Thomas the Tank Engine, or Thomas and Friends as we must now call it, is banned in my house. I should clarify: it is banned in its current form, which is a horrible, sticky mess. If I was going to be puritanical about this I could say that the rot started to set in after the departure of Ringo Starr at the end of the second series, although I profess to a certain admiration for the vocal talents of Michael Angelis. Besides, saying that you only like the first two series simply makes you sound like one of those people who think that Pink Floyd were never as good after Syd Barrett was given his cards. It isn’t wrong, but we just don’t do it.
In truth the first four or five series are quite good. It’s only in the sixth series, which hosts the introduction of a whole new set of characters (a trend that would continue for some years to come, to the extent that on the rare occasions I watch it nowadays I have NO IDEA AT ALL WHO ANY OF THESE ENGINES ARE), that things start to unravel. By the time of the eighth series, which features some drastic character deconstruction for Edward (the equivalent of what they did to Kryten in Red Dwarf VII), I’d stopped watching. Then they made the mouths move. Then they switched to full CGI and ditched the models. Then – oh, horror of horrors – they brought in different voice actors. These days it is an abomination, a holy nightmare, and the apple has fallen very far from the tree, then rolled across the road and down the same embankment that Gordon encountered at the end of ‘Off The Rails’.
But here’s the funny thing – and here’s where I’m going to borrow shamelessly from an old diary entry I wrote years ago – even in those earlier series, it’s abundantly obvious that Sodor’s railway service is appalling. It’s unreliable and full of whiny self-important engines with tremendous egos. They’re constantly breaking down and having accidents. There were always problems with the railway, and the odd accident, but unless I’m remembering it wrong I’m sure that in the original books the line ran fairly smoothly, largely because of Sir Topham Hatt’s authoritarian stance. “Engines on my railway,” he sternly explained to James, Gordon and Henry (who were on strike), “do as they are told”. This was broadcast on ITV in the days when the spirit of the miner’s unions was slowly being crushed, and even though Awdry had written it forty years previously, the Thatcherite overtones – and, indeed, the Conservative nature of the programme in general – were pretty transparent. There’s a reason that only one of the engines is painted red.
These days, however, there’s less industrial action and more calamity on the line. Part of this, I’m sure, is finance-related. The development of new technology, coupled with a budget that gradually crept up as revenue crept in, means that the technical team can do shedloads (engine shedloads?) of new stunts that they didn’t dare attempt in the earlier series. In 1984 the best you’d get was Gordon lifting very slightly off the rails and into an inch-deep pool of water that was supposed to be a ditch. These days you get engines that go flying off cliffs and into pools of lava (all right, coloured treacle), followed by trucks that explode. They have rock falls and grounded helicopters and goodness knows what else.
Harvey to the Rescue
Some trucks drag Percy down a hill and cause a derailment at Bulgy’s Bridge which blocks the road.
No Sleep for Cranky
Cranky the crane gets so annoyed with Bill & Ben’s constant chatter that he accidentally knocks over a shed, blocking the line.
A Bad Day for Harold the Helicopter
Harold has a chance to prove himself when a broken signal means Percy cannot get through with the mail, and whilst the workmen hastily try to repair it, the mail bags are loaded into Harold’s harness. He is feeling so clever that he decides to take them all at once, but the weight is far too much for him to handle. The mailbags get stuck in a tree and Harold finds himself diving nose-first into a haystack.
A landslide crushes the foghorn, so there is no way to warn the engines of the fallen rocks hidden in the fog. Thomas unfortunately hits the rocks and soon Cyril the fogman arrives to help warn engines he has been derailed.
Jack Jumps In
Jack the front loader ignores the warnings of the other quarry engines, and as a result, he tips over on the road and slides down the hill on his side in a pile of sand.
The World’s Strongest Engine
Diesel pulls so hard on a truck that the coupling breaks, sending him through a pair of buffers and landing on a barge.
Gordon Takes a Tumble
An impatient Gordon is pulling trucks when he is accidentally diverted onto an old branch line the next morning, and lands himself in trouble when the rails can’t take his weight.
Percy’s Chocolate Crunch
Percy is pushed under a coal chute (right as the operator starts pouring the coal), and gusts of wind from Harold the Helicopter’s rotor sends piles of ashes flying…right onto Percy! To help cope with the frustration, Percy takes some sugar vans that must be delivered to the Mr. Jolly’s chocolate factory. He approaches the factory on the sloped tracks that go up to the loading and delivery dock, which are coated with oil from a leaky truck. Percy applies his brakes, but the oil makes him skid past the dock and right into the factory wall. There are a series of gloops and splats from the heart of the factory, and Percy pops out the other end, covered in chocolate.
This is from one season, and these are only the accidents: we’ve also got trucks who cause bedlam, lost and broken whistles, damaged buffers and engines who’d rather sightsee, race buses or search for treasure than deliver the mail (or their passengers). The overall impression you get is one of total chaos, with a dictatorial (if occasionally kind-hearted) bureaucrat who is only just managing to hold the network together. Accidents are never investigated; instead random blame is allocated to whoever is by default the naughtiest engine, leaving hurt passengers and damaged goods and no satisfied customers. The parallels with Railtrack are obvious.
Here’s another thing: said crashes / derailments / industrial action are never the fault of the drivers. You can sort of understand the drivers wanting to jump clear when a train is about to crash – it’s the sensible thing to do. But having a sentient engine doesn’t mean that drivers are without blame. We saw the consequences of going off without your driver in ‘Thomas Comes To Breakfast’ (which I found in a charity shop a few years back, and which Josh, in his Thomas-loving days, greatly enjoyed). I’m therefore at a loss as to why, on all the other occasions when engines shunt trucks violently, the drivers are blameless. If I crashed my car, I couldn’t exactly stand there looking at the mangled wreckage by the crushed lamp post and say “Poppy / Suzie / Bertha, you have caused CONFUSION and DELAY!”. They’d think I was mad. On the other hand, if one of the Sodor trains runs on time it’s always the engine that’s praised and never the driver, so it’s swings and roundabouts. The drivers tend to just sit in the cab, unnoticed and unloved – a forgotten statistic, like Corey Feldman.
“You make a very valid point about the railway,” said my brother when I quizzed him about it, “because they have more problems than most lines. If you were stood on the platform at Reading station at 7.30 in the morning and some fat guy came over and said the train was delayed because it have some grief with some troublesome trucks a bit further up the line, quite frankly you wouldn’t buy it. There would be uproar. However, if the line ran smoothly and the engines weren’t self-important, there wouldn’t be much story. If Gordon took the express on time every week I probably wouldn’t bother watching.”
Ah yes, that Fat Controller. He – as you will have guessed by now, even if you haven’t actually watched the video – is the subject of today’s little foray into the world of Thomas. It occurred to me a while back that an authoritarian knight of the realm with a variety of facial expressions and whose mouth didn’t move was a perfect candidate for some sort of re-dubbing. I wracked my brains for weeks before I came up with two candidates on the same day: the other video will follow in a couple of months when I get round to doing it. In the meantime, the ‘abase yourself, insect’ attitude of Sutekh (one of my favourite Who villains) was ideal. You do have to be a bit careful with Sutekh, because he’s already been used for comic relief in this absurd making-of video on the ‘Pyramids of Mars’ DVD, but there was plenty of dialogue from the story I could rip, and all manner of appropriate Thomas clips with which to match it. I had a blast making this: it took a single evening, including all the cleanup and sound effects, and I’m really quite pleased with the end result. And Joshua (who has seen ‘Pyramids of Mars’ quite recently) enjoyed it – and I was really making it for him. At least that’s what I tell myself in the mirror every morning.