Magic Duel Review · 8:26am
Magic Duel Review: By SkyBlueFox
(Written to the soothing tones of the second act of Flying Battery)
Riding off of the wave of Pony that was One Bad Apple, I wasn't really sure what to expect for what came next. The season opener, The Crystal Empire, generally defied the fan's expectations and came out alright, and Too Many Pinkie Pies and the aforementioned One Bad Apple were both excellent episodes, but the latest season was still young. We had barely seen one-third of the episodes, and first impressions aren't always correct (as Twilight and Zecora could tell you). With that in mind, I went into Magic Duel with my usual set of low expectations, so that I could be pleasantly surprised when the episode turned out good.
Unfortunately, Magic Duel didn't put in the effort it should and could have, and it ultimately left me feeling very disappointed and quite unsatisfied. I'm sure that you could probably imagine my surprise when the fanbase's reaction was near-unanimous adoration - even on 4chan's /mlp/ board, which seemed to have very negative expectations of the episode! Save for me and the small group of friends that I had watched the episode with via Skype, it seemed like the episode was a huge hit, and frankly I can't see any reason why, save for the fact that it was very Brony-oriented.
Don't take that the wrong way - episodes that involve the fandom a little more than usual can turn out great. Look at Avatar's The Ember Island Players, which is generally considered to be an excellent episode of Avatar as well as a great commentary on the fandom. And there were things I liked about Magic Duel. The animation, as always, was well-done, and the same could be said of the voice acting. I also liked the intro before the opening sequence. It felt very different from the rest of the show (I got a very Redguard-esqe vibe from it), and were the show more akin to Slayers or some other adventure-oriented cartoon, I'd have been drawn in immediately.
However, this is not an adventure series. This is a slice-of-life series, and what Magic Duel lacks is polish in three big aspects of slice-of-life writing. There's plot elements that are missing and plot elements that are entirely unnecessary, there's mischaracterization without justification, and there's very off-kilter pacing. The episode doesn't feel like a quality piece of work, and the writing simply falls flat, and this makes the fandom elements of the episode stick out like a sore thumb.
Problem One: Story Elements
A good story is concise while still being detailed, and we pick up and understand things by seeing them, instead of having them told to us. In this regard, comics, video and animation storytelling excels. It allows an audience to experience a story without having to read words or imagine things. It also allows a team of people to tell a story without having to write nearly as much - the settings and the actions of the characters are seen without need for description. Part of the drafting process of a story involves cutting unnecessary things out and revising the storyboards so that things can be concise.
Unfortunately, Magic Duel breaks this rule right off the bat, though it's not apparent at first. During the sequence right after the opening, we see Twilight levitating Fluttershy's animal friends (including a rare sighting of an entirely-cheerful Angel Bunny). Once she finishes up, Spike mentions how her magic has gotten better with a clever callback to Winter Wrap-Up. Twilight responds by saying that she has to be at her best when she arrives with delegates from Saddle Arabia.
Now, this by itself is interesting. It's nice to see another unseen place mentioned in the world of Friendship is Magic, and said delegates had been leaked much earlier, so I was interested to see what they did with the characters - especially when the episode was supposed to focus on Trixie and Twilight. To my dismay, they didn't show up until the very end of the episode, with nary a line.
The Saddle Arabian delegates have no impact on the story. They are mentioned at the start of the episode, are never brought up again, and then appear at the end of the episode just to quickly tie up a loose end. It's sloppy, amateur and unnecessary as a plot element; it's keeps the episode from being as concise as it should have been. It should have been removed during the drafting process. It could easily have been removed from the drafting process.
On the flipside, the episode is lacking something important. Something that every single other story has had since the show's creation. Something that makes the episode feel unfinished, and makes the episode stand out badly in comparison to the rest of the show. Can you guess what it is? I'll give you a hint: what did you learn this episode?
Nothing! Absolutely nothing! Magic Duel lacks a moral, and that is perhaps one of the worst possible things that this show could lack. The foundation that the show is based on is that the episodes subtly teach morals about making and keeping friendships and relationships. Even the Discord and Wedding episodes taught morals ("friendship is worth fighting for" and "trust your instincts"), not to mention the fact that the episodes are always rife with nice unintentional morals. What did you learn in Magic Duel?
The episode certainly set itself up well for a good moral: don't hold grudge, because they can make you go too far. But did it teach us this? Not that I could tell, which is a shame. It's a waste of good potential.
Problem Two: Mischaracterization
Mischaracterization is a problem that a lot of FiM writers seem to struggle with, most notably during The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well, which had Rainbow Dash acting much, much more brash than usual. Sometimes a character's traits are exaggerated for the sake of an episode, sometimes they're exaggerated for the sake of comedy. Certain characters can handle this better than others. Pinkie Pie is one of those characters. Twilight, with her occasional bouts of OCD, is one of those characters. Fluttershy is not one of those characters, but she was exaggerated and even out-of-character anyway, to the episode's decay.
Our first sighting of Fluttershy is at the start of the episode, where she allows Twilight to practice her magic with the animals. Right off the bat, she acts out of character, aggressively threatening Twilight if something happens to the animals. Isn't Fluttershy supposed to be the Element of Kindness? What on earth could have brought on such a personality swap? Later on, she acts extremely quiet and timid to the point of being a selfish coward, not wanting to help her friends, wanting to be "brave at home".
In case you're confused, this isn't how Fluttershy acts. Fluttershy, in both Season One and Season Two, has been sweet-natured and mild-mannered, normally willing to help her friends despite her own fears like in Dragonshy, and caring deeply about those she sees as needing help, like Philomena in A Bird in the Hoof. She has a self-confidence problem that she's somewhat worked past in Hurricane Fluttershy, and she learns to balance assertiveness and mildness in Putting Your Hoof Down. Typical behavior for Fluttershy is caring for her animal friends, helping her friends with things they may need and being generally a kind person. What is not correctly-written behavior for Fluttershy is being so scared that she does not want to help or spend time with her friends (the beginning of Dragon Quest is a prime example of this), nor is it acting meanly. The season finale of Season One should have made that last one quite apparent to everyone: Fluttershy doesn't act like a jerk without very, very good reason. Being unable to perform her special talent, being unable to do what she's supposed to do? That's a good reason. There isn't a reason in Magic Duel.
Let's take a look at another episode written by mister Larson - namely, the fan-beloved Luna Eclipsed. Here, Fluttershy acts fairly similarly to how she does in Magic Duel; she's scared, timid to a fault, and generally wanting to spend time by herself. However, in Luna Eclipsed, she has a good justification for her behavior: it's Nightmare Night, everyone's running around in creepy costumes, and the member of royalty that was at one point possessed by malevolent forces shows up at her doorstep. She has every right to be freaking out in this scenario. It's acceptable behavior because it's got a solid justification.
What's the solid justification for her behavior in Magic Duel? There simply isn't one. Don't tell me that it's supposed to be her caring about her animal friends - she's known Twilight long enough at this point to have enough faith in her abilities. She also has no reason to be acting overly timid; granted, she could be scared of Trixie, but such an excuse is never indicated, and said behavior is mostly played for gags anyway, to detrimental effect.
Certain characters handle exaggeration better than others. Pinkie Pie is good for gags. Twilight, with the right handling, can be good for gags. Fluttershy does not handle having her traits flanderized unless it is the main focus of an episode. Putting Your Hoof Down had her acting more timid than usual, but it was because the episode involved her developing herself into being more assertive (and then finding a balance between assertiveness and timidity). The way she acts in Magic Duel is off-putting, and since she has a fairly large part in the episode, it causes the story to feel uninteresting. These aren't the characters I know and there hasn't been a good reason as to why they're not acting the way they normally do. Why should I keep watching?
Problem Three: Pacing
Pacing is an important aspect that can truly make or break a story. If a story moves too fast, the reader feels rushed and can be left unsatisfied when a story concludes. If a story moves too slowly, the reader feels bored and may even not finish a story due to losing interest. When paced correctly, a story typically has a strong start, a middle where things reach their worst point, and an ending where all the story elements climactically tie together. Optionally a plot thread or some may be left untied, perhaps as a brick joke or a sequel hook. It happens all the time. It happened in this episode with Pinkie's mouth.
Magic Duel, thankfully, isn't too bad in this regard. It has a strong start, with the titular magic duel and everything, but trips up afterwards. Most notably, it has a problem during Twilight's magic training with Zecora.
During this period, Zecora offers and agrees to train Twilight's magic so that she can become powerful enough to defeat the Alicorn Amulet-enhanced Trixie. In between this scene and the end of the episode, we see Zecora training Twilight exactly once. This makes Zecora's saying that she's "taught Twilight everything she can about magic" during their meeting with Fluttershy extremely jarring, especially since barely any time has seemingly passed since the start of the training and the meeting. Has Twilight somehow mastered all the lessons in less than a day? That seems unrealistic, and breaks immersion in the episode. The same problem occurred in A Canterlot Wedding, where the ruined wedding and the real wedding (plus reception) seemingly happened in the span of a single day. These details seem very minor, but they have just as much impact on this sort of storytelling as anything else.
Take a look at One Bad Apple, the episode just before this one. In this episode, we have a song sequence where we see time passing. We see the Cutie Mark Crusaders doing many different things (and Babs Seed tailing them all the while), and with this we understand the feeling of time passing. Things happen, life continues on, and so when the song ends and we hear about how the Harvest Parade is happening tomorrow, it feels like a natural progression. After Twilight loses the magic duel and is banished, the progression stops feeling natural.
These problems are very easy to fix, and I'm still a bit unamused (and more than a little disappointed) that they weren't ironed out while the episode was still in production. They're very amateur mistakes for a professional writer to make, especially for a writer with such an fairly excellent history; Larson wrote Swarm of the Century, Sonic Rainboom, Cutie Mark Chronicles, The Return of Harmony, Luna Eclipsed, Secret of My Excess, The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000, It's About Time, Ponyville Confidential, almost all of which are generally considered to be either very good or excellent.
I'm not sure where things went wrong here. Perhaps there simply wasn't enough guidance from other writers, or maybe they were a little stressed for time. Regardless, the problems happened, and it glaringly shows. The elements of fandom that were inserted into the episode ultimately show up more prominently due to the fact that the audience wants to focus less on the problematic areas of the episode, and ultimately I feel like the team decided to sacrifice the quality of an episode's writing so that it could throw the fandom some bones. And that makes me truly sad.
is anyone really gonna read all this i mean i'm pretty sure nobody is following me so