Thursday, 24 September 2015

Series 19: Henry Spots Trouble

Episode 4 of of series 19 aired today, and here are my thoughts!

If there are episodes that are scrutinised more than Toby's, they're probably Henry's, as his character change has been one of the most drastic and, seemingly, permanent. But the question is: can they actually make that work for this episode?

"It's a kid's show". This phrase has been met with disgust whenever anyone mentions a bad animated show/film because people think that kids don't deserve quality entertainment. I've been known to be highly critical of that phrase in recent years as well, but I feel the need to use it for this episode. Why? Because there's a difference between using something as an excuse and using it as a defence.

No matter how much fans of Thomas & Friends (the show, not necessarily the Railway Series) argue the point against trolls or those who have an opposing opinion, the simple fact of the matter is this: Thomas & Friends is a kids' show. Always has been, always will be. Yes, there is a far reaching appeal to it, and that can't be denied and shouldn't be sneered at, but the primary focus of any episode is how it can appeal to children. And I think this one does that rather well as it understood something very important: the difference between talking down to an audience and talking directly to an audience. That's why, I believe, this episode has succeeded where series 9-16, as well as Steamie Stafford, failed.

Yes, the general theme is Henry just being scared of getting chicken pox, but kids can relate to this very easily. There are new things that they know little to nothing about, and that will scare them. So the basic moral of "___ is nothing to be scared of" is a very reassuring one, especially when it comes to something that they will experience further down the road. Yes, the catalyst to the fear here is only chicken pox, but they can take the basic lesson that's taught here with them so they can feel reassured later in life; whether they're facing a new school, college or university. Heck, even doctor and dentist appointments, or whatever new experiences a child faces.

This, to me, is what makes the franchise timeless. It's not the models, or the CG, it's having relatable characters and teaching relatable morals that can stand the test of time, and can be learnt by all ages. That is what a true children's show is truly capable of, and this episode, and this team, understand that wonderfully. It's also the reason I get annoyed when people use "it's a kid's show" as an excuse when terrible ones are created, but I digress.

With all that said, is the episode perfect? Nope. It does feel strange that Stephen and Bridget (nice to see them back, and referring to their grandfather as such) would be allowed out with chicken pox. If there were other kids around them at the station, they would be at risk of catching them. Although using Winston again was nice. He's not being used as an inspection vehicle per se, rather the Fat Controller's personal rail-car, but any opportunity to see him again is fine by me. It also keeps the pox from spreading on their travels.

Also, that near miss with James was a bit ridiculous. Granted, it did up the entertainment value slightly, and I can understand that they did it to emphasise the danger of Henry going backwards with the train, but it still looked pretty stupid

Discounting those things though, this episode was, for me, rather entertaining, especially the scenes at Kellsthorpe Road with the painter and Wellsworth with the Fat Controller. The painter gag really had to rely on the animation to work, and the animators did a brilliant job on that end.

Speaking of which, the animation here is great. There's not really much I can say without constantly repeating what I've been saying since Arc took over. They're brilliant, but they have their flaws. Simple as that, really.

The voice acting, again, is pretty spot on. Even though James' line delivery by Keith Wickham was really weird, he did an excellent job with Henry, displaying a genuine fear in his elderly sounding voice.

I also believe that, this series, Matt Wilkinson is by far and away the most improved actor on the cast this series. Cranky and Spencer sound a lot more mature and now Butch seems to have had the same treatment. His Scouse accent is a lot more prominent, and it's a bit deeper. It feels like Sharon Miller is giving him more direction this series, and it really shows.

Fan Reaction

The Mad Controller's Corner

Final Thoughts
I feel like this episode is one of the most underrated - or, at least, undervalued - of the show. Fans just seem to take it at face value: Henry being scared of another ridiculous thing and running off, neglecting his duties. Yes, I would like his character to have a bit more depth to it, but I don't think they see the underlying message that the episode set out to teach. And that, coupled with the good humour and great characters, is why I really like this episode.

Episode Ratings
Who's Geoffrey?: 8/10
The Truth About Toby: 7/10
Lost Property: 9/10
Henry Spots Trouble: 8/10

Series Rating (so far)

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Series 19: Lost Property

It's time to look for some Lost Property in today's episode!

So we have a new writer and another episode where Thomas is the focus? And it's also a very railway-centric episode. An interesting combination, but how will it fare?

In a word? Brilliantly. If there's one type of episode I really like, it's those that have railway operations at the forefront. This is no exception, only here it goes slightly beyond.

It's basically the quintessential Thomas & Friends episode: engine does a job, things go wrong, engine proves themselves. It's also really entertaining and it has a lot of heart.

I also like that the railway inspectors returned. It seems like this is becoming a yearly thing, like the four Christmas-themed episodes and the six direct-to-DVD episodes, and I'm all for that. It just makes a lot of sense that they'd want to visit yearly in order to ensure it's running as it should.

As for the kids? While I do like how they were portrayed as it does feel real to life (although, in fairness, it is only a small minority that act this way), I think that more should have been done to give them some sort of punishment, or something to regret their behaviour. Having the Fat Controller try and defend them really didn't sit well with me, especially since that also happens in reality, only it's the parents that are the ones on the defensive. I know he was only trying to keep the inspectors happy, but wouldn't him at least giving them a talking to have shown the inspectors that he was really in charge?

That said, the ending in itself was quite nice. Giving the whole railway a "glowing report" did seem like a bit of an overreaction just for returning a watch, but it was made clear that it meant quite a lot to the inspector. If they'd have said that he'd give the Ffarquhar branch a glowing report, or just Thomas, Annie and Clarabel, it would have made more sense.

That said, if the episode had just been a regular story about the railway being inspected, I don't think I'd have liked it too much as it runs the risk of being rather boring (and, like I've said, we've been down this road before). However, they threw in quite a bit of humour throughout. Some of it visual, some physical, but pretty much everything hits the mark for me. It really helped to keep the investment up.

As usual, the animation is amazing. The scenery around the branch line is absolutely gorgeous, and I like how it's being treated as an actual branch line, rather than throwing random assets together and calling it a "branch line".

Also, the glossy look of the models really shone here, especially in this shot. No detail is left out of the reflection and it just looks... lovely.

And, as usual, the voice acting is excellent. John Hasler seems to be getting better and better as Thomas; it's like he's been voicing the character for years, he feels that natural. That said, Teresa Gallagher (Annie and Clarabel) and Keith Wickham (The Fat Controller) did an excellent job as well.

Fan Reaction

The Mad Controller's Corner

Final Thoughts
It's rather early to claim whether this is my favourite episode this series, but it's nice that there's such a great one this early on. It sets a high bar, and gets fans excited about future episodes. Sure, it's not perfect, but for a first attempt by a new writer, it's fantastic. She seems to understand the characters really well and, I think, she'll be an excellent member of the writing staff should she stay. There's not much more to say. Bring on the rest of the series!

Episode Ratings
Who's Geoffrey?: 8/10
The Truth About Toby: 7/10
Lost Property: 9/10

Series Rating (so far)

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Series 19: The Truth About Toby

Another day, another brand new episode! It's The Truth About Toby!

It's fair to say that the last Toby-centric episode was rather mixed. While it had some great moments, there were a few problems. But could this episode get right what Signals Crossed couldn't?

Well, kind of. While I do think this is better than the series 18 offering, it does still have its problems. And, in all honesty, I think it comes down to what happens at the scrapyard with Toby.

I'm perfectly fine with Toby running out of coal there, even though they probably should have stopped on the way, but at the beginning of the episode, they mention that Toby's sideplates are "rattling again". Why couldn't that have been part of the story too? Reg lifts Toby into the air; they could have easily had one, or both, of his sideplates fall off while this happened to make it feel like that little detail hadn't been forgotten. That and it would've made even more sense for the others to think Toby was being scrapped.

That said, Henrietta was portrayed brilliantly again here. She feels like (please don't lynch me here) a nagging wife who you know you should probably listen to, but your own pride as a man prevents you from doing what she says. It was also interesting that she was the only one who believed that Toby wasn't going to be scrapped.

It also felt weird who they showed to be concerned about the rumour. Gordon and James feel like the kind of engines who wouldn't care regardless, unless they're showing that they really do care, which would actually be an interesting character study for a future episode. Meanwhile Connor and Caitlin, from what I can recall, have never had any sort of interaction with Toby on screen. By the way, why did they have to keep saying "Old Toby's going to be scrapped"? It feels like there's no real need, other than to force Toby's age down the combined throats of the audience.

Going back to the characters, there were a lot of interesting ones used. It was nice to see a wide range from all the eras of the show, whether they made much sense to include them or not. That being said, at the end, Thomas is the one that felt guilty about the rumour. While he probably should (he was the one who spread it beyond the docks), why was Salty not pulled up about it? He was the one who planted those seeds of doubt in the first place.

And now for Toby himself. He was portrayed rather poorly in Signals Crossed as he's treated a bit like an idiot. Here though, he feels a lot better. Like I said before, his relationship with Henrietta feels really genuine and his demeanour on his own just feels... right, and a lot more endearing than it was. Fingers crossed that they stick to this portrayal in the future.

I'm also glad that Reg got another episode to shine. He feels like Colin and Merrick done right, and it shows that you can be stuck in one location while still being memorable. Granted, Cranky proved this as well, but since Reg isn't seen as often, his appearances feel more special. Also, his ideas to get Toby noticed were very clever, and rather humorous, especially him lifting Toby up, which also helped to move the plot along well. And no, I have no issue with that scene whatsoever as it was plot relevant and Reg was pretty desperate for ideas.

The animation here is fantastic as per usual, but the best thing about it is the editing. There have been some rather interesting scene transitions in recent years, and this episode is no different. They're just brilliant, and it shows how far they've come in such a short time, unlike Nitrogen who, with all due respect, really didn't improve that much during their time on board.

On a side note, I love that they finally gave Stanley a lamp and brake pipe. It really lifts his look. It also looks like they've altered his smokebox's colouration. In series 18 it felt too white, but here it feels silver, like it should. While (spoilers) Ryan has replaced him as my second favourite character, Stanley will always have a place in my heart. Using his American voice though was... odd. Whether this is permanent or not I don't know, and probably won't unless he gets more speaking roles. But if it is permanent, I won't mind! Matt Wilkinson really doesn't have that much range, so having someone take over a couple of his least memorable roles is fine by me, even if it means he has an American voice - it worked for Victor, after all!

I really like Toby's new voice. Is it as good as Ben Small? It's hard to tell for the moment, but I can tell you that Rob Rackstraw give him a lot more range: soft spoken and gentle for the most part, yet urgent when he needs to be, which is fantastic and, in that respect, much better than he used to be. As for accent? Like I said, it's still early to tell. But I still maintain that Toby's best voice was the one from Thomas and the Magic Railroad.

Fan Reaction

The Mad Controller's Corner

Final Thoughts
This is one of Toby's best episodes since HiT took over. His character is handled very well and the conflict is really good. Yeah, they could have done more with it, especially with the sideplates (why mention such an important detail if you're not going to do anything with it?) and yeah, it does feel really contrived due to the lack of engine crew for Toby and him running out of coal when he could have stopped somewhere to get some, but they are minor problems to an episode that does a "don't always believe what you hear" moral far better than Thomas and the New Engine.

Episode Ratings
Who's Geoffrey?: 8/10
The Truth About Toby: 7/10

Series Rating (so far)

Monday, 21 September 2015

Series 19: Who's Geoffrey?

It's here at last! After a bit of uncertainty as to whether they would or not, Channel 5's milkshake! block has begun airing the nineteenth series of Thomas & Friends! And so, here is my review of the first episode, Who's Geoffrey?!

After five series of other characters getting the series opener spotlight, Thomas plays the starring role in the first episode of this series. But will it turn out as poorly as his last series opening starring role?

I truly believe that this is one of the most relatable episodes for some time. Whether we want to admit it or not, there's been a time in all of our lives where we've done something wrong and tried to pass the buck. Here, that scenario plays out really well, to the point where the lie spirals out of Thomas' control.

I also really like how the rumour spread, unlike in Thomas and the New Engine, where the rumours are really mean spirited towards an actual newcomer. James' concerns are particularly humorous; feeling threatened by the possibility of another red engine on the North Western. Actually, that would be a really interesting episode..! Heck, maybe have him visit Arlesburgh to have him and Mike square off one time. That would be brilliant, too!

I also love Thomas' portrayal here. As I've said, it's very relatable to the audience, and it also feels like something he would say or do. That being said, it does feel pretty funny, and ironic, that he criticised the main line engines for making things up when they were late once, yet will make excuses himself here. Not a criticism, just a funny thought.

As for "Geoffrey" himself, some fans have said that his description sounds suspiciously like a red tender engine that was illustrated in The Three Railway Engines. Normally, I'd pay these theories no heed, but considering how much the team are using the Railway Series as a reference these days (especially if The Adventure Begins is taken into account), the similarities do seem rather striking..!

Other than that, though, there's very little to say. It's a very simple story with a simple moral that doesn't really take many twists or turns. Although, I do think the ending was a bit stupid. Yeah, it was nice that they showed that Thomas really had learnt his lesson - for now - but to end it in a similar way to how the story began feels rather lazy, especially when the balls appeared from nowhere.

On a side note, I'm beginning to feel rather sorry for Bertie. In episodes at least, he has very few roles, and most of them are just him being cut up on a crossing. Yes, I'd like to see more interaction with the roads of Sodor, but a variety of vehicles and situations would be much better than repetitive things like this.

Recently, Arc have had a bit of an overhaul of their animation. Rather than keeping to Nitrogen's style, for the most part, Arc have made things a bit brighter and more... realistic, in my opinion. The engines look fantastic with the glossier textures and there have been some great improvements overall. They've still got quite a few errors though.

Throughout the series, they've also added lamps and brake pipes to existing renders. For me, Spencer's looks the best. The express headcode is brilliant and the lamps themselves look amazing. They have a real BR feel to them.

The voice acting is great as per normal. It did feel strange to hear only one truck talking though. Whether this turns into a common occurrence really interests me, as I really wouldn't mind if they went that route. Yeah, on the whole, they're all troublesome. But it would be very interesting if they decided to give a few a bit of depth. After all, that's one of the things I really liked about Hector.

I also really like Percy's new voice. It was sprung on us rather suddenly, but Nigel Pilkington does an excellent job. He seems to have his own identity now with a more natural voice, which is far superior to Keith's who, not to intentionally take anything away from him, did sound really squeaky, high pitched and rather forced. It also felt like Cranky and Spencer's voices were a bit deeper as well, so credit to Matt Wilkinson and Sharon Miller's voice direction.

But, the star was always going to be Thomas' voice. I love John Hasler's rendition. It sounds similar to Ben Small's while still giving us a unique tint to it. He sounds a little bit deeper and, like Percy, a bit more natural. And his voice for "Geoffrey" far surpasses the one that Joseph May gave him.

But that's not where it ends, as the show now has a revamped intro! I must say, it fits so much better than Nitrogen's. Their intro was good, but watching it with Arc's animation didn't feel right (and it was rather disappointing that they weren't being credited for it). Now though, it looks a lot better using Arc's footage from previous episodes and specials (and Sodor's Legend of the Lost Treasure). I also love that more characters were featured than just having the standard "Thomas passing random locations". It makes the intro unique, and the fact that emphasis was put on the Friends part of the title was excellent.

There was also a revamped Engine Roll Call. Some fans are going to be disappointed by it as Eggplant LF said they'd be remaking "the classic theme" as in the one from the first seven series. But let's face it: to kids, the "classic theme" is the Engine Roll Call, so it made more sense to use that. As for the song itself? While it does fit better into the current series instrumentally, the singing will need getting used to. For now though, I'll say it's "fine", since it is an improvement on the previous one and especially that rubbish rock version that was produced a few years ago.

As for the footage used in it? I like it. Even though the song itself hasn't changed lyrically, it feels like they're telling us visually that while the eight starring characters from series 8-16 are still the main focus, there are other engines on the railway that are just as important as the "Steam Team", which is actually what I was going for when I remade the original song four years ago. I'm not saying that they used my ideas as inspiration, as that would be ridiculous; they're professionals who know what's best for the show, but one can dream..!

Anyway, I also love the shot during the end credits with Thomas, Annie and Clarabel at Ffarquhar. I don't really know why, but it really touches me. That or I'm just happy that Thomas doesn't stop in the middle of nowhere to pose any more (I'm looking at you, series 8-18..!).

Fan Reaction

The Mad Controller's Corner

Final Thoughts
I know that this has nothing to do with Thomas and Gordon, but the structure does seem familiar: a simple story with a good moral, that only really happened due to a contrivance. Depending on how much that bothers you will influence your liking of this episode. I personally don't mind it that much as I doubt they'd go that far into railway operations (seeing who's on the Fat Controller's books) for a story. But the story they did tell was coherent and the moral, as I've said, was a really good one.

Episode Ratings
Who's Geoffrey?: 8/10

Series Rating (so far)

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Millie's Whistle

I think it's safe to say that Millie is becoming a rather popular character: she's French, she's the first female narrow gauge engine and she has a great personality. But one thing has bothered people: her whistle sound is the same as Lady's.

To those people, I ask this: does it even matter?! Since the beginning of the series, whistle sounds have been edited and recycled: Percy's whistle is just Edward's at a higher pitch, MANY diesels have used Diesel's horn sound (including Daisy and BoCo), Duck, Donald and Douglas have different tones of the same sound (well, they did until Sodor's Legend of the Lost Treasure), Neville used Oliver's Series 3 whistle sound, Peter Sam and Freddie used Emily's Series 7 whistle up until Series 12, Arthur has used Murdoch, Spencer AND Edward's whistle sounds in his life span, Bill and Ben's whistle sounds are similar, as are Bash and Dash's, Stepney had Skarloey's whistle in Series 5-7 while his whistle was similar to Thomas' in Series 12, Rosie's whistle is Thomas' with a higher pitch, Emily shared her whistle sound with Henry (or probably the other way around) until the back end of series 17, when she got a new one, and even Luke and Rheneas' whistles from Blue Mountain Mystery onwards seem similar, just a with different pitch.

So why should Millie be slaughtered for just continuing a "trend" that's been in the series since its inception? The whistle sound suits her if you ask me, and because she seems to be a permanent fixture in the series now, the whistle sound will now be used a lot more rather than just being forgotten about (as Lady will probably never appear again)!

Personally, I think Millie made a far better impression in 8 minutes 45 seconds than Lady did in an entire 90 minute film (or however long she spoke, I really don't give a damn about Shining Time Station: The Movie), not to mention the 20 second piece of fan service she received in Calling All Engines!.

Now, can people please stop moaning about this?! It's just a whistle sound for a character in a children's TV show; it's not the end of the world, it's nothing important (in the grand scheme of things). It's REALLY not worth moaning about something so menial!