Until recently, the My Little Pony franchise had a reputation for being soft and girly, the cartoons lacking in much conflict. The Nostalgia Chick once compared it to Transformers, citing that Transformers had more in the way of memorable characters and plots whereas My Little Pony was mostly about promoting the toy line. And let's face it, My Little Pony was a very girly franchise, as much as Barbie. Brushable manes, pastel colors, big eyes with fluttering eyelashes and cute little flank tattoos representing their names and roles. I had a few ponies as a kid, and I remember the Tales series and the TV show being really cute and low-key (especially Tales).
Then I saw the original TV specials for the first time since childhood. These specials pre-dated every other TV incarnation of the franchise, and they were DARK. "Rescue at Midnight Castle" opened with a shmaltzy musical number about how everything was so wonderful and bright followed by a filly talking to her big sister figure, then suddenly, DRAGONS! Dark, scary, dangerous creatures swooping down to gather whatever little Ponies they could get their claws on, lots of running and screaming in fright! This prompted the daring Firefly to rush to the real world to pick up a farmgirl named Megan as their hero.
The dragons were just the tip of the iceberg, too. Tirac turned the poor captured ponies into demonic centaurs to pull his chariot and fully intended to blanket the world in darkness. How? By making the gruff Scorpan do his bidding, lest he chop off the head of Scorpan's cute baby dragon companion. I'm not kidding. Oh, and Tirac's death was actually shown on-screen. Nothing too graphic, obviously, but the macguffin did blow him to smithereens. Also? Applejack and Megan would have drowned if not for the Sea Ponies and their cute little song.
It gets better, too. The second special, "Escape From Catrina" was basically about drug abuse. Evil queen abusing a potion to get stronger but becoming mean as heck in the process, her faithful assistant trying to talk her back down to her normal self, ponies being kidnapped again? Pretty obvious what that potion was made of! This wasn't quite as dark as the first one, we had more cute slice of life moments and musical numbers and a lesson on embracing your special talents plus a cute fashion show at the end. But really, who would ever think to bring drug abuse into My Little Pony?
The movie is where things got less grim, and this carried over to the TV series. MLP didn't get much of its dark origins back until the current incarnation, the 4th season finale even having a shout-out to the first special by naming the villain Tirek.
It's easy to see why people think the MLP franchise is so harmless and cutesy if they came in post-specials but pre-G4. The TV series had some scary villains, but none quite as dark as Tirac or Catrina. Tales completely did away with the epic adventures for slice-of-life stories, and G3 took this up to eleven, splashing the 'verse with bright pastel colors, flowers and rainbows. G4 is where the specials made their comeback of sorts; in fact, Lauren Faust based Rainbow Dash's personality on Firefly, the main pony of "Rescue at Midnight Castle". Friendship is Magic managed to blend the sweet slice of life with the epic adventures of the first generation.
The two specials are available on DVD as part of a small collection of G1 episodes. Unfortunately, they seem to be the TV edits according to Amazon's reviews, with a whole song cut from each one. Quite disappointing, as the price is good and I would love to be able to own these specials!
My Little Pony has come a long way since the 80s, but for those who think it was all sweetness and light before G4? I advise you to hunt down "Rescue" and "Escape" by whatever means you prefer. If you're interested, of course. :) You will be surprised.