Thomas & His Friends
Reviewed by JS Jones
How do you end a book series? More importantly, how do you end a series that in its heyday was one of the most popular children’s series anywhere in the world? All good things must come to an end, and this was the task taken on by Christopher Awdry in his last Railway Series book, the forty-second in the canon and arriving over sixty-five years after his father wrote the first.
Thomas and his Friends is the swansong of the franchise in book form and it’s clear from the beginning. The opening story, “Thomas and the Swan” alludes to this perhaps unintentionally but rather fittingly. The series has always focused on Thomas more than any other character, so much so that Christopher was often asked by publishers to write stories about him specifically rather than someone else. This is his last big story on his own; while others such as Gordon, Pip and Emma do have their roles, they aren’t in the lead... at least not yet. Everyone’s favourite No. 1 deserves his final day in the spotlight, and it feels as if the stories in the book themselves recognize their impermanence. Everything and everyone are jointly past their prime, and just like the swan’s broken wing which needs to be mended, Gordon, Thomas and the others must come to peace with their time having come and gone and others taking over for them. I can’t help but wonder if the author intended the swan itself to serve as a metaphor for the series’ bygone days, with Thomas being the one to carry it to safety and set it free, a task which couldn’t have been completed on its own and which shouldn’t have been handled by anyone else. It’s a sweet, sombre way to recognize the future taking flight and moving on.
“Buffer Bashing” serves as the last crash story in the books, and everyone knows the franchise wouldn’t be what it is without a few train wrecks. It’s a simple story with Donald and Douglas both having their moments to screw things up once more just as they did in their very first book, with neither engine being fully at fault for their mishaps over the other. They’ve always been equals even in genesis; they came to Sodor both without identification, they both got in trouble, they both risked being scrapped, and they’ve both had redemption arcs. Neither one is explicitly in the wrong all of the time. That’s a trend that continues even today in the television show, and I think Christopher knew that they were at their best when they filled a story together rather than separately. James’ role I appreciated here also. In their initial stories, James didn’t get along terribly well with them and it was only after a bit of help up a hill that he changed his demeanour. After all, they’re fairly equal in size with James only being that much larger, and it makes sense for three medium engines to play this way off of one another. By now, he’s grown up and accepted the twins instead of cat fighting with them, and they’re just the same as they were in the beginning. “Bashing” strikes me as Christopher’s way of acknowledging the initial dynamic of the twins as they were first shown, and then closing them out with one final, “I told you so”.
“Gordon’s Fire Service” likewise serves as the final rescue tale in the books, albeit a low-key one. While I’ve never personally cared for the emergency-based stories in either format (the Sodor Search and Rescue Centre in the show, and its associated characters, are some of my least favourite introductees by a country mile), I admit that this story isn’t bad. Gordon has been with the series ever since the very first story. He deserves one last chance to prove himself. In “Fire Service” his intelligence is much more heavily played than his strength or bravado, which is a welcome change over the sort of stories he usually receives. It tells the audience that he has finally grown up and settled down in life. He’s working smarter, not harder, and I think a lot of that ties into his gradual weaning of duties with Pip and Emma coming into play. If the series was ever at a point where emergency/rescue stories were a necessity, this is how I’d want to see it done and Gordon is a much more appropriate character to use than many others I could mention. He gets his final time to shine same as Thomas did earlier, and in the process I think that his character arc is as developed as it needs to be.
“Centenary”. The last story of The Railway Series as we currently know it. This is more or less how I would expect the series to close with lots of central characters appearing, the main fleet having the most important roles (I quite enjoyed seeing the “Holy Trinity of Ffarquhar” having one last conversation together), the story and players acknowledging their creator in a very humbling way, and them all bidding farewell, laying to rest the untold stories of the future. It’s clear by now that everyone knows their future is more quiet than their past. Pip and Emma have been fully integrated, the main engines are no longer the stars of the railway, but they all still have purpose. They’ll go on after the events of Prince Charles’ visit, having stories that we’ll never know. We never see their exact end, it’s only alluded to with the next generation taking over. Most importantly, we do see the end of one of the most important characters in the franchise: the Thin Clergyman. This is the man who first told stories about Sodor and its engines, who visited the island himself and interacted with many of them, and he would be someone they would all know by memory or by heart in one way or another. It’s explicitly stated that he has passed, and that new people tell their stories in his place. “Centenary”, while short and peaceful, achieved one thing better than any other story in the entire canon: it was both Christopher’s and the engines way of telling their creator, “We love you, Dad”.
I’ve seen it stated that Thomas and his Friends is a rather uneventful and in some respects boring book. While I can certainly see where these criticisms come from, I think it deserves more credit than it has typically received. The Railway Series is not Thomas and Friends. It was never meant to have a big, splashy ending. These books have always been small, simple and short, and none of them have ever tried to be over the top or outrageously exciting. The show triumphs in that respect, but it falls short of what the books have always achieved so well. These forty-two volumes are a near-perfect blend of railway realism and illustrative fiction. The show has never tried to be anywhere near as realistic in scope ever since Series 1. While I’m not saying there aren’t realistic elements to the show and I’m tremendously grateful when and where they appear, they haven’t been consistent. This book sacrifices the more exciting elements of the show and even many of the earlier volumes for an ending that it needs: a simple, down-to-earth chapter that parallels its earliest roots, something you could read to your children before bed and, with a little luck, they would fall asleep to. It’s a sleepy end to what started out as a sleepy series, and in that regard I can forgive the simplicity of everything within its covers.
If anything, I’d argue that this volume presents a golden opportunity not so much for itself, but for the television show. By using the title “Thomas and his Friends”, a line taken directly from the show’s theme song ever since Series 8, it closes the bridge between the two worlds. It’s passing the baton from the Awdry family writing about Sodor to the new generations of writers in the more-popular television realm. Ever since its premiere in 1984, TTTE and T&F have brought much greater interest to Awdry’s creation than the books could achieve on their own. The series is at an all-time high with 21 seasons about to pass under its belt, a feature film with another planned but probably cancelled (hoping not), and going on twelve different specials with even more on the way. The canon of books and TV stories is massive and growing, but it won’t last forever. Sooner or later, Thomas and Friends will have to end same as its predecessor has, and I think this book can help show us the way when we finally reach the end.
I see the show as likely to end with a special or another theatrical film, not a typical season. Personally I think it has a lot of life left in it before then (Series 30 is my hope), but the material presented in Thomas and his Friends could close out the show nicely same as it has the books. I propose turning it into a feature-length story similar to The Adventure Begins, although hopefully longer and with greater things added to it. Thomas and Gordon would both have their final stories together, making a parallel between their initial introduction in the first episode. Perhaps they could even allude after the events of “Swan” and “Fire Service” to how they were at the beginning, and it would highlight two of the most popular characters the series has for all the fans who want to see them one last time. “Bashing” could form the subplot, perhaps with James taking a greater role and the twins receiving their final spotlight in the same way. All of this could lead to the events of “Centenary”, although with greater expanse and importance. This would be the final time any of the characters would be seen, and I’d want everyone to show up even if it meant cameo roles. Percy and Toby would have their last moments as the main tank engines, Awdry’s other introductees including Duck, Oliver, Edward, Daisy and the rest would have roles, and then at the end, the more important newbies such as Emily could show up to highlight that this isn’t just the books ending- the show was just as important. Give the Thin Clergyman his tribute as “man of the hour”, recognizing once again that none of this would have been possible without him. After everything is over, take a few last moments to run through all of the characters we’ve seen in years’ past, even those not present at the ceremony. This would tell the audience that even though their stories are over, they won’t be forgotten. I think that’s exactly how both Wilbert and Christopher would want their work to be remembered: as a legacy that goes on long after their time is over.
Thomas and his Friends is not among my favourites in the book canon. However it does its job very well. It truly is the swansong The Railway Series needed, and I’m thankful it is the final chapter instead of many others earlier. The books did have to end sooner or later, and in some respects they may have been overdue that ending. Still I thank Christopher for writing it, especially when he did. I can’t imagine the series ending any other way. He was right in saying, “There will never [again] be anything like it anywhere”.