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Thomas' Pixelated Pickle: Or The Year in Thomas
December 21, 2008 10:51 PM   Subscribe

Just over sixty years ago the Reverend W. V. Awdry told his sick son a series of stories based on real life incidents with trains, which he later wrote up as the Railway Series. Now Thomas the Tank Engine and the other engines of the Isle of Sodor (somewhere between Barrow-in-Furness and the Isle of Man) are a global phenomena, with toys, books and of course the TV series - filmed using model trains on more than 70 1:32 scale 16-by-20-foot sets, and voiced by the likes of Ringo Starr and Alec Baldwin. 2008 has been a rough year for Thomas: George Carlin, who voiced the series in the US up until 1998, passed away (previously), as did David Mitton, who had written and directed over 180 episodes (and who has previously worked on the special effects for Thunderbirds). There's changes ahead for Thomas as well - this year saw the faces of the engines, which had previously been cast in silicone and attached with double sided tape, replaced by CGI faces, and from 2009 onwards Nitrogen studios in Canada will be taking over production with an entirely CGI Thomas. Meanwhile a group of British students continues the tradition of model engine-based storytelling with their YouTube based British Railway Series.
posted by Artw (74 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yes, I have a Thomas obsessed child and now know far more about Thomas than anyone really needs to. Quite likely an over-the-top FPP on Pingu is in the future too...
posted by Artw at 10:53 PM on December 21, 2008


CGI will remove all the love from Thomas. The hand-crafted animation and effects are what make the series so special and unique; replacing that with computer graphics will make it just like every other animated show. I am frowning a frown worthy of Gordon.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 10:55 PM on December 21, 2008 [15 favorites]


There is something a little bit too FNAW FNAW about a VICAR writing a CHILDREN'S book series set on an island called SODOR.

Recently I found out that Sodor is not an odd, made up name – as I had assumed – but is steeped in history.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 11:05 PM on December 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


My son really enjoyed Thomas the Tank Engine, and we borrowed an omnibus of Awdry's original stories written in the late 40s and early 50s from the library. The stories are quite conservative, or even reactionary: Bulgy the "red" bus gets his comeuppance by being turned into a chicken coop after stirring up trouble preaching workers rights. The fat controller really does control the lives of the steam engines, who control the means of production, and are (in their Calvinistic way) doomed to travel on predestined tracks for the rest of their lives, and strive with all their might be to "really useful engines."

I thought it was interesting that original Thomas illustrator didn't know how to draw, and also refused to base the engines on real locomotives, although he lived in one of the larger rail centers in Britain.

I suppose the series is okay, but god I was glad when my son moved on to other interests (dinosaurs, cars, Transformers) because I hated buying the overpriced toys. And now we have a second son on the way...
posted by KokuRyu at 11:15 PM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


The fat controller really does control the lives of the steam engines...

A friend of mine bought some [I assume] pirated DVDs back from Saudi. They were for the American market and, surprise surprise, they had to f@cking change something, didn't they?

The Fat Controller is called Sir Topham Hatt. Bloody hell.

ps: I could have sworn I've already seen CGI episodes well before "this year" as the FPP states.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 11:25 PM on December 21, 2008


My nephew is currently obsessed with Thomas, and the first words he learned were all the characters names.
posted by empath at 11:28 PM on December 21, 2008


I'm forever grateful to this series for proving that Ringo can do more than count to four.
posted by Clave at 12:04 AM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


uncanny hengeman, I worked for a number of years on the American discs, and the official story is that the Fat Controller/Director was knighted post-nationalization for his services to the railway industry.

Why they felt American children needed to know this, I'll never understand. All I know is that drug use among British youth is up, and I have a sneaking suspicion that Thomas and his friends are partly to blame.
posted by infinitewindow at 12:10 AM on December 22, 2008


Our daughter is currently in the throes of Thomas-obsession as well - these links have been quite interesting! Thanks. I didn't realize the direction they were taking the show in.
posted by bdragon at 12:17 AM on December 22, 2008


Wasn't he always called "Sir Topham Hatt?" In the US at least...

And whatever happened to when it was called "Shining Time Station," starring Didi Conn and not just their voices, but actually Ringo Starr and George Carlin?

I never liked the kids or the weird jukebox interludes involved, but now that my nephews are obsessed and am old enough to realize who they are, I kind of miss seeing Ringo and Carlin.

Just for fun:

A Carlin clip. (6:30 is the best...)

And...

A Ringo clip. (possibly the first episode...Ringo 8:30-ish)

See what I mean about the kids and the jukebox?
posted by Kimothy at 12:23 AM on December 22, 2008


I used to watch Thomas all the time when I was home sick from school and then later when babysitting and enjoyed the show in small doses. But I have to say that the CGI faces look horrible, they should have stayed with the silicon faces.
posted by lilkeith07 at 12:43 AM on December 22, 2008


I'm pleased to say this show has always bored the arse off my little girl.

Fathers of boys, my commiserations.
posted by Wolof at 1:24 AM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


A socialist alternative to Thomas, by Metafiler's own chaschas
posted by bystander at 1:34 AM on December 22, 2008


All I know is that drug use among British youth is up, and I have a sneaking suspicion that Thomas and his friends are partly to blame.

I suspect this had more to do with it.
posted by vbfg at 1:46 AM on December 22, 2008


a series of stories based on real life incidents with trains

All of whom had big, rosy cheeks?
posted by dunkadunc at 2:14 AM on December 22, 2008


The Fat Controller is called Sir Topham Hatt. Bloody hell.

It wasn't just the American market they changed that for. They changed his name from The Fat Controler to Sir Topham Hat when they started making the TV series for the UK. A character called The Fat Controller was deemed to be politically incorrect.
posted by bap98189 at 2:39 AM on December 22, 2008


2007 wasn't such a good year for Thomas, either.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:51 AM on December 22, 2008


Oliver Postgate recently died. He created a wonderful train series called Ivor the Engine back in the late 50s. My (American) kids love it.
posted by tenmuses at 3:19 AM on December 22, 2008


Thomas is also under pressure from the likes of Chuggington and Underground Ernie (both CG).

Incidentally, most of the narration that people assume was Ringo Starr was actually another actor from Liverpool, Michael Angelis. Angelis narrated nine series as opposed to Starr's two, although US viewers had Alec Baldwin and Michael Brandon instead.

And yes, Thomas is very boring (unless you're under five, in which case it could well be the centre of your universe).
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 3:38 AM on December 22, 2008


My nephew, when small, couldn't tell the difference between reality and Thomas. He was able to recite entire stories, and would do so most of the time.

Kids are very odd. But then, I'm an Ivor man, myself.
posted by scruss at 3:55 AM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


My daughter was Thomas-obsessed aged three, had lots of toys based on the series, and watched the videos avidly. Until the fateful day when she saw The Flying Kipper, and was so traumatised by Henry's gruesome accident that she thereafter refused to watch any more, or play with any of the toys!

Oh, and BOO to the CGI remake.
posted by gdav at 4:28 AM on December 22, 2008


I'm sure most boys move on to dinosaurs or hot wheels, but I hold Thomas responsible for turning mine into a full-blown trainspotter. His fantasy vacation involves the Didcot railway centre and then going up to York to see the Mallard (fastest steam train evar!) Bonus points if we can go to Mt. Pilatus (Switzerland) to ride the world's steepest cog railway. Since we live in the USA, the best I can do is keep him going with maintenance doses of steam heritage railways in the Northeast.

Oh, and you think the Thomas toys are expensive? Take a look at model trains. (Or combine the two and marvel at how much an O gauge James will run you.)
posted by whuppy at 4:44 AM on December 22, 2008


There's apparently an interesting relationship between the Thomas series and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. From the link: 'Children with ASD seem to be particularly fascinated with Thomas... [they] often have the need to identify, list, collect and create lines with favorite objects. Thomas is especially suitable for these activities.' The ASD page also implies that the new CGI series will undermine these qualities: 'The unique stop-action photography of the videos allows the background and scenery to remain still, allowing for greater focus on the "big picture" with less distraction.' Not everyone agrees though, arguing that the series' relentless emphasis on disaster is actually the big draw.
posted by jonathanbell at 5:29 AM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


They only had the books when I was little so the who TV & toy thing has passed me by. I have seen the Mallard, Didcot, and a fair few steam trains in my time too. And my Dad still has a model railway running around his loft.

Of course the Fat Controller would never be the same after having his good name sullied in Will Self's first book.
posted by i_cola at 5:29 AM on December 22, 2008


Another link: Children with autism and Thomas the Tank Engine at the UK's National Autisitic Society.
posted by jonathanbell at 5:31 AM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yeah, another Thomas toy/series enabler here. Weirdly enough, the first time I saw the Thomas series, I thought the series was all about getting people in the UK used to bad infrastructure and time delays. I mean look how many disasters the engines go through including collisions, cow confrontations, broken rails, reckless behavior, missed connections, overheated boilers and a plethora of problems. Seriously, you know that Harold the Helicopter though an obnoxious jerk, is right about the fixed track transport system.
posted by jadepearl at 5:37 AM on December 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


My daughter loves Thomas, and trains of all sorts. I just bought her her first wooden Thomas locomotive (Edward) for $25 CDN. $25!!! Crazy! Luckily she isn't the type to need every single one...

I also boo the CGI version. Seriously folks, Thomas is not a series which should be digitized.
posted by Vindaloo at 6:07 AM on December 22, 2008


*George Carlin* voiced this show?

*boggle*
posted by DU at 6:45 AM on December 22, 2008


Actually, Carlin's gravelly voice was very soothing. He had a pretty sweet "kid's TV" persona, and sounded like your friend's nice grandpa telling you stories about mentally deficient, accident-prone, yet self-aware trains.

My son can't decide if he like Thomas more or Bob the Builder. We push Bob whenever we can, since his mentally deficient, accident-prone, yet self-aware construction equipment at least has more interesting human characters to interact with.
posted by emjaybee at 7:04 AM on December 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


Count me as another parent whose son loves these trains. He has a whole drawer full, but only because I can pick up a bunch at garage sales -- about $5 for 10 trains. Combined with my husband's original Brio tracks, and we've got a pretty good set going.
posted by debgpi at 7:29 AM on December 22, 2008


I'm pleased to say this show has always bored the arse off my little girl.

Bores the arse off of my little girl and infuriates my wife with its Victorian sense of propriety and compliance as proper social behavior for young children. Oh how I do love to turn it on Saturday mornings!
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:50 AM on December 22, 2008


But then of course, we're a Curious George house through and through, which drives me bonkers. In what world does a primate get free reign to cause as much property destruction and loss of time as George and not get euthanized? And for that matter, why can't that country bumpkin Bill, who always extols the virtues of folk wisdom ("Boy George, you sure are smart for a city kid") not even recognize the fact that he's talking to a fucking monkey?
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:54 AM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


CGI will remove all the love from Thomas.

Having been through the "Thomas phase" with two sons (one Autistic, interesting links jonathanbell) I shudder at the thought of CGI Thomas. The scale models (and the faces most of all) are what gave TTTE it's unique charm.

'Children with ASD seem to be particularly fascinated with Thomas... [they] often have the need to identify, list, collect and create lines with favorite objects. Thomas is especially suitable for these activities.'

My younger son will often line up engines (In a specific order of course) on the counter, close one eye and go up and down the line staring at their little faces. The only other toys he really does this with are his Pixar Cars so I'm assuming that the faces are some kind of draw for him. He's stopped watching his Thomas videos but the engines remain popular. Fie on soulless CGI engines. Computers do don't "cheeky" well.
posted by MikeMc at 7:57 AM on December 22, 2008


CGI can do charcterfullness *very* well, if it's done by Pixar. I suspect this will be more VeggieTales than Wall-E though.
posted by Artw at 8:09 AM on December 22, 2008


YouTube channel with all the Thomas songs
posted by Artw at 8:10 AM on December 22, 2008


CGI Thomas? Should I even bother having kids now?
posted by JBennett at 8:35 AM on December 22, 2008


The Fat Controller is called Sir Topham Hatt. Bloody hell.

I think the names are used interchangeably in the US market...I definitely remember calling my Thomas-obsessed little brother "The Fat Controller" when we were much younger.

I was being a jerk and not a very useful engine.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 8:36 AM on December 22, 2008


Sodor always sounded to me like a portmanteau of "Sodomy" and "Mordor." I confuse my children when I insert "One does not simply walk into Sodor" into the stories and then start giggling.
posted by bibliowench at 8:54 AM on December 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


For some reason I always want to conflate it with the city of Smallville - "The Isle of Sodor... is under attack!!"
posted by Artw at 8:56 AM on December 22, 2008


You have to admit CGI is kinda miraculous, though. Is there anything, no matter how beloved, revolutionary, traditional, or historic, that can't be stripped of its life by the delicious magic of CGI and digital editing? It's a wonder drug, I tell you.

Having an imagination distracts us from buying things.
posted by sonascope at 9:11 AM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm still waiting for Tootle and Thomas to team up in the ultimate trains crossover ever. (Maybe one of them could even pull the little red caboose, and scuffy the tug boat could ride one of tootle's flat beds)
posted by drezdn at 9:12 AM on December 22, 2008


They would fight some drug pushers or something.
posted by drezdn at 9:13 AM on December 22, 2008


The Fat Controller really should have lost his job years ago considering how often the trains end up derailed, breaking freight, or driving through people's houses. It's almost as if the people of Sodor stopped expecting their trains to run smoothly after the James and the Bootlace incident.

"The express is late again? Oh well, Gordon's probably just being cheeky."
posted by drezdn at 9:18 AM on December 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


CGI? No, it's no longer Thomas. It may be an approximation of Thomas, in the way that a gross caricature is. But it's no longer Thomas (or James, or Gordon, or Emily, or....Bah. Guess I'll be hoarding the "real" episodes.)

I love this show far more than my kid does. :P
posted by Floach at 9:36 AM on December 22, 2008


CGI will remove all the love from Thomas.

True. CGI and diesels are not to be trusted.
posted by R. Mutt at 9:38 AM on December 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


The Fat Controller really should have lost his job years ago considering how often the trains end up derailed, breaking freight, or driving through people's houses.

You've got to wonder how big Sodor is, that it needs such a well developer rail system. I suspect backhanders.
posted by Artw at 10:05 AM on December 22, 2008


True. CGI and diesels are not to be trusted.

Nor Troublesome Trucks. Everyone forgets about the Troublesome Trucks.
posted by MikeMc at 11:21 AM on December 22, 2008


They would fight some drug pushers or something.

Drug pushers are so '70s. They would work for Homeland Security or MI5 fighting jihadists.
posted by MikeMc at 11:31 AM on December 22, 2008


I figure they must have some very strange criteria for narrating a children's show, considering the list of narrators has included a former cocaine addict, a guy who beat his wife nearly to death in an alcoholic rage, and a guy who called his young daughter a, "rude, thoughtless little pig".

That said, my son loves the series and playing with the trains.
posted by stinkycheese at 11:46 AM on December 22, 2008


True. CGI and diesels are not to be trusted.

But what about BoCo? What about Bear?

Which, btw, reminds me, CGI or plastic faces, what the heck is up with inventing new engines like Rusty while a fine engine like Bear totally gets ignored?!
posted by Reverend John at 1:36 PM on December 22, 2008


Err, Salty, I mean.
posted by Reverend John at 1:36 PM on December 22, 2008


We were Shining Time Station people when my son was small. I didn't even know there was another version of Thomas! It was awesome because my best friend also had a small, Shining Time Station obsessed child and we both had crushes on Tom Jackson, playing Billy Twofeathers, who was, IIRC, sort of a wandering character who came in and out with no real purpose other than to let my friend and I sigh on the phone to each other. "He's so cute!" Oh wait, I just looked him up and he was supposed to be an engineer.

Hey, those are tough years, those Terrible Two Thomas years. You need a Tom Jackson in your life to get through them.
posted by mygothlaundry at 1:52 PM on December 22, 2008


Mr. Conductor is a tiny man who lives in a switch house inside the station's mural and tells the stories of Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends to the kids. He can teleport in a cloud of his magic gold dust.

Wait, is this where all the bullcrap with Lady and magic gold dust started?
posted by Artw at 2:07 PM on December 22, 2008


Wow, Thomas and the magic railroad, which introduced Lady and seems to have been spawned by Shining Time Station, really sounds horrible. I've an idea that it was the book version of this story (When not fighting other kids at the B&N Thomas Table my kid drags rnadom books out of the shelves and insists I read them to her) that confused and angered re: Lady in the first place. It's just so... unThomasy. Thomas has trains that talk and have faces but are otherwise are realistic engines doing realistic enginey things, introducing a bunch of stuff about magic conductors and gold dust is just wrong!
posted by Artw at 2:15 PM on December 22, 2008


Actually, Carlin's gravelly voice was very soothing. He had a pretty sweet "kid's TV" persona, and sounded like your friend's nice grandpa telling you stories about mentally deficient, accident-prone, yet self-aware trains.

Mom of a 2 year old Thomas famatic, here. I much prefer George Carlin to the Alec Baldwin narrated stories. Baldwin's style is sort of off-putting - reads the scripts as if he were auditioning for a poorly written, stereotype-laden play about a group of gay men living Greenwich Village, circa 1964 (start at 45 seconds).
posted by echolalia67 at 2:26 PM on December 22, 2008


...a former cocaine addict...

Pssst. On the snow episodes that's actually cocaine!

(Actually i would kind of like to know what they use for snow. It doesn't quite look like flour or salt - talcum powder maybe? Or icing sugar?)
posted by Artw at 2:38 PM on December 22, 2008


You've got to wonder how big Sodor is, that it needs such a well developer rail system. I suspect backhanders.

It's about 50 miles from Barrow to Douglas... so that'll make it about twice as big as the Isle of White (if it's a tight fit)

The Mapping of Sodor
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:41 PM on December 22, 2008


My three and a half year-old son is totally and completely train obsessed, but doesn't care a fig about Thomas. Instead, he can recite more or less the entirety of the New York subway system, including any number of lines which, sadly, do not exist. ("This is the Bronx bound N express train. The next stop on this train is . . . London! Stand clear of the closing doors please. DOO-doo!") These have helped keep the execrable "useful" Thomas out of our house.
posted by The Bellman at 2:41 PM on December 22, 2008


Are they "shiney and clean"?
posted by Artw at 2:52 PM on December 22, 2008


I'm forever grateful to this series for proving that Ringo can do more than count to four.

Okay, I guess I will be the valiant defender of Ringo.

Ringo was a fucking great drummer; however, the point wasn't made that he sucks necessarily, but that he couldn't play in other than common time. So... listen to She Said She Said. The bridge goes: 2 measures of 4/4, 3 of 3/4, and then 4 alternating measures of 6s & 3s. And he is laying down pure groove (like he always did!)

Or, listen to Good Morning Good Morning for fuck's sake! What is even going on in the verse? (Give up? It's 10/4 --> 12/4 --> 9/4 --> 14/4) And yet, he is not only dead-on, but actually interacting with the vocals in a prominent & pleasing manner. He's no Zach Hill or Neil Peart or Thomas Pridgen, but he was great. Ringo could frankly be amazing.

Sources.
posted by synaesthetichaze at 2:53 PM on December 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


He still won't sign anything for you...
posted by Artw at 2:54 PM on December 22, 2008


My son can't decide if he like Thomas more or Bob the Builder. We push Bob whenever we can

One of the reasons I enjoy Thomas so much is that by comparison with other children's shows it is so relaxed and intelligent. I can't stand how every character on Bob the Builder has to shout! their! lines! and act over-excited all the time. Those machines seem to me rather dumb and shallow. The Thomas characters, in contrast, are generally quite clever and their personalities have a degree of depth and warmth that is found only in the best of the genre (like in Winnie the Pooh). And when they talk, the voices are done by the narrator in a normal tone of voice that I find soothing. The excited, shouting sounds of Bob's friends are very irritating. Dora and her friends are also annoying in the same shouty way.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 2:58 PM on December 22, 2008


"No, he's not even the best drummer in the band."
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:24 PM on December 22, 2008


From the screengrabs Ringo appears to be turning into Travis Bickle.
posted by Artw at 3:31 PM on December 22, 2008


Both my kids were huge Thomas fans, but we all noticed the authoritarian messages in a lot of the shows. At one point we were all watching the Fat Controller chewing out Bill and Ben in his usual pondorous way - "Bill and Ben, behave yourselves..." and my son piped up "You can go to Hell!" in a pitch-perfect imitation of Bill's voice.
posted by gamera at 4:40 PM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Heh.

As mentioned on the toys thread, there’s something to be said for the “stop being a special snowflake” message in a lot of Thomas stories.
posted by Artw at 4:52 PM on December 22, 2008


there’s something to be said for the “stop being a special snowflake” message in a lot of Thomas stories.

I've heard it used as a criticism of the series, but the way it's presented in the Thomas stories is a pretty accurate representation of real life. Everyone gets stuck "shunting freight" and other boring tasks from time to time.
posted by drezdn at 7:21 PM on December 22, 2008


Tender engines don't shunt!
posted by Artw at 9:29 AM on December 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Just in case you were wondering: For Christmas My daughter got the Thomas Sheds, a crane and a whole bunch of engines (mostly diesel, since she had none before_. The sheds completely bugger up my ability to make any kind of sensible track on teh little table we have set up, so I might have to pick up a whole bunch of short track peices and male-to-male adaptors. She's kind of showing an interwst in fitting the tracks together herself, which is kind of cool.
posted by Artw at 10:36 AM on December 26, 2008


Believe it or not, I was interested.

My Nephew got some tracks and a shed [station?] and a couple of models with bonus track pieces. There were a couple of weird gaps that looked like they needed a male-male piece. WTF? This necessitated some redesign and manhandling of the track.

But then, I wasn't involved in building it. Bro-in-law blamed it on the extra pieces that came with the models. One of them was an orange fella called Billy who I've never head of before.

Interesting that the model train bodies are sturdy, heavy, die cast metal.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 10:48 PM on December 26, 2008


Pretty much all of the Thomas track special peices seem to terminate on female connectors, even some of the ones you'd expect to fit into the flow of the track, making the adaptors pretty important. A lot of toystores sell the offbrand ones individualy for cheap, which saves buying the Thomas branded box set of adaptors (or silliness like this).
posted by Artw at 11:10 PM on December 26, 2008


Interesting that the model train bodies are sturdy, heavy, die cast metal.

Ah, that would be the stuff in a slightly different size that goes with the plastic track.
posted by Artw at 11:11 PM on December 26, 2008


Ah, that would be the stuff in a slightly different size that goes with the plastic track.

Amongst friends I reckon I've seen four different types or scales of trains, and three different types of tracks, two of which have matching guage but different connectors.

Good gravy.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 11:39 PM on December 26, 2008


So far we've only got a little of the metaltrain/plastic track stuff from well meaning relatives, but really we're settled on the wood train/wood track stuff.

I bet this causes some awesome freakouts with older kids when grannie buys the wrong kind of Thomas for Christmas.
posted by Artw at 11:42 PM on December 26, 2008


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