Thursday, 30 April 2015

Britt Allcroft

Over the past few days, there's been a lot made of Britt Allcroft and David Mitton's era. And, to be honest, I've been the most vocal about it. I'm going to say this right now, I'm not going to feel guilty or apologetic for anything I say here. There will be a lot of (what others would believe to be) harsh comments and observations of her as a whole, and whether fans agree or not I've gone beyond caring about at this point. I'm just going to put my point across and leave it at that.

Before I begin with my observations, I'll say this: I do not hate Britt Allcroft or David Mitton at all. I have a lot of respect for them as business people, producers and creators. But there's a difference between respecting someone and burying your head in the sand every time their names are mentioned. The best way to be respectful, as far as I'm concerned, is not to pussyfoot around those you admire, but to say what needs to be said regardless. You know, the "cruel to be kind" approach.

Now I'm going to begin with the positives, because the last time I spoke about this era, I don't think I did that. At all. Unless you count that deleted post on the TTTE Wikia which a certain Kevin Devaney sabotaged, but I digress.

Now, regardless of what I think of what she did further down the road, the fact that she practically gave up everything she had and pinned her hopes on making the television series successful is extremely admirable. I highly doubt she would have done that if she didn't believe in what the Rev. W. Awdry had created. And I'm extremely glad that her sacrifice worked out for her as it became a huge success with British audiences.

I also thought it was a very gutsy move to try and take it to America, since not many British exports work well across the pond. And, again, I'm glad it paid off for her as it broadened horizons and put Thomas and Friends on the map as one the most successful British children's shows.

She was obviously a very gifted businesswoman, and the fact that she helmed such a tight ship as far as merchandising went also showed that. Seriously, when she was in charge, the franchise had some of the best merchandising it's ever had; pretty much all of it is looked back on fondly. ERTLs, classic Wooden Railway, TOMY Motor Road and Rail, Hornby. She and her team commissioned them all, and because of her leadership, they turned out exactly how she wanted them to look (in contrast to current merchandising which is... hit and miss).

And even though I hate pretty much everything about Thomas and the Magic Railroad, I do have to give her props for, at least, trying to go down that road. If anything, I'm more disappointed in the final result because I feel it could, and should, have been monumentally better if the focus was on the characters that had been established, rather than trying to turn Thomas into something it's not, at least in my view. After all, every production team has their own idealised version of what Sodor is which, I feel, is where the true magic really lies.

As for buying the rights? I have no animosity towards her for doing so. Her reasoning for doing so was well-founded, and it did allow future production teams more leeway to write whichever stories they wanted to - for better or worse. Speaking of which, I respect why they cancelled The Missing Coach. Granted I don't know why they pretty much filmed most of it before they came to the decision not to adapt it because it could confuse some kids, but considering they were thinking about the majority rather the minority is also pretty admirable.

And, while some were a bit... mixed, many of her adaptations really hit it out of the park; most of which are in my favourite episodes list. Heck, quite a few of her own stories were really good as well. And while I'm not a fan of series 5, at least it was interesting, which couldn't really be said about the majority of series 8-16.

But do I think she was perfect? Absolutely not.

Some of her adaptations did leave a bit to be desired, while some of the "in house" stories weren't that good. As far as adaptations go:
  • Henry had no real reason to strike other than being made to shunt. Yes, Gordon and James did so for the same reason but they had additional grievances that piled up
  • Thomas' accident in series 2 had no real point to it narratively, apart from knocking his ego down a bit, which was pretty much the whole purpose of Thomas, Terence and the Snow. And considering they built a rebuild model for Henry on, arguably, a tighter budget, how hard would it have been to straighten out Thomas' front?
  • Edward telling Douglas the story of Trevor in Escape was pretty pointless. Think about it: in The Deputation, Douglas was close to death, like Oliver, so you'd have thought he'd be able to feel empathetic.
  • Percy's Promise being filmed after Percy Takes the Plunge.
  • Diesel replacing Daisy in Mavis for no real reason.
  • Rusty to the Rescue turning out to be a rip-off of Escape, only far more contrived.
And then... there was Henry's Forest. Now I have no problem with those who like this episode; it's full of heart and it has one of the best soundtracks of the series. But it was the first one to break the rules that the franchise had established, which is something you can not do. Yes, the early books of the Railway Series didn't really follow any rules, but it can be excused as it was still finding its identity at that point. By series 3, the show's identity was well established. It seems minor to fans, I understand this. But as someone who wants to become an author, these writing techniques are very important for me.

I also have similar issues with series 5. I can respect those who want to take a show in a different direction, but you still need to keep the rules that it had established. And before anyone complains, yes. I do have issues with the teams from series 6-7 and 8-16 going against the show's rules, but by then it was par for the course, so I didn't bring it up that much. Also, they'd only inherited the show; Britt and David created it, so their inconsistencies stand out more.

The tone change was also... really jarring and came out of nowhere. I agree, the Railway Series underwent a tone change too, but that was between 1955-72, when the modernisation plan was taking shape on Britain's railway network, so it made more sense. But with series 5, it seemed to come out of nowhere, And the more I think of it, the more I believe that it was David Mitton's doing, since Britt would have been busy with T&TMR at that point. Also, he produced TUGS, which was a serious show (and one I've no grudge against. They could get away with it in TUGS as it was a completely new, different show). The tone change needed context, which it didn't seem to have that series. Especially when there were light hearted episodes also in the mix.

As for T&TMR? Well, everyone keeps blaming everyone for it failing. But considering it was geared towards the American audience from the get go, I personally believe that the story that Britt wrote was the reason why it failed in the UK. As far as it failing in America goes, it's probably a mix of her and the focus groups. It just felt really confused as to who it should be aimed at. There was a villainous diesel there that wanted everything dead, so you'd assume that it was aimed at an age group that wouldn't usually be into Thomas at that point. But when they give inanimate objects silly names and use the "magic" concept, they insinuate that it's for kids, which it can't be as most would consider the tone too dark for them.

I think the biggest disappointment though is that she didn't take advantage of the hidden lore that had been created in her stories. Yes, I know she didn't have to, but it would have been a nice little tribute to the man who trusted her with his creation, especially after his passing. It's because of this that I have a little bit more respect for the current team, but I digress.

Final Thoughts
As you can see, most of my problems with what the original team did were centred around the series they were involved with. Does that mean I hate their impact as a whole? Absolutely not. On the contrary, Britt Allcroft and David Mitton consisted of my second favourite production team the show's ever had. Unlike most fans though, I don't put them on such a high pedestal to the point where I think they can do no wrong. They're human beings; they make mistakes, and they should be called out on them.

That being said, I have the utmost respect for them because, without them, this fanbase wouldn't exist. Heck, without them, Thomas and Friends wouldn't have grown into one of the biggest preschool brands in the world. The Reverend Awdry put his faith in her, which was probably one of the hardest things he'd done as he was giving his creation to a complete stranger (to all intents and purposes), and she delivered in an amazing way. While I don't agree with some of her production decisions, no one can deny that she must have been doing something right since she was involved with the show's production for nearly 20 years which, by anyone's standards, is rather incredible.

In short, even though some of your choices were questionable, Britt Allcroft and David Mitton: I salute you both

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

DVD Review: Trouble on the Tracks

2015 is one of the busiest years for Thomas and Friends DVD releases, with one being released every month (apart from July, where there's two). So to kick off, here are my thoughts on this year's second release, Trouble on the Tracks!

Unlike the US release from last year, the UK version has 7 episodes. They are:
  1. Thomas the Quarry Engine
  2. Not So Slow Coaches
  3. Flatbeds of Fear
  4. Disappearing Diesels
  5. Toad's Adventure
  6. Duck and the Slip Coaches
  7. Missing Gator
I really like the selection, including the two extra episodes. They fit the theme of the DVD well and they're all pretty interesting. If you want to see my thoughts on each individual episode, click the links above.

Bonus Features
I have to admit, the features took me by surprise here. Not because of what was featured, but by how many there were.

We kick off with Mr Perkins' Story Time, but rather than featuring one story, there are two, and neither of them feel out of place. The first was Pop Goes the Diesel, which was on the original American release.

I personally think this version features some of Loraine Marshall's best illustrations. The expressions on the trucks are great and it was really well narrated. Although I didn't like them changing the "big black weasel" line in the song to satisfy the oversensitive soccer mums who may have complained about the original version of it...

The second story featured was Toby's Tightrope. I quite like the edits made at the beginning of the story as it sums up the events that got Mavis to the point this story ended up at. That said, Marshall's illustrations felt a bit... out of place here. Gunvor and Peter Edwards' illustrations were some of the most realistic and artistic the Railway Series had. In comparison, Marshall's seem to stand out a lot more, which is a shame.

Then we come to Mr Perkins' Postcards, which follows the similar formula to the previous segments. On this DVD, he sends a card about the Dieselworks. It's nice, and it includes a great description of what the Dieselworks is and does.

The second postcard was about the quarries of Sodor. I like this one a bit more than the other one; it's nice. Although the postcard features Ffarquhar Quarry, all of the ones featured in the CG era (including the Clay Pits) are mentioned. It's great that Ffarquhar's was also mentioned to be the oldest again, especially since, in The Island of Sodor: Its People, History and Railways, it's said that the old coffee pots worked on the line to Ffarquhar, so it can be interpreted to be the oldest quarry based on that.

The Earl's Quiz was the usual fare. It's OK for kids, but it's just not for me. The episodes featured were Percy's New Friends and Slippy Sodor. They aren't good episodes in the slightest, but like I said, kids may like it. The Calling All Engines features Salty and Paxton. They're really good.

Like the last release though, the biggest surprise of this DVD is actually right at the start. There'd been a lot of talk of Sodor's Legend of the Lost Treasure before the trailer was released, but we ddn't think there'd be a trailer released for months. But I'm surprised, and delighted, that one was added here. I've already posted my thoughts (which you can see here), but for now I'll just say it's brilliant. Probably one of the best so far.

Apart from a few errors here and there, and a couple of shots from one episodes that seem to be inspired from a previous special, the presentation here is excellent. The footage is well directed and animated, and it's sure to satisfy your kids.

As usual, the RRP for this release is £12.99, but it can be brought for £5.99 at HMV or £6 at Asda. Some shops will also sell it for £7 or £8, so take your pick.

Final Thoughts
While this release doesn't have the unique selling point that Dinos and Discoveries had, the overall content quality is far superior in my opinion. The episodes are, on the whole, much better and the bonus features are fantastic. That said, I would recommend shopping around for the cheapest price should you wish to buy it. I don't think it's worth anything more than £10 personally.