SODOR ISLAND Essay Annex

Series 15

Series 15 Overview

They chuffed, they puffed, they rhymed as well!  By the end of the season, it bugged us like hell!

Introduction

As I write this season overview, I have sat in front of me, a book.

 

Not just any book, but a familiar sight to my friends and colleagues. It's a book that travels with me, and is rarely left untouched for many weeks, months or days as some books are.  Its outer dust jacket, cream in colour, is frayed at the top and bottom. Its pages are yellowed, and faded from years of reading. The corners are all marked carefully in pencil, and a quick flick through will see notes here, there, and everywhere.

The Island of Sodor

It has been a book which has thoroughly entertained me for many years. It has also piqued my interest on more than one occasion, when a throwaway line in its pages reveals a deeper historical relevance.

 

It is signed by two men, long since passed from this world, but never forgot.

 

The book is of course, The Island of Sodor: Its People, History and Railways, by Wilbert and George Awdry.

 

It is a veritable mine of information: it is Tolkien-esque in its description and extrapolation, with a somewhat more tangible link to reality in the shared history of the fictional island, and the reality of Great Britain and its vast network of railway lines.

There is a short passage, on page vii, and in the foreword to the book, which has remained with me for all my days, since reading it at the age of six. It is a fairly innocuous line, but its importance cannot be understated. It reads:

 

Railways take us to Places, so first we travel the Main Line, then along Branch Lines, and finally over lines of Narrow Gauge. We stop at each place to see things of interest.

 

People and places go together. It is people who make places and give them their character. Some can be mentioned in passing.

This passage sums up The Railway Series perfectly. The stories are as much about the journeys undertaken, and the human characters, as they are about the engine characters of the series. It's that link to the real world which makes some of the stories so believable.

 

It was this belief, and this train of thought which directly led to the extensive research of the two Awdry brothers which produced the full history of their fictional world. It has been noted in many books, and on many websites, that most of the stories have a real life basis.

 

This research into the real world workings of a real railway is that which gave even the earliest of The Railway Series stories their charm and appeal.

Duke the Lost Engine

Without the real life basis of banking engines pushing trains up steep gradients, Gordon's Hill would not have been so revered and idolised for its legends. Without the “Colonel” of South America, or “Pixie” of the Cadeby Light Railway, it is probable that the development of Duke the Lost Engine would have taken a completely different direction, if at all.

 

There is unlimited literature on railways, and new pieces are being written all the time. At last count, there are seven monthly railway magazines covering the current heritage railway preservation scene, there are four more which cover “modern” traction and the workings of the national network, there are eleven monthly magazines dedicated to reliving the past lives of the railways in Britain, and many model railway magazines besides.

Misty Island Logging Station

There are also hundreds of thousands of publications relating to railways, with hundreds of new titles coming out every year, covering every corner of Britain's green and pleasant land, and globally, hundreds of thousands of titles ranging from the SNCF of France, to the Sugar Cane railways on the plantations in Cuba.

 

Suffice to say, there are many, many potential stories out there to be told. It was through careful and constant research that the Reverend W. Awdry wrote the first 26 books, and assuredly Christopher Awdry has continued in that same vein up to the latest, soon to be available The Railway Series, Book 42, Thomas & his Friends (working title).

 

Remembering the hard work and dedication of the original author, and the way he set about creating this wonderful, engaging world in the first place, may pave the way for the quality of the Thomas & Friends series to improve in the years to come.

The Problem With Formulas

Edward wants to be a hero

One of the things which has been seen most markedly over the last four seasons, has been the introduction of a “writing formula”. Whether it is intentional or not, its existence cannot be denied on the evidence given through the run of twenty episodes in Season 15.

 

The formula has been labeled the “three strikes formula” by fans and critics alike, and consists of a plot which goes, a little like this:

"_______" goes to "_______" and meets "_______". "_______" does X, Y and Z wrong/done badly, before attempting X/Y/Z again, and this time getting it right before meeting "_______", "_______" and "_______" where everyone laughs or smiles at the end before rolling the credits.

Spencer seeks Percy - after fouling up 3 times...

You can fill in the gaps with a character's name, and get almost every episode of this season. For example, Spencer goes out into the fog and gets lost three times before going out again to find Percy and getting back to the sheds where everyone cheers and smiles before the end credits.

 

And another – Edward as the rescue engine, goes out and “saves” (using the term loosely) engine/dog/person's bag, comes back and is greeted with cheers and smiles before the end of the episode.

 

They all repeat the same tired dialogue, same tired storylines, and same mistakes. The formulaic nature of the scripting process has killed any creativity the stories might have had.

Railway Realism

Edward hauls trucks

It's The Journey

 

One of the things which has had fans groaning particularly this season, is a severe lack of realism, both in terms of the working railway, and in terms of common sense.

 

I highlighted earlier the importance of remembering what a railway is, who it is for, and what it does. The Reverend W. Awdry remembered this with every story he penned:

 

Railways take us to Places, so first we travel the Main Line, then along Branch Lines, and finally over lines of Narrow Gauge. We stop at each place to see things of interest.

Henry hauls heavy trucks

Essentially, this roots the storylines in real life, and gives the characters a means of staying relevant to today's youngest generation, who will use train travel more rarely, but for longer distances.

 

Put simply, a journey on a railway starts from one location, has a set destination, and a particular route with which to travel to get there.

 

For example, on Awdry's Sodor, in order to get from Knapford to Barrow, the journey follows the mainline, and the order of stations goes Knapford – Crosby - Wellsworth-Maron - Cronk - Killdane - Kellsthorpe Road – Crovan's Gate – Vicarstown – Barrow.

 

Read out as a journey, it's simply a list of names. But studying the map closely reveals a few further details.

Edward puffs past with a Branch Line train

The line from Knapford to Crosby is by the coast, and a lighthouse can be seen on the cliffs adjacent to the railway line.

 

Moving ahead to Wellsworth, there is a junction to Edward's Branchline, which curls southwards and back onto itself to reach Brendam Bay.

 

After the junction, there is the famous Gordon's Hill, which climbs upwards and into Maron station.

 

After that, Killdane is the junction where the electric trains the mainline from the Peel Godred branch.

 

At Kellsthorpe Road, the station lies at the bottom of a town on which a castle stands to the north, and a ruin to the south, of the railway line.

 

Crovan's Gate is the centre of engineering, and also has its own station which links with the narrow gauge line, the Skarloey Railway.

 

Crovan's Gate is also a junction, and splits to go either direct through Henry's tunnel to Vicarstown, or via Ballahoo.

 

Why is any of this relevant? The nature of the line and the trains which run on the mainline give it amazing story potential.

Gordon thunders along with the Express

For example, Gordon's Express Trains are fast, Knapford to Barrow, meaning that they do not stop. However, if the fast line from Crovan's Gate to Vicarstown was closed for repairs, then Gordon would have to take the slow line via Ballahoo.

 

This could have delightful exchanges between the express engine, and the suburban (or stopping passenger) trains, pulled by engines such as James and Edward, or Henry.

 

In Season 15, there are no set journeys and destinations. Trains of all varieties, and random ones at that, come and go, and are simply a vehicle for changing the scene.

James pulls tankers

There is no order to which the physical scenes appear in: the script, and not the map, decides on that.

 

Season 15 had no set routes, and it had no timetable. There were no set stations, and no real trains to speak of, as they neither fulfil a basic need for a railway to exist, or follow the general order and manner of a railway in the first place.

 

As a result, every episode felt spliced together, and unrealistic, because it was spliced together, and unrealistic.

Toby with Bash at Knapford

The Train Now Standing...

 

There is story potential in introducing certain types of goods/freight trains.

 

Reintroduction of china clay trains from Brendam would show a unique route: forward Brendam to Wellsworth, and reversing back, but onto the mainline, to reach the mainland at Barrow. At Wellsworth, an engine could be taken off the train, and one coupled up to the other end.

 

Say the engine – one from the mainland - which takes over normally, fails one day. The character who brought the train to Wellsworth would have to take the train itself onto the mainland. Without time to turn the engine around, it could result in running tender first – something we know engines like Gordon do not like...!

Edward pulls trucks through the woods

The possibilities for other types of train – bringing back cattle wagons, for example, or bringing in horseboxes for showjumping days – or the good old Flying Kipper fish train, would help give the characters purpose, which is that they lack in significant quantities at present.

 

The engine characters used to have set duties and trains they pulled, along set routes.  This helped cement the idea of the railway as a real location, because – as in real life – it is ordered in its route, and fixed, but the day to day events of a normal train service do not always run smoothly. Delays as a result of leaves/snow/animals on the line, problems with signalling, the one passenger who tries to get on the train when the doors are closed...!

The everyday services used to be a key part of the charm and character of the show.

 

Now everything is a “special special”, the charm of a real “special” - such as a Royal Train, or a charter train, or a special load for a goods train, is lost completely.

 

Things cease to be special when they become the norm – and the “special special” concept was not remotely special in comparison to the unexpected problems with the regular, normal services being run on the railway.

Yes, this is genuine - click here for the review

The Concept Of The 'Special Special' Is Ballooning

 

I do not understand why anyone would think an inflated helium balloon would be carried on a single, four wheel flat bed truck, in real life, or even in a fantasy world.

 

No one is asking the writing team to get a physics degree: just a little common sense.

 

Remembering that in order to have a train, you need an engine, the trucks/cars/wagons and a brakevan, or composite coaches and a brake coach.

Gordon and Ferdinand

Goods/freight trains can consist of either all the same type – all coal wagons, a a brakevan, or a mixed goods – wagons and vans, with a brakevan on the end.

Seeing the Lion of Sodor statue transported by Gordon AND Ferdinand, with a tiny four wheel flat bed between them, was a nonsense. Ferdinand's role in the overall plot was made utterly redundant, because Gordon is fully capable of pulling a single flat bed with a statue...!

Thomas and Henry in the woods

This was not the only instance of the short train being perpetuated. The amount of times engines run “light” - as in, on their own, across Sodor, is a further nonsense.

 

We had a scene in Henry's Happy Coal, where at the start of the episode, Henry and Thomas meet in some woods, and then meet again in the next scene at Knapford station. Simply put, why? It did not work as exposition.

 

Overall, the types of trains and the reasons for which they run have little relevance to reality or the children they are aimed at.

Spencer At Tidmouth

Can't see the rails for the fog

 

Spencer the Grand was one of those episodes which potentially had a decent concept, completely quagmired in the “three strikes” formula and a lack of research.

 

We're not really even talking about a basic understanding of railways. This is a basic understanding of reality. Trains are guided by rails. They are set to run on them.

Rails follow a set route. They don't just up and change at a whim. So if you run along the coastal track, you will run by the coast, and still end up at your destination, whether you can see far ahead or not.

Spencer lost in the fog

Trains run in fog, all over the world, almost daily. Line speeds are reduced to cope with the reduced visibility, and drivers are advised to proceed with caution when entering new sections of track.

Great Britain has had, historically, very few major incidents in fog over the course of the life of the railways, though when it has happened, as with the
Harrow & Wealdstone crash of 1952, it has come with horrendous damage and loss of life.

The great moral behind driving in fog, be it on rails or on road, is caution, and concentration.

A missed signal could be the difference between life or death. That is the issue here: the possibility of being able to make children aware of the dangers of fog, and the caution that must be taken when encountering it.

Henry pulls the train of tankers

Brakevans!

 

My biggest complaint with the CGI over the last few seasons has been the disappearance of the humble brakevan. I am delighted that this season, Greg Tiernan's team have brought them back, albeit, as he promised, “phased in” over the course of a season.

 

The trains also got longer, episode to episode, in the transitional scenes, culminating in a superb shot of Henry pulling a train of oil tankers (twelve in total) accompanied by a brakevan!

The next step is to see appropriate lengths of passenger and goods trains for the characters. Gordon's express trains should be anything between eight and thirteen coaches long, for example.

 

James' goods trains should be anything from ten up to twenty five vehicles (the real life James, L&Y Class 27, could of course pull a significant amount more).

Capable of more...

Thomas only normally pulls Annie & Clarabel, but the real life Thomas – the Billinton E2 – was a shunting engine, fully capable of arranging long goods and empty passenger stock (as seen in the original series).

 

It is these sort of alterations to the trains on show, and a change in the writing to focus on these types of trains, that will help cement the reality of the show whilst keeping it visually interesting, and relevant to the audience it is aimed at.

Belle...

The Standard 4MT

 

I was actually rather excited at the prospect of Belle joining the series. You'll know if you've been on the Sodor Island Forums, and my blog, Copley Hill, that I've got a weak spot for British Railways steam.

 

So when I discovered Belle was a British Railways Standard 4MT - lets just say I was looking forward to Belle's first appearance!

I was rather hoping the water cannons were not so Transformers-like that it ruined the clean looks of the prototype, but sadly they do, and its a shame. In fact, its bordering on criminal.

Toby doesn't know what to make of her either...

15 of British Railway's Standard 4MTs have survived the cutter's torch, and to introduce one as a character in the 15th season is an irony not lost on me.

The character's livery and design changes borders somewhere between Transformers and vulgar.

 

Prussian blue and red can work extremely well, if used sparingly. The red wheels, lined blue, do not work on any level, and would have looked significantly better if they were blue, lined red, or kept blue only.

She's a firin' her laaaaaazzaaaaaa!!!!

Subtle changes such as this, and the removal of the giant water cannons on the tanks, would have made the character an overall brighter character, and of course, more realistic.

 

I was disappointed with the buffers most of all – I am something of a rivet counter at times (!) and seeming reuse of Gordon's buffers was a shame. It's such a minor complaint, I feel rather bad for saying it. But the Standard 4MTs had oval buffers. It does change the look of the engines significantly at the front end.

On the whole, it was her role and personality that drew the most questions, the main one being, why it was felt a secondary engine, with water cannons in this manner, was needed as well as the road/rail fire engine, Flynn?

Fire Engines - steam locomotives converted to carry hoses - have existed previously, but never in this form, and certainly not with the class 4MT. We don't have talking steam engines in Fireman Sam - must we have fire fighting steam engines in Thomas & Friends?

It is a great shame that one of Britain's most distinctive classes, which has proved itself a highly reliable and powerful performer in preservation, was treated to such a makeover for this series. A missed opportunity too, to actually relate a little of the history behind the railways, and provide some entertainment not in the Season 15 formula so far.

Perhaps we could have an episode one day in the future, where Belle is “retired” from firefighting, repainted into British Railways brunswick green (as one class member has been in preservation), and allowed to share the express duties with Gordon...?

 

In any event, it was a shame to see a potentially interesting character so poorly developed in her only speaking role this season.

There's meant to be a fire in here BTW...

Fireboxes are meant to be on fire

 

The title almost says it all. Locomotive fireboxes can exceed 500 degrees celsius in temperature due to the heat. Given the inside of a locomotive's cab is normally all metal, being able to set the engine itself on fire is a trifle difficult, as metal does not burn: it either heats up to its specific latent heat, or melts.

 

One wonders how on earth Fiery Flynn was passed for production, simply on the basis of its almost unreal, and comical break from reality (“jumping the shark” doesn't quite cut it here), but we will cover the full problems of that episode in a later section.

Continuity

Bertie becomes the latest victim of the Bridge...

Shake it!

 

The “Shake-Shake bridge” makes an appearance in two of the Misty Island centric episodes – causing problems for the engines and Bertie the Bus. But in two specific episodes, where a heavy locomotive is in the script (first Hiro, then Gordon), the bridge mysteriously disappears...

 

Why is that exactly – could it be that the larger characters would have looked incredibly silly, bouncing around on the bridge itself? Or is this down to a desire to reserve the bridge itself for comedic effect with the smaller engines?

 

In any event, the continuity of how engines get to the logging station, and how they move about has been broken, and then confirmed by the use/non use of the Shake-Shake Bridge.

The Magic Loop Line

Loop the Loop

 

The “writer's-get-out-of-jail” clause is of course, the invisible loop line. Used no less than three times in one particular episode, managing to get around a balloon stuck in a tunnel (Up, Up and Away), and then used sporadically as and when necessary, such as getting around the derailed and undignified Gordon (James to the Rescue), and somehow allowing Thomas and Hiro to visit different areas of Misty Island in the same sequence as that they arrived in...(Happy Hiro).

Does Henry really NEED special coal?

Henry's Happy Coal, Man

 

By far the biggest continuity error this season was that of Henry's coal, something which has not been touched upon since the very first season, and bizarrely brought back for the CGI series. The episode Henry's Happy Coal, was one long catalogue of continuity errors.

 

Henry's rebuild in The Flying Kipper put a stop to the Welsh Coal (its correct term, as opposed to happy/special or other unintentionally implied drug references). That this was revisited, with the character in its rebuilt form is nothing short of bizarre.

Where did the third track go?

Gordon's Hill: Line Closed for Works

 

So many people picked up on this continuity error in Big Belle, that it would be heinous to miss it out.

 

Gordon's hill is a three track main line on one side, and then only a double track main line on the other side, a few moments later.

 

Could we at least keep some continuity between each scene in an episode?

The lesser seen Den and Dart

The Day of the Diesels Dilemma

 

The powers that be told us that Day of the Diesels was set prior to Season 15. That being the case, it was expected, after the announcement that Season 15 was to air early, that the new characters and locations would appear more prominently.

 

Characters such as Belle, Den and Dart, only made their non speaking debuts after eleven episodes, appearing as background characters only.

 

Halfway through the new season, and the stars of the chronologically ahead, but later released, Day of the Diesels, finally appear.

Diesel and two of his un-named pals...

Nobody was expecting the new characters to be touched on as lightly as they were, to the extent that newcomers Den, Dart, Sidney, Paxton and Norman, only appear (or as mentioned, in one diesel's case!) in the final two episodes of the series.

 

There were things said at the Misty Island Rescue premiere that have not come to pass. For one thing, it was fully expected that Diesel 10 was making a permanent return to the series, as a prominent villain and foil to the steam team.

 

Not even so much as a whisper on Diesel 10. No sight nor sound of the villainous leader of the diesels. It was with some surprise that the “new” Dieselworks only appeared twice, and both appearances limited to that in the last two episodes of the season.

Den laughs at Flynn

For a character whose presence in the series has been greeted with much anticipation, Season 15 proved a complete anti-climax for those fans expecting the diesel characters to feature in the series...at all.

 

When they did finally appear, and not as background characters, they barely spoke or did anything, save for following Thomas around looking for Christmas trees, or taunting Flynn the fire engine for not knowing where the emergency was (and deservedly so, but we'll cover that later).

"That's RIGHT!!!"

Yet there was a complete imbalance to the type of stories, and the characters used. The first three episodes focused heavily on the exploits of the three logging locos.

 

Ferdinand in the opening episode proved his existence is comparable to that of Jar Jar Binks: he says very little, he repeats himself over and over, he has an annoying voice, and he takes the focus away from the main stars of the show, the Awdry characters.

'Arry and Bert stalk Henry

Yet it must be said, it was expected fully that the diesels would make their mark, and get a run out. What we ended up with, was a single episode where 'Arry and Bert stalked and bullied Henry for a day, and two episodes right at the end which gave the diesel characters barely any screen time at all.

 

Given the way in which the diesel characters have been pushed, more and more, in terms of advertising and marketing, their unbalanced role in Season 15 is wholly surprising, and their overall importance rather misleading.

Grammar

Poor GRAMMAR?!!!

“To feel badly” actually implies that something is wrong with your sense of touch. To have this mistake repeated three times over the course of two seasons is an utter nonsense, when there is literature available, both on the net, and in the local libraries that will confirm this grammatical error.

 

There are more of course, and I could take the time to mention them all, but I would feel bad for the people from HiT Entertainment's writing team who'd have to read through their mistakes, over and over.

Alliteration

Toby didn't think much of it either

Where to begin. This season has been marred by some of the worst dialogue in any children's show.

 

Never mind the fact that most of it is copied and pasted from previous episodes, throughout the season, that we get sentences such as “an idea bounced in his bell”, which have make absolutely no sense, nor add anything to the episode in question, time and again is nothing short of poor writing for children.

 

In one of my episode reviews, I touched upon the importances of Phonemic Awareness, and why too much of something can be a bad thing. Thomas & Friends managed to alliterate its sentences, at a guess, around fifteen times and episode this season. The dialogue became woefully unrealistic, and hugely disconcerting too.

Would anyone really miss Ferdinand?

It must be said, most sincerely, that the voice actors for the characters, nor Michael Angelis, are to blame. They clearly love their work, and put great gusto into their voiceovers. But the writing is letting them down at every turn.

 

Characters with simple, repeated catchphrases (one logging loco spings to mind) become, not endearing, but irritating, and particularly when coupled with the most unnatural of dialogue, whereby a pair of twins start, finish, and even speak the middle of each other's sentences at will.

 

There is also a vast amount of redundant dialogue. We get Gordon groaning, both vocally and visually, on screen, coupled with Michael Angelis stating “Gordon groaned”. This is but one example, and there are dozens more.

Gordon huffed huffily...

One thing most notable about this series has been the change in the number of writers working on it. Out of a season of twenty episodes, one writer (Sharon Miller) has written fifteen episodes, with the other five episodes shared by five other writers (and one of those episodes was a collaboration).

 

We have been told repeatedly that the “hands are tied” where the writing team is concerned, and we keep hearing about these "higher ups" taking tougher and tougher stances with the writing team to ensure quality.

 

The more I look at this season, however, the more I think the problems of this show are entirely self-inflicted by the writing team.

The other two big HiT shows, Fireman Sam (HiT Entertainment's number two brand), and Angelina Ballerina fare much better in terms of storylines in comparison to their infinitely more profitable stable mate.

 

Their stories are by no means as formulaic as Thomas' are. They also forgo the alliteration completely, and focus on stories with clear beginnings, middles and ends, with reasonable and logical development of plot and characters throughout.

 

It is a shame that neither of these two programs have access to the brilliant artistic talents of Nitrogen studios, as whilst Thomas' animation flourishes, their animation is lifeless and plastic in comparison. This is but a single negative with regards two children's programs I hold in much higher regard than the entirety of Season 15, and the CGI Thomas & Friends seasons as a whole.

The Loss Of All Character

He's big and green, but what's Henry's role?

One of the things which has been noted by many of the more mature fans (and by a few younger fans), is that with the “Three strikes” formula in use, not only are storylines interchangeable in theme and train type, but they are completely interchangeable in the choice of characters too.

 

This has to some extent made many of the characters fulfil different roles in the same storyline throughout the season, and therefore share all the inferred characteristics at one point or another.

I touched upon this several times, particularly where the characters Henry, Edward, Spencer and Gordon were concerned. In the case of the latter two, they both act and work as almost the same character. In the case of Henry, it is a reversion back to a character who has long since moved on in development. The Welsh coal had not be heard of, or seen, since the first season, until the CGI changeover. Why it returned, and why it was pushed this season so markedly in Henry's Happy Coal, I simply could not say.

Edward - misintepreted

However, Edward's character development this season, was nothing less than an extremely poor interpretation of what Edward's character should be. Let's remember his greatest episodes:
 
Edward and Gordon. Saved from Scrap. Old Iron. Edward's Exploit.

Edward has always  been the hero of the piece. Not Thomas - Edward. From saving traction engines in peril, to steam engines in danger, to helping out on the hill, and getting the passengers home, Edward has always been the hero of Thomas & Friends, if not in number nor in profile, but most certainly in spirit.

On the cusp of true heroism in Edward's Exploit

This is a character who you wept for, when his wheels slipped, and something cracked! The character you urged on, as he tried to start the heavy train. Like the motionless passengers of the model series, you waited anxiously as his driver and guard, went along the train, adjusting the couplings. This is the character you cheered for, when he brought the train home - battered, weary, but unbeaten...

In short, Edward has always had that aspect of being a hero. It's what made him a great character, with many facets to his personality. Old, but undeniably wise. Kind, but hard working. Determined to always finish the job, no matter what.

Not the Edward we know and love...

The problem to some extent, is that the writers in the CGI series have fixated on the "old" part of Edward's personality, transferring that instead into being "weak". This in some respects, not only represents a negative stereotype (old equals weak), but it also means the other parts of Edward's personality - that his confidence and knowledge from his many years - is lost.

The inherent danger of a proper accident, and reacting well under pressure would have shown Edward up as the hero he has always been.

 

This much can also be applied to Flynn, as we will see in the next section.

I'm-a huntin' wabbits!

Then we come onto the subject of Percy. Poor, poor Percy. No other character in the series has been lost to the dire writing standards so much as he has. Not even Thomas has reached the levels of sheer stupidity that Percy continues on a daily basis.

 

Saying “Call to Acton” was one of the worst moments of the season. That, and deciding that balloons will always come back to your train after breaking free, that tunnels and balloons mix, and that sitting in the snow for the best part of a day is a good idea.

'Village Idiot' - Percy

Put simply, Percy has become the village idiot of Thomas & Friends. There is a significant difference between a character which has characteristics similar to a toddler, and Percy's level of stupidity.  Percy has always been cheeky, and somewhat clever in his own right – sometimes uninformed (see Percy and the Signal) but not so stupid that he hears a word, and then immediately gets it wrong.

 

Then of course, we have the non characterization of the new diesel characters, which appear in the last two episodes of Season 15, without as much as a by your leave.

 

Overall, the characters and their development felt poorly thought out, and poorly planned.

Danger Means Falling Down Something

Then there was the question of playtime on Sodor in Kevin the Steamie. I simply don't understand why it is felt necessary to have Thomas and/or Percy shoehorned into an episode to extoll the virtues of playing around, particularly in a dangerous area such as the steamworks.

 

The series should not be making it acceptable to play around with heavy, large metal objects whilst in a "hard hat" environment, and that is precisely what has happened here, with the use of two major characters playing around.

Accidents happen...

It should have been a case of "no, you play outside the steamworks. It is dangerous to play around in a confined space/dangerous area".

If the argument is that Kevin wasn't to know he shouldn't be bashing oil cans around a workshop, then what should have happened at the end was more of a stern telling off, Fat Controller style. Instead we simply get Kevin to fix his errors, and we move on.


We have already seen that the method of writing stories for this show is flawed. We have steam locomotives with no purpose, pulling trains from places, without destinations. However, we see there are more problems with the writing than first thought, as we have sometimes horrifying stunts being pulled, giving extremely mixed messages to the children this show is aimed at.

Thomas knocks a workman onto a ladder...

The dangerous messages being put out - that playing around in dangerous workspaces is fine, moving off while people are working on you is okay (Kevin the Steamie), that charging at someone at full speed will somehow get them out of trouble (James the Rescue Engine), that it is okay to up and leave when people are working to help you (Wonky Whistle), and many more besides.

 

The above are just a sample of the terrible concepts and acts which should have never got past the writing stage, simply on the basis that they are never resolved, and pointedly told that it is unacceptable behaviour.

James makes things worse...

Children are impressionable, that's part and parcel of growing up. If you see your heroes do something on screen, chances are you'll be imitating them later on. To that end, Thomas & Friends has lost the plot completely this season. Dangerous stunts, dangerous messages on personal safety, deriding people for being different - how has it come to this?

How did they get past the writing stage with this season?

Railway realism may sometimes have a dangerous stunt involved - like a crash scene - but, when they were shown in the original series of Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends, they always had a very firm, well voiced moral to the story that always resolved its issues.

Down The Mine

For example: snow and ice can be treacherous (The Flying Kipper, Season 1), signals must be understood and obeyed (Percy and the Signal, Season 2), playing around in a dangerous area can have severe consequences, but acting calmly can also prevent catastrophe happening (Heroes, Season 3).

In Down the Mine, one of the last episodes of the first season (and the pilot episode, in fact), Thomas throws his driver and fireman off the footplate in order to ignore a "Danger" sign, and go past it. Dangerous stunt, dangerous antics. But Thomas falls into a hole, and gets resoundingly told off by the Fat Controller.

Dangerous Stunt > Dire consequences > Telling off and resolution.

Henry and the Flying Kipper

It was shown to be unacceptable behaviour, and that's where the key difference between the episodes of old, and this season's dire episodes, lies.

There are so many more examples of the original series making the message clear its unreal: almost every episode had an incident, a moral, and a message relating in some way to safety and the correct way of doing things, with a clear and firm resolution at the end enforcing the idea that certain forms of behaviour are unacceptable.

On hand for praise - not blame

The series absolutely must return to this idea - railway realism, followed up by by a firm and clear emphasis on personal safety, and how a situation can be resolved safely.
 
When characters do dangerous stunts, they must be told off in equal measure and made to understand the severity of their actions, and suffer the consequences.

That the engines get away with bad behaviour is the biggest problem with the whole series and its writing as it stands, followed quickly by a severely poor understanding of railways in general, juxtaposed with the severely sub standard dialogue and character development.

Flynn fouls up once...

Fiery Flynn felt my wrath in its review this year, and rightly so. Its storyline was absolute reprehensible. The Fire Engine, Flynn, should be a symbol of calm, a sincere character who shows the engines the best way to deal with dangerous situations. The potential for a fire safety episode, or similar, was there.

 

But the writing let it down, and worse, turned it into a dangerous and completely inappropriate storyline.  The "three strikes" formula reared its ugly head, through producing arguably one of the worst episodes of Thomas & Friends ever made.

Flynn let Thomas down

The fire engine doesn't listen about who or where to go to prevent disaster happening, and goes meandering about Sodor, spraying water everywhere but at the actual emergency. This entire episode could be defined as the definite "what not to do" in terms of fire safety; in terms of personal safety also.

The episode in question did an absolute discredit to every single fireman worldwide.

 

It was poorly written, badly thought out, and conceived without a care for the ramifications of its stunts and actions.

 

That so much of Season 15 can be summed up with the above paragraph shows the substandard nature of the writing in general.

Final Conclusions

Oooooh!!!

There have been rumblings for a few months about changes being made to the way the episodes are written.

 

Of course, we on the Sodor Island Forums are on occasion privy to certain happenings in the world of Thomas & Friends, but to date we can only say for certain that change IS coming, it is just a matter of in what way, and when.

 

There were rumours flying around about Season 16 being the end of the current writing format, and to be frank, these rumours should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Toby at the Quarry with Bash

I'll even go so far as to say that everyone should be looking ahead to Season 17 for the big change.

 

Will the show go back to its roots? Undoubtedly, for it cannot get any further away from its humble beginnings without a name change to Trains-formers.

 

Will old characters return? I think everyone should read Greg Tiernan's interview for the fansite to see the possibilities. That one particular rumour –  older characters not returning as “unable to be scanned in”, has been completely rubbished is something both intriguing, and significant.

Thomas and Rosie at Knapford

There's been a lot of back and forth between members on the fansite as to the quality of Season 15.

 

Everyone is in agreement with one particular factor: the animation for Thomas & Friends is second to none. Watching any other children's show will make you realise just how good Thomas & Friends is, visually.

 

Greg Tiernan's Nitrogen Studios team should have won an award by now for their breathtaking animation, on a par with – if not, better than – some of the Disney-Pixar CGI animations on show at the moment.

 

And if they don't win an award soon, we'll send them a trophy ourselves!

Rocky the Crane

Watching Fireman Sam – HiT's no.2 brand – and comparing the animation, like for like, shows that Thomas is in a league of its own; but frustratingly marred by the incompetence of its writing team.

 

I say incompetence with absolutely no pleasure attached to it. I do not consider Thomas & Friends to be difficult to write for. I have seen fan fictions and fan films, which are of better overall writing quality than anything seen in this season.

 

There are scores of stories on the forums and websites: there are videos galore on Youtube.

Thomas and the logging locos

I should of course also aim the word “lazy” at the writing team for this season. Never have so many pieces of dialogue been cut and pasted from one episode into another, never mind the fact that they all follow the same basic storyline in any event!

 

That the last two seasons are, in comparison to those which precede it, completely and utterly bland in their conception, and in some cases, as outlined in this overview, verging on the inappropriate, is unacceptable.

 

Granted, Thomas & Friends is a brand name, and HiT Entertainment a business. A business, I might add, which is currently up for sale. It has to be profitable, and it has to be compelling viewing. It is significantly one of those: and not the other.

Thomas and Butch

There has been praise recently for a whole spate of other children's shows, aimed at similar audiences, and the one thing which marks Thomas & Friends out from the rest, is its writing.

 

The show has the fanbase; it has the merchandise, it has the animation, but in its most crucial area – that which will impact all of the above – the writing – Thomas & Friends has lost the plot over the course of the last two seasons and special.

 

I wish I could say that this was the end for this particular era of writing, but it is not yet the end. Fans and children alike must endure, at the very least, one more season and one more special of this writing format.

The restoration of fan's faith

There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon, however.

 

With the coming of The Railway Series, Book 42, this summer, and the rumblings from “those in the know” about a new writing format in the not so distant future...

 

Perhaps we can lay to rest the demons of Season 15 (and Season 16 to come), and look forward to a time when Thomas the Tank Engine returns to our screens, good and proper, with stories rooted firmly in the Awdry name and ethics, in its decent, compelling history.

The lesser seen Emily

Not only that, but with the return of much missed, and long lost characters, whose parts to play have been taken up by faceless, characterless beings, whose only role is to sell the brand, the toys, and nothing else.

 

Think not on what this season has done to Thomas & Friends. Think on what you can do to show your support for quality viewing, and supporting the roots of the franchise, which lies of course now, with Christopher Awdry.

 

Thank you for reading.