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Adventures in Universe Building (aka The “My Little Pony” Posts): Part II – Allegorical and Campaign Universes


Now that I’ve, hopefully, made a passable argument that dynamic and varied story engines were not a strength of 1980s kids television – let’s look at a different, but related, aspect of those shows (and kind of the underlying point of this whole series of posts) – The Universes they were set in.

Be forewarned: I’m about to make a huge generalization that may send serious academics screaming for the hills with it’s coarseness – but bear with me as I think it’s a necessary frame.

There are essentially two reasons to set any kind of artistic creation in an fictional Universe:

1. The “Allegorical Universe”1 extricates personal / societal / cultural issues until they are abstracted enough from the everyday to bring a fresh or unique perspective to better explore those issues. This is especially useful when dealing with subject matter that’s controversial / difficult / or impossible to discuss overtly.

An absolutely “pure” example of an Allegorical fiction universe would be Plato’s Allegory Of the Cave (or any philosophical thought experiment really) – which uses a stylized fiction setting specifically to isolate a specific element from a complex system. A more obvious fiction example would be almost anything by George Orwell who used fantastical settings to explore issues that would have been more culturally difficult to do otherwise (in the case of “Animal Farm”, the rise of Stalinist Russia prior to WWII).

2. The “Campaign Universe” on the other hand builds a backdrop specifically to enable dynamic storytelling.

Again, the “pure” example of this would be any table-top role playing game source-book (say, Dungeons & Dragons). If you’ve ever read role playing game source material, they’re not books in a traditional fiction sense – but rather collections of locations, characters, and other trappings (religions, gods, animals, monsters, maps, languages, puzzles, traps, towns, conflicts, etc) to allow players to create their own adventures by combining story elements like Lego. A more conventional example (chosen specifically to annoy someone I had brunch with this week… JAY) would be “Speed Racer” – where an entire society was created not to hold a mirror to current society – but to enable the ability to tell an entire movie through the medium of ceaseless futuristic CG stock car racing.

Now, since you’re a clever sort, you’ve probably realized already that these aren’t exclusive options – they’re not even opposite points on a spectrum. Realistically they’re more each like an axis on a cartesian graph. You can have a universe that’s extremely allegorical, that also facilitates an extremely dynamic story (say “The Matrix”, or “Lord of the Rings” ), but the two are not dependant. There’s probably lots of good examples of quality fiction from all media that falls all along three quarters of such a graph.

The important thing is that some fictional elements exist to say something (Spoiler: Sauron is Industrialization), and some exist to enable something cool (The “Rebellion” in the first Start Wars is just to give a righteous case for the heroes with a ticking clock – it’s never entirely clear what exactly the sociopolitical structure of the universe is at all – and that’s fine).

But that leaves us with those unfortunate creations that reside in the “last quadrant” (“Limited / Mundane story potential and with little to no allegorical overtone”) the snark in me notes that this actually encompasses both bad “Literature” (capital L) writing, and most bad grade-school creative writing assignments. At least the latter benefits from mad-cap nature of randomly mashing up genre conventions as only kids can (used for maximum effect in any given issue of “Axe Cop” – perhaps the best comic ever written by a five year old). I digress.

So back to kids cartoons. Most of the shows discussed in the last post would fall heavily into the “Campaign Universe” camp, for obvious reasons: the creators (often of the toy lines) wanted to create dynamic backdrops for cool toys. That’s about it. A prime example is to compare the spin-off cartoon “The Real Ghostbusters” with “Ghostbusters“. The movie (to my mind) is certainly exciting and flashy (and funny), but it’s also got a specific bent given the turbulent economic backdrop of the 80s (if you don’t think the film has something to say about the double edged sword of Reganomics go back and watch Ric Moranis’ house-party – and note the number of guests who are in receivership, failing small business, or are severely financially overextended). The cartoon on the other hand doesn’t plot at all on the “Allegory” axis. It’s clearly just trying to capitalize on the fact that kids like to run around pretending to zap monsters with lasers. I’m not making a value judgment here – I recall fashioning a couple of makeshift Ghost Traps out of kleenex boxes in my younger days to facilitate such laser-zappery. My point is only that “Silverhawks” wasn’t chosen as a unique opportunity to look at the uneasy relationship between organized crime and law enforcement, or the difficulty of re-integrating veterans into peacetime society – it was chosen as a mash-up of space and western conventions to try and sell some robot-bird-space-cowboy toys.

Also, I don’t care what IMDB says. It’s “Ghostbusters” not “Ghost Busters”.

You’ll notice I’m (again) leading with “boys” cartoons here, because these kinds of generic adventure settings lend themselves better to “boy” storytelling for the same reason that the story engines themselves did. Again the competitive play that boys gravitate to (“Cowboys and Indians” style “bang bang you’re dead I win”) is much easier to fit in an episodic television structure than girl preferred co-operative play (“House” or “lets have a tea party”). As with story engines, no one really bothered to think about the need to adjust the underlying templates for more girl friendly shows. Cartoons were cartoons, right?

Let’s go back to our beleaguered friend Strawberry Shortcake. What is compelling about her universe? I’d argue it’s one of those deadly “fourth quadrants” – It’s not allegorical and neither is the universe conducive to any kind of dynamic storytelling. Miss Shortcake is a little girl (both literally and figuratively) who lives in some hollowed out plants. All her friends are named after desserts. They live a glorified idyllic agrarian lifestyle. There’s a demented baker outside of town who wants to steal her recipes (which she’d likely be willing to share if the two parties actually ever had a conversation, which makes the situation more tragic than tense). The shows creators clearly borrowed liberally from the “Smurfs” cartoon show, which is funny given that particular adaptation had already removed every drop of the political satire which is what made Peyo’s original cartoons work (if you haven’t had the pleasure they were closer to this than this).

It’s important to add that by “not being conducive to dynamic storytelling” I don’t mean “action/adventure” I just mean a scenario that facilitates engaging stories. Strawberry shortcake is, essentially, a hobbit – Strawberryland2 is the Shire and the entire cannon of 80s specials lays out how “Lord of the Rings” would have played out if Bilbo had told Gandalf to take a flying leap back during “The Hobbit”. Frodo and Sam and their kin sit would sit around all day and discuss the weather or when the next pot-luck would be.

Is it any wonder the writers struggled to make “Strawberry Shortcake” compelling to little girls? I’ve heard people complain that the character herself is boring – but how appealing would even the most awesome character (say, Betsey Trotwood) be against such a berry bleak backdrop and berry unfortunate story engine?

And berry aggravating “berry” puns.

Pop quiz. Who is a more inherently “boring” character – Strawberry Shortcake or Barbie? My immediate gut reaction would be to say our friend from Strawberryland – but Barbie really isn’t a character at all. She’s a construction set, like Lego. Being such a blank slate is what makes her so compelling. Each time you sit down to play with Barbie you can create a whole new scenario for her (or return to a particular favourite) because even her supporting cast is entirely protean. She really can be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a movie star, because we know absolutely nothing about her. It’s only when someone tries to impose a singular vision on her, that the results could possibly be sexist (or at least embarassing). A key aspect of cooperative play is actually defining the cooperative play. I know that sounds like a tautology, but what’s the real game in playing “house” – playacting being in a household, or arguing about who is going to fill what role, what is going to happen, what props and scenery are required – even whose house you’re going to play at? There’s a fancy concept called “unstructured play” which most people agree is really important for kids, but what “unstructured play” really boils down to is “arguing with your friends about things”. The interesting thing is this isn’t a key component of competitive play (you can have organized sports, clubs, or lessons without it) but you can’t really have co-operative play without it3. I recall lengthy, heated, arguments with my next door neighbours growing up about why Ken couldn’t be a professional wrestling manager a-la Jimmy Hart (and the fact that proto-Brad thought the “Mouth from the South” was an insanely cool role model to aspire to probably tells you just about everything you need to know about me in a nutshell). Barbie’s longevity works, in part, because she has no Universe restrictions whatsoever – she can never be dated, or uninteresting if you’re still willing to play with her. But it’s also why there’s never really been an singular “Barbie television show”4.

One final point is that all the cartoons I’ve talked about, across the board, were ill equipped with trying to introduce educational content (and remember that, even in the 80s, the idea that television could have any kind of positive value was still relatively radical ground). What do you suppose happens when you take a “Campaign Universe” not conceived for any allegorical content – and then shoehorn a random and short morality lesson into it? If you guessed it seems stupid and forced you’re correct. I just picked a “Real Ghostbusters” episode summary at random and read about how Slimer befriends a boy who is the target of bullying and helps him stand up to the bullies. I don’t need to see this episode to tell you it is probably not a great episode. The elements just don’t work – the only way to introduce such a concept is to bring in whole new, unsupported, one-shot elements (the kid, the bullies, some reason for a ravenous poltergeist to be wandering around befriending small children)… and as soon as you do that you’re weakening both your Universe AND your story engine.

The most important element is that kids aren’t stupid, and know bad storytelling. You know exactly where the train is going if you get a “very special episode” of a sitcom where the main character(s) suddenly make a new friend / enemy / boy/girlfriend. You know this character is just a patsy waiting to fall in a pothole of drugs/gangs/abuse/teen pregnancy or some similar hot topic and then never be seen again. They’re not a part of the *real* universe.

I can’t tell you how many “very important” stories like that I must have watched in my lifetime, and I remember almost none of them off the top of my head because, even as I kid, I knew they weren’t important. Not in the same way that the “real” characters were. You know who I *do* remember? Mr. Hooper, and I guarantee. Guarantee. That there isn’t anyone alive today who was a kid of a certain age and saw that original broadcast in 1982 and doesn’t remember it today. I’m pretty sure I’ve never gotten through a Christmas (or rather Hanukkah) season since without thinking about Mr. Hooper at least once.

And you, Strawberry Shortcake, are no Mr. Hooper.

Wow did I get off track there. Thankfully the table is now set (I think) to finally address some of these issues with good examples. Good television. Play empowering television. Excellent stories. With ponies. Next time!

  1. incidentally, this is entirely my own ad-hoc term, so if you start slinging this all hoity-toity in your English lit classes prepare for a lot of blank stares []
  2. which I am not particularly shocked to find out isn’t in my spellcheck library []
  3. A key example is that people who have never played “Dungeons & Dragons” don’t understand what an inseparable part of the game “arguing about the rules” is. What you’re really doing is trying to find common ground in how to jointly operate a very flexible game system that each individual would ideally play entirely differently. This compromise is also why pen and paper RPGs can both be far superior to, and much more frustrating than video games. []
  4. There’s certainly been periodic attempts to create genre backdrops like the “Princess Barbie” or “Fairy Barbie” movies, which were nominally popular when I worked at a video store in the mid-90s … but nothing with the broader cultural impact of, say, a “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” or even a “Jem” []