Scary stories from a lovely place
We watch a lot of Thomas and Friends around here. Anything train related is held in high regard by my children.
Thomas the Tank Engine lives on the Island of Sodor, which boasts a remarkable range of bustling industries for its size. Mining, tourism, building, shipping and agriculture are just a few of the activities that the residents of this picturesque locale engage in. But the focus is on the personnified trains, and a few other vehicles like buses, trucks, cranes, cars and tractors.
Thomas was invented by Rev W Awdry for his son and then together they successfully published it for many other people’s sons (and daughters). There are now countless series of the show as well as feature length movies and all manner of merchandise.
But the Thomas I am now subjected to is not the Thomas I remember as a child. Firstly, the animation is completely different. Old School Thomas is all models; trains, people, mountains, storms, fog, collisions, docking ships, troublesome trucks and rude lorries. Viewed in the light of what animation can do today, it appears pretty unimpressive. But the more I watch Old Thomas the more I am blown away by the scope of detail and the labour that must have gone into each episode. New Thomas is standard computer generated animation.
The way the trains speak to each other and even their entire personalities has changed dramatically. In Old Thomas the trains have middle aged opinions and voices, while in New Thomas they are much ‘younger’, like children even. In Old Thomas they are more aggressive in the way they relate. And the aggression isn’t only spared for the antagonists in the show (the trucks, lorries, Diesel engines and any visiting ‘city’ engines). In Old Thomas everyone is rude to everyone else. Even Percy, who in New Thomas is decidedly soft in the way he speaks, is incredibly rude and forthright – “I won’t let him carry my mail”!
Perhaps because it is a British show there is a strong emphasis on class, and this is expressed through the voices of the trains. The larger engines like Henry and Gordon have posh accents while Percy speaks in lower class cockney. Visiting Engines from the mountains speak with rural, even Welsh, accents (and they have buck teeth?!). This aspect is unchanged from Old to New Thomas, consistent with unchanged British attitudes to class. There is effort in New Thomas to keep up with political correctness. In Old Thomas the human characters all have snow white skin, while in New Thomas there are many black drivers, children and workmen.
Another aspect of the story that does change is the development of the animosity between the Steam and Diesel engines. The fractured relationship is there in Old Thomas, but that’s because everyone is frustrated with everyone all of the time. In New Thomas the trains are all friends, everyone helps each other, everyone advises each other, everyone loves each other. But this love does not, repeat, does not extend to the Diesel engines. In New Thomas there is even a song about how the Diesel’s are bad because they are different – because they are oily and not clean like the Steamies. This is as close to sanctioned discrimination as you will find in entertainment for little kids.
Recently we watched (over and over) a movie length New Thomas called ‘Day of the Diesel’s’. Basically the plot is as follows; the Diesel Engines live in poverty in a run down, dirty shed while the Steamies live it up under the paternal rule of the Fat Controller. Diesel Ten (a scary Engine with a claw) decides that he and his comrades deserve better and so hatch a plan to take over the Steamies shed. Havoc reigns until eventually everyone agrees to get along, while the Steamies continue to look down on the stinky, dirty Diesels. Besides feeling sympathy for Disel Ten’s cause I also thought it was too ‘dark’ for my young, young audience. I prefer the bald-faced aggression of Old Thomas to the psychological warfare of New Thomas.
As far as kids shows go, Thomas, no matter what era, is pretty painful. The Engines in New Thomas act like children. In each episode they make a rash decision. They are then chastised, see the error of their ways and make efforts to fix the problem. It’s clearly intended to send subliminal messages to kids about the way they ‘should’ behave. This agenda doesn’t seem to exist in Old Thomas. Here the intention of the stories is pure entertainment – to shock, thrill or delight the kids. I don’t get why this isn’t enough. Why must children’s television be ‘educational’ (even though most of it is actually proven not to be) or in some way condition their behaviour?
And so, even though I hate watching it, I like the way Old Thomas brings pleasure to my kids. I like it when Silas shouts “oh dear” when there is a crash or laughs when Thomas’ eyes spin around. Even though the technology is far less superior to its modern counterpart, I think the pleasure is increased in Old Thomas, which is why it’s my preferred mode of train related visual torture.