Retrospective: Wonderbolts Academy
Yesterday I was able to catch the new episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic on the Hub and- oh yeah, I became a brony in the intervening two months since I last posted. Anywho, the episode in question was Wonderbolts Academy, in which daredevil pegasus Rainbow Dash finally gets the opportunity to attend a selection course, of sorts, for the elite demonstration flying team of the same name. I had the privilege to discuss some of the finer points of the episode and its boot camp-like treatment of the young pegasi with the lovely mares and gentlestallions on TV Tropes. Apparently this episode caused some rumblings about, among other things, Spitfire’s treatment of the pegasi in general, the Wonderbolts seemingly forgetting about Rainbow even though she’s a national hero, and the treatment of new character Lightning Dust at the end of the episode. Since I’m about to go into the active duty Army in a few weeks, that got me thinking.
- Wonderbolts Academy is a selection course more than a training course. This is because the pegasi seem to have a pretty militaristic society in general and everyone attends flight camp, which looks more like an analogue for basic training to me, at a young age. The evolutions depicted in-show appear to be testing rather than conditioning or teaching. The Wonderbolts are also held up as an elite unit akin to our special operations guys or their inspiration, the Navy’s Blue Angels. You must already be a flier of proven ability to join.
- I am not in the military as of this writing and my experience with selection and training courses comes from documentaries. I also draw upon the writings of Dick Couch about the selection courses of our elite units (The Warrior Elite, Chosen Soldier, Sua Sponte) and conversations with my recruiters who shared their experiences when they could.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about Spitfire’s characterization in this episode. As many tropers pointed out in the discussion thread on this episode, she is acting as any other member of a training cadre would in her situation. This is how the recruiters talk to us recruits when we form up for physical training every week. The purpose is not to degrade, it is to motivate. Every military memoir I have read, every soldier I have talked to, who has encountered their former instructors in another duty station has been able to approach them and have normal discussions. There is nothing strange about Spitfire being cool while off duty and being a hardass while on the training ground and that is because nothing she does is personal.
This also ties in to the second point that people apparently asked about. Favoritism should not be tolerated in this sort of environment. Yes, Rainbow has met the Wonderbolts several times and proven herself to be an amazing flyer by performing a Sonic Rainboom but it takes more to join an elite outfit than just skill. Take a look at snipers, for example. A sniper is not just a skilled marksman. Anyone can be a skilled marksman with practice. A sniper must be meticulous because his camouflage and stalking techniques must be perfect. A sniper must be observant because he is as much a scout and forward observer for artillery/aircraft as he is a marksman. A sniper must be mature, because it involves spending lots of time in a single position staring out at nothing. When you think about it that way, Rainbow still had a lot to learn before becoming a Wonderbolt. I can see a couple of reasons why she might have been put in the wingpony position: Spitfire might already have known that Rainbow knows how to lead (she’s seen it before in Hurricane Fluttershy) but how well does she work as a team?
Elite units are small by definition, and part of a selection process involves seeing who you can count on to have your back in a dangerous and austere environment. In the kind of precision flying that the Wonderbolts do, there is no room for egos. If you look at them in any episode they always seem to fly as one, perfectly coordinated. If one of them started flying outside his appointed role, the whole thing would be ruined. Another reason I can think of is that she wants to motivate Rainbow to do just a little bit better, hence her comment that Lightning Dust “pushes herself just a bit more” than Rainbow does.
Then there’s the idea that Lightning Dust was punished for one mistake, and I’ve seen the first of what I’m sure are several comics and dark fics to come about how her dream has died and she becomes depressed/suicidal about not being able to join the Wonderbolts. Let’s be clear here, the episode never said whether Lightning Dust was dropped from the selection or not. All we saw was that she was stripped of her gold wings and lead away by the other cadre members. That said, if this was a real life selection course I think she would have been dropped. She came across as arrogant from the very beginning and I feel that her actions throughout the episode were reckless showboating, even her incident with the Dizzitron. Others may disagree and Spitfire certainly did, considering that she let it slide. That’s her call to make.
I recognize that she was desperate to prove herself and hugely competitive, but she was pulling stunts that endangered her wingpony and the other members of her flight. She roped Rainbow into a stunt that caused her to injure her wing in spite of recommendations to the contrary. She put half the class into serious tailspins on the obstacle course where they could have been hurt and/or killed. She put the mane cast in danger with the tornado stunt. If it were me, I could probably overlook the first one but the other two are serious safety violations, and there are two things that will always get you dropped from a selection course instantly, never to return: safety and honor violations. Something as simple as pointing a rifle, loaded or not, at another trainee or an instructor will bring the wrath of God down upon you in the military (a rifle is always loaded, especially when it’s not). So yeah, she’d get dropped for one mistake. It was one hell of a mistake to make.
Regardless of what I think, we must also consider that this is a kids’ show meant to teach them lessons about the magic of friendship. For this reason, I doubt that Lightning Dust will be marked “never to return”, and there’s nothing wrong with that. This isn’t the military, it just has a lot in common with it, and I looked at the episode through that lense only. I’d like to see an older, more mature Lightning Dust appear in another episode, having hopefully learned her lesson about not putting one over on her battle buddies.