do Well. They aren’t just superficially themselves, they ARE themselves in a silly situation, and that’s the big difference!

KefkaFloyd: We are graced not with one or two, but three writers. Charlotte Fullerton and Betsy McGowan helmed this episode, with Meghan apparently putting in a decent share as well. It’s our first three writer episode, but too many cooks didn’t seem to spoil the pot.

Wylie: I think the best thing I can say about the writing is that it didn’t seem like three different people wrote this episode.

The Doctor: I wonder if the 3 writers weren’t the result of there being a lot of interest in the writers room for this episode’s concept. They really seemed to go all out with this, and I got the feeling watching it that it might have been just as much fun to write and animate as it was for we the viewers.

Dexanth: Without really knowing what everyone did, it’s hard to really comment on the cooking analogy. I mean, you could have one writer do the framing device, and the other two handle in-comic world; or one is creating the heroes, so on and so forth. It’s really a question only the writers themselves can answer.

The Doctor: Someone going to Bronycon, write that one down!

Dexanth: I think that can be arranged :smirk:

KefkaFloyd: When I look at the premise of Power Ponies, it reminds me of Holodeck episodes from Star Trek. I know some will disagree on this front, but as long as it’s handled well (as I think this episode did with a magic book) I think it’s a good way to get the Mane Six into new situations without breaking the world too much.

ComradeCosmobot: I think it was a nice once-off gimmick, but I’d be slightly disappointed if it returned again. There’s still so much more of the world to explore!

Headless Horse: There’s nothing inherently wrong with a “holodeck episode” per se; just calling it that legitimizes the concept by acknowledging that Star Trek did it all the time, and people enjoyed them just fine. But it’s definitely possible to overuse the concept—the way, say, Voyager did with episodes like “Spirit Folk”, where the holodeck premise was just a flimsy excuse to tell a completely different kind of story. I think they got away with it this time, but if they make a habit of it, it could become problematic in a hurry.

That said, doing it this way frees them up to do the superhero parody genre justice properly, rather than clumsily trying to shoehorn it into the familiar universe and characters the way Mare-Do-Well did, ending up with something that was neither fish nor fowl.

Dexanth: Holodeck episodes were something I always enjoyed, and the premise behind it is frankly a fun one – it is nice once or twice a season to see characters thrust into a different genre setting; the big flaw is when it’s executed badly, but as this episode shows, the Pony writers know what’s up. Seeing them return for Power Ponies Mk II in the future would be quite welcome.

Dexanth: And let’s not forget we’ve done this at least once before – Hearth’s Warming Eve may have been a play, but it was still the Mane 6 effectively portraying historical figures who were the Mane 6, albeit with some negative trait amping for the ‘leaders’.

The Doctor: The hand-wavey “Enchanted Comic Book Store” line shows they were more concerned with the destination than the journey. That’s not a bad thing, they wanted to get to Maretroplis for their adventures as soon as possible so they just came up with a simple explanation. I was surprised that they didn’t tie it into them being at Celestia and Luna’s old castle. While it’s obvious at this point that the castle is going to continue to play into the adventure this season, the presence of the location in this episode had no impact on the story. Being a mystical castle, I was expecting some ancient Pony Princess Magic to have caused the comic book to go nuts. Maybe Celestia and Luna took frequent trips into stories when they lived there.

KefkaFloyd: Argument time: Who was your favorite pony hero? I gotta go with Rarity. She had the best jokes and was quite adept at her power to create fabulosity out of thin air.

Rarity's Best Line Best line in the episode: “But you must have them too, Spikey-boo, your character is wearing a cape! :3″

ComradeCosmobot: You’re just saying that because Rarity’s the best pony. But I gotta say, either her or Pinkie worked well, perhaps more so given that they didn’t really have a “natural” superhero counterpart the way that (for example) Dash did. Well, okay, Rarity might have worked as a Jubilee clone… But then she’d be a Jubilee clone.

Wylie: I kind of feel like I should pick someone else here, just to make it seem fair, but Rarity as Green Lantern just killed it. Once she figured out what “attack constructs” were, she went all-out, while still being her fabulous self. Pinkie was great as the Flash, as well. Of course, she’s got only a casual relationship with the laws of physics back in Ponyville, so it really wasn’t much of a stretch for her.

It’s hard to pick a favorite, though. I don’t think there was a miss in the bunch. Special mention has to go to Fluttershy as the Hulk, which was at once hilarious and downright frightening. Hint to villains: If Fluttershy calls you a “meanie,” you’re already done for.

The Doctor: There is no doubt that Rarity and Pinkie Pie took to their powers better than the others. Pinkie with her super speed wasn’t much different than she is in the real world. Rarity however took it to another level for me. Not only did she take to it, but she went all out with fabulous attack constructs. Frilly umbrellas, jewel encrusted staircase, a fancy cake tray for protection. It was the perfect mashup of the Style pony and superhero. Pinkie was great, and I liked Flutterhulk (or Roll Flutterbeef), but the #1 hero is clearly Rarity in this episode.

Headless Horse: I still can’t get over how the very first thing she thought of, when she wasn’t going for anything in particular, was an elegant tea service. I’d love to see her responses to a set of inkblots.

Wylie: My guess is that they’d be returned to her therapist perfectly clean.

Dexanth: Rarity has been a constant show stealer in Season 4, and she did it again here. Her flouncing down her staircase construct was perhaps the most perfect little ‘I may have superpowers, but that is no excuse not to be FABULOUS’. After that, Fluttershy has to take the number two slot, because her Flutterhulk is so adorably ABSURD – fearsome yet lovable at the same time.

It was also interesting to see how fast ponies adapted. Pinkie understood what to do immediately, but as Wylie half-touched on, Fili-second (Decent name, but Fillisecond would have worked better!) is a minor upgrade at most for Pinkie, so her instant adaptation fits. After that, Rarity picks up on things, then AJ & Rainbow; Twilight, for once, is the slow learner here, only really coming into her own by the very end, while Fluttershy has special status since hers were more of a ‘As soon as she clicks, she masters it.’

If she ran fast enough, she could make her own tornado! If she ran fast enough, she could make her own tornado!

Headless Horse: Twilight’s new powers are actually a bit of a downgrade for her. I think that’s intentional and hilarious.

It does almost make me wish (as so often happens in this show) that they had, say, 44 minutes to do every story. It would have been fantastic to see a bit more attention paid to the story elements that they traditionally do only in animation and visuals, like Twilight coming to terms with her new character, and having to concentrate hard to do anything like it’s a new exam she has to study for while all the rest of them are bouncing off the walls showing off their new capabilities. It would have made a great subplot for Twilight to get frustrated with her new “limitations” and eventually find some way to use her normal magic in-universe. But this show doesn’t usually have time or room for subplots.

Wylie: That’s got to be one they filed away for the future in the writer’s room. Her superhero inspiration was Cyclops, whose entire deal is that he can’t control the lasers shooting out of his eyes- he’s got to be restrained at all times unless he consciously wants to melt whatever he’s looking at. Now put that template on Twilight- her horn was covered by her costume, which is likely why she had to fight so hard to do anything. I could see them doing a “Twilight has a magic ‘growth spurt’ that needs to be controlled” plot as part of her evolution into a fully armed and operational alicorn Princess.

Dexanth: The Cyclops analogy is definitely there, I just wish they had made it more blatant by having her take the horn off and unleashing a massive energy beam that blasted a hole in something. I’m not sure where it would have been worked in, but seeing as Twilight is the one pony whose inspiration most people have no idea on, it would have been the huge wink that the others received!

The Doctor: Well, Twilight’s superhero alter ego was a bit bland and forgettable, which in itself is a wonderfully accurate homage to Cyclops.

KefkaFloyd: Power Ponies is framed as a Spike episode, where his status as sidekick is once again the subject. Cathy Weseluck puts in a great performance for Spike, even though I thought the staff didn’t spend enough time or dialogue on his value to their team.

Wylie: I don’t know- while this was nominally a Spike episode, the little guy didn’t really have a lot to do. He had two modes: 1) Grouse about being a sidekick with no special powers and 2) Use the fact that he had no special powers to outwit the villain and free the heroes. There really wasn’t any breakout material here for Cathy to work with. Maybe that’ll come later in the season, though.

Humdrum Kicks Butt Oh my God, we were wrong, Spike was useful all along!

Headless Horse: Kind of a cruel irony to that, when the whole point of the episode was nominally to make a statement that Spike isn’t just a useless sidekick and an afterthought—which is exactly the role he ended up playing here, even though they were going for the opposite.

Dexanth: I’d dispute that. We are seeing everything from Spike’s perspective, and while the Power Ponies may be the ones to wreck everything in the end, they only do so because Spike enabled them to do so.

The Doctor: Spike really has gotten some shining moments in the comics, and if we rate by that I think this episode failed to live up to things. He was supposed to be Robin and in the end, Robin is just a rough around the edged Batman. Not quite as talented, but still capable (in most his incarnations anyways). I think it would have worked better to give Spike a power, but maybe make it one that seems useless. Have him think he’s Aquaman, and end up being Squirrel Girl, err, Squirrel Dragon..

KefkaFloyd: People were groaning at the Mane-iac’s name during previews, but she was one of the standout parts of the episode. A hammy, scenery chewing villain with bad puns to spare was a dead-on homage to villains of old.

Headless Horse: A Joker who walks around on hair-tentacles like Doctor Octopus? And she’s a horse to boot, floating suspended in the air with her hooves floating in the breeze? Sign me up! The animators must have had a ball.

The Doctor: She was a wonderfully campy villain. It’s sad that it’s unlikely we’ll see her much again. She was just having so much fun being evil. I hope IDW takes note of this episode and gives us a Power Ponies comic.

ComradeCosmobot: If there’s one place where a retread wouldn’t feel awkward (and where it would be well deserved), it’d definitely be in a future comic story. I know I’d buy it.

Headless Horse: And that of course implies their having to go into more detail about the “enchanted comic book shop” and how this whole comic universe exists in the first place. That was all nearly lampshaded away in the final seconds of the episode, and they closed off the possibilities for future exploration with a flourish by having the book disappear. I kind of think forcing that narrative device open again would be going a bit too far, frankly. Let it be what it is. And if we want to see the Power Ponies nad Mane-iac again, just tell a story in that universe and play it straight. Don’t do any more “crossing over” shenanigans. Use the ponies as actors if you have to. I know that sounds like it goes against my every desire to keep the show from slipping into “alternate universe mode” at every provocation, but that’s the way you’d want to do it.

The Maneiac She’s a Mane-iac, Mane-iac!

Dexanth: Mane-iac was the best of the golden age 60s villains crossed with the best of 90s and early 2000s animation villains; you certainly have a bit of Powerpuff rolling out from her, given her resemblance to Sedusa in terms of the tentacley hair. As for bringing her back, I think they’d be clever enough to reintroduce comic-world in a way that wouldn’t go too far. There’s an easy half-dozen ways one could play it that would fit; Equestria, after all, is still wide-open for ideas, which is part of why it’s so fantastic to tour in episode after episode.

KefkaFloyd: While the episode did indulge a few overused lines, like “Holy new personas!” and “Once again, the day is saved…”, I thought they still managed to keep a subtle level of homage to various characters. Pinkie eating all the time as a nod to The Flash and Rarity making over-the-top imaginary items like Hal Jordan were both subtle yet clear hints that the team understood their source on more than a surface level.

The Doctor: It was a smart idea not to go overboard with pop-culture references. They got in their few lines and each of the ponies was based on popular superheroes that people would know (and Dash’s case was more of a mashup of both Thor and Storm). They seemed to understand that there was a story to tell and they didn’t let the jokes distract them. And going by the response in the forums, even people with no real knowledge of these comic book character seemed to enjoy themselves. I think that’s the mark of great pop-culture humor. If you get it, you laugh. If you don’t get it, you don’t feel stupid for missing something.

Headless Horse: And that’s always been the show’s strength. It knows where to draw the line. We as adults can nod and smile to ourselves when we recognize “Swarm of the Century” as a Gremlins or “Tribbles” reference, but the kids who don’t know either of those things will still find it perfectly understandable and entertaining.

Dexanth: It wanted to be a little hammy without going too far, and it really succeeded in that respect; they let themselves go completely with Mane-iac, stayed a bit more reserved with the others, and nicely threaded the needle as a result. One thing Season Four is doing so far is playing with a lot of old plots – Castle Mane-ia, Flight to the Finish, and Power Ponies are retreads of common story ideas, but whereas the trend in the past decade has been to have a twist (Which, of course, has now become so common as to also be cliche), it goes back to playing them straight, and pulls it off because of the charm and care the show creators put into their work.

The Power Ponies Go Go Go New Justice Team!

KefkaFloyd: A continuing trend for season four is the animation, and Power Ponies continues the benchmark set back in Princess Twilight Sparkle. Namely, the comic book world has very comicky treatments in its backgrounds, with drawn-in windows, texture, and it has almost a Powerpuff Girls aesthetic to it.

Wylie: There was a lot going on in the background here. I’ve rewatched it a couple of times already, and little things like Dash playing with her lightning pendant in the background as she tries to figure out how it works keep showing up. Even before they get dragged into comic-book land, as Pinkie is zipping through the various camera shots cleaning the floors (and, improbably, the walls), she’s never shown doing it the same way twice- she does it with her feet, her butt, and her head, and I think she was doing cartwheels across the wall once there. It’s pretty clear to me that the animation team is being held to a high standard, and they’re “plussing” this show up everywhere they can. Credit the directing team of Jayson Thiessen and Jim Miller for really making things shine visually.

ComradeCosmobot: Yeah, overall the art and animation was great, other than the consistent glitches with Fluttershy’s hair… But that’s been something that’s been a problem for some time with the animation studio.

Headless Horse: I don’t know if I’ll ever stop being impressed by how detailed the acting is. Fluttershy’s little apologetic shrug to Rainbow Dash when she asks if she isn’t getting mad yet—I mean, look at how they animate her shaking her head, with a variable frequency, moving up and down while she shrugs, and that broad weak smile we’ve never seen before—I swear some years in the future someone’s going to recognize this show as a groundbreaker. It’s doing animated acting that hasn’t previously been seen outside of features.

And did you get a load of Rarity’s nose-in-the-air hopping down those steps she made? Wow.

Dexanth: Rarity may be a superhero, but she will first and foremost always be Fabulous! Though, of course, Flutterhulk’s combination of beauty and beast is the standout moment for me animation-wise, especially when she catches herself and taps her hooves together, managing to remain herself despite being a giant musclebeast.

Rarity Steps Down If fabulosity could be a superpower, Rarity would always have it.

The Doctor: The animation team sure made it seem like they had a lot of fun with this episode, and with new mane styles for all the ponies, it must have been quite a feat to do it. Would love to know who gets credit for Flutterhulk’s design.

KefkaFloyd: Next week’s episode is Bats!, where Fluttershy and Applejack face off in a war of moneyed business interests versus nature… or something. :)

The Doctor: A nice followup to the bit from “Winter Wrap Up”, where AJ seemed more than willing to kill off a bunch of animals who were preventing her from growing her crops. It’s not that she’s cruel, just that she’s a farmer and knows what needs to be done.

ComradeCosmobot: You mean “Keep Calm and Flutter On” right?

The Doctor: There was a scene in “Winter Wrap Up” where Applejack was trying to get Rainbow Dash to melt the snow ASAP so she could do her planting, even though Fluttershy was trying to wake the critters first so they would not drown from the melt.

Wylie: Or “Cutie Mark Chronicles”? Or, for that matter, her overly-aggressive “bunny census” from “Applebuck Season”? AJ has had it out for Ponyville’s “varmints” for a while. It’s about time their designated protector, Fluttershy, had a word or two with her about that, don’t you think?

Headless Horse: It occurs to me that Applejack and Fluttershy have never really had a lot to say to each other directly in the entire show—and all the little clashes you guys mention may be part of the reason. They’re kind of natural opposites—Applejack is the subjugator of the land, and Fluttershy is its defender. If they weren’t friends by edict of the show’s premise, they might well be one another’s nemeses. This could be a hell of a dynamic to see explored front and center. I can’t wait!

Dexanth: The real reason I am excited for BATS! is that the title is just so in your face, you can’t help but smile. Thanks, Ponies. Thonies.

KefkaFloyd: Thanks for coming by and sharing your thoughts, everyone! Make sure to stop by our episode discussion thread for more great discussion on Power Ponies. 

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  1. “KefkaFloyd: When I look at the premise of Power Ponies, it reminds me of Holodeck episodes from Star Trek.”

    FINALLY, someone else is making that analogy.