It’s no secret that I grew up a Trekkie. My big sister introduced me to the show early on. It’s easy to forget about the paucity of TV science fiction in those days. You basically had Star Trek and Dr. Who as the things in regular and reliable syndication. Even those could be pretty sparse. Today, you could fill your TV watching time with shows. They kept on making Dr Who into the ’90’s and picked it up again in the new millennium, and an entire cable network has appeared to fill the need, but can we say that there's a show today that fills the same niche that was filled by Star Trek back in the 70’s and 80’s? Let's take a look at the trekie phenomenon.
Star Trek developed a devoted and diverse fan base.
Star Trek spawning and underground movement of fan art and fan fiction as well as conventions and successful merchandizing lines.
The more rabid fans of the show were often looked at askance by the non-fans, who could be less than understanding of their level of interest in the show.
Look around you today. Is there a TV show that can hit all those points? I'd argue that there is, but it's not science fiction, it’s My Little Pony.
MLP has gone through three reboots since it first appeared in the 80's as a thinly vailed vehicle to sell toys. All but the latest one didn't earn much attention, but the latest introduced some major changes and has exploded.
Exactly how I came to discover the show can wait for another post. Instead, lets look at the structure of the show itself and see if there are any parallels that might at least partially explain how it earned a similar position in the surrounding culture that Star Trek earned in the 70’s and 80’s.
The first thing that’s obvious to me is the diversity of characters. Star Trek was one of the first shows to show a spectrum of races interacting peacefully and cooperatively. They even took it farther by introducing races that were MUCH more different from any two human races, and showing that peaceful cohabitation was at least possible. Conflicts did arise, but they were generally between those who were uninitiated to inclusive culture that pervaded the federation.
The show also did a good job of showing that different races/species were not uniform, with some members showing traits that were clearly at odds with the general species archetype (Think Rom on DS9, or come to think of it, every one of Quarks family). A lesson about racial stereotypes, perhaps?
As for MLP, we have three separate races of equine with widely divergent abilities. Regular (Earth) ponies are known for their strength and endurance, unicorns are known for magical ability, and pegasi for the power of flight and the ability to control the weather. There are occasional conflicts between the members of the different races, but they generally do a good job resolving them and living and working together peacefully. As with ST, there’s a diversity within the races, as well. The main characters include a pegasus with superlative flying abilities, and another who is clearly more comfortable on the ground and occasionally even forgets she can fly. Among the “B” characters, there’s a younger pegasus who can’t yet fly, and it’s stated that not all pegasi ultimately learn to. It’s the same with the unicorns, where mostcan only perform a relatively simple set of spells directly related to their particular calling. There are also some (e.g. Twilight Sparkle) are magical polymaths. While not explicitly stated as such, some of the earth ponies appear to have some specific abilities that could be called magic as well (such as precognition). The differences between the races are wide enough to occasionally cause friction, but working around the friction is central to the show, as was ofter seen is Star Trek.
There’s another connection that I have a hard time thinking is just coincidental. The introductory episode of Star Trek The Next Generation introduced a baddy, Q, who was extremely powerful and belligerent. He wasn’t so much conquered as won over to Picard’s side. Winning him over wasn’t all win, however. His powerful and capricious nature meant that whenever he showed up, chaos and mayhem was sure to follow.
MLP has a similar baddy, known as Discord, who is the personification of chaos itself. He’s a powerful magical being who performs seemingly random (but almost always distressing) acts of magic with a snap of his fingers, and seems to have a speech impediment that means you never quite know if what he’s saying is ironic or truthful. Like Q, he is ultimately won over to become an ally, but continues to be a source of chaos and mayhem whenever he makes an appearance.
Sounds pretty similar, doesn’t it. The part that makes me think this can’t be an accident, is that both Q and Discord are performed by the same actor: John de Lancie.
Coincidence? You be he judge. (And if you get that reference, it's time to start thinking about scheduling your colonoscopy.)