Former SiF Moderator, Clay, looks at whether Series 5 was underappreciated or just not up to par with what had come before...
The recent seasons of Thomas and Friends have had their fair share of criticism from traditionalist and casual fans alike. Amongst the many sticking points for these critics is the lack of Railway Series stories contained in the later seasons. This is a justified point, as without Reverend Wilbert Vere Awdry's creations, there would be no Thomas and Friends.
However, when one considers that (at the time of writing) only 161 Railway Series stories were written by the good Reverend and son Christopher between them, and Thomas and Friends is steaming towards its 9th season of 26 episodes, or its 209th-234th episodes, and the need for new material becomes apparent.
The first season to use completely new material was the 5th, in 1998. Producer Britt Allcroft had claimed that the well of Railway Series stories was running dry, something traditionalist fans protest vehemently, even to this day. Nonetheless, Season 5 was released in 1998 completely shy of Awdry-written material. It must be noted that the 3rd season comprised of 13 stories that were not from an Awdry pen, so new ground had not been completely broken.
One of the features of the 5th season is that of the number of episodes featuring crashes or spookiness. Some used both elements, such as Haunted Henry. The table below shows some elements of episodes, and how many episodes used those elements.
Now, these evaluations are purely subjective and based on the author's opinion. Some may say that Horrid Lorry belongs in the 'Crash' section, whilst Thomas and The Rumours should not be. I felt that in the case of the former, the lorry's crash was not the focus of the episode, whilst the crash in the latter was the result of the plot build up and necessary to create a satisfactory ending.
Looking at the results, one can see that 13 of the 26 episodes had a crash in it somewhere. This is an attraction for the destructive element in all of us, but ultimately leaves one empty. Some of the crashes are rather unrealistic (such as Bye George!), but on the whole are well done. However, devoting half of one season to crashes leaves little room for good or different stories.
Despite this, several episodes had a rather Awdryesque feel to them, notably Something in the Air and Thomas, Percy and Old Slowcoach.
Admittedly, these episodes, like many in the season, had a happy ending to satisfy the audience, unlike in earlier seasons where there would be occasional cliffhangers - notably the Duck/Diesel trilogy. Whilst this is good in that episodes can be viewed separately from each other, it removes a little tension from the show.
Also, the 5th season expanded on several characters. The two episodes Lady Hatt's Birthday Party and Sir Topham Hatt's Holiday showed that the Fat Controller has another side to him as well as ordering the engines about.
Make Someone Happy and Happy Ever After gave Mrs. Kyndley her first appearances since Season 1's Thomas's Christmas Party. Focus on non-rail characters had not previously been done to such an extent in the TV series, so this could be considered to be breaking new ground.
However, of the episodes that did focus on the engines, several introduced new characters - some with no dialogue and never seen again. The following list shows which characters were introduced and how many episodes they appeared in, or if they are recurring characters.
· Cranky Bugs: Cranky (Recurring)
· Horrid Lorry: Lorries 1, 2 and 3 (1 episode), Butch (Recurring - cameos only)
· Haunted Henry: Old Bailey (1 episode)
· Double Teething Troubles: Derek (1 episode)
· Stepney Gets Lost: 'Arry and Bert (Recurring)
· Toby's Discovery: Bertrum (1 episode)
· Thomas, Percy and Old Slowcoach: Old Slowcoach (2 episodes)
· Happy Ever After: Mrs. Kyndley's daughter (1 episode)
· Rusty and the Boulder: Thumper (1 episode
A total of 13 new characters, of which only 4 are recurring - and two of those are only ever seen together! It seems that several of the new characters were only introduced to create more merchandise to profit from the Thomas name. It could be argued that without these new characters, some of these episodes would need to be rewritten. But if characters are only seen for so few episodes, there hardly seems any point at all to introducing them!
The problem with some of the characters is that they could be given room for expansion - such as Derek and Bertrum - but are left in the cold. In fact, several people believe that Bertrum is simply a repainted model of Duke, with Smudger's face, showing that some beloved characters could well be unable to return. This is a great shame, especially as Bertrum had approximately 5 seconds of 'airtime'.
Another troubling factor in Season 5 for some fans is the number of unrealistic scenarios. For example, in Rusty and the Boulder, a perfectly spherical boulder chases the engines down the line, and in Toby and the Flood, a railway track is built over a dam - a recipe for disaster. These flaws could be overlooked if they contribute in some way to a good storyline, and in some case they do. However, some errors seem unforgivable.
All things considered, Season 5 was not a fantastic season, but nor was it a travesty. Several of the episodes are quite high in the author's personal opinion, while some are very low. As a final season for Britt Allcroft, it is by no means a failure - more a bit of a hit-and-miss affair. It certainly isn't the worst season of Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends. It is, however, a fine effort that deserves accolades for being the first to be completely free of the Reverend's work.