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Season 15 - Episode 9 Review: Henry's Happy Coal

March 2011 saw the third 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..

"You won't need special coal anymore..." - The Fat Controller, 1984


Henry's Happy Coal

Writer: Sharon Miller

Henry is given a special task of taking a very important visitor around on a tour, but finds himself being teased about the special coal he has to use.

Overall Impressions

"Happy Coal", is something of a misnomer. Coal can't actually make you happy. Particularly if you are a driver or fireman, having to shovel it all day, or an engine cleaner who has to shovel piles of ash out from the smokeboxes of steam engines.

That the term "Happy Coal" has some other more dangerous connotations for impressionable youngsters, is probably the least of the series' problems by now. I did despair somewhat when I read the original description for this episode, and watching it did not improve my mood any further.

More exposition about Henry. Fantastic. Every time the kids watch an episode, it's like being taught all about the engines every single time. I don't think we've had one episode where there hasn't been some form of unnecessary expositional content right at the start. Why is it needed? This never happens in the specials...!

Then we roll onto the shots for this short expositional. Actually we have to credit Greg Tiernan and his team again today. The direction of the shots was exemplary. The shots overlooking the cab, and looking out from the back of Henry's tender, forward, were beautiful shots. We also saw Gordon pulling a train of three composite coaches and a brake coach. Huzzah! Four coaches! Greg, you're getting there. Eight coaches next time please!

My only criticism of the direction today was in the transitional scenes where Henry coughed and spluttered on his coal. Smoke should not be coming out from between his wheels. If it is, then we've a problem much worse than simply the "wrong type of coal". It should always be steam from between the frames, wheels and pistons. That, and the juddering was not necessary. Steam engines don't judder when they steam badly. They run out of steam!

The black smoke from the chimney, and overall ash and grime was exemplary, however. For a split second when Henry pulled into the summer house station, I was taken back to the 1950s. A grimy "Black Five" running light engine across a green and pleasant land.

If ever I get the opportunity to have The British Railway Series made professionally, I think I know which company I'd want handling the animation.

I suppose - reluctantly - I should cover the writing today. In one word, it was abysmal. It has been throughout the series. It was marginally less abysmal than an episode involving giant balloons transported by flat wagons, but even so, the problems with this episode's morals and storyline are arguably worse.

I have to ask why Thomas and Henry meet in the middle of a field, in a forest. It lasts less than five seconds, and they immediately meet up at Knapford station. The first scene was rendered utterly redundant by the second. Why not simply start the episode at Knapford? Or more to the point, start it in the sheds, and move onto Knapford station. That at least has some semblance of reality.

I groaned when I heard the Fat Controller outline Henry's plans for the day. Three locations. Three is the magic number it seems. The irony of Sodor's number 3 having to repeat the same mistakes three times has not been lost on me. That, and the ninth episode is perfectly divisible by three.

I had to watch the older episode, It's Good to be Gordon several times today before making a decision: Henry's Happy Coal is to some extent a retelling of this older episode. Change of characters, added an inspector and thrown in the obligatory "special" word, and it appears we have an all new episode.

Although to be fair, there seems to be more dialogue pinched from previous episodes. "Oh me, oh my, oh dear" - Bash & Dash from Gordon and Ferdinand. Still, that's within the same season so it must be fine...!

Actually, no. The repeated dialogue and constant sing-song rhyming took on levels of desperation today. "We have to go - right away - no delay!" was just one of many examples of engines creating perfect rhymes in their dialogue.

I just wonder what the children who watch this are going to grow up to be like. Children's shows - notably, the original Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends - prided themselves on a wide vocabulary and a generally natural way of speaking and associating themselves with their audience. It used to be a case of encouraging children to speak naturally - as in, eloquently.

Now I find the rhymes may be damaging their understanding of how the English language works. I wonder if the rhymes actually translate when put into different languages? That would be an interesting exercise, and it would show up, I suspect, just how redundant the constant rhyming and alliteration actually is.

Certainly, this series is not suitable for younger children - specifically, not toddlers, anymore. The reasons for that go beyond the problems with the language used. The themes being presented in these episodes are alarming.

For starters, the whole "not a proper steamie" comments from 'Arry and Bert. We've had this previously with the "you're just a steam tram" comment from James earlier this season. Both sets of comments are verging dangerously on the side of marginalizing characters based on their actual physical makeup. I thought we had developed beyond that way of thinking a very long time ago.

The only time we ever saw a villain was in Diesel, and since his original introduction in Season 2, we had diesel characters such as Boco, Mavis, Derek, Salty and Rusty proving that - regardless of the motive power - they are all as useful as the steam engines. In other words, putting this into reality, it doesn't matter what their race is, they are all equal.

That this sort of storyline is being pushed worries me. We've seen it quite a few times this season, and its always a character being marginalized or put down by another - not based on personalities, but on their actual physical makeup.

I have always maintained that the "diesels bad, steamies good" tagline that seems to be associated with the newest seasons of Thomas & Friends was a step backwards, but over the last nine episodes it feels worryingly close to the bone, and not at all appropriate for a children's series. Am I overreacting? Perhaps a little, but the point stands that far too often this type of storyline seems to be that which provides the focal point around which the engine characters work.

On that basis, I wouldn't let my three year old godson watch these episodes.

The coal itself was a bit of a strange rebooting of history. "Welsh coal" - as it used to be termed - has not been seen since Season 2, and yet in the HiT era, Henry, despite the alterations to his firebox being covered quite nicely 20+ years ago, suddenly needs "special coal" all over again. It feels like the canon was read once, something picked up on, and the writers ran with it, without checking it all first.

Lastly - I was amused to see, right at the end, that my complaint made in the Emily & Dash review was indeed justified. For 'Arry and Bert run out of fuel - and instead of going and getting some diesel fuel for them, Henry simply buffers up to them, and pushes them away. Cue the end scenes.

So on that basis, we can legitimately assume that Emily, like Percy, has been lobotomized.

It flabbergasts me.

Final Conclusions I'm feeling generous about 3/10?

Put simply, the tripling up of errors, dialogue, rhymes and storylines must stop.

The quality of these episodes is deplorable. I can continue to write these reviews and repeat the same sentiments over and over again, but it won't make the blindest bit of difference if I - amongst others - feel our cries for better quality storytelling, is going unheard.

However, I'd like to add some positivity. Our cries are being heard. The reviews have been read, and studied. We are not alone in our disgruntlement at the substandard writing for the series.

All I can say, is think not on Season 15 nor Season 16, if you want to see improvements in the writing. Continue to review critically, both on the Sodor Island Forums, Youtube, Blogger, and so on, and make it abundantly clear that the above complaints - and more - are legitimate.

If we want this series to take a step in the right direction, then we must be ready to put up with some of the worst writing that Thomas & Friends has ever endured. But we must also keep making our voices heard.

The animation and voice acting has reached levels which we can say with honesty, that other children's series cannot match. They are being let down purely and singly by the writers behind the series.

The potential for the series to be award winning is there. It really is. But something has to give, something has to change, and it has to be the writing I am afraid.

Until next time - when I see that Thomas and Gordon will be singing to clouds in an effort to make it snow.

Only eleven episodes left now...keep it together everyone!

Individual Episode Score: 2/10 - Gordon and Ferdinand 4/10 - Toby and Bash 3/10 - Emily and Bash 5/10 - Edward The Hero 1/10 - James to the Rescue 2/10 - Happy Hiro 1/10 - Up, Up and Away! 3/10 - Henry's Happy Coal
Total Season Score So Far: 22/90
Average Season Score So Far: 2.4/10

Quick Character Stats

Speaking Roles:

Thomas, Henry, Gordon, The Fat Controller, Iron 'Arry & Bert, Victor


Gordon, Mavis, James, Rocky, Cranky, Harold, Rosie, Kevin


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