• Editorial: A Look at the Benefits and Drawbacks of Continuity

    Lazy Sunday Reading

    Continuity is the only thing keeping a story from turning into a jumbled, disorganized mess. It's what editors are trained to cut movies and shows to, and so ingrained in the medium that most people only notice it when it's poorly maintained. In fact, the most prevalent technique for film and TV editing is called "Continuity Editing."

    It's also used as a catch-all term for consistency, story coherence, and backstory. When this kind of continuity's talked about, people are normally talking about how a show handles changes, callbacks, or any sort of development.

    And ever since season three, FiM's relied on that type of it quite a bit. Story arcs are more common, sequel episodes pop up like whack-a-moles, callbacks are all over the place, and more than a few new ponies have become recurring characters. That's all fine and dandy, but there's benefits and drawbacks to anything in storytelling. Even continuity.

    As far as I can remember, nobody's ever really talked about the good and the bad that comes with applying a high level of continuity to a show like MLP.

    So let's talk about that below the break.

    Comic books are weird
    Twilight Sparkle, desperately trying to make sense of a comic book's continuity.

    One of the things that come up with continuity is the concept of Status Quo, or more specifically a trope called "Status Quo is God." Basically, this means that nothing changes in a show and a big ol' reset button is hit after every episode. 

    Applying a high level of continuity, or the catch-all version of it at least, lets you change the status quo all the time. This lets you develop characters, raise the stakes, and have events leave a lasting impact. 

    MLP's done this from day one, but it was always with minor details like gala dresses or everyone having to learn a friendship lesson. The show didn't really break the status quo until season three, where it slapped a pair of wings onto Twilight. 

    Thanks, MA Larson
    Thanks, M.A. Larson.

    And ever since then, big shakeups have happened constantly. 

    On the one hand, this is great. It opens the doors to some wonderful payoffs and lets the characters achieve their hopes and dreams. That, in turn, leads to a whole new set of stories.

    For example:

    The cutie mark crusaders actually earn their cutie marks and help others find their special talent. Rainbow Dash is a wonderbolt and has to learn how to be a team player. Rarity opens a boutique in Canterlot and has to deal with the death of creativity in favor of marketability. 

    All of these wouldn't have happened if the show didn't break the status quo as much as it does.

    On the other hand, breaking the status quo this hard puts some limits on what you can do with the show. Since everything has consequences, you can't do anything too extreme or too silly. Cartoony gags like the ones we used to get in season one can't be done anymore since everything has consequences now. 

    Or, as moderator Armosk put it,

    An episode of MLP could never end with them landing on the moon for a joke.

    And that leads us to self-contained episodic plots vs. narrative arcs.

    In a purely episodic show, one where continuity isn't much of an issue, you can get away with a lot. You could have every building in town be eaten by tiny monsters in one episode, only for it to be back to normal in the next one.

    No problems at all
    A perfectly normal day in Ponyville.

    In a show with narrative arcs, you have to make sure everything that happens has consequences and provides challenges for the characters to not only overcome but remember for future reference. 

    MLP really, really wants to have it both ways. Sometimes an episode will be important later on, and sometimes an episode will just be its own little story. And then, every once in a blue moon, it throws in arc-relevant information into an otherwise self-contained episode.

    Or it just throws all the big, important stuff into the premiere/finale. Or it'll just have a sequel episode to one from the previous season. That happens, too. 

    Whatever the case, the show really struggles to find a balance between ongoing arcs and standalone episodes. And the fact that almost every new episode has callbacks to an older one is really not helping it. 

    It is, however, making it more and more difficult for a newcomer to understand the importance of those callbacks. 

    For example, if Viva Las Pegasus was someone's introduction to the show, then they'd have no idea why Applejack hates the Flim Flam brothers so much. That's a bit of a problem since Applejack refusing to help them makes up a good chunk of the episode. 

    Actors in a convention
    "Hey, let's go to a convention in Las Vegas Pegasus. What could go wrong?"

    That's not to say you have to know that in order to understand the episode's story. But it's still something that it expects you to know going in. It's not Dune levels of continuity lockout, to be sure, but it's not exactly newcomer-friendly, either.

    But that's the fun part of continuity. The show gets to bring back supporting characters and either develop them or provide some great interactions with a pony they irritate. Callbacks to previous episodes give us some fun little easter eggs to look for in the background.

    It can also lead to a few mistakes, like when Mage Meadowbrook was called a unicorn in The Cutie Map but turned out to be an earth pony when she was introduced in season seven.

    Or how the Pony of Shadows was introduced as a mythical remnant of Nightmare Moon that lurks around the Castle of the Two Sisters and was then revealed to be something completely different later on.

    Shifty Eyes
    So if this isn't the Pony of Shadows, then who the heck is it?

    Sadly, mistakes like this are bound to happen no matter what. It's one of those things that pop up in almost any long-running program. Unless the writing staff is extremely dedicated to catching little mistakes like this, sooner or later someone's going to slip up. Neither of those examples is something that would break the show's continuity, mind you. You can always come up with a workaround or an explanation that would solve these problems.

    Mage Meadowbrook's a legendary figure in-universe, and it takes a full day and night of research for the characters to figure out she's the same pony as the one from a story about a "Mystical Mask." It's entirely possible that Twilight claiming Meadowbrook was an eastern unicorn was a result of some flaw in her studies, especially since Twilight wasn't too keen on myths and legends to begin with.

    As for the Pony of Shadows, you could always say that his story was mixed up with Nightmare Moon's over the course of a thousand years. That wouldn't explain just what the shadowy figure in the castle was, but there are some things you just can't solve.

    Something that does break the show's continuity, however, is the timeline.

    The timeline for the first three seasons of this show is screwed six ways from Sunday. I spent a week trying to figure out how it could work and it drove me nuts.

    Consider the following:

    There are episodes set in the winter in at least two of those seasons. Going only by this, it would appear that two years have passed.

    But then the show says that seasons one through three all took place in one year. That can't be possible because they've gone through winter twice already. Now, maybe it could work if the show was told in anachronic order, but there's no sign that it's told that way and later seasons are entirely linear so it makes no sense for the first three to be anachronic. But that's the only way for them to take place in one year. And that doesn't make any sense because it's not how the show works, but it's the only way it possibly can. But it can't, and so we've got two winters in one year and that just isn't possible considering the way time works. Unless, of course, Equestria is wildly different from Earth when it comes to the space-time continuum. And while that may be possible, it's highly unlikely considering all the similarities their culture has to our own. And this isn't even including things like time travel, the comics, or the chapter books. All of those throw more wrenches into the timeline.

    It's so convoluted and contradictory that it's physically impossible for the timeline to work the way it does.

    Therefore, the only reasonable conclusion is that


    Aside from that, though, the show's handled the increased level of continuity rather well. If anything, it's actually improved in overall quality since it started relying on continuity. The show's world feels like a real place nowadays, instead of just a simple little cartoon village full of pastel-colored horses. And it's able to tell far more interesting stories than it could in the early seasons, thanks to the permanent change that any big development leaves behind. 

    It's not perfect, but nothing ever is.

    algernon97 dreams the impossible dream.