I am having a sense of deja vu going on here. One year ago I was an Engineering student sitting down about to watch the opening to season 3 and to then having to write my rather disappointed review. Today I am a graduate sitting in my own place with my gf (and cat) by my side about to watch the opening to season 4 and then having to write my rather begrudging review. Actually come to think of it, some things have changed quite a lot.
Well enough dilly dallying. Let's break down my reaction and explanations for my reactions to these two episodes. (Oh spoiler warnings by the way)
My gut feeling about this episode is that the story has a very stilted feel to it. The way the story was handled felt distant and impersonal (I do go into episodes blind, so I have no prior bias or expectation on what the story will be).
First off this episode feels like a clumsy hybrid. It is both a history episode *and* an action story. A large-ish portion of its time is spent in flashbacks recounting the history of the alicorn sisters and the elements of harmony. Whereas the rest of the plot revolves around dark plants and clouds invading ponyville and the disappearance of the alicorn sisters. The two types of story being told come together with an audible clunk. The encroaching disaster is depicted as something that everyone wants to solve but, only a small part of the flashbacks play a role in identifying the issue. Whilst the history segments reflect none of that prior agency, with Twilight merely watching and commenting on what is going on whilst everyone just watches her trance without any risk.
The episode also felt so distant because of how it handled the variables of the story. This story, like Canterlot Wedding (with Chrysalis) has a great important mystery to be revealed, which in this case was the “Tree of harmony”.
To start with, before this mystery is resolved, the plants start attacking and the plot just spends all its time reuniting the M6 after just splitting them apart. There are very few rules of engagement being established and no end in sight once they all get back together. This ,along with the mundane and mostly unrelated opening, constitute the whole first episode.
After Zecora -happens- to have the right potion that -happens- to be usable by only Twilight in a scenario where she can be in a trance for ages with no risk. The flashbacks are then eventually used to reveal the trees existence to the audience and that it will (probably) save the day. The reenactment on priorly established lore is mostly superfluous to the main story and only serves to distract from the main story.
With the mystery explained (such as it is) the rest does finally click more into place. We finally have an objective and aim, though I still don’t really know any of the rules, other than how we can win. It means there’s nothing much complex at stake other than our characters well being and actually finally reaching the final drop off point correctly. It reduced our final resolution to be rather binary, they either will win or lose with no middle or ambivalent ground in between.
I also felt very estranged from the characters. The M5 all come across as a single entity with 5 faces. But the M5 often act with one mind, and when the story does separate them, their stories often don’t matter for the greater plot, like when Rarity couldn’t use magic or AppleJack was complaining about the weeds. It brushes over their input and involvement by making them all take the same roles in the plot, such as when they all wish for Twilight to leave (more on that later). They felt less like characters and more like hangers on. Twilight takes the spotlight this episode, but her actions and emotions feel like those of the everyman. Her competence with spells and ability to think on her feet are rather absent, making her a bit of a simple minded pushover who can’t fly very well yet. As with the plot, Twilight’s role as a princess isn’t explained in much detail, we still don’t understand what she rules or has authority over and because of this we can’t really identify with her problems on any level. This all comes to a head in the 2nd part where the main 6 all tell Twilight to go back because she’s a princess. Here Twilight is a walkover to the herd mentality for a reason we cannot judge given our lack of understanding. It feels contrived and hollow, creating drama to pad out the plot.
On the topic of Twilight having to leave; this episode repeats the same mistakes as EG did.
That of creating short term issues and instantly resolving them. Twilight leaves the group and next scene turns around. The group split up and then have to reunite. There is a dangerous Rockodile (as I named it) and then they caught it. Twilight got her friends and now need to find a solution, a bottle with the means to solve it appears. But the bottle can only be used by an alicorn, but she is one! The issue with this again, is the lack of impact to many of the stories plot points. Most issues are raised and dropped on a dime, excluding the main storyline. There’s little sense of permanence to this story.
All in all. The above is why this story feels so empty and contrived for me. The fun of the story trickled away with the awkward structure, distant variables, bland characters and quick resolutions.
I do have a few more minor nitpicks that confused me:
Twilight is missing her wings in the start of the intro sequence (though they might be showing her change).
Snips & Snails are used in the pic of ponyvillans.... why give them prominent position?
Luna is clunkily added into the intro sequence.
The lighting in the stained glass room is very bright for some reason.
The M6 are away from Canterlot after MMC established the town as very dysfunctional.
If the princesses are captured. Why did the Sun rise? Since the Celebration requires Celestia to raise it. Why is the moon at the same height?
Why is AJ/Apple Family just trying to uproot the weeds with her mouth? She should have knowledge and tools to removing pesky weeds.
Why did Rarity's magic thing not play into anything later?
The clouds are never really explained as to their origin.
Why did AJ move to the town centre/hall?
Fluttershy left her cottage full of frightened animals, for no stated reason. I think she would’ve looked after them.
Ponyville is very barren. No townsfolk at all. Why did only the M5 stay around and be surprised by this incursion. Also Discord has two later on... from somewhere.
How did they know, or choose to teleport Discord to them?
The potion could only be opened with alicorn magic. But Twilight used what looked like Sombra’s dark magic. But that magic has been used by two unicorns, Twilight and Sombra.
Why are the group completely safe when they watch Twilight hallucinate?
Luna is fully grown in the flashback to start with and she originally ‘refused to lower the moon’ rather than form an eclipse.
NMM was only around for a few mins and is feared for centuries.
The element of magic was a complete mystery but is clearly used several times by Celestia & Luna. Why did this element get forgotten?
All the dialogue in the flashbacks are a bit too conveniently expository.
There’s a lot of convenient ropes that the M5 are pretty good at using to subdue their foes.
Why did they ask to separate if they knew they needed the elements? Why not take the elements with them?
How come they found the cave entrance so easily? And the stairs?
How did Twi fall so easily into the plants attacks? Are they local or parts of the dark seeds?
Why is everyone else so casual about defeating the plants?
Why did Luna/Celestia get freed last? They are closest and first to be abducted. Shouldn’t they be freed first?
Random box is random. Pretty contrived or given no reason to expect it.
Twilight's wings are inconsistently reliable. She can make a Sonic Twi Boom. She takes flight without noticing when anxious. But has difficulty remembering she can fly or even teleport great distances... also what is a SonicTwiBoom?
Why ,after this is over, didn’t they just take the elements back?
And if they know about the seeds, why not ask Discord to remove them? Why not remove them themselves? Did the placing of the elements destroy the seeds or not?
The M5 were needed by the Mayor, but they attend Canterlot at the end, despite Ponyville being in a state where they are probably needed more than ever.
These are just off the top of my head really.
In conclusion then.
These opening episodes seem to want to do two things at once, give us a history lesson and have a thrilling action story. But as they currently stand these two very different feeling parts of the story don’t mix.
The episode treats its context lazily, giving us just the information we need right when it needs it. It makes the whole experience feel kind of hollow rather than deep as any turn can be rationalized away by the plot due to how loose and unengaging the setting is.
I guess, in a way, this episode lives up to its namesake. Princess Twilight is still an enigma just like this story. The title and actions are supposed to be meaningful, but they are hollow and pretend.To clarify things; I do not personally hate this episode. I can see it’s many flaws and failings, but honestly my response to this episode is ‘meh’. It failed to engage me and I can see many reasons why. I do not care for the story, setting or characters here. I feel apathy rather than direct dislike.