My son turns three today and while I actually did buy him a real birthday present (a NY Mets shirt–gotta start him early!), I wanted to write an entry about something in pop culture that he likes. Now, three-year-olds are not exactly discerning consumers. He’ll sit and stare at the most random crap for at least ten minutes before he gets distracted by one of his toys. However, since last Christmas, he definitely has had a love of Thomas and Friends, the British-produced, PBS-aired television show where model trains get into all sorts of adventures. He has several of the motorized train toys and a mile or two of tracks which I can configure several hundred ways. He’s also got several DVDs, most of which are collections of various episodes from the series.
One of his favorite DVDs, Calling All Engines, is a “full-length” episode of the show, meaning that it’s an entire hour as opposed to several stories in the span of 30-60 minutes. The story is pretty simple–of course, it has to be considering it’s geared toward preschoolers–a new airport is going to be build on the Island or Sodor (where every episode takes place and which has weather patterns so varied that it must take up half of the Western Hemisphere) and Sir Topham Hatt wants all of his engines to aid in construction. The steam engines get to work but them run afoul of the deisel engines. They all fight, get reprimanded after nothing gets done, but then pull together at the end.
There’s lessons in there about teamwork and friendship and making sure you are a professional when you’re on the job, but when you have seen it as many times as I have, you begin to see subtle undertones, especially when it comes to the trains’ lord and master, Sir Topham Hatt.
Topham Hatt is the owner of the railway, was obviously knighted by The Queen (we assume this is Elizabeth II, considering the way she dresses in the one episode in which she appears), and a taskmaster. I can’t tell what his political leanings are, though. I would assume that since he is a subject of the British crown, he is a definite capitalist; however, the way he emphasizes being a “useful engine” you’d think he was Adolf Hitler or something … then again, non-useful engines don’t get much more than a scolding about causing “confusion and delay.” Obviously, he thinks that he does a great job at making the trains run on time (maybe he’s Mussolin?) because every time there is “confusion and delay” on the railroad and he finds out, he’s in the middle of doing something non-work related: eating a jelly donut, sitting down for a fish supper, shave, getting a blowjob from a prostitue, etc.
But since we have a full-length, 60-minute story with something as huge as airport construction (although seriously, this thing finished looks like the old terminal at MacArthur. It’s not like they’re building LaGuardia or Kennedy here) as a maguffin, we get to see a lot more of his management style and skills, especially when there’s a schism between the steam-powered trains and the diesel powered trains. This begins when Thomas and Percy have words with two diesel engines at the yard, and then Thomas decides to play a prank on the diesel engines.
With the viewer’s help, by the way. Seriously, the DVD story stops and the narrator–Michael Brandon, who has an accent that sounds as if Jerry Seinfeld had spent the last decade or two in England–asks the kids how Thomas could fuck with Diesel so he won’t do his job right. Uh, what are you teaching my kid here?
Okay, the prank proves to be more than Thomas bargained for because Diesel’s job was to deliver some wood for the steam engines’ new home (the construction of which was NEVER PREVIOUSLY MENTIONED up to this point and you’d think that Topham Hatt would have told them about this because he is going to be invonveniencing every one of the steam engines for the better part of a week or two while the building is renovated/constructed … PLOT FAIL, THOMAS AND FRIENDS!), so there’s a lesson learned about potential consequences for being a shit. And this makes Thomas realize that he should probably being to right things between the two types of engines.
Oh, but not before there is an all-out gang war.
I’m not kidding. Over the course of a couple of montages (one of which includes a song about how steam engines do things better than diesels), the trains throw down like they’re the sharks and the jets. Paint goes flying. Engines get dirty. No work gets done. And Topham Hatt? Well, he is pissed off. He doesn’t want a turf war going on, especially since this is his turf and who the fuck do these trains think they are? He wants a new goddamned fucking airport built and he wanted it built yesterday because if it’s not, then Sodor will fall into ruin due to a collapsed tourist industry and all of the engines will be rendered utterly useless!
This tirade by Topham Hatt (and I may have embellished it a little there) precedes a maniacal dream sequence that was obviously done by an uncredited David Lynch where engines are forced to endure humiliating fates, like becoming playgrounds and chicken coops. Thomas, however, dreams about an engine named “Lady” (which … “Lady”? Really? That’s the name my aunt gave her freaking dog …) who tells him something about engines always finishing their jobs. And after that dream, he and Mavis get all of the engines together for a huge summit to get the airport finished.
Topham Hatt learns about this while he’s doing his usual off duty task of schmearing a bagel, eating an English breakast, doing lines off of his secretary’s thighs, etc. and is alarmed. Now, I know that I’ve watched this thing a ton of times and the ending will never change but just once I’d like for Calling All Engines to take a left turn into Maximum Overdrive territory and for Thomas to tell Topham Hatt to go to Hell, Sodor is theirs for the taking and rip his head off and run his hat up the flagpole as a warning for all the human citizens of the island to leave, submit to their rule, or be executed.
But no. Instead, we get everyone working together, a lesson about how working together makes things better, instead of being a selfish prick (Ayn Rand would not like this movie) and at the end of it all, the airport is built and everyone is happy!
It’s not that bad of a show to sit through for an hour, compared to the newer seasons of this show, which are computer animated and the mouths of the engines move in a really creepy fashion, whereas in the previous seasons the show was done using live model animation, which was unique and fun. The CGI, quite frankly, removes all of the show’s charm. But if this keeps me from having to watch the demon seed that ruined Sesame Street, or Dora and Diego, I’ll take it. Happy Birthday, buddy!