Why The Most F--ked Up Show On TV Is Thomas The Tank Engine
Thomas The Tank Engine chronicles the story of strange, sentient trains and their valiant efforts to create a blissful locomotive utopia. Or at least, that's what you'd think if you never watched the show. You see, behind the facade of a cute little show meant for toddlers is a dark reality that only those who spend ample time on the Island of Sodor are able to see. Thomas' home is a realm of fear and despair, of racism and hopelessness. And the only person immune to all of it is Thomas himself.
Thomas' Land Is Angrily Racist
Sir Topham Hatt, known in England as "the Fat Controller," is the unquestioned lord and mogul of the Island of Sodor, which sounds like the place where you're supposed to destroy the evil magic ring threatening the forces of good. The big man has an ever-growing collection of free-willed steam engine worker trains, and on the side are a full arsenal of diesel engines ready to be treated like hot trash. And not just by Sir Topham Hatt himself, who saves the important jobs for Team Steamie. The steam engines go out of their way to be disgusted by the diesels.
"Maybe rust and hypothermia will teach you to not be so ... diesely."
In the Misty Island Rescue movie, there's an early scene wherein Hatt tells the engines that whoever is the most "Really Useful" that day will get to take an important job. In the Thomas universe, "Really Useful" also stands for "Spared From Death," and the steam engines eagerly race off. But a diesel engine (conveniently named Diesel, because when you're writing about trains, names become a ridiculous construct) has the following exchange with cheeky douchebag Thomas:
Thomas: I hope Sir Topham Hatt chooses me! Every day I'm a Really Useful Engine!
Diesel: What about me, Thomas? I'm a Really Useful Engine, too.
Thomas: No, Diesel! I'm sure Sir Topham Hatt means a Really Useful steamie! You'll never be that!
That's the thousand-yard stare of a train who's never been hugged and never will be.
Isn't Thomas like the Mario of this series? Because I certainly don't remember the part in Mario 64 where the plumber told Toad, "You don't deserve to work, you lesser-than." Whenever Thomas does this, there are no repercussions for his actions, nor is he ever forced to say he's sorry. Thomas the Tank Engine's watch broke on fuck-the-world o'clock, and he's never getting it fixed.
Unsurprisingly, Thomas gets to sail off to do this major job. But before he goes, Hatt makes Diesel say goodbye and good luck to Thomas. What? Thomas opens up a dialog with "You're not good enough to do the work I'm doing," and then the train that got dissed is the one who's forced to give him a pep talk? The moral of Thomas The Tank Engine is that if you're patient enough, the people whom you're a dick to will eventually come around.
Forget to thank him for creepily stalking you, and he'll snitch about your being 30 seconds late with the cargo.
That leads me to the second half of the movie Day Of The Diesels, in which the diesel engines want to ask Hatt for a Dieselworks that's as nice of a place as the Steamworks. When that fails, the diesel engines kidnap Thomas, hiding him at the Dieselworks to use as leverage. They steal the favorite son of the island, only to say "Please. We just want a better home." They're that desperate. Also, early episodes of the show depicted the diesels as bumbling Cagney football hooligans at your local pub, creating a British class war for the ages.
Shane MacGowen The Tank Engine.
That's just the second half of the movie. The first half of Day Of The Diesels is about Thomas dumping his best friend, Percy, for a girl. When a new train named Belle comes to the island, Thomas takes a liking to her and shows her around. She shows interest in seeing the Dieselworks, because she's not bags of shit packed into steel, and Thomas declares (right in front of a diesel engine) not to go there, because it's dirty and full of diesels. When you're on a first date, it's good to leave the impression that you're an overwhelming racist.
On their second date, they replaced the diesels' fuel with raw sewage laced with water from Hatt's toilet.
Meanwhile, Percy, feeling lonely and rejected by Thomas, makes friends with the diesel engines, who try to get him to help them get a nicer place. And what does Thomas do? He certainly never apologizes, nor does he learn anything about friendship or understanding or being simply tolerable. And a lot of that is due to his heinous father, Sir Topham Hatt ...
The Ruler Of The Island Is An Insane Tyrant
That's just the way this bloated train mobster handles all his business on the Island of Sodor. Before he goes back to being unquestionably awful, you get the feeling that he doesn't necessarily mean to treat all of the other trains like garbage. Jabba the Hatt simply can't control his inexplicably obsessive love for Thomas.
In Misty Island Rescue, Thomas gets lost on the way to the Mainland. And while everyone frantically searches for him, no one is freaking out quite as much as Hatt. The loss of Thomas causes him to snap at the other trains, and he never accepts that they're looking hard enough. In one scene, Hatt compromises his sweet Monopoly Man railway garb as he waddles into the ocean to find a lost train. And when Thomas is found, Hatt throws off his hat, holds back tears, and says that he can always get another hat ... but he'll never have another Thomas.
Even the boat looks embarrassed.
Hatt's apathetic and abusive treatment of the other trains is constant. In "The Sad Story Of Henry," Henry refuses to leave a tunnel in the rain because he doesn't want to get his paint wet. That's understandable. On the Island of Sodor, you have to grasp at every last shred of dignity that you can. But Hatt responds in a manner that's akin to burning your house down because your microwave isn't plugged in. He walls Henry into the tunnel with bricks and leaves him there, like some Cask of Amontillado shit -- an act so notorious on the island that the tunnel is aptly renamed "Henry's Tunnel." Because that's what a good parent or boss does when their subordinates are acting up. You don't correct the behavior. You leave them in a hole to die.
"It puts the lotion on the engine."
Whether they're diesels or steamies, these living trains have one thing in common: finding ways to be Really Useful Engines. And because the ever-dreaded Smelting Yard (or as I call it, Freddy Krueger's Train Hell) has been brought up as a final threat / decaying place for those who aren't in top shape, it's in their best interest to remain Really Useful. Otherwise, their fate as scrap metal will be sealed. Funnily enough, the two engines that manage the Ironworks are diesels, because Thomas is too perfect to be surrounded by the unclean presence of death.
Nothing says "kiddie entertainment" like the ever-looming threat of flaming death the second you're not productive.
All the trains fear the Smelting Yard, and this is evident in the story of Hiro from Hero Of The Rails. An old, broken-down refugee train from Japan, Hiro hides in the fucking woods because he's that terrified that Hatt is going to decide that he's too old to be "Really Useful" and murder him. You know what a train is good for in the woods? Mostly nothing. But Hiro exiles himself to a life of decrepitude and loneliness, because it's better than Hatt's plan to burn him to death for not being Thomas.
"I call it 'hiro-kiri.'"
Or what about James, the bright red engine who, according to the theme song, is vain but lots of fun? Well, in "Tickled Pink," Sir Topham Hatt literally and figuratively strips James of his bright red dignity, and forces him to whistle around with a coat of pink paint for the delight of his granddaughter during her birthday party. James spends an entire episode hiding in tunnels and avoiding his fellow trains for the fear that they will make fun of him (and they very much do). Mix this with the fact that Hatt becomes enraged if you don't specifically address him as "Sir," and you end up with the PBS equivalent of Joffrey Baratheon.
Thomas Is Ruining The Legacy Of The Island
Why did the Fat Hatt declare Thomas to be Train #1? You might think that he was the first of his kind, but Thomas And Friends: The Adventure Begins shows otherwise, telling the story of how Thomas, then a green engine, was adopted onto Sodor, repainted, and treated more awesomely than the other preexisting trains on the island.
What happened to the original #1 engine? The old coffee-pot engine, no longer useful, got the boot. The end of the movie shows him weak, feeble, covered in moss, and telling Thomas to wear his #1 with pride. And Thomas, with the grace of a clogged toilet, carries the legacy of the island.
"Golly gee, kid, you'll do super! Especially if you killllll meeeeeee."
Thomas Is A Huge Jerk
Thomas comes off as the asshole in high school who's a dick to everyone, but still makes straight A's and gets all the ladies. But it's surprising how terrible he is at the jobs he's been constructed and instructed to do. Hatt never fails to put Thomas in charge of tasks he is not qualified to handle The only reason Hatt isn't ruling the Earth with an army of war trains is that Thomas sets them back 20 years with every job he's given.
In "Steamy Sodor," for example (which sounds less like an episode and more like something that happens after a night of IPA and Taco Bell), Hatt puts Thomas in charge of the Sodor Steamworks. In his new role, Thomas acts like the Grim Reaper, ready to send his fellow trains into the slush pile of unfixable disasters. He hangs them from the ceiling, decides to switch out coal in an act of train dialysis, and makes one horrific decision after the next, under the declaration of "I like being in charge."
Imagine your doctor draining your blood and replacing it with snake venom. Same diff.
But other than Hatt stating that Thomas is causing Confusion and Delay, there's no further action taken. Thomas is given ample time to realize his mistake -- that he should have listened to his peers and let them state what their ailments were. Fair enough. It is a kids' show. But Hatt, as discussed earlier, just isn't as patient with the other trains in his collection. If someone else made that mistake, he'd smelt them in front of their little train children.
For the crime of briefly talking with your mouth full, it's the Brick Tunnel for you!"
"No Snow For Thomas" shows him hiding his snow plow in the snow so he doesn't have to wear it or do his job of potentially saving the lives of other trains. The punishment is a quiet day alone in the sheds. In "Creaky Cranky," Thomas provokes a crane at the docks by telling him that he's weak and can't lift anything heavy. Isn't there work that you could be poorly performing somewhere, Thomas? Can you really afford to waste the day antagonizing the other machines?
As far as it concerns Thomas, yes he can. Cranky the Crane gets pissed off and tries to lift Thomas, resulting in the crane breaking. Hatt accuses Thomas of thinking it's a good time to try being a bird, and that he's causing more of that Confusion and Delay, but the matter isn't pressed any further. Thomas is now crippling other workers, and his master is content to wag his finger at him and then go back to more pressing concerns, like spreading the fear of mortality among the other trains.
"I sentence you to doing nothing and getting paid for it. Now get to relaxing!"
Finally, in "Wonky Whistle," Thomas doesn't wait to get his whistle fixed, so it sounds all messed up. A trailer full of animals is strapped to him, and every time he blows his fucked-up horn, more animals bail out.
It's not the worst thing he's ever done, but living organisms fleeing this destructive blue asshole is about as good of a metaphor as you can get about the humanity displayed on this show.
Thomas And Friends is a preschooler favorite. Children are seduced by the frequent train crashes and cast of exciting characters. So what harm does a little racism, denigration, death, and favoritism have in the grand scheme of things? We're just in it for the whimsical adventures. And the toys ... oh, so many toys. So many hateful, racist toys.
When Loryn isn't extracting insanity from cartoons or pitching other articles to Cracked, she's developing original cartoon pitches and finishing her magic realist YA novel. You can follow her on Twitter @lorynstone to see what other cool things she says, or on WordPress at www.lorynstone.wordpress.com, where she documents her adventures in writing.
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