Friday, January 4, 2013

6-Star Reviews Part 124: Shipping and Handling

To read the story, click the image or follow this link

I started watching Firefly this week; I'm only a couple of episodes in, but what I've seen so far has been good.  Plenty of humor, good casting--I can see why it's become a cult classic.

Below, my review of Pegasus Rescue Brigade's Shipping and Handling.

Impressions before reading:  Ah, it's been a while since I hit a shipping story.  It is shipping/comedy, usually my favorite form of shipping.  And if the joke which is the premise (based on the fandom's alternate definition of "shipping") doesn't do much for me, that doesn't mean the story proper can't be entertaining.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  After failing to read the fine print on an employment contract, Ditzy Doo finds herself working for a matchmaking service.  Together with a wide ensemble of OCs (conveniently pictured above), she works to help ponies find love, and to make sure that their love is reciprocated.

Thoughts after reading:  If I say that this story has a chapter where a ponified Sethisto is transported to Equestria and hires Ditzy to ship him with Trixie, do I really need to write anything further for this review?  I imagine that most potential readers can decide whether they find the fic intriguing or cringe-worthy based solely on that bit of information--do I need continue?

Oh, fine.

Shipping and Handling starts off with a lighthearted but not flippant tone, one which relies heavily on readers to "just go along" with the setup not just of the story proper, but of each of the (mostly self-contained) shipping scenarios.  I didn't find this inappropriate for the story being told--indeed, I thought it was a nice fit for the first couple of chapters, where Ditzy takes her new job, then immediately gets handed an assignment which falls firmly on the "cute" side of the adorable-to-sensual romantic scale.  And through the first few chapters, reading about Ditzy bumbling her way through pairing up ponies was amusing, even when the ponies themselves weren't.

But the inconsistent tone and setting really proved to be a problem, in the end.  At various points, the story revolves around Ditzy helping a pair of foals learn how to talk to girls, various permutations of main six-shipping, and some wholesale fourth-wall breakage, with characters directly addressing the audience and all. This all in addition to the aforementioned EqD crossover.  Elements that disparate don't readily blend into a cohesive whole, and here, they come across as an unfortunate mish-mash.  I don't have much patience for stuff like Lyra having a human fetish obsession to begin with, but when it intrudes into a story that was very much show-style Ponyville only a few hundred words before, it leads to a frustrating and disappointing case of mood whiplash.

Although editing is good throughout, there are some major writing problems.  The most immediately obvious is the lack of differentiation between different ponies' dialogue; it's hard not to notice that every pony, from those repeatedly described as unusually brilliant to canon simpletons, share essentially the same vocabulary and vocal mannerisms.  Over-explaining in the narration is also a consistent problem; although the structure of the earlier chapter makes it easy to write this off as a stylistic choice at first, having it explained that the seething unicorn "was probably very angry" gets old fast.

Characterizations are very flat.  Ditzy's co-workers can be described as the Potential Love Interest, the Wacky One, the Villain, and the Third Wheel, based on their initial introductions, and nothing they do over the course of the remaining 130,000 words significantly adds to those descriptions.  To be fair, they were all very consistently characterized (to and past the point of self-caricature), but they simply weren't all that interesting, save as foils to straight-mare Ditzy.  A role, by the way, for which she wasn't a terribly good fit, given her own lighthearted cheerfulness and occasional forays into comic relief.  Characters with canon personalities, such as the main six, were much better handled, but whenever the author was writing a character from scratch (whether an OC or a background pony), the results were one-dimensional and disappointing.

Star Rating:  ☆ (what does this mean?)

Although the first few chapters were sufficiently engaging to inspire some hope for the overall work, Shipping and Handling ultimately is nothing more than cliche, trite characters working through a series of setpieces so tangentially related in tone and style that they might as well have been from completely different stories.  There were plenty of individually entertaining segments, but they were poorly linked, and often poorly executed in any event.

Recommendation:  As I mentioned, I did find it enjoyable to see how Derpy went about doing her job at the beginning, absent any training.  Readers who enjoy shipping for its own sake, and who don't mind a fair bit of tonal inconsistency, may likewise enjoy the story for those elements.  For other readers, this story will probably disappoint.

Next time:  Shipping Goggles, by AbsoluteAnonymous


  1. I read this back while it was updating. For most of the early run, I enjoyed half of it and hated the other half. What I mean this say is that Shipping and Handling has two main parts to it. One is the main plot that concerns Ditzy Doo and her interactions outside of work and her co-workers and then there are the individual assignments that she is assigned that fill in the main part of the chapters. Let me just say that concerning the latter part, I could not read it without forcing myself because some of the most embarrassing writing I ever had to read in a fanfict. That may sound harsh but those parts were chock-full of clichés and pandering (whether it was Lyra’s human obsession or Seth being shipped with Trixie), it was simply unreadable to me. Not helping was the fact that they seemed pointless and really had nothing to do with the other plot.

    In fact, I often skipped Ditzy’s assignments for the other storyline, which was entertaining in the early parts. Not only was Ditzy presented plausibly and likable and not as a retarded Neanderthal, but some of the side characters were vivid. That was done with Glow, the cynic and Watt, an eccentric. Unfortunately, all others were rather weak (I don’t see much difference between Cloudkicker and Autumn Breeze, besides their relationship to Ditzy, for example) and the two I mentioned before were one-dimensional, no matter the scene. And the plotlines in that part such as Dinky trying to figure out what her mom was doing (even if it made no sense why Ditzy was hiding it from her daughter in the first, it’s not like she became a whore), after she slowly realized that her mom wasn’t working at the postal delivery, were interesting enough for me to keep going. It wasn’t particularly great or even good in terms of plot and pacing (truth is, almost nothing really happens), but it was readable.

    Then chapter 10 happened, and let tell that I found the ending of it to be stupid and without any sort logic. What court system doesn’t call in the person that has to pay the damages charged to them? That was ridiculous for the sake of cheap drama. After that came chapter 12, the last ship and let’s say I could not buy the fact that Dinky, a young unicorn who had little to no experience with magic at the time, could hold off with her magic (which just appeared thanks to her emotional outburst) an adult unicorn that can turn invisible, teleport, and hold down four adult ponies with her magic without breaking a sweat. I don’t care if Dinky was presented as a child prodigy throughout the piece, it is too large of a pill for me too swallow that she could do that. Plus, a what was revealed in Candyfloss’s diary involving the sign (which he messes with in order to bring Ditzy and Autumn together), infuriated me because he showed no responsibility (or even regret) for the damage he did (millions and millions of bits in damage, not to mention the chaos and probably loss of life) by doing (it doesn’t help that comes across as smug godlike figure and that we should accept what he did as a good thing). And the ending is so happy ending like in how everything is wrapped up (bad guy defeated, lovers united, family is strengthened, money problem is solved thanks to what basically amounted to Deus ex Machnia) the story becomes even more childish. It was one of the worst ways the story could have possibly ended. By then with all the weak characterization, long stretches of nothing really happening, plot holes, and the like, I felt like I wasted a good deal of my time.

    Let me put this in simple terms; this is one of the most undeserving six-stars I have read.

  2. While I agree with all your points, this fic is still my guilt pleasure. I know that it is trite, full of cringe-worth moments, that the dialogue is inconsistent, and that the shipping scenarios vary from boring to cringe-worthy. But I quite like it nonetheless.

    I guess that this because this is the closest to a traditional sitcom fanfic we have, full of Special Appearances that disappear the next week, a supporting cast of quirky, yet fairly generic characters, and self-contained episodes with some kind of thematic connection, but still fairly standalone. We even get a Pilot and the Season Finale that resolves outstanding issues but keeps the status quo. You can almost hear the laugh track playing. In the end you watch it, tune out the stupid parts, and soon after reading can only remember that particularly funny scene.

  3. "If I say that this story has a chapter where a ponified Sethisto is transported to Equestria and hires Ditzy to ship him with Trixie, do I really need to write anything further for this review?"

    Thanks, Chris. You saved me from another disappointment. :)

  4. "I started watching Firefly this week..." Forget the rest of the review, THAT'S all I care about now. You're going to love the rest of the series, Chris. Maybe I'm just a sucker for libertarian themes, but that was easily one of the best shows I've seen. Only real disappointments were the movie and the flashback showing how Kaylee got her job

    What's with the hate for human-obsessed Lyra? Is it only within the context of fanfiction? I could get that, but I actually love a lot of the images and the occasional comic dedicated to it (well, moreso hand-obsessed Lyra, but the human stuff's good too)

  5. Oh yes, this one. I read through all of it, and I think it's still on my favourites list on Fimfiction, but good heavens, this thing doesn't have issues, it has subscriptions. The whole "Pinkie Pie pocket universe" storyline, for one - it was probably meant to be cute, weird and ridiculous (aka the essence of Pinkie), but it just came across as an unbelievable non sequitur. Are we supposed to take anything after that even remotely seriously? And Heaven forbid Pinkie and the OC she was shipped with (which is a problematic thing to do in the first place and had been avoided up to that point) ever procreate, because their spawn just might annihilate the universe for giggles.

    I also found the tonal shifts to be jarring to the point of tearing the story apart. It goes from comedy to random to romance to slice of life to sad at the drop of a hat, and while the romance and comedy work for the most part, the slice of life and random are less consistent, and the sad is so forced as to shatter suspension of disbelief into tiny shards.

    Finally, I really hated that boss character. OCs are fine; OCs with almost limitless powers, even in a limited area of expertise, are usually a very bad sign, doubly so if they show a "weakness" that makes no sense in the context of their abilities (not recognizing that one bad apple among his workers for what she was was plot convenience, pure and simple, and not forgivable from a character otherwise described as borderline psychic in regards to relationships). Apart from that one mistake, everything he does is regarded as right and justified, and unless the character is Princess Celestia or on her level somehow, you can't do that. Flawless characters make me angry, because they're boring, and "boring" has no place in storytelling unless it's invoked intentionally (and even then, it's still boring).

  6. One thing I might want to point out is that the story was initially posted on EqD with only the first two chapters. Since the story had such an interesting premise (to me, at least) then I suspect that the readers gave the five-star ratings at that stage and then kept on reading to find out the end. I'm guessing that's how this story got 6-stars, since I doubt it would've done if it had been posted as a whole with readers to then give their ratings.

    As for my own thoughts, I did enjoy the story but I do agree with the criticisms you made here. I saw the ending coming from a mile away and some of the actual shipping pairings seemed much less than permanent (and almost a bit like filler in some places). But I still liked reading it, despite its flaws. Now if only I could think of a reason why...

    1. Good point that this probably got six stars on the strength of the initial chapters alone—if a story sits at 4.9 stars any time after it's reached 50 total votes, it's locked in as a Star-6, regardless of what happens afterward.

      I did end up skimming chapter 1 a couple of months back. It didn't capture my interest enough to continue, though I can hardly condemn a story for that. It may just not be to my taste. Anyway, I can't speak to what happens once Derpy actually starts with the matchmaking, since I haven't read that.

      And an AA fic up next. Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.

    2. Interestingly, the system doesn't seem to be perfect, so I assume it isn't automated. My lone short story spent some time at 4.9, and I even got an email from a pre-reader stating "congrats on the Star-6." It ended up being tagged as Star-5. I never brought it up with the staff because, honestly, the story isn't exactly "The Glass Blower" caliber, but I was confused.

    3. Yeah, ultimately, you have to let Seth know so he can go back and change the rating manually.

    4. I would do it, but all I would end up getting for my trouble is 2-3 stars from Chris, and a pint of ice cream to ease the ensuing pain.

  7. A lot harsher than I was expecting, honestly.

    S&H did have its fair share of problems, though I think it's pretty harmless. I can't really say I disagree with any of the criticisms though.

    I wouldn't have given it a particularly low rating as a story, though seeing that a one star on this blog doesn't mean the same thing as a one star on EqD itself, I don't think I can rightly argue against your rating. I can see why you think it wouldn't deserve six stars.

    Personally, I don't think I would have given it the best possible rating either. I just think it's amusing for what it is and has fun with its premise.

    Then again, I've always been one for sillier stories. So maybe I'm biased.

    Interested to see what you make of next week's piece, though.

    1. Just curious (and this is for everyone, not just DannyJ), how did you rate stories back when EqD had the star system? If I remember correctly, the ratings were supposed to mean you either hated a fic (1-star), didn't like it (2-stars), liked it (3-stars), really liked it (4-stars), or loved it (5-stars). However, I'm pretty sure a lot of people didn't go by that system but instead thought more along the lines of how it compared to other, already rated stories (so they might rate a story 5-stars because it's of such a quality typical for stories with the 5-star tag, even if they only liked it). I'm just talking about people who fully utilized the star system. More people probably gave either 1 or 5 stars as more of a like/dislike system

    2. I used the same for 1 or 2 stars, but my 3-stars meant a "meh", 4-stars liked it, and 5-stars loved it. However, most of the time I just gave 1, 3 or 5 stars, since I figured it would have a greater impact on the final score for the fics I liked or didn't care much about.

    3. I think I just gave four or five stars to stories that I really liked or loved. I wouldn't rate anything I didn't like.

    4. I actually didn't give out ratings, because much to my embarrassment I didn't even notice that there was a star rating system for the longest time. Mostly I just left my opinions in the comments, and still do.

    5. Oh God, that's too adorable! XD

      *ahem* I mean, a descriptive comment is far more useful to perspective readers and the author than a star rating anyways, yadda yadda...

    6. Well, that was my thought process too. I never really did know what to make of the star system when I eventually did realise it was there anyway. It's hard to represent an opinion numerically for me. I always just found it easier to give the author a quick review of what I thought worked and what didn't. And if I was particularly invested, a textwall of either gushing or explaining in detail why something didn't work.

  8. This was a strange one for me. I don't think that much of it overall (on my current rating system, it'd probably get two stars) but I did appreciate the way Ditzy was written, which (at least early on) is one of my favourite Derpy characterisations. I haven't felt any need to read any side stories for this, but Ditzy meant I got something out of this fic.