September saw Number One Engine from Series 22 of Thomas & Friends broadcast on Milkshake in the United Kingdom
But before the review, here's the usual disclaimer:
The views below are entirely those of the author and not representative of the Sodor Island Forums or Fansite as a whole
On that note, it's time to get this review underway!
Number One Engine
Written by Davey Moore
At the very beginning of the episode, I'm left with questions. Thomas explains to us that it's his first day on the Chinese Railway, and he's hurrying to the yard where Yong Bao lives, which appears to be the main depot for the region. Has he just come off the boat? Has he been shedded elsewhere before being commenced to work? More importantly, where does it fall within continuity of the series and the special?
Can only imagine this is outwith the events of Big World Big Adventures: The Movie, and given everything is now told in flashback, there's likely been 'exchange visits' conducted legitimately since...
Returning to the story, Thomas' attempts to show off and brag to the two coaches are a good attempt to set up the story - Thomas wants to be #1 wherever he goes - however from the outset, he's just doing it for the sake of impressing his new friends, there's no motivation unless he's compensating for getting lost on the way to the yard.
Similarly when he meets Hong Mei - who's the #1 on the Chinese Railway - there's no greater reason to compete than the fact they both have the same number. They're of similar size and capability. Naturally, this leads to racing, which leads to cheating, which leads to disaster. Thomas realises he's been silly and competitive, and he should have behaved himself and Hong Mei realises she should have done the same.
On one hand, the lack of greater motivation irks me slightly, but the fact remains, Thomas only wanted to compete with her on account of the number - he wasn't trying to save his male pride from being outdone by a girl, he sees Hong Mei as an equal or a potential threat, but never an inferior. It's a subtle point, probably not even in Davey Moore's conscious mind at all in the course of writing, but it's a real positive and a counterpoint to the constant arguments of sexism in the series.
In that vein too, Hong Mei matches or betters Thomas at every turn in the course of their race. She's also every bit as flawed when she too resorts to cheating in the course of the race to outrun Thomas! By the end, neither have won, but they realise they're both as good as each other and respect each other for it as friends, irrespective of their gender or national identity.
There's not a great deal throughout, particularly the way the story is written, that couldn't have been done on Sodor. The cultural references throughout are interesting, but they're inconsequential, fleeting and contribute little to the flow of the story, aside from providing humour at times and explaining Hong Mei's number.
Doing It Differently
The setup with Yong Bao was redundant padding, when the new series format has been designed with a new running time to avoid such things.
Had Thomas arrived in the yard and been introduced to Hong Mei at the beginning, you've got more reason for Thomas to want to compete. Have Yong Bao introduce her as the railway's #1, praising her as a versatile engine who can both shunt and pull trains well, maybe suggesting jokingly that he hopes Thomas will be able to keep up with her. Thomas decides instead, he wants to prove he's better.
There are ideal opportunities here to drop in the language and symbols, which Thomas won't necessarily understand, which Hong Mei is naturalised to - the coaches greet him in Mandarin, he doesn't understand them, Hong Mei translates. Thomas tries to compensate while working with the same exaggerated story which leads to the fantasy sequence, but the coaches laugh it off.
Again, when he meets Hong Mei again, he misunderstands something, claims he does and ends up in the same situation. Hong Mei feels bad for not trying to help him more, and Thomas feels silly for not trying to learn more from her.
Views From Other SiF Members
kirkronan25 – SiF Member
The intro with Thomas speaking to the audience was quite nice. The way Thomas said he found an engine just like him was pretty cute, and I thought it was a good way to introduce the episode.
Yong Bao calling Thomas "tiger" was a nice touch, and the dream sequence with Thomas jumping over the moon was pretty funny, especially how An-An and Lin-Yong brought him down to reality! Speaking of which, those two coaches may have weird faces, but I thought they were a nice contrast to Annie and Clarabel, being more youthful and adventurous, and their liveries are appealing.
Hong-Mei was, I feel, just like Thomas, in all the right ways; fun, cheeky, but able to own up to her mistakes when she gets in trouble. Her design is fantastic, building upon Rosie's design but also being a distinct class, with intricate valve gear lovingly rendered by Jam Filled. It was also nice to see her pulling rock trucks, as when I read her character bio for the first time, I thought she and Thomas would be racing light-engine-style.
As for the race itself, I thought it was handled very well. The rocks flying out of the trucks and hitting Thomas was a nice bit of foreshadowing, and the moral of "going fast leads to carelessness" was unexpected, but very welcome. It certainly dissuaded my fears when the crew said the show would be more "fast-paced". The branchline Thomas went down is really nicely rendered, and the bridge is definitely a highlight. This line takes full advantage of the fact that the episode is set in China, as it'd be unlikely to see this kind of terrain on Sodor.
The derailment is somewhat refreshing, as usually crashes in the series have engines careening off the tracks, but Thomas and the coaches just come to rest on the sleepers. Hong-Mei admitting her mistake and helping Thomas back on the tracks was a good way to bring in the moral of the episode, although part of me wishes Hong-Mei would fetch the Chinese breakdown train, just to see it again!
Overall a fun, exciting little episode, with some great new characters. Usually in these types of stories Thomas is the one who gets in trouble (Thomas' Shortcut, Thomas the Quarry Engine, The Other Side of the Mountain) so it's good to see Thomas getting in an accident that's not his fault. The implementation of Chinese culture was also done well, without it feeling forced. I especially liked Hong-Mei's comment about the colour red, and Thomas not knowing the Chinese word for "start"! The song at the end was nice too, it kind of reminds me of the music of "Owl City", and it's quite "chill", as opposed to recent exciting songs.
Chris – SiF Assistant Controller
Quite honestly, the story and characters left me feeling nothing. Empty almost. It's a familiar race and crash scenario we've seen played out a dozen times before, and was a sort of hybrid of the superior Fearless Freddie (yes, I went there) and Thomas's Shortcut. While Hong-Mei seemed very generic, I will give props for making the two coaches somewhat different to Annie and Clarabel. Oh, and the lesson in Chinese numbers was nice too, I suppose.
I was about to say it's hard to believe this is from the same writer that gave us all those wonderful Daisy episodes and Love Me Tender, but then I remembered he also wrote Mucking About... So probably just another rare bad day at the writing desk? Examining the upcoming episodes, I notice Davey Moore is mainly writing Sodor-based stuff for S22, so perhaps, like so of many us, he feels more at home there - and more inspired too.
With regards to the new format in general, I think in future I will skip Thomas's intro and outros, as I've seen enough to know I'm not missing much! Mr. TheTankEngine does alright taking over narration duties, but as others have said, it's probably time to do away with it altogether.
The music and songs were maybe the high points of this one for me. Some nicely hummable work from Renshaw throughout, and... I never thought I'd say this, but I've actually found an Eggplant song I like! While not mindblowingly amazing, the ending song is certainly their best contribution to the franchise so far. Quite pleasant, catchy, and welcome to change to the Roll Call.
Racing episodes in general do very little for me these days though, and based on the synopsis and clips, I knew this was going to have a hard time winning me over. It didn't, and personally is not one I'd have chosen to open the series with. Can't see myself going back to rewatch it much, if ever. Early days yet though, so let's see what the rest of the week brings. Tomorrow's tale sounds like it will be much better.
fobhew22 – SiF ERS Creative Team Member
Thoughts (in no particular order):
- More just a stray observation than anything else, I got to the end of the episode and realised I had absolutely no idea what it was called.
- New theme song: catchy. Caught myself humming it this morning after one listen. Since I imagine that was the intention, I applaud whoever created it and feel sorry for any parents who will have their child singing it at them.
- Episode itself: bit meh. Not much to write home about. But saying that, I wasn't exactly blown away by Sidney Sings or Springtime for Diesel, so I'm not going to write the series off as a total disaster just yet. The best opener in recent years has been Who's Geoffrey? to me, so we'll see what becomes of the rest of the season.
- I haven't seen Big World, Big Adventures yet, so I'm glad they didn't spend any time establishing why Thomas is in China. Kids don't need that continuity dump at the start of each episode, and episodes are really supposed to be watched in any order.
- Thomas's narration was occasional, but not overly jarring. It was like someone narrating their travel vlog, or the slideshow of pictures when they get home. The real test will be in episodes not about Thomas to see if the format keeps working.
- An An and Lin Yong were good characters. They're the bad influences Thomas has been waiting for, and he probably appreciates Annie and Clarabel all the more for it.
- As for Hong Mei, she didn't make much of an impression beyond being a Chinese version of Thomas, but I assume she's set to appear a bit more in future China-set episodes for future development.
- Yong Bao was there. Considering he's always seemed a popular character amongst some users on DeviantArt, this probably wasn't the return they were hoping for.
- Some backgrounds were recognisable set redressing from Sodor, but it didn't distract from the story too much for me, and the chances of kids noticing it, particularly during the mountain scenes, are slim.
All in all, probably a 6.5 out of 10. That ranking might change on a rewatch, but that's my gut at the moment. That put's Number One Engine to the top of the table!
It's a story that needed the Number One, but it could have been easily played out on Sodor or the Mainland, equally as well. There's nothing distinctly Chinese throughout, so we need to make do with little factoids that are dotted throughout the story.
A story about competition and equality could have been one that incorporated lessons about respecting and learning about other cultures, customs and languages, which is what Big World Big Adventures should be aiming to achieve through their educational quota, and likely something the United Nations would have found equal value in.
But I'm particularly endeared to the more subtle and underlying tropes throughout the course of the story - the proof that girls can be as good - and in turn, every bit as bad - as boys is a great message to send out. The fact also that Thomas only seen the number one and overlooked gender was another plus point.