Monday, 15 September 2014

Series 18: Toad's Bright Idea

And so, the final episode of this run has come and gone. So here's my review of Toad's Bright Idea!

When reading the description of this episode, I thought it would have gone one of two ways:
  1. An episode that brought Gator back into the fold for no reason other than a plot device
  2. Similar to a Disney "cheapquel", it would have used one throwaway line from a movie as the plot for an episode (or a movie, in Disney's case)
Considering The Biggest Present of All and the Disney sequels (The Hunchback of Notre Dame 2, Lady and the Tramp 2, etc.), neither of these prospects really filled me with too much optimism, but would the team pull it out of the bag again?

The short answer? A resounding "yes". Every time the team are in a situation that many think they can't get themselves out of, they deliver in style! This episode is, like I thought, similar to a cheap Disney sequel (the ones that use a throwaway line as a plot point for a future project), but it's by far one of the best examples that I've seen.

Gator and Toad played off each other brilliantly here. Should Gator have known better than go off without a lamp on? Yes, but it's been made apparent here and in Tale of the Brave that Gator knows his lamp is a constant issue, but since he's (I'm assuming here) made other deliveries at night with no lamp without fault, it's understandable he'd be so headstrong here. It's like someone coming up to you telling you what you should be doing, even though you know exactly what the problem is and you know what you're capable of. Also, Gator wanted to get a ship back home, which gives his actions even more credence. It doesn't make them right, but I'll get to that in a little bit.

The scene from Tale of the Brave was woven into the story brilliantly. Davey only added the part that was necessary to the plot, and it never really stuck out; it felt like that part was made specifically for this episode, even though it wasn't. One main inconsistency though was that Gator knew he was collecting trucks from the Little Western that morning before speaking to Percy, but here he was told about it that night. There are others, but I won't go into detail on those.

Toad's increasing frustration was really interesting to watch. He never says it in any way, but it does feel like he has the "Great Western Way" attitude, and I much prefer his and Oliver's abidance of it rather than Duck's, whose more "in your face" about it (that's not to say Duck's a bad character though). Also, considering what he went through with James, assuming Toad's Adventure took place before this, I can understand his tougher stance here.

Speaking of that, I loved seeing the guard applying Toad's brakes again, Yes, it would have been nice to hear from him, or for someone to acknowledge that he applied the brakes, but seeing him there was still fantastic.

Going back to how headstrong Gator was, this was the reason why I had no problem with it: he was punished for it. Toad warned Gator about the gravel and he warned of the dangers of going without a lamp and a brake van, but Gator thought he knew better and his arrogance was punished. Not only that, he felt guilty for what had happened. There doesn't need to be a huge smash to get the point across, and I'm actually really glad the new team are aware of this. That doesn't mean I would never want to see a big crash again, but there needs to be a purpose for it.

One drawback for me though is a certain blue tank engine. Thomas makes a couple of cameos in this episode, but in Tale of the Brave, his branch line was repaired by this point and he was seen taking Annie and Clarabel, ergo he shouldn't have been anywhere near the docks. This may seem like nitpicking, but the team were trying to make us believe that this takes place during the movie, and they needed to ensure that every little detail was perfect.

Another little oddity was that the dock manager was voiced by Matt Wilkinson again rather than Steve Kynman. Again, this shows a lack of consistency with Tale of the Brave. That said, considering David Badella voiced Victor in Blue Mountain Mystery, but not in series 16, this is nothing new. Other than that though, the rest of the voice acting was great. It was quite interesting to hear new voice recordings for the Tale of the Brave clips, although it could be considered inconsistent, too. Then again, it may have been considered "lazy" by some, so it seems like the team were in a no win situation there.

And here comes the usual gushing over the animation! I really can't help it; it's absolutely beautiful. The night time scenes are stunning, as are scenes at the docks, so to see both attributes here was right up my street. The shot from inside Toad was brilliant as well; it's like we're getting a proper insight of the guard's viewpoint. And that distant fog sets a brilliantly eerie mood, I love it! 

Fan Reaction

The Mad Controller's Corner

Final Thoughts

For a first attempt at an episode like this (a "midquel"), I'd say they did a terrific job. Yes, it's not perfect with its consistency, but it's still a solid story. The dynamic worked really well, the Tale of the Brave incorporation never felt forced and the character interactions were great overall. The current run may have come to an end, but this episode has left me wanting more!

Episode Ratings

Series Rating (so far)

Friday, 12 September 2014

Series 18: Spencer's VIP

It's the end of the third week, and a snooty engine makes his series 18 d├ębut. It's Spencer's VIP!

This sounded like a very interesting concept. It sounded a bit like a cross between Wrong Road and Gordon Takes a Short Cut to me, and I was interested to see how the new team would change that. But could they pull it off?

Many people have said that many different stories over series 17 and 18 have been "Awdry-esque", including me. But if there's any episode that properly defines that style of story, this is a pretty good candidate. No one was really talking about this episode, since the others stole its thunder, but it's actually really good!

The first sign of its Awdry style was the Fat Controller being presented with an award for "services to transport"! After all the accidents over the years, it was weird to see him being awarded that prize, but why question a politician, eh? (it's a humorous observation, not a negative)

I was really surprised by the abundance of characters that were seen, either as a speaking role or a cameo! Seeing Belle again though made me feel rather sad for her and Flynn. They were given an amazing turnaround in series 17, yet here they've seemingly been forgotten about completely. It could be because the animators are finalising a new Search and Rescue Centre set free of a certain tunnel that leads to a place that shall no longer be named. Or it could just be a lack of good role for them.

This episode made me theorise something else: I personally believe that Andrew Brenner is keeping the Steam Team concept, but is adding the members that fans had criticised the previous team for leaving out. On a slight tangent, I'm personally glad they were left out. Not because they're bad characters, but because they're great, and they didn't deserve the treatment that the previous team gave the engines that were in it.

Back on topic, and I thought it was pretty funny how Bill and Ben teased Spencer, although I did find it weird that they - and Timothy - knew him by name. That said, it was great that Spencer actually followed the route of Edward's branch line, rather than random locations made up to be the branch. Now if only they included more locations of it to give it a more authentic feel (yes, that's also my issue with Thomas' and, actually, Duck's). And before anyone complains about weight restrictions, a similar situation happened in Wrong Road, so I'm not counting it as a negative.

The episode begins in a wonderful way; engine crews tending to their locomotives. It's been seen several times before, I know, but it's still really nice to see, and it shows that the CGI change was a good one. That said, they're still mute...

As usual, the humour was great here. James' teasing of Gordon was brilliant, as were Gordon's reactions to James and Spencer.

I really liked the ending. It was built up brilliantly throughout the episode by showing the impatience of everyone else as well as Spencer's own guilt for what he'd done. It lead to two really strong morals that, while they were given to the audience, they weren't forced upon us. It's also great to show the other engines learning from their mistakes rather than simply fixing them, which is a much better way to get the message across, purely because some mistakes can't be fixed, but you can learn from them to better yourself and ensure the same mistakes aren't made in the future.

One thing I couldn't get past though was Percy's stupidity. And yes, I am calling it "stupidity" as there have been many VIPs visit Sodor in the past, from railway inspectors to the Queen! He should really know what one is by now!

Another little oddity was seeing Edward in the shed in one scene, but on the open line a few seconds later. Was there meant to be a transition here? Speaking of which, the set-up to Spencer's going onto Edward's branch seems more convoluted than it did in Wrong Road. In that story, Gordon's fireman was new, and since it was dark, it was understandable that he'd mistake the floppy hat for a green flag. Here, Spencer should have had the right of way if Edward was that close to his signal, since the silver engine was taking a VIP, yet Edward's was green and Spencer's red. Unless Edward was running late, there shouldn't have been a mix up

Yep, you know what I'm going to say next: the animation here was stunning. I've also noticed that the steam is beginning to become a bit darker in some scenes, and it's especially noticeable with Percy's. It's a great touch that adds a bit more realism to a scene!

The voice acting was brilliant as usual. It seems that the deputy minister was voiced by Tim Whitnall, which really surprised me. Timothy and Reg sound pretty similar, so to hear him voice someone who sounds so different was really good, and it's raised my opinion of him as a vocal artist by quite a bit! The music was also quite nice. It did the job really well.

Fan Reaction

The Mad Controller's Corner

Final Thoughts

I was expecting this episode to be, at least, average. But I'm pleasantly surprised that it exceeded all of my expectations. The story was brilliant, the abundance of characters was a real treat and the moral was brilliant. I'd have said that Andrew Brenner has "regained his form", but in all honesty, he never really lost it!

Episode Ratings

Series Rating (so far)

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Series 18: No Steam Without Coal

So, Missing Gator received a lukewarm reception, but how will No Steam Without Coal fare?

Today's episode was the first to really demonstrate how the dynamic between Timothy, Bill and Ben would work. But would it also show that the oil burner is worthy to take Edward's place keeping the twins in order, or would it prove that they really do need a wise old sage to control them?

Well, Timothy did fail to control them in "Edward's Way", but considering Marion could, I wasn't too disappointed. Actually, that feels a lot better as far as I'm concerned. Not only do the twins have an authoritative figure to keep them under control (as much as possible) but girls also get a positive role model, which I'm really happy about.

As for the episode itself, it's great. I love how it just thrusts us in to the story, which is one of Davey Moore's strong points as a writer. Yeah, he's only done this in two episodes, but they've worked really well, and I think he should do more like this (if he hasn't already).

It's also filled to the brim with comedy. Considering Bill and Ben are co-stars, that's unsurprising. It seems that Davey understands them as much as Andrew Brenner, which is fantastic. It means that they don't need to rely on one writer to include them, which is another aspect of the Logging Locos that failed. It seemed like Sharon Miller had an idea with them, but didn't trust anyone to "tamper" with it (you know, in case the other writers did a better job?).

One of the best things about it though was the lack of not just Thomas, but the entire Steam Team (except Edward, who had a cameo) since the whole episode took place at the tail end of Edward's branch. This is a real breath of fresh air that at least one of the writers is willing to take that risk, but at the same time, it was a bit of a shame. It would have been nice if Edward had a role at the docks to make that classic connection, but it wasn't really essential.

That said, I loved Timothy's role here. I said, before Tale of the Brave's release, that he would be a "dark horse" of the film, and I thought he was great there. In this episode, though, he was better. It was nice to see that, despite his differences, he's still accepted by everyone else, and the teasing is clearly shown to only be playful. But it was a powerful moral that, sometimes, playful teasing can have a negative effect on someone, especially if the subject of the teasing is something personal to them. I can relate to him quite a lot, and relatability is the sign of a great character.

The teasing by the twins about Timothy's oil burning was acceptable for me as it all boiled down to one word: catharsis. Bill and Ben were so busy teasing Timothy about his fuel that they seemingly forgot that they needed their own, and the scene where he collects the coal felt extremely satisfying; Bill and Ben made, what some would deem, an inappropriate comment and they got the appropriate punishment for it, like the Awdrys would often portray in their stories. That said, I did feel for Marion, who was also affected.

Speaking of which, I really liked her role here. We've all seen her chatty side, but here we see that there's more to her than that. She feels like a more motherly figure here, and she's extremely passionate about the job she does. It's like she's a more rounded character now, which is fantastic.

One scene I really liked was this one, which felt like a reference to Salty's Secret. But that wasn't the only thing that was great about this scene...

Am I right in thinking this is the first time there's ever been a shot from inside either twin's cab? It's a fantastic little touch that shows that the engines do still need a crew, and they were even heard gasping at one point! Now for the next step: talking..! Preferably to their engines on a journey or something.

My only slight problem is Ben crossing Bill's path. Like Old Reliable Edward's example, it does make sense from a narrative standpoint, but it still irks me when it comes to railway realism, especially since this series has taught kids about the importance of signals and how slip coaches work. Hopefully these are just rarities, as it would be a shame if they took two steps forward, but one step back (better than one forward, two back, but still).

The animation? Well, it's getting a bit stale for the reviews, but I just can't help saying that it looks superb as... well, it does! The camera angles were fantastic and the visuals were stunning. I also love how they don't budge the whistles up and down. I know they've shown whistles blowing since King of the Railway, but I'm still happy about it now as it just looks realistic.

Fan Reaction

The Mad Controller's Corner

Final Thoughts

The story was another simple, slice of life affair, but there was so much humour and fun added to it that it felt like the episode just flew by. I'm really liking the Clay Pits dynamic, and I now have a new found respect for Timothy. Although, deep down, I do hope that they don't sever Bill and Ben's ties to Edward and (should he ever return) BoCo. Maybe the writers could use them as the authoritative figures away from the Clay Pits..?

Episode Ratings

Series Rating (so far)

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Series 18: Missing Gator

We've now officially reached the half way point of the series with Missing Gator!

I was nervous about this episode. The fact that it has Gator's name in the title made me think he was returning, meaning his emotional goodbye from Tale of the Brave would have been pointless. But was I wrong to be so nervous?

When will I learn not to doubt this team? They've proven themselves on multiple occasions, and this episode is no exception. It felt like they were re-affirming the bravery message to Percy, but I can see why fans may not like this as such since they did that near the end of Tale of the Brave.

Speaking of that film, it was a great idea to use footage from that as a flashback, while other shots of the two engines that were specifically added for this episode felt more like deleted scenes than specially shot footage. The key to these new episodes is "show, not tell", and I think they did a good job with that by recapping how much of an impact Gator had on Percy. Sure, they could've got more emotion out of the story by telling, but a) most of the engines (Salty especially) already know what happened and b) it may not have been practical with a 9 minute time frame.

This episode was a nice mix of a slice of life story with a bit of action, so it suits fans with different tastes. That said, some fans who like the action may think that the slice of life part would feel boring. I was pretty satisfied though!

I really enjoyed the variety of characters in the episode. While a couple only cameoed and others only said a few lines, none of them really felt too forced. Well, except maybe one...

Why was Thomas necessary? This was from the same person who wrote Duck in the Water, an episode that didn't need him, so didn't include him! That said, it did take place at Knapford, so it didn't feel contrived. And it did put more emphasis on Percy missing Gator, so it wasn't too pointless, I suppose

I was very surprised to only see Millie at Ulfstead Castle, especially since series 17 put so much emphasis on Stephen. I've nothing against him as a character (he's one of my favourites), but I actually preferred seeing Millie here partly because she was seemingly forgotten about in favour of "the Rocket" last series. Above all else though, it'll keep those "journalists" at bay for a while.

This was a very clever way of including Gator without actually bringing him back on a ship. It was also a fantastic reinforcement of the meaning of bravery from the flashbacks. I also loved the way the sequence was animated. Using the steam from Percy's cylinders to create the dream effect was fantastic.

Speaking of which, the animation here was amazing. The detail in the mine was brilliant; it was a nice way to show the passage of time in there. The main sticking point for me was why they actually fixed the bridge and kept the line running down there? This was an oddity from Santa's Little Engine, but at least the mine wasn't really seen there (which, come to think of it, makes even less sense!).

One thing I did feel slightly indifferent about was the runaway scene direction. Like yesterday's episode, there are some recycled angles, but this time it felt like the majority of the King of the Railway runaway was remade shot for shot. While I do love those angles in both productions, I also hope that this doesn't become a trend.

The voice acting is really good, but it felt... weird that they re-did some lines. I can understand Gator's as his shots were slightly different to the ones seen in Tale of the Brave, but why did they edit Percy's when none of the flashback shots he spoke in had changed?

Fan Reaction

The Mad Controller's Corner

Final Thoughts

I can completely see each side of the argument, and I agree that it feels like a near 9 minute version of Tale of the Brave, but I still really enjoy it. Friends who have such a huge impact on your life are really difficult to forget, and this was a great way of portraying that. Yes, they ended on that note in Tale of the Brave, but I felt it was stronger here as that film took place quite a while ago (Sodor time), and it shows that Percy still cares and values that friendship, which is a sweet, subtle moral to end the episode.

Episode Ratings

Series Rating (so far)

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Series 18: Marion and the Pipe

Episode 12 has come and gone, so here's my review of Marion and the Pipe!

After almost half the series, a second member of the new roster from Tale of the Brave makes her presence known. If you've read my review of it, you'll know that I like Marion quite a bit, but can she hold her own in a starring role?

I personally think she did, as the episode itself is pretty good. But that's all I think it is: pretty good. Not terrible, but not fantastic either. The conflict is the main sticking point for me. It is a good one... in its current form. But I'll get to what I'd change at the end.

Marion had a great starring role, with probably one of the funniest moments of the TV series. Let's just say she'd probably be a great golfer as well as a cricket fielder. It's not the most realistic moment, I admit, but it is really entertaining and it builds quite a bit of tension.

It was also pretty humorous how Percy made an excuse to ignore Marion's story, and it's a breath of fresh air that he's more concerned about his job than hearing tales, something that would have been completely different had it taken place a few years ago.

Marion's game with Bill and Ben was quite nice and it felt rather natural. Again, the twins were great for the amount of time they were on screen. It was a shame that Timothy didn't feature, but I suppose someone has to sort the Clay Pits out!

On a slight tangent, I love this shot of the workmen under the tree. English workmen have a... "reputation" of slacking on the job, and to see that here was pretty funny.

One thing I do have to say though: please stop flip flopping Thomas from a branch line engine to a main line one. It just feels like every appearance he has on the main amounts to contrivance, especially these days. I don't mind him being there, but there has to be a reason for it, rather than "to allow the plot to happen".

The animation was fantastic again. The angles were great and that little mudslide was rendered beautifully, but there's one shot that, I'll admit, felt weird to watch.

The panning shot over the Clay Pits was beautiful. The issue that many fans have with it is that it felt like the panning shot from Tale of the Brave, which isn't really helped by the fact that Stanley passes on the same line with the same amount of trucks. As I say, I think it's weird, but I wouldn't say I have negative feelings towards it. The TV series has been recycling angles from day one, and this felt more like a reference to that rather than laziness. Besides, they make 26 episodes a year, they deserve to be cut some slack.

The voice acting was top notch. As I said in the Tale of the Brave review, it's a testament to the prestige of the brand that Olivia Colman would want to voice Marion, and she does an amazing job, as does Jonathan Broadbent as Bill and Ben. The music was lovely as well,

Fan Reaction

The Mad Controller's Corner

Final Thoughts

Out of all of Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler's episodes, this was around the middle of the road. The action and climax were brilliant, but I feel that the conflict would have been stronger had this taken place near Wellsworth - but still on the main line - with Edward replacing Thomas as the co-star, having Marion learn from someone old, not "a young engine" (her words).

Despite that, Huckerby and Ostler know how to write Marion, Bill and Ben really well. Episodes like these are a great way to mix things up a bit once in a while, and I'd have no qualms if these two wrote more of them. But next time, try using someone other than Thomas.

Episode Ratings

Series Rating (so far)