Thursday, 1 December 2016

This Needs to Stop

I don't like doing "serious posts", I much prefer reviewing episodes and specials as - regardless of their quality - they're always fun to make. The episode reviews especially; it's always interesting to see the variety of different opinions. Fun fact: I'm considering adding fan reactions to future special reviews.

But at times, the serious posts are a necessary evil, if only for the fact that it gives me a platform to vent about something that really annoys me. And today, the subject of my venting is Sharon Miller. More specifically, all the crap that's thrown at her because of the terrible quality of series 13-16 (9-12 seem to be forgettable if anything).

This was the tweet that really "forced" me to do this. When asked about the best episodes from that era (I'd argue there are a couple of good ones in there), this was one of the replies:
Where do I even start with this? First off, why post a comment like that if you don't even like that era? I know I leave comments on YouTube videos on an episode I don't like, but it's mainly on new episodes and it's only one comment.

And I know that I often rant about Thomas & the Magic Railroad on Twitter, but that was the first ever film from a producer who should've known the show better than to produce a film like that from it. In fact, that's why I'm so hard on Britt's era as a whole: she had sole control of the show, meaning that every poor decision was on her head, and that's also why she left after the film's failure.

That brings me to my next point: Sharon Miller wasn't the only person working on the show by that point. There was a whole team of writers helping her, as well as a separate producer and other higher ups (who may have mandated that the rhyming, alliteration and repetition be put in because "the charts say that's what kids like). Ergo, it's not all her fault that the era was awful. If anything. It's rather impressive that her team got as many different situations out of that strict formula that they did.

Third, and this is the most important one that these man-children need to realise: Sharon Miller is a human being with feelings and emotions, just like the rest of us. Imagine being her, knowing that people actively hate you (not your stories, there's a big difference between the two!) just for writing a few bad episodes of a children's show about anthropomorphic locomotives. The emotional toll must be horrendous, and fans need to, for once, be a bit more empathetic towards each other.

To sum up, Sharon Miller was a proverbial cog in the machine, and fans should start aiming their vitriol towards the machine itself rather than someone who was doing what they were told.

That or they could just grow up and stop treating Thomas & Friends as though it's some sort of pinnacle of entertainment; acting like series 13-16 was the only era to house bad episodes. Whichever works for them.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Series 20: The Way She Does It

And so the final episode of the year has arrived. It's safe to say that we've had some highs and lows in terms of episode quality in 2016, but will The Way She Does It end the year on a high?

Alright, I'll come clean. The first time I watched this, I didn't like it. I thought Daisy was too pretentious. I felt she'd taken a step back from Ryan & Daisy and the plot structure felt similar to one you'd see in the Sam Barlow/Sharon Miller era. But having seen it again with a more open mind, my opinion has changed on it completely.

I do have problems with it though, and I'll get them out of the way first. I do still believe that Daisy has taken a small step back here, but considering the lesson she learnt in Ryan & Daisy affected her dynamic with Ryan rather than her as a character, I get why they'd need to do that. Also, proper development for new or returning characters takes a series to come into play (unlike a staple character who should've developed properly by now!). So for now, I can let it slide.

Then there's the Barlow/Miller era feel to it. Yes, it does get repetitive (Daisy talks to three engines and passes three lots of passengers twice), but it actually works here. First off, Daisy has an actual personality, and it's just as entertaining here as it was in her last two episodes. Because of that, the repetition feels more like a distraction than a frustrating problem that overshadows the whole thing.

The repetition works with the story as well, if you think about it. With every engine she meets, Daisy's mind begins to run away with her more and more to the point where she talks to Duck in French, and posh French at that. It's very subtle, but effective.

Oh yeah, and she talks to a bull. I'm not sure why they have to have a bull (possibly the same one) in every episode she's in, but I'm not complaining. It's a really fun, yet random, running gag.

Getting to an actual problem (not explaining why initial issues aren't a big deal): Thomas' appearance. Whether you think he was necessary or not is up for debate (I like seeing him interact with Daisy, so I'm not too bothered), but why in the world was he at Arlesburgh?! They had a scene at Knapford a minute or two later anyway; why not put him there? At least he wouldn't have felt out of place, and any unnecessary discussions would've been avoided!

As for Arlesburgh, why not have her meet Duck and/or Oliver there? Heck, you have three small engines who deserve to be more than background props! Why didn't she interact with them?! Sodor's Legend of the Lost Treasure hinted that they (especially Rex) liked to tease each other, and it was a regular focus on their dynamic in The Railway Series, so why not have them tease Daisy? It would've given them something to say and solidified one of their characters before they're all seen together (like Bill and Ben in Percy's Lucky Day).

That Misty Island line was pure fan... trolling (I guess?), though. And it wasn't all that good of a joke either. It's been four years since we've seen that place. Many of the target audience have actually grown out of the show since then, while new fans have jumped aboard, meaning that whole reference would probably have flown over their heads.

Also, can stupid jibes like this just stop? They were petty and immature the second time one was written in; now they're petty, immature and annoying. We get it: that era was bad, but kids are more bothered about what you have to offer now, not to be constantly reminded of what you replaced! It's beating a dead horse by this point, and rather than make me laugh, it builds more sympathy towards Sharon.

Moving away from that and towards the ending, which is one I really liked. It showed some positive development for Daisy's character, which I hope will be carried into series 21. It was similar to James' (laughing at your own character traits), but it's one that works fine for her too. Mostly because they didn't force in a line that implied that Daisy learned nothing; they just had the camera pull back from the puppet show.

Not only that, but it actually showcased a character's ingenuity. Rather than go back and fix a mistake she'd made, Daisy just worked with the situation and found a solution. It's a great way to teach kids how to solve a problem, rather than just fixing a mistake which, in the real world, isn't always possible.

There was another moral that, while a bit more subtle, was still rather effective. Daisy had hyped herself up for the show so much that anything else would've been disappointing which, in a world where hype can be built much easier thanks to the internet, is a lesson that we all should learn. We shouldn't get caught up in that hype, and just make our own judgements based on what we see, or play, at that particular moment.

Also, the Punch and Judy theme of the episode made it feel quintessentially British, which is rare for a show that's now trying to broaden its international appeal. It's really nice that the team do care about where the franchise came from, and it would be nice if we got one or two "British themed" episodes a year.

Fan Reaction

The Mad Controller's Corner

Final Thoughts
Davey Moore has been one of the best writers this series (Helen Farrall being the other), and this was another very good one from him. Sure, Daisy takes a bit of a backwards step after Ryan & Daisy, the "parcel van" was rendered as a hooded open wagon (nitpick that annoys me) and Thomas was stupidly misplaced, but the dialogue was probably some of the best in the entire show, Daisy was as entertaining as ever and he produced a plot that wouldn't have felt out of place in the previous era and made it work brilliantly.

That said, I think Daisy's other Daisy-centric episodes were slightly better this series. The Railcar and the Coaches felt more entertaining (and it was a great way to bring her back) and Ryan & Daisy had the better character dynamic (and heart). This one still stood on its own merits however, and it cemented Daisy as one of the most entertaining characters on the show after years in the abandoned character wilderness.

Episode Ratings
Series Rating (so far)

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Series 20: Blown Away

So Pouty James is out of the way. And all I can say to those who disagree is this: I'm not here to regurgitate your opinions back at you; I'm here to post my opinions. If they line up with yours, great. If not, take it on the chin. I'm happy that you can enjoy something I can't. With that out of the way, let's see if I'll be Blown Away by today's offering!

I really liked Skiff in Sodor's Legend of the Lost Treasure. His pure innocence combined with John's manipulative nature worked brilliantly, and him gaining the courage to stand up to the dastardly villain was really inspiring. So I'm glad he's (finally) had the chance to shine, especially in such a great episode.

It's not Helen's most imaginative episode, I must confess. It follows plot beats laid out by Toad & the Whale and Slow Stephen to the letter: a character gets ridiculed for some reason, something happens soon after, then the ridiculed character ends up proving himself by saving the character who mocked him.

However, I honestly think there's enough variety here to make it stand out from the episodes I mentioned. I love the intro, for example. It helps the audience to gauge Skiff's character (which makes sense to do as he's only been seen once and hasn't been a series staple since 1984) and endear us to him.

It also gave us Captain Joe who is more of an extension of Skiff than his own character. He's alright, but here's hoping more depth is given to him in the future. It's also a bit of a shame that he was forgotten about as soon as Skiff hit the tree. It would've been nice to have a scene where he noticed Skiff was missing, then have Oliver and Toad pick him up to try and find the railboat, then continue with the near collision.

Speaking of which, Oliver and Duck were at their best here. Their concern for Skiff, although misconstrued, was really genuine and it showed that there's more to them than just boasting about the Great Western Way or the scrapyard escape. I'm personally fine with them doing that; they're a big part of their characters after all. But that depth is fantastic, and it's something that the team have a real knack with (well, most of the time).

The only slight downside I have was Skiff's escape from the tree. It felt too contrived and looked rather ridiculous. But it's honestly more of an oddity than an actual deal breaker for me. It lead to a great moment for Skiff and the two engines congratulating his bravery, so... yeah, a mere distraction than anything else.

Fan Reaction

The Mad Controller's Corner

Final Thoughts
Going on past expectations, I should dislike this episode, or at most think it mediocre: it's a re-tread of previous episodes and its ending is really contrived. But there's something about Helen Farrall's writing that just leaves me feeling charmed every single time. Her episodes have definitely been the most heartfelt over the past couple of years, and this is no exception.

Her understanding of the characters is second to none (I know that should be the default setting, but it's still nice to see, especially from a relatively new writer), the situations are fresh enough, meaning the tropes don't feel as stale as they usually would, and we get another endearing character in Skiff. What more could you want?

Episode Ratings

Series Rating (so far)

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Series 20: Pouty James

So with Saving Time being frustrating to watch and Ryan & Daisy being a fantastic, fresh take on the overdone "work together" moral, how will Pouty James shape up?

I'm going to start by saying I'm not much for a character type like James'. Arrogant people really annoy me, especially when there's little to nothing to be arrogant about. It makes sense for Gordon; he's the largest engine of the main cast and he pulls one of the most important trains on Sodor (unless you consider Thomas and his Friends where Pip and Emma took over, showcasing some brilliant development for his character). Since series 1, where he had to earn his place and his livery, what has James done to truly "earn" the right to brag?

This episode was where his character really reached its nadir. I can usually watch James' episodes as, while his arrogance and vanity is on show, it's not too overbearing or infuriating. This, though... This was taking the James from way back in James and the Coaches and turning the dial up about 10,000 notches. This is the worst portrayal of his vanity that I've ever seen, and by far the most infuriating (no other portrayal of his vanity has made him look this stupid and oblivious). It says a lot when Philip, a character who's supposed to be childlike, acts more maturely and reasonably than a character who's 69 years old...

"But it's Railway Series-esque!" I've seen the defence force say. And to that I quote a certain policeman from said books and series 1: "That makes it worse!" You can replicate the feel of the books and the classic era without copying the character traits from them. Not only that, but it does a huge disservice to said material; at least they developed the main characters (and kept it) from time to time!

In addition, that does a huge disservice to 30 years of work in the TV series where James' character has developed on occasion, too. Series 8-12, considered one of the worst periods of the show, did its best to develop him - even if things didn't stick. But no, we have to have the James and the Coaches portrayal despite a) fans complaining so much about "purists" these days and b) his arrogance being only a small portion of his character!

Another complaint I have is a nitpick, but I'm gonna call it out regardless: why is James only pulling two coaches? We've seen him pull six in the past, so why not just let him pull that many on a permanent basis?

Back to legitimate issues: there's the moral. Not only is it one that James should've learnt by now (heck, he did back in series 1), but it's shoved down your throat so hard I swear you'd end up farting it out by the time the episode's through. That's a huge problem with Brenner as a whole. He teaches good lessons, no doubt, but more often than not the narrative is so forceful with them that it makes you say "OK, we get it; that's what we're supposed to learn" rather than "that's a very good, thoughtful lesson".

The worst part though is the ending. I legitimately hate endings that flat out state that the moral didn't stick. Not only does it mean that James could continue down the path that this episode started - making him more one note and flanderised - but it makes the entire story feel meaningless. What is the point of going through a character arc when the reset button is going to be pressed either by the next episode or, even worse, at the end of the one that the arc's a part of?

The worst thing about that line is that it's a completely pointless addition! It clashes with what we're actually shown. James passes Thomas and acts rather jovial, as though he's not taking himself seriously. If they'd actually ended it like that, it would've been great. It provided the development that he desperately needed, it gave the episode a reason to exist and I'd have forgiven his behaviour beforehand. But that one line from the narrator tarnished the good work of the episode's narrative completely.

But do you know what's really sad, though? That development I've been talking about is on show... only the other characters are the ones to showcase it. Henry, like Percy before him, has become one of the best characters this series, while the saddle tank engine continues to grow from strength to strength. And Emily (who hasn't particularly developed, but has had her character solidified) was brilliantly cast as the sisterly member of the group.

Heck, even Gordon got a great moment or two. It was rather nice to see him given a more jovial, comedic side to go with his more arrogant, boastful self that fans have come to expect.

But, by far, the best character of the episode was the Fat Controller. I love his comedy bits; it makes him feel more human and it makes you really like him. But when he's a no nonsense manager like he is here, he really does shine. Forget about him saying "we have a railway to run", he needs more roles where he does just that: run the railway, punishing the bad engines while rewarding the good.

Fan Reaction

The Mad Controller's Corner (STRONG LANGUAGE)

Final Thoughts
I think the Twitter account of Sir Topham said it best: back in the days of James and the Coaches, this episode would've been fine. Heck, even during series 17, it would've been fine. But this far in, it just does not fit. We've already seen (in Toad's Adventure, Duck & the Slip Coaches and Duck in the Water to name a few) James' vanity get in the way of his better judgement and get punished for it. So to see it again is more regressive for his character and, actually, the show itself.

At this stage, the main characters need to be more well rounded and developed. The team have done this very well with some, but it's obvious that others need work. They don't all need one episode where they're completely one note in order to have it happen either; just build on the foundation that previous episodes have laid down. Until that development process happens, James will still be one of my least favourite characters, and a show that has all the potential to be great can only be considered good.

Episode Ratings

Series Rating (so far)

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Series 20: Ryan & Daisy

So far this series, we've had two episodes that had elements that I didn't know I wanted and loved. Today though, we have an episode that I've hoped for since Sodor's Legend of the Lost Treasure. But did Ryan & Daisy deliver?

Yes. That's the long and short of it, so if you don't like reading these, you can leave now knowing that I adore this one. Remember last time I was saying that I didn't mind slice of life episodes as long as they were made engaging and fun? This is what I'm referring to. Because this is a fun, entertaining episode.

The best thing about it is Ryan and Daisy's dynamic. I was rather disappointed that they decided to change his original personality from overconfident and dismissive to kind hearted yet rather naive, but it works really well when paired with Daisy.

That said, it brings me on to something I just can't ignore: Steve Kynman as Ryan. Now I like Kynman as a voice actor, and I completely understand why Eddie Redmayne would only be able to commit to one project (on an unrelated note: go and see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. It's a great movie all around), but why not just have Steve voice Ryan from the get go? If a kid went straight from Lost Treasure to this, they may wonder why his voice had changed so much?

Sure, the cast has been changed around quite a bit since Blue Mountain Mystery, but more often than not, those changes have been for the better. Ryan, however, sounds far too similar to Paxton, and the fact they have similar personalities doesn't exactly help matters.

And another issue I have is with the moral. In the last two years alone, the "work together" moral has been done at least 4 times now; it's getting really old. Kids only need to see the moral in action once in order for it to stick. If not, let them learn it through personal experience or adult supervision rather than cramming it into more and more episodes! With that said, however...

...this was another example where the moral actually did work for the characters. They're just getting used to each other, so it would be rather difficult for them to co-exist at first. Not only that, but the subtle moral that Ryan learned (sometimes helping a friend doesn't really help them) is actually rather mature, and one the show has never taught before. Whether it was intentional, or just my interpretation, it's fantastic subtlety like that that made the franchise so popular in the first place.

And I'll say it again: Daisy is an absolute joy to watch. I'd go so far as to say this is the best incarnation of Daisy we've ever had, and the fact that she has such variety in terms of getting out of doing things she doesn't like makes her antics a lot more bearable and fun than someone like James. 

Also, the eye fluttering and soft tone was absolutely hilarious; there's no wonder Ryan couldn't say no; she's just so clever and manipulative that you couldn't say no to her.

To add to that, I liked the little development from Branch Line Engines. She meets a bull here, and rather than being frightened for her life, she just sees it as an annoyance. It was great, even if that wasn't what they were aiming for and just had her be annoyed with the bull because it was making her late.

And then there's the ending, which I thought was really heartfelt. It made you think that she had a real admiration for him as a friend and co-worker after all the hassle she put him through. It was great, genuine development, and it's proof that the team have no excuse for screwing up in the future.

Oh yeah, and Toby played a really good role, too. It would've been nice to see Mavis there with him, but I like that he took the quarry work seriously and meant business when Ryan showed up late. Getting the characters right should be the default setting these days, but it's still nice to point out.

Fan Reaction

The Mad Controller's Corner

Final Thoughts
This had near enough everything I could want in an episode; some great character moments, humour and heart. Duck almost hitting Ryan was a bit ridiculous (but it was fine) and the main moral, while great here, still feels overdone, but the rest was brilliant.

Oh, and can I just say that I love the fact that the mail is slowly expanding so that other engines are in charge on certain routes? I bought it up in Letters to Santa, but I never thought it'd be a thing that would already have been addressed. It feels like the team are finally travelling down the road that they want to stick to, and I'm glad about that.

Episode Ratings

Series Rating (so far)

Monday, 21 November 2016

Series 20: Saving Time

After the last two DVD releases, I thought my work was done for the year. But Channel 5 threw a spanner in the works by announcing a week of five new episodes! Considering series 19's farcical schedule, this took me by surprise, but it's great that they're releasing new episodes steadily and consistently. So, let's stop wasting time and start Saving Time!

I don't like Samson. At all. The team had the perfect opportunity to introduce a character that they could actually develop during his episodes in series 18, yet he remained unaltered throughout and became a one note annoyance. That said, I was willing to give him a second chance, especially after Bradford the Brake Van, which introduced a character that could've reined his behaviour in a bit.

And to my frustration, he's just the same now as he was back then. I'm honestly getting sick of the lack of character development in the current era. Granted this hasn't always been the case; classic characters like Henry and Toby have developed so much that they feel like their old selves again, and Marion is one of the most rounded characters they've introduced.

I'm also not saying that characters need to change so much that they're unrecognisable from the episode they debuted in; they still need flaws to create conflicts after all. But the fact of the matter is this: James and Gordon feel very one note during this era especially, and Samson's going in the exact same direction already (well, he was already there by the time Samson Sent for Scrap ended, but after being absent for a series, I'd hoped for some improvement with the character).

You'll notice I haven't talked about the episode all that much. There's a very good reason why: it's boring. In fact, it's one of the most boring episodes this team has ever written. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for slice of life episodes, but at least make them engaging and fun. This just feels as though there's no heart in it whatsoever.

Remember Fish? Not the superb one from 1995 but the mediocre one from 2004? Yeah, this is that, only worse. At least when Thomas learned his lesson, he didn't try and turn it into one big joke and actually did the job he was told to do. If you're going to produce a moral for a show, keep the jokes and the actual message apart! It just makes the whole endeavour pointless and sends kids mixed signals.

Fish also gave us a rather good crash, despite being slowed down. This gave us yet another scene with a near collision. Can we just stop with scenes like this? It was fine in Toad's Adventure when we thought there would be a huge crash as it was the first time the team had done that sort of thing. But that set a precedent, and when scenes like that are repeated over and over again, there's no tension there as we know that all will be well.

There were some good points, though. Thomas was great here, and the fact they didn't excuse his appearance was even better. Yes, I'd prefer him on his branch, but if the role suits him, I'm fine with that as well. His cheekiness played off Samson's pride and stubbornness really well and I'm glad that Andrew hasn't forgotten that side of him.

I also like that other narrow gauge engines showed a bit of character, too. It didn't save the episode at all and Sir Handel is still rather bland compared to what he was in series 4 (and is in the books), but at least it's something.

Also, anyone else think that Peter Sam feels younger now in terms of personality? It's great. The one thing that disappoints me though is that all of these short appearances makes me yearn for another narrow gauge based episode or two. Knowing they aren't forgotten is nice, but knowing they're capable of carrying an episode on their own (but not being given that chance) is rather sad.

Fan Reaction

The Mad Controller's Corner

Final Thoughts
Andrew Brenner is fast becoming one of my least favourite writers on the show. Sure, three of his four solo specials have been great, The Adventure Begins was superb and he has written some good episodes here and there. But his bad episode count is building up frighteningly quickly, and this can be added to that tally. An unoriginal story written in the most forgettable, boring way and a frustrating main character combine to make this one a real slog to sit through.

Episode Ratings

Series Rating (so far)