Tuesday 10 October 2017

Thomas the Tank Engine returns clean from rehab and looks to the future.

Discovered languishing and shit faced with James. Thomas the Tank Engine has had a rough week. But luckily his 'Friends' (get it?) are here to help out the cheeky billionaire in his hour of need.

Ryan Hagan of Sodor Island Forums takes over the Bash Mash to explain.

Contrary to the previous Bash Mash article, rumours of Thomas the Tank Engine’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Thomas is going through his biggest format change to date and there’s some natural apprehension from long-time fans of the series, who have a clearly-defined perspective of how and what the series and stories should be.

From 2017’s Journey Beyond Sodor and partway through Series 21, Thomas and his friends have been able to make more expressive movements, moving their frames to sway, lean and bounce to make them a little more ‘human’ – albeit, not as exaggerated as Chuggington.  Market research by Mattel has found that this is something kids will respond to, and provide a fun visual element to the series.

In recent years, it’s also been found that Thomas & Friends has a serious contender for the world’s favourite Pre-School Brand title.  Peppa Pig and her muddy puddles provided a slight irritation and a few butterflies in the stomach, but Paw Patrol’s sweeping popularity is causing some serious headaches at Mattel, taking a real bite out of Thomas’s market share.  Very bright, colourful and fast-paced, it’s enraptured a lot of kids and currently appears to be occupying that “Sweet Spot” as the Must-Have Kids Toy of the Moment – like Peppa Pig, Teletubbies, Furby and Buzz Lightyear before it.

In a bid to combat this and refresh the series, Mattel performed extensive market research across Thomas’s major territories to find ways and means of improving the performance of the brand across merchandise sales and television ratings.  The result has been an overhaul of the series format, which will make it more gender-inclusive and multicultural, with more fast-paced stories, featuring fantasy elements and musical sequences throughout the episodes.

Thomas has been subject to two major format changes – the first in 2004 with Series 8, where the cast was streamlined to eight focus characters – nicknamed the “Steam Team”, who became the primary focus of the series – this was to re-establish the core characters, and aid familiarity for new viewers.  It re-established Thomas & Friends in the United States, and proved a successful move.  In 2009, the move was made to full CGI and away from the traditional models.  Viewing figures rose as a direct result.  However, these two changes remained sympathetic to the established series, whilst Thomas’s next format change is due to be on a much larger scale.

Thomas & Friends: Big World, Big Adventures is due to launch in 2018, first with a 70-minute film where Thomas will begin an adventure taking him on a journey across five continents, followed by a 26 episode series of the same name.  The series will feature stories from his Round the World trip, and from what can be inferred from the recent press-releases and interviews ahead of the relaunch, seeing what his friends on Sodor are up to as well upon his return.  On a personal level, so long as there’s a South African Garratt and a Darjeeling B-Class, I’ll be happy.

However, there have been some creative decisions which have caused a bit of upset among the older fans.  In a recent episode, A Shed for Edward, Edward the Blue Engine – the first character to be featured in the Rev. Awdry’s stories – left the home of seven of the series’ eight central characters at Tidmouth Sheds, and went to live at Wellsworth Station in his own shed there.  This has led to widespread speculation that Edward has been downgraded from central character status to recurring or background roles to make way for new female characters to fill the space left.  Given that these eight core characters aren’t the sole focus of episodes as they were back in 2004, I’m not unduly concerned about Edward’s future role in the series.

Similarly, the role made famous by Ringo Starr has been removed entirely from the series – Thomas himself will now be our ‘Storyteller’, introducing the episode and its theme, and proceed to be our guide on his journey in order to make the series more interactive and immersive for kids as he goes on his journey.  The Storyteller has been a central figure from the beginning, and as much as the role has became marginalised over time, it's comforting to have someone to fill in gaps in knowledge which can't be done as convincingly in dialogue or visual exposition.  I’ll miss Mark Moraghan’s enthusiastic narrative throughout the upcoming episodes.

I’d be more apprehensive about these changes if they hadn’t been handled by the team who has restored Thomas back to his former glory.  The series’ Railway Consultant, Sam Wilkinson is both a life-long fan of the series and been very active and passionate in the railway preservation world since his teens.  Creative Executive Ian McCue made it his mission to draw Thomas back to a standard of storytelling which the Rev. Awdry would (hopefully) have approved, whilst maintaining a balance of fantasy and fun to appeal to the target audience, which he has done with excellent proficiency throughout his tenure with the brand, with the brilliant Andrew Brenner helming the new writing team for the series as Head Writer.  I only have praise for current Producer, Micaela Winter, who’s been assigned a weighty task in reimagining the series for a new generation and implementing changes to compete in a challenging market.

I can only really speak for myself in this regard, but I have faith in the team running Thomas & Friends right now.  Mattel want to ensure the survival and growth of the brand in the face of fierce competition, and let’s face it, when you’ve spent £425 million on a purchase, you want to get more than five years of use from it, and you want to keep the #1 engine in the #1 spot.

Overall, love it or loathe it, Thomas has been the entry point for a lot of us who are passionate about railways.  Kids who watch Thomas visit their local railways and develop a deeper interest, some will become future volunteers.  

It’s because of Awdry’s stories and characters that I’ve developed such a deep interest in railway history, spent time over the past ten years learning about and visiting the places that inspired him to write like the Talyllyn, the Corris, the Ffestiniog and Ravenglass, and amassing a large collection of railway books which is known affectionately among friends as ‘The Archive’ – texts from which have been loaned out on many occasions for SLIPS research!

My greatest personal hope is for Awdry’s Famous Engines to carry on as long as humanly possible.  They’ve been a great part of my life, creating wonderful childhood memories, presenting me with opportunities I’ve thoroughly enjoyed and forging friendships throughout my life, much as they have done with everyone who has read the books, watched the series or played with the toys.  

It’s great seeing the enthusiasm I felt as a child being passed on to the next generation of fans, who are going to love their journey with Thomas and his friends as much as I did.  The adventures they have will undoubtedly be different, but I hope they are every bit as fun.  They keep the dream alive, and I think above everything else, the Rev. Awdry would be delighted to know his characters are still creating happy childhood memories seventy two years later.

What do you think to the change? You know what to do and where to shout.

The views below are entirely those of Ryan Hagan and not representative of the Sodor Island Forums and Fansite or the Thomas fandom as a whole


  1. I'm not excited about it. But I do hope to see more International engines.

  2. I have very mixed emotions about this. On the one hand, I disapprove of Mattel's decision to cut the story length to seven minutes and have live-action/sing-along sequences fill the other four minutes, as well as remove two fan favourites from the franchise. I feel that this may result in the decline of quality in storylines by not having enough plot elements, and that removing Edward and Henry will alienate us older fans from the franchise. However, I understand the necessity for these changes, and will wait and watch the new series with an open mind, before I make my final decision on it. I also admit that it is a good idea to introduce characters with a different background, as it may give the writers more to work with regarding characters. Also, I actually like Rebecca's clumsy and anxious personality - I feel I can relate to it. And I'm glad they decided to use 'Set Friendship In Motion' as the new opening theme - It's fun, catchy and has a few bars of the original theme!

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