March 2011 saw the fourth episode of Season 15 of Thomas & Friends - but before the review, the usual disclaimer:
The views below are entirely those of the author and not representative of the Sodor Island Forums as a whole.
On that note, it's time to get this review underway - and hallo Mr Flex...Mr Cat...Mr Microphone...Mr Rather Sad...!!!
Percy's New Friends
Writer: Gerard Foster
Percy wants to make friends with the wild animals on Sodor, but they are frightened of him and run away. Percy realises that if he is gentle and quiet, rather than loud and fast, he will stop scaring them. He is soon covered in friendly animals!
Well hurrah and huzzah! The first episode not penned by Sharon Miller. Surely this could be good...?
Come back Sharon! All is forgiven. Yes, even the rhyming and alliteration. I will happily mark up your episodes on the basis that this one was so woefully written.
"With a wheesh and a whoosh, and a hoot and a toot". The perfect rhyming is so forced and unnatural, it is guaranteed to make you scream. Somehow it came out worse - was it the voice acting? No actually - one thing I cannot, and will not fault, the series for, is the quality of its voice actors. They are, from narrator to engine, all excellent professionals, and the emotive qualities of the lines are always there, particularly, I might add, for the UK versions of the episodes (I am biased, of course!)
Now as for the concept of today's episode - I am well aware we are talking about a series involving talking trains, so of course it's not exactly realistic in that sense, but come on chaps - haven't we gone overboard with the whole descending into nature ideals?
This was the sort of plot more suited to Barbie & The Next Shameless Merchandising Opportunity than an episode of Thomas & Friends. Unless of course, the plan is to sell various promotional models of Percy with plastic animals stuck all over him (please don't).
If the animals are so scared of Percy, pray tell why the animals seen in the very first opening scene, didn't immediately run scared from Thomas' entrance, blasting over the bridge?
In fact, today's animation had some problems of its own. It looks extremely unnatural - and particularly "timed" to have one train (Gordon) going under a bridge, whilst another train (Rosie) passes opposite him, as yet another train (Charlie) times his run over said bridge to almost synchronised swimming levels!
Come on chaps. Real railways don't work like that. It would be more impressive to have seen Gordon thundering over the bridge with a full express train. Nine or ten coaches please Greg, not two - the shortness of the passenger and goods/freight trains is starting to make me wonder on Gordon's ever present boasts about speed and strength.
For that matter, why was Stanley's goods train - in the next shot - coming out of a single road engine shed? And not a brake van in sight on any of the goods trains. I'm going to keep pushing this point, firmly, until something is done. At very least, put a red lamp on the end of a goods/freight train!
The next section baffles me. "Percy wasn't doing anything" - if he wasn't doing anything, he should be in his shed. Steam engines don't just up and ride the rails for fun. The "work versus playing" part of this episode has some rather dangerous underlying messages too. All your friends are busy? Go to the nearest, darkest, woodland area and spend the day frolicking with the animals. Yes, that's playing it safe and politically correct!
Incidentally - "This is my friend, Seagull". How very imaginative. You have a plethora of names to choose from - you could have used a multitude of nicknames - "Sammie the Seagull", "Seaweed the Seagull", used some nautical terms perhaps, "Starboard the Seagull", or even just acknowledged it as "a seagull".
The animals themselves are beautifully rendered. But can someone please, please, please explain where the double track mainline that just so happens to go straight through the centre of a forest, comes from? Will we ever see it again? Probably not.
More and more, I have to wonder about how these episodes are scripted. There is clearly a set formula and a set of guidelines as to who/what/and where things appear in the script, but one wonders if the script writers are writing for a totally different show. I know for a fact that railway operations wouldn't come into a writing of Beauty and the Beast, so why must Disney-style woodland critters be shoehorned into a series about talking trains? It doesn't work on any level.
The moral of the story here seems to be "be quiet and gentle with animals, and they'll like you", which to some extent I can understand. This could have been done in a completely different way. I know - because we've seen them in the CGI series previously - that the cattle wagons could have been used in this storyline to greater effect. Helping the cows into the trucks, on their way to market, would have been both prototypical to the railway, and also fulfilling the seemingly required nature-orientated morality tale.
There's another which could have been done - the once ubiquitous railway horse box - and this could have involved taking the horses to a show on the island, allowing both colourful decorations on the horses in the form of their rugs, and also allowing a more involving and more realistic scenario to play out. Both of the above trains are not beyond the animation of Nitrogen in any way. You could have even had the horse owners thanking engine X with a traditional winner's ribbon! Is it simply that the writers didn't research the sort of livestock carrying trains that were possible?
This is what it seems to come down to, more and more. A real lack of research, and understanding of the core principles of the original stories, and the series as it has developed. The stories don't fit the series' lineage nor reality. This is a children's series about talking steam engines, working on a railway. Let the stories be about the everyday - you'll find that railway operations are not so mundane if you read up on them. Steam World/BackTrack/Railway Bylines - all titles available in W.H. Smith, and all chocked full of stories which could be easily applied to the talking trains of Thomas & Friends.
The way in which this series has been done, seems to have missed the underlying fact that, despite that the engines can talk, they are still steam engines, working on a railway, and are bound by that. There seems to be a desire to make every episode involve a "special" when you can find - contrary to popular belief - better stories and more exciting ones at that, in the normal and mundane operations on a steam railway.
There is, however, one clear positive to today's episode - "That's right!" Ferdinand didn't appear or speak at all. Thank God.
I'm finding it difficult to assess these episodes, as they are so far removed from what the kids actually want to see, and what would make the series stand out as a brand name. Thomas & Friends seems determined to encroach on the storylines used by other shows to the extent that we get all of these completely bizarre, and pretty broken, morally speaking, storylines.
I cannot and will not understand writers who will not research their product beforehand. This - more than any assumed script writing formula which seems to plague the current incarnation of Thomas & Friends - comes from either one of two things: a laziness to research, or an unwillingness to. Neither of which, in my books, are acceptable for a writer on one of television's most esteemed and respected children's brands.
The respect is draining away, bit by bit, mind. My CV is available on request if you'd like to hire someone passionate for the brand, understanding of its history and future prospects.
On the other hand, you could just send the current head writer and writing team down to W.H. Smiths and tell them to read some railway magazines. They're not as boring as you'd think, and - certainly true of the more heart rendering ones - you'll find inspiration galore to make this series the top in children's entertainment again, not just in sales, but in quality too.
Individual Episode Score: 2/10 - Gordon and Ferdinand 4/10 - Toby and Bash 3/10 - Emily and Bash 1/10 Percy's New Friends
Total Season Score So Far: 10/40
Average Season Score So Far: 2.5/10
Quick Character Stats
Percy, Emily, Salty, Thomas, Gordon, Henry, Cranky
Rosie, Charlie, Stanley, Edward, James