A few days ago, I watched one of Mr. Enter's older videos: a countdown of his ten worst FIM episodes of the series (only the first three seasons counted). At the time, Dragon Quest was his second-worst, only behind Putting Your Hoof Down. The one thing that caught my attention when summarizing DQ's issues is how he called an episode from G1 better than this. After a quick Wiki search, I found Spike's Search, a 1987 episode from MLP & Friends, containing the following summary:
Spike goes in search of his roots and joins a dragon horde, but finds he does not agree with their bullying ways.
Hmm…similar to DQ, ain't it?
For those who are curious, here's a link to the episode:
Let's quickly get a few of Search's flaws out of the way.
- At the time, all animation was hand-drawn, so you'll see shortcuts. A chunk of this animation is more dated than a classic Scooby Doo episode.
- The lip-syncing is horrible. Many times, the characters were saying one thing, yet their lips say something else.
- The B-Plot — Weston the Eagle looking for his parents — was dropped until the resolution.
- The song…not good, either. Both lyrically and vocally.
- The dragons are stereotypical bullies.
Fortunately, this story isn't a dud, and plenty of the faults come from the standards at the time. The background is really good, and Spike is very sympathetic with a noble goal.
If I tell you more, I won't be able to explain why Spike's Search is better than DQ.
How better? Well, let's get crackin'!
Every story has to set the conflict somehow, and this is no exception.
Two adjectives apply to DQ: sexism, xenophobia. The entire episode is prevalent in this nature, including the opening act. Spike's desire to know about his origins and family comes from their infamous conversation within the ditch: Dash laughs at (and insults) Spike for his pink apron (along with his so-called "feminine" action of baking cookies), and this:
Rarity: My little Spikey-wikey is perfect the way he is.
Spike: I don't act like other dragons?
Pinkie Pie: Oh, not even close!
Applejack: But why would you want to, Spike?
This is just one part, but it ruins the story as a whole. Spike's friends declaring how not acting like other dragons makes him better than the rest of the population. In story context, let's put it this way:
"I don't act like other ponies?"
"Oh, not even close?"
"But why would you want to?"
Apply it to real life:
"You don't act like other women, but why would you want to?"
"You don't act like other African-Americans, but why would you want to?"
"You don't act like other LGBT+ people, but why would you want to?"
"You don't act like other Latinos, but why would you want to?"
Not funny now, is it?
The xenophobia comes from the ponies mocking dragons as a whole for their supposedly brutish, tough, ugly-looking, and aggressive nature while not understanding at all who dragons as a race truly are physically, emotionally, and psychologically. For all the audience knows, they're knocking them through perception, not fact. The one thing all six are aware of about them is their migration patterns.
In Spike's Search, that conversation doesn't exist. As the group played volleyball, Spike sneezes, accidentally shooting fire in the process and frightening all the ponies. Spike repeatedly apologizes, and both Megan and brother Danny continually reassure him that it wasn't his fault. Though, the fact that he nearly hurt ponies triggered his guilt, and sneezing fire multiple times afterwards doesn't help. While Spike's friends from DQ peer-pressured him into joining the dragon migration, Spike from G1 pressured himself to find his family. His quest to find his parents stems from the belief that they'll better raise him, control his accidental fire-breathing, understand manners, and so forth. In short, he feels like he belongs better with other dragons.
The stereotypical bully.
Both Dragon Quest and Spike's Search use the stereotypical bully. It's a big flaw in both episodes.
But if you ask me which stereotypical bully is better, it's from Search. Why? DQ attaches both age-old teenage boy and teenage bully stereotypes along with the bully archetype itself. All of their mannerisms are simplified human beliefs of masculinity: overly aggressive, greedy, vocal, the "traditional" teenage boy voice, a lust for intimidation, macho, and selfish. Design-wise, each dragon is supposed to represent what a dragon looks like in their teenage phase. With each scene, the episode shames Spike for being a dragon (and to parallel it, a boy IRL for traits completely unlike a "normal" boy).
Spike's Search doesn't do that. He's originally happy to take part in the group of adult dragons, but is taken aback by their rudeness, greed, and selfishness. When two dragons insulted him for his size, the older king dragon dissented and crafted colorful language to try to make him prove to the group that he belongs in their gang. Rather than initially trying to physically bully him into joining or else, the king dragon emotionally lures him via mind games.
Most importantly, the metaphors of dragons = boys and ponies = girls don't exist. Not only aren't the labels of masculinity and femininity visually depicted, but the dragons don't attempt to classify ponies as female-oriented, either. Instead, the dragons use Spike's naiveté to bring them into Dream Valley to further manipulate him.
Search's climax is infinitely better.
DQ: Dash, Twilight, and Rarity challenge the dragons to a fight, and Spike disassociates himself from his race, literal fighting words to the dragons. So, what do they do? Run away. *sigh* Talk about a major anticlimax.
Spike's Search: Spike's friends assemble a party to lure them into a trap. Their weapon of choice: rushing water that temporarily douses their fire-breathing. If they're going to bully people throughout the town and their close friend, there'll be consequences. Since they use fire, words, and size as weapons, Spike's friends using their strengths against them creates a satisfying comeuppance.
This is what seals it.
Spike: I guess I'll never learn how to be a grown-up dragon now. But if being a dragon means being a bully—
Danny: Nah! Look at how many different types of ponies there are. Earth Ponies, pegasi, flutter ponies. So there are probably all different kinds of dragons, too. When the time is right, you'll find the ones like you.
Spike: You really think so? Well, then, maybe for now here is the right place to be.
So, what makes this very different from DQ?
- How it's set up. To reiterate, Spike wants to be a grown-up dragon and initiated his quest on an accident. Dragon life isn't automatically declared to be inherently inferior to pony life at any point. Hell, the group supported him throughout, and both he and Danny walked together to find some. Additionally, it emphasizes that this is only a cluster of dragons, not an actual representation of dragons as a whole.
- It doesn't metaphorically differentiate boys from girls. With it absent, the sexism implications don't exist.
- When Spike begins to believe that the dragon life is about bullying other people, Danny quickly interrupts him and reminds him that those dragons aren't the only ones out there. There are different kinds of ponies and dragons. Rather than affirm a generalization to both him and us, he tells Spike he only ran into some bad luck.
This type of moral applies as much today and can be done really well if you know what you're doing and tell a decent story in the process.
Friendship Is Magic is a great show, but it screws up royally here and there. Dragon Quest stands as season 2's worst due to sexist stereotyping, racism implications, and botching the moral of how no one group is a monolith by generalizing a select few as the whole. Is FIM better than G1? Yes. But sometimes it can take a lesson or two from its predecessors. Albeit with worse animation, Spike's Search does DQ's same plot nearly twenty-five years prior better.