Saturday, 23 September 2017

Big World! Big Adventures!

I've been holding off talking about this. The whole thing was announced a few months ago, and was the source of fans saying the show "deserved to die" or "it's going to die". But now that a bit more has been revealed, I feel more confident in making a post about it.


Can people grow the f**k up?

I'm being serious about this. The complaints about this are completely baseless and ridiculous. It says a lot when there's more credence to the complaints about the engine movements (another thing that hasn't negatively impacted the show whatsoever. Hell, you could barely tell they were there in this week's episodes, even though there were instances) than there is about this.

The long and short of it is this: it's yet another theme that Mattel are going to market the hell out of. These themed years are nothing new; they've been doing this since they bought HiT out and took over the show. This year's theme is friendship, last year's was racing, 2015 was teamwork, I could go on.

The only difference is that Mattel are actually making a big deal out of this one like they did in 2016 for the racing theme (since it coincided with the Rio Olympics). The story quality should remain exactly the same... with regard to the main show at least.

My concern is that the special won't be that great. Weirdly, the title of it, Big World! Big Adventures!, is enough of a reason for that. Remember when King of the Railway was released and felt like a huge cluster of story ideas revolving around Stephen and Ulfstead Castle? I'm getting a fairly similar vibe about this special already, only they'll be their own separate stories that don't fit together whatsoever, only that they'll feature Thomas, Ace and Nia and they could possibly bump into the international engines from The Great Race.

Now, to be fair to fans, I can't exactly blame them for being as angry as they were back when this was first announced. The press release was so vague that it could've meant that anything was going to happen; a TV spin off, an online series rivalling Great Race Friends Near and Far, etc. That is on Mattel Creations for keeping cards close to their chest for as long as they did.

What fans should be criticised for is stirring up bulls**t about it and saying the show "deserved to die". Fact is the show doesn't revolve around you or I, as much as your fragile psyches would lead you to believe. The franchise is aimed at preschoolers primarily, and is only liked by adults because the writing doesn't treat them like idiots. Calling for the death of a show solely because you don't like the theme, or direction, it will take for one year and a special says more about your intolerance to try something new than it does Mattel. Then again, quite a few fans admitted they were Conservatives, so that's no surprise to me.

Oh, and as for those rumours that Edward and Henry will be replaced in the main cast next year, shove them up your arse. Anyone can say they know a guy from Mattel, that doesn't validate anything! Hell, why anyone is believing s**t stirring s**t stains after that bollocks with the counterfeit Wood toy is anyone's guess. But the fact is this behaviour needs to stop.

If you're that sick of being a fan of this show, go and find something else to watch. Go and find something to do that you'll actually enjoy. Because the fact of the matter is that your bitching, rumour mongering and amateur tabloid journalism (also making money from a criminal offence, Carson!) is making this fanbase look atrocious. And it's high time other fans actually stood up to this behaviour rather than sweep it under the carpet and say "nothing to do with me".

I'll probably devote more time to that in a separate blog post. But as far as this new theme goes, I'm interested to see where it goes. Because if more characters than just Thomas are going to get in on the action, next year could be a really fun one. There's a lot you could do with the theme too. Just... don't leave Sodor high and dry. Please. That's my only caveat about this.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Series 21: Runaway Engine

We've reached the final episode of the week. And to add to the wide variety of stars this week, here comes an episode with Millie, Stephen and Glynn. But will Runaway Engine end the week on a high? Or was yesterday the start of a slippery slope for this series?

Episodes involving Stephen have always been fun. But we've never fully had an insight into his dynamic with Millie so far. We've seen them both together, but they interacted like any other engine would. Enter Helen Farrall, who seems to understand every character she touches, and you get one of the best, most entertaining dynamics the show has had.

Don't worry, I haven't forgotten Glynn either. He just completes the dynamic beautifully. The great thing about it is that, while they all have their own entertaining quirks, they can all be down to earth when they need to be. This gives any serious moments between the three more weight.

Case in point, when Stephen playfully mocks Millie and she huffs off, you feel more for both of them. You feel concern for Millie and disappointed/angry (insert appropriate emotion here) in Stephen for potentially upsetting his friend. Adding Glynn on top to try and soothe the situation was the cherry on top of the cake. If the characters and environments were dull and dreary (like a Zack Snyder DCEU film), there'd be far less of an impact as the tone would remain the same.

I really like how Millie put her point across that there was a job that the others needed to do. Was it petty? Yes, but she got her point across in an effective way and it made Stephen realise that he'd messed up. Sometimes, you need to be proactive in order to make a point. If I had to pick a nit though, I feel that Millie's frustration could've been made stronger if she'd have told Stephen about it before resorting to putting the rubbish in front of the shed.

I also love how they brought in the grumpy passenger from series 18. He's really entertaining, but what's even more so is how quickly and effortlessly Robert deals with his temper by spinning the situation into a positive. I know that this was written a while before the fanbase became a cesspit of negativity and hostility. But the parallels between these two characters, and the positive and negative sides of the fanbase, are uncanny.

Which, awkwardly, brings me on to the themes. I really like the overarching theme of the impact of misunderstandings, but the other two (listen to what you're told and two wrongs don't make a right) are rather overdone at this point. They did what they could to make them feel fresh, which is fine. But it would be nice if we got more varied ones in the future; there's only so far they can go with these two.

Final Thoughts
You can always count on Helen Farrall to create something wonderful. And this episode is no exception. Granted, the themes aren't that original, but the dynamic of Stephen, Millie and Glynn has become one of the best the show has at the moment, the story is great and the themes are still well executed.

Overall, this has been the best week of Thomas & Friends programming ever. The variety of characters has meant that the series has felt fresher than any that HiT Entertainment has produced, and it's made fans realise, once and for all, how great the female characters (well, all the characters really) can be with the right production team at the helm.

On top of that, this one showed they can make a brilliant story with none of the main characters appearing at all. Here's hoping this week has been a sign of things to come for the rest of this series and beyond. Because if so, the show's future has never looked brighter.

Episode Ratings

Cumulative Total (So Far)

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Series 21: Stuck in Gear

So far we've had two episodes starring Daisy and Diesel, one starring Emily and Dowager Hatt and now Harvey's getting some time to shine. Are they telling us implicitly telling us that the main characters are too stale to hold their own as the stars now? Or are they letting all the characters that are usually given supporting roles some of the spotlight before the main characters take it back for the Big World, Big Adventures theme next year? Either way, I've been really happy so far. But will Stuck in Gear continue the perfect run this series has so far?

Honestly? No. It's still a really good episode, and one that feels incredibly personal to me as I have the exact same concerns and anxieties whenever problems arise. And I do try and soldier on regardless. I realise that's stupid, but when that behaviour is ingrained into you from a young age, it's a very difficult habit to break.

Unfortunately, I felt that the episode didn't flow as well as the last three. It felt a bit repetitive, especially when Harvey tried to hide away from everyone. Granted, Harvey's problems occur after the second attempt so it's not as bad as previous episodes (and there's some character here, so it's definitely not as bad as series 13-16). However, after the last two episodes flowed so well, it's much more noticeable when the pacing stutters - even slightly - in episodes that do go down this route.

Also, one comment from Thomas felt incredibly ironic: "no one makes fun of a broken down engine". Are we just going to pretend that series 1-7 didn't exist? Heck, Mike's Whistle had Thomas mock both Duck and Mike for having faulty whistles while the small engines mocked in that episode and Useful Railway. I get that he was trying to lift Harvey's spirits so the lesson could stick better, but even a cursory glance at the show's past would make you realise how false that statement was.

Speaking of the small railway episodes from last series, they had something brilliant that this episode lacks: interactions between engine and crew. I understand why: they were probably concerned that the crew would've destroyed the plot. But they could've added to it had they just said the debris was jammed too far in to the gears. There's simply no excuse to not include crews any more, and the show would benefit greatly if they were given more freedom to interact away from Railway Series adaptations.

I also feel there was a missed opportunity here. We see Bill and Ben pass through the docks, yet they don't say anything either. Maybe if they had, Harvey's insecurities with regards to asking for help could've worsened, and it would've given his actions at the tunnel more weight rather than just being a similar action in a different location.

That said, the rest of the episode is really great. Harvey's current character is fantastic. We've seen so many characters that look unique and are incredibly boastful and cocky about it, so it's a nice change to have one that's more reserved about it. I feel that this was the character they wanted to give Hugo, but we never really grasped that since the other engines were so cruel.

The theme is really good as well. It's nothing new or groundbreaking, but it's definitely one of the better executions of it since it fit Harvey's character really well. Because of that, the lesson sticks much better than it would've done in the past.

I also really liked the ending. Considering this was his first job after being repaired, it makes sense (and it's pretty humorous) that he'd her a bit carried away. Especially since so long had been spent with his gears being blocked by the branch. It was also a great way to show that the lesson had stuck; very few episodes do that. Not even Pouty James, which was made to move James' character on.

Final Thoughts
This is definitely the weaker episode of the series so far, but it's still pretty good. Harvey's character is great and the theme is good. But compared to the last couple of episodes, the story didn't flow as well and it wasn't as funny. Couple that with the missed opportunity and the gaping plot hole (lack of crew interaction) and it earns the lowest rating so far.

Episode Ratings
Springtime for Diesel: 10/10
A Most Singular Engine: 10/10
Dowager Hatt's Busy Day: 10/10
Stuck in Gear: 8/10

Cumulative Total (So Far)

Series 21: Dowager Hatt's Busy Day

Series 21 has already thrown up a couple of surprises with Diesel and Daisy leading the way. But now we get a plot line that's been done three times before, ranging from bad to terrible. But can Dowager Hatt, one of the funniest characters of the show, be the one to turn the fortunes of this plot type around? Let's find out! Here are my thoughts on Dowager Hatt's Busy Day!

She did. She absolutely did. To be honest, any human could've done the job better since, apart from management, they have no idea how the railway would operate. Even the engines would have, at least, a basic understanding of how things work... if they didn't get hit with the idiot stick.

Let's cut to the chase here: this is the funniest episode the show has produced so far. From start to finish, there's something to, at least, make you chuckle. Regardless whether you think the story itself is good or bad, you can never accuse it of being boring.

A vast majority of that is down to Dowager Hatt. From the scene where she's introduced to the episode to misnaming characters (did anyone find it even funnier that she misnamed Emily?) to bossing station staff around to seeing how her decisions played out, there was never a dull moment with her around. It also makes sense why she's being used so sparingly: they want to give her the best comedy and not make her overstay her welcome. And I'm perfectly fine with that.

I talked earlier about how including an engine is where the previous versions of this trope failed, but they actually made it work here. Whether it's down to Emily helping Dowager Hatt, or better writing for the characters, I can't say for sure. But she was well incorporated into the plot.

Which leads me onto my next point. We're three episodes in, and all of them have starred strong female characters in the leading roles. I think it's wonderful that Thomas & Friends is becoming more inclusive. From the diverse characters in Journey Beyond Sodor to the last three episodes being female led (without taking away from the male counterparts) to the show itself having a female director and producer. In a world that's currently intent on keeping women and minorities down like it's the 1800s, it's nice that media companies are saying "screw your backwards ideologies, we're doing things our way".

Back to the episode, and the ending. I didn't think they'd be able to top The Railcar and the Coaches' ending in terms of humour (this fast at least), but they did it here. In the back of your mind you feel sorry for Philip, but it's just so wonderfully random that you can't help laughing. It's also rather cool that they used the mine from Bubbling Boilers.

All that said, the story and theme are nothing new. I've said already that the story had been repeated three times beforehand, and the basic theme of "never be ashamed to ask for help" has been done countless times before. But I said it in an earlier review and I'll say it here: I can forgive these things if the focus is on the comedy. And this episode had that and strong characters, and I'm perfectly fine with that trade off.

Final Thoughts
I have never laughed so much throughout an episode as this. It's Lee Pressman's best one to date (yes, Gordon and Spencer has finally been toppled) and it's the show's funniest so far. If this is what we'll be expecting in the future, at least it's going to be a lot of fun.

The theme isn't anything to write home about and the story isn't original. But with a proper understanding of the characters, and bags of humour, those things can be forgotten about easily. Also, you have to see that ending; it's so brilliantly unexpected and hilarious!

Episode Ratings
Springtime for Diesel: 10/10
A Most Singular Engine: 10/10
Dowager Hatt's Busy Day: 10/10

Cumulative Total (So Far)

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Series 21: A Most Singular Engine

Daisy and Diesel are back again. And this time, they've added Harvey to the mix, which could lead to something rather interesting. But how will A Most Singular Engine stack up after yesterday's (near) perfect start?

Character development isn't a process that ends after one 9 minute episode, especially for a character like Diesel. This seems like something fans have forgotten, or are simply ignorant of. Percy's took a whole special and an episode, James' took years in the books and two episodes last series. Diesel's too will be a lengthy process, especially since he's learning important lessons about friendship.

Fact is, as much as the Steam Team feels one note and indistinguishable when they're together (more often than not), there are lots of different personalities that Diesel will have to adjust to - him with Duck will be the most intriguing prospect. That's something that can't be contained in an episode, but it's more an overarching narrative throughout a series. It will be interesting to see how many episodes they'll give his development, but the last episode and this have set brilliant groundwork to expand upon.

There are a couple of quibbles with this episode in particular, which I'll get to in a bit. But the overall story is excellent. Diesel's frustration with Daisy's personality is easy to understand, especially since the team did a good job showing how overbearing she could be.

It also showed how well Diesel's deviousness could be used to further his development. It could get old quickly though, so they'll have to find the right balance of how often it comes into play. Or, at least, think of more unique ways to implement it since they did such a good job here.

Another aspect the team did a brilliant job with was utilising a plot about rumours. It helped that few characters were used (the more characters you use, the more the plot crumbles. Unless you do a good job incorporating each one in a believable way, something the team had struggled with before), but the choices made sense. Diesel since he'd want to spread conflict, and Ryan because he's still rather naive.

Harvey's inclusion was fantastic too. It made sense and his interactions with Diesel and  Daisy were fantastic. His mellow, laid back personality was really nice, and him saving Diesel showed how big of a heart that he has. It led to the overall message really well. Granted, another engine could've been used - and I'll mention who in a sec - but Harvey was a fine choice as well.

Going back to Diesel, I honestly rather liked, and understood, his motivation. Could it have been made stronger? Yes. And, to be honest, including Hugo would be a brilliant way for him to get the revenge he wanted after she implied he wasn't unique. But it made sense to me nonetheless. If you met someone who was a bit full of themselves, you'd probably want to bring them down a peg or two as well. And the best way for Diesel to do that, and feel a bit better about himself, was to try and show Daisy that she wasn't the most unique engine.

I also liked the theme that different people can be friends so long as you get to know them. It's something that's essential for children to learn, especially since adults can barely grasp that concept.

Now, the drawback: the toilet humour. I'm fairly ambivalent to its inclusion in the franchise... so long as it's funny and it has a place. Whether this instance was funny or not is up for debate. But what it is is completely out of place. It damages the tone completely, and tries to make light of an engine spewing sparks out of his vents and breaking down. Why they couldn't just say "my undercarriage!" I do not know.

Think of it this way: how much of an impact would Hurricane's melting scene have had if he'd have said something like "my bottom's on fire?" rather than the much more harrowing, memorable "I'm melting!"? There's more urgency, panic and it became an instantly recognisable line. Here though, there was no such impact, no such urgency and no such memorability. If they want to add humour, of any kind, fine. But ensure it adds to a scene rather than detracting from it.

Final Thoughts
And that makes two stellar episodes with Diesel and Daisy at the helm. While it was rather stupid that they constantly mentioned Daisy by her full title practically every time she was on screen, and calling Diesel's undercarriage his "bottom" because kids find backsides funny really annoyed me, there's very little complaint about the things that matter.

The story was great, Diesel's motivation made sense, it was funny, the theme was brilliant and the characters remained top notch. I really don't have much to criticise that isn't nitpicky, so it can only really get one rating.

Episode Ratings
Springtime for Diesel: 10/10
A Most Singular Engine: 10/10

Cumulative Total (So Far)

Monday, 18 September 2017

Series 21: Springtime for Diesel

Well, series 20's reviews may have ended a few weeks ago, but series 21 is now here (nice for them to wait until I'd returned from holiday to air them)! And, as is common with the first few episodes, they're debuting in the UK! Hopefully the others do too so that my job is made easier, but I highly doubt that. Anyway, let's get the ball rolling with Springtime for Diesel!

Did the team write this episode, then watch The Producers, hear Springtime for Hitler and say "that should be the title for one of our episodes!"? I like The Producers, don't get me wrong, but it feels really odd that they'd possibly want to reference that than just focus on the spring problem. But that's besides the point.

Diesel has been a fascinating character in recent years. Once a devious antagonist, he's now become more complex to the point where his deviousness feels more like an old habit that he can't shake off. If I could compare him to anyone, it would be Discord from Friendship is Magic. And if that's the route Diesel continues to go down, I feel that would suit him much more than being a generic antagonist. We have Diesel 10 for that.

Also, Daisy continues to be a real delight. Her interactions were excellent as always, and her teaching Diesel about friendship felt like a great continuation of what she went through in series 20, Ryan & Daisy especially.

Also, she puts Connor to shame in terms of bravery and determination. I don't want to dwell on it too much as I don't like thinking about Cautious Connor that much (it's an OK episode, but its problems stick out like a sore thumb), but Daisy getting her passengers home on a broken spring is one of the shining moments for her character. Considering how much she complains about being damaged, I expected her to stay there and let Ryan do the rest. But I was surprised, and glad, to be proven wrong. She truly has become one of the best characters of the show, which feels weird to say since she's been absent from a large portion of it. But it's a testament to how brilliantly the current CG era nails character interactions, and how much Davey Moore just gets her completely.

Speaking of which, Den and Dart had some really fun lines as well. Them being surprised to see a diesel railcar was a bit weird (a nitpick I know, but didn't she go there in The Railcar and the Coaches?), but the rest were fantastic. It's nice to see Den actually stand up for himself after Dart's constant "what he means is..." lines over the years, and the toilet humour they provided was actually kind of funny. Sure, it was one of the more blatant uses, but at least the set up to it made sense.

The story itself was fantastic. It's well paced, it's engaging throughout and it's nice that the diesels got all the attention. It did feel like they were segregating them from the steam engines, considering only Thomas, Percy and Ryan appeared, but it was a nice change of pace that they got all the attention for one episode.

The ending was really well done, too. We've seen two episodes where there's been dialogue that's hinted on a complete backpedal of a character's development. (thankfully, James' case was rendered pointless in All in Vain). But this feels just right. There's enough ambiguity there so they can revert him back when necessary, since he's still getting the hang of friendship. But there's also enough to make you believe that Diesel genuinely wants to grow and be a good friend. This development is long overdue for him, and I love that they're finally taking him down this route. I also love how taken aback Ryan is by it. I think that using Duck would've had more of an impact, but it was still fine.

The theme is also great. It's difficult to make friends, absolutely. But being rude and cruel isn't going to help your case. Considering what fans have been like this year alone, it's one that they should be heeding. They won't because, if they don't take other friendship lessons seriously, why would they take this one seriously? But it's one they really should take to heart. There's a reason so many scoff, laugh and ridicule Thomas fans. And these days, it's not because we like a show for preschoolers...

There's only really one problem: how do the workmen not know how to fix Daisy's springs? It genuinely feels odd that they've never had experience with them before, especially with how temperamental she can be. It would've been better had they just said there were no springs in stock, something they mentioned when Annie had a wheel flat in Thomas & the Emergency Cable. The way it's written here, it makes the workmen seem rather stupid. It's not something that damages the story completely, but it's definitely something that could easily have been altered with a final draft.

Final Thoughts
I've never given an opening episode top marks before. Old Reliable Edward came close, but its lack of originality held it back slightly. This episode has no such issue. The story feels fresh, the characters are superb, the theme is fantastic and... well, there's honestly little to complain about.

Fans have been dreading the future of the show after Journey Beyond Sodor to the point they've wanted it cancelled (because that's how selfish fans are). But if the quality remains this high throughout, they'll have nothing to worry about. For this series, at least.

Episode Ratings
Springtime for Diesel: 10/10

Cumulative Total (So Far)