Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Series 21 Overview

Series 21 has come to a close, as has been confirmed by Micaela Winter's LinkedIn page and a tweet from Mattel (although Mattel said 16 episodes were produced when it's actually 18). With a month of production time lost, focus switching to their new marketing ploy and the release of Journey Beyond Sodor, I'm rather surprised they managed to get 18 episodes produced for this series (I genuinely thought there'd be about 13). But will the shortest ever series be one of the best? Let's take a look back at series 21.


As has become tradition:
  1. The episodes will be covered in order from worst to best, not by air/release date.
  2. This won't go into any major detail like the reviews. If you wish to read my full thoughts, click on the episode header of the review you want to read.

We're starting with a Helen Farrall episode. And as good as she's been since she was hired for series 19, this was easily her worst effort, and her worst series overall. Which is rather sad, especially if the rumours are to be believed that this will be her last series. Then again, it was said that she had three scripts commissioned only for us to discover she'd written five overall. So who knows what to believe?

But yes, this one was bad. Not in terms of character, humour or even charm. But the overall theme and resolutions of the story left a really bad taste. And this is meant to be a show for preschoolers, so it's vital that the writers don't screw things like that up.

Yes, Thomas got told off, but bringing Bulgy back made it feel like Thomas was being given help that he didn't deserve. It glossed over the issue far too quickly and the proverbial slap on the wrist was immediately undermined. "You can't just stop wherever you want. So here's a solution to the problem that shouldn't have been on your mind to begin with".

Like I said in the review, this would've worked better if more action had been taken halfway through. Sending Thomas to the shed and having someone run the branch for a while would've given him time to reflect. Or let Thomas redeem himself by just do a normal run without the additional stops. Then you could have included Bulgy at the end to reward Thomas' good behaviour.

The ending also makes the Fat Controller's funny bits feel...  pointless, really. There was no need for him to go around stalking Thomas for half a day as the ending showed that he already knew what the problem was and how it would be solved solved. Considering so many recent episodes and specials put so much emphasis on him having a railway to run, you'd think he'd actually do so in episodes where it doesn't need pointing out!

That is why I feel it's the worst episode of this series. It has better characters, a stronger story and more charm than the next episode on the list. However, the botched lesson, forced comedy and the ending in general make it worse than one that grabs the bar of mediocrity and barely holds on.


There's so little to talk about here that I struggled to get the review out originally. In fact, this episode and the next one both suffer the same problem: they care more about the destination than they do the journey.

The only thing the episode truly did was leave me with this thought: why didn't they realise there was an issue that needed a more permanent solution when writing Kevin's Cranky Friend? Or, at least, use that episode as a jumping off point to consider getting a new crane so this didn't happen again?

This episode is just incredibly lazy. And I genuinely think that was the intention since they introduced Carly right at the end, meaning all the attention went onto her. The thing is it worked... but in a negative way. The next episode, however, did the exact same thing in a "positive" way...


Same problems, different episode. A lack of originality covered by an ending that was designed to take attention off the fact that the rest of it wasted time. Only this time it was also designed to pander to older fans, confirming the headcanons of those who think this show and TUGS are in the same universe.

As you can probably tell, my excitement for Big Mickey has worn off. Big time. All it does is raise in universe questions as to why no one bothered with him up to this point. The answer from an storytelling perspective, however, is simple: they wanted to take the heat from older fans away from Carly. I've said it before and I'll say it again: older fans do not matter! Stop trying to pander to them by abandoning your target demographic!

Oh, and there was a fantasy scene with a two headed sea serpent. The only reason I've just mentioned it is because it adds nothing to the story. It's solely there to pad out the run time and give a further hint as to what we can expect in the future.

Overall, it's another episode that offers nothing new. That was a constant problem this series, and I had to force the original review out when the episode aired. At least it wasn't riddled with plot holes. And Carly is an OK character. Nothing too special, but she'll provide some nice moments with Cranky should they get more focus in the future.


I still think that this one is held down by a thin plot, overdone humour and many contrivances. But the more I think about it, the more of an issue I have with the ending and theme.

Yes, in this context, "let bygones be bygones" is fine. When there's a competitive element to it, like in this episode, letting things go is fair enough. And, hopefully, this is about as far as they go with said theme. But what would happen if things were to escalate? What if kids were in a similar situation and things got to a point where they were hurt? Or what if they were just being bullied for who they were or what they looked like? You can't exactly tell them to "it's a new year! Let it go!", can you? Human brains don't hit the reset button every January 1st. Letting it go leads to a child being complacent. And that could lead to worse torment piled onto the victim, and worse behaviour from the perpetrator, somewhere down the road. Yes, that's me taking things to an extreme. But they do happen, and writing teams need to be incredibly careful around this theme as the potential for unfortunate implications is very high.

The episode itself was fine, and it was fortunate that Gordon and Spencer's dynamic was strong enough to see it through. It really wouldn't have worked that well had they used two other characters (except maybe Gordon or Spencer and Flying Scotsman. Or any of them with Connor or Caitlin).


This is a personal episode for me. I'm rather shy and reserved, and I struggle to ask for help as I think that I can do more than I really can. And this was a lesson that I needed to learn and keep with me. And I can imagine a lot of kids would feel the same way.

The reason it didn't get a 10, however, is that the solution to the problem would have been incredibly easy had Harvey's crew been involved. This means you have to suspend your disbelief a lot, especially after a series that ended with three episodes that featured engine crews in prominent roles.

There are a couple of smaller issues as well, but the bigger, most obvious flaw was the one that really held it down. Everything else is great, and it's nice that Harvey was given a role that could, hopefully, lead to some development for his character.


Helen Farrall's storytelling has been much sloppier this series. Granted, she did write two excellent episodes, but the majority have had some really stupid, disappointing mistakes in them. Here, the problem is making the diesels look brilliant while weakening the steam engines.

They say that the coal delivery was delayed so none of the steam engines can work. Fair enough. But wouldn't the diesels need another delivery as well? Or are they seriously suggesting that the whole diesel fleet can run for as long as they did on three oil tankers worth of fuel? Heck, how did the oil delivery even get through when the coal delivery didn't? Don't you think they'd be of equal importance?

Not only that, but as I mentioned in the review, the diesels didn't have the same issues that the steam engines faced on their routes. No slippery rails, no frozen points. It felt contrived in the diesels' favour, which is a shame as the series started out with the best diesel focused episode. One that they didn't need to be forced into.

Despite that, and a couple of missed opportunities here and there, it's a great episode. It continued Diesel's development really well and showcased Thomas' flaws brilliantly.


This theme will forever be problematic to me, because it always seems to come from the perspective of "why do we need to change when the system we have is fine?" Sometimes it is, other times you're being stubborn while the world evolves around you.

If you want a case in point, look at The Railway Series. As time moved on and the modernisation plan was put into effect, Awdry didn't just dig in his heels and say "I'm not using diesels". Instead, he introduced Daisy, BoCo, Bear, Mavis, etc. Sure, the core was still the steam engines. But he brought in diesels for the extra muscle and show that locomotive technology was advancing.

Heck, when high speed and electric trains were being rolled out on British railways, Christopher Awdry made the Peel Godred line and introduced Pip and Emma.

This theme had been done by the show already. And The Fogman did it better simply because it showed that the foghorn was irreparably damaged and it made clear why Cyril was a better solution. Here, we just see the PA system spark out with no attempt to repair it and no real idea what was wrong.

Fortunately, the episode is salvaged by a decent enough story, entertaining moments and brilliant characters (Edward especially). But this blatant recycling of ideas really needs to stop at some point. If they're using said ideas and improving on them, fair enough. But simply using them (and doing nothing of note with them) is a sign that a show is creatively stagnant and needs to be put to bed (not given a huge makeover that goes against the whole premise of the thing!).


This was a great way to bring Terence back into the fold. He had a really fun, if unoriginal, character (unlike the model era) and the story did a good job of bringing him down a peg.

Unfortunately, the story's pacing was damaged heavily by the flashback that took up almost a quarter of the entire episode. Yes, the story itself is pretty thin already, but adding so much to the flashback confirmed there wasn't enough of a plot to fill out the run time.

Aside from that, it was a really good episode with a solid theme. Plus, it was good that they didn't just replace the lost tree with another of a similar size. Instead, we saw a bit of creativity from the Earl. It's these character moments that make the series as good as it is. I just hope that what they have planned for the future doesn't damage that.


This episode was the nadir how how bad the fanbase could be with regards to getting information from the writing team. It would've been a nice surprise if a Twitter user (whom I can't remember the name of) hadn't bugged Lee Pressman about it. But there you go.

Regardless,, this was a really fun one. Hannah was a great character (that I hope they use again in the future) and the theme was really good. "Be careful what you wish for" has been used with Toad (twice), which is the only real drawback. But it still played out well.

Plus, it was rather shocking how far they went with the consequences of Hannah going fast. I know that the show has killed characters off before, but that was back in the 80's when shows were given more leeway with what they could and couldn't show their audience. Nowadays, producers are more restrained, so this had more of an impact. I'd go so far as to say that it had more of an impact than anything in series 5 did.

Overall, it was a great episode. Hannah and Toby worked off each other well, there was a reason why she needed to be there (and why she looked a lot like Toby) and it was just a fun ride. It's a shame that James was underused though...


This felt like one of the freshest episodes the show had up to that point. Not just because it featured characters that barely get a look in due to where they're situated, but because the main characters were nowhere in sight. It had to rely on the strength of these three to make it work, and they pulled it off brilliantly.

It was, honestly, the best showcase of real friendship the show's had since the classic era, and it was a pure delight from start to end. The only slight niggle was that they've done misunderstandings before. But this was, by far, the best showcase of this theme the current team has written. It all felt believable, and that's all that matters.


This episode was the final straw for me with regards to my rating system. It's a "set in stone" system that says that I will always feel this way about the episode in question. In reality though, that's not the case. For example, my opinion on this episode has worsened since the initial review, hence it's the lowest of the 10s on this list. It's also the worst episode I've given a 10 (I've talked about what the future of the rating system will be here).

Simply, this episode tells me two things: the first is that the only thing they can do with Donald and Douglas is include them in a wintery episode, reference their past adventures in some way and have them argue. Constantly.

Here's a news flash to every single writer in the business: siblings don't always argue all the time! Their relationships are a lot more nuanced than you like to think they are! Also, siblings (hell, even twins) don't do everything together. This show already has three sets of twins that are tied together, we didn't need a fourth. Especially with a set of twins that can be separated and can work literally anywhere on Sodor! The point I'm getting at is more can be done with these two. And the writers need to let them escape the box they've been put in.

The second thing this episode told me is that Emily's being set up to become the motherly figure of the main cast which... you know what? I'm good with. Just give her a flaw or two and I'll be behind it all the way. Maybe include some of her series 8-12 personality? As much as fans probably don't like that, it at least made her more interesting. Or maybe give her some desires of her own away from parenting the other engines? I don't know.

...what was I talking about again? Oh yeah, this episode isn't as good as I originally thought it was. It's another regurgitated plot line with characters that have more to offer than this. Honestly, if I wasn't putting so much pressure on myself to get the festive episode reviews rushed out before my hospital appointments (I also thought I was having surgery at the time, which didn't happen), I would've been much more critical of them (that said, this was the only one that I screwed up). Given the opportunity to review it again, which I may do in the future, I would given it a 6. At best. The only reason I didn't for this overview was for the sake of consistency.


Have I mentioned that James has been a brilliant character since Pouty James? Because it's true. The only portrayal it's beaten by is his book variation. Not the idealised version that fans and the writers from series 8-16 (and even the current team for a time) like to think of from James the Red Engine but the snarky, arrogant James in every other book. But even then, the gap between the two James' is so small now that it's difficult to choose between them.

This was a perfect showcase of why James was so great. He has an ego. He wants to be the best. And he will do what he can to ensure that he is. It's then left to the characters or circumstance within the story to bring him down a peg or two.

And that's where Rosie comes in. Simply put, she was not interesting at all. It says a lot when the original character was more memorable solely based on the first episode she was in (even if she was bad). There's no excuse for this besides laziness. They needed to do something big to make the audience care, but they did very little. She's all style and no substance. which is why Rosie's overhaul can only be considered a waste at this point.

There were nitpicks I had with this episode too, but it was a really fun one overall. It followed the usual Thomas formula well and the crash was fantastic. Next time though, make sure you research which fluids a locomotive has, because brake fluid isn't one of them. Oh, and give Rosie more of a personality. Even if you just make her quick witted and cheeky, it's better than what we have now!


It's difficult to work out in which order some of these episodes were meant to air in. While a couple of the festive episodes had an imaginary sequence each (Carly was absent and Edward was at Tidmouth in all of them), this was full of them. It gives viewers a solid indication of where the show is headed. And because it all came out of left field, it took a lot of fans, myself included, a while to digest it all.

But after some contemplation before the review went live, I thought it worked brilliantly here. And even now, I stand by that. Actually, I feel it worked at its best here since we are following Philip, a childlike character (that's been perfected since his first appearance).

The only other (non) issue I've seen is that it's never explained why Philip was given that number. And to those people, I say "congratulations! You completely missed the point and theme of the episode". Philip only wanted to know his number because he wanted to have some sort of identity or understanding. He then learned that he didn't need to know because only you can carve a path for yourself. Only you can give your name (or number) a meaning that suits you. He didn't search for it so you could add that extraneous, pointless information to your headcanons.

Overall, I love this episode. I think I may have been a bit hasty to say it was my favourite episode up to that point because the slow pace at the start is an issue. And I'd forgotten the first three episodes of the series. But I still maintain that adding nuance to a theme that had been overdone at that point was excellent.


Honestly, the review speaks for itself here. The theme is excellent (and one fans still ignore because they'd rather focus on keeping Diesel as he was rather than watch him grow and become a more entertaining, complex character) and the characters are wonderful.

And yes, I still maintain that this is one of the best scenes of the show. Even better than Skarloey's rescue in Four Little Engines (or Old Faithful if you prefer the books). In Skarloey's case, it was simply him doing what you'd expect him to do. There was no real growth there, he just wanted to help out and was desperate to do so. Daisy has always been thought of as a self absorbed character, so you'd have expected her to stay where she was and wait for a bus. But she fought through her problem, her doubts and complaints to get the job done. It was an excellent example of character development, and a prime example of actions speaking louder than words. It's one of the best scenes of the series, the show as a whole and of Daisy's life.

There's not much more to say. It's the best start to a series ever, and things would only get better from there. For a short time, at least.


It's fair to say there's been a lot of angst towards minorities for decades. And the fact that the internet has given racist bigots more of a platform to spout their nonsense is even more troubling (and don't give me "it's just free speech". Free speech is not the same as hate speech). So it's rather heartening to see a show for an impressionable audience come along and tell them that being friends with someone who's a bit different is OK. Not that that's stopped fans lambasting said show for including an African based engine for really stupid reasons, but that's another story...

Again, this is another episode where the review can say more than I can here. While the toilet humour is terrible and there are a couple of story problems, the theme being so positive, strong and current makes up for that entirely. In fact, it's kind of sad that it is so current; you'd have thought that segregatory attitudes would've died out by now. But with Brexit being voted for solely because of racists wanting immigrants out (and believing lies) and the crap fest that's been Donald Trump's first year as president, voted for by idiotic, homophobic xenophobes (and possible Russian involvement, but that's beside the point)...


We've seen other engines take over as manager before. But it never really worked as they had to force in a conflict because having someone take over as manager wasn't enough of one for them. This episode shows them all how it's done by having a character who has no idea how railways operate and putting her in charge.

It all culminates into one of the most entertaining episodes of the show, serving as a parody of the era that came before. The only issue with that is they're still reflecting on an era that ended five years ago and should really move on.

What also made it work is that had Emily set Dowager Hatt straight by telling her which engines best suit certain jobs. She was a great asset to the episode, and that's all I can really say.

My only hope is that, with the show becoming more fast paced and comedy driven, they don't overuse Dowager Hatt to meet that comedy quota. They've already proved that using one character for their comedy can be overkill with her son.


I don't do traditions whatsoever. I don't particularly want them all to die, but I do think they're only relevant these days to appease the stubborn conservatives who can't be bothered to broaden their horizons by trying something new because it might make them think about their worldview a bit more. So I was originally dreading this episode and where it could've gone. And thank God I was proven wrong.

Simply put, this was Daisy's best episode to date. It takes the concept of Christmas, turns it on its head and tells the audience that it's perfectly fine to do so. You don't need to go to certain places and do certain things to have a good time. You just need to remember the spirit of it and to enjoy it with those who care about you the most.

Also, any episode that tells the audience that change is OK is always fine in my book. Although... it doesn't take into account that changing too much can be a huge detriment. You then run the risk of becoming something that's unrecognisable. Although that's only within the context of film and TV.

My admiration for this episode has only grown since I first first saw it. But there's one more episode that I like just that little bit more.


I will never not love this episode. Admittedly, it has some weird bits in there, but it followed on from The Fastest Red Engine on Sodor really well and gave Edward his best episode since series 2.

It's genuinely tough to pick the best part of it. Philip is absolutely delightful, he continues to grow wonderfully, Edward plays the sympathetic character really well, it highlights how necessary it is to get enough sleep (which, honestly, any show can do. But I digress).

But it's the ending that really gets me. If they'd ended the show here, I wouldn't have cared. Older fans have followed Edward's journey from the start, struggling to even get out of the shed. And now we see him returning to the place he truly belongs. It fee;s like his journey is at an end, yet a new one is beginning since he's taking care of a new generation. That's what character arcs are meant to do: give them purpose in the world. And this is what fans have forgotten while loudly screeching "Edward's been replaced!".

Also, no. I don't care that the engines instantly change the subject to who'll be joining them at Tidmouth. Because they know what any balanced adult and child would: that their friend isn't far away and they know they can see him whenever they want. Plus, they'd get upset if they dwelled too much on his departure. They know he'll be in their hearts, and that's enough for them. It's an uplifting ending that teaches kids that, no matter what happens, friends are never too far away.

That is why I love this episode. That is why it's Edward's best since series 2. That is why it's my favourite episode this series. And that is why I feel that fans have given it criticism that it doesn't deserve.

Animation
The animation for this series has been absolutely great. It seems cliche to say at this point, but it's true. Sure, it's not Pixar quality, but let's be honest, it's still the best CG animation you'll see for a preschool show. It's also rather nice that Jam Filled Toronto have been responding to fan concerns, especially with regards to the renders of the bogie coaches.

Hopefully this means they'll finally be improved, but that probably won't be known until series 23 (since the next special and series have been finished. Or, at least, they're close to completion)

If you want to see where the animation (and editing) is at its best though, I suggest watching Philip's Number again. The fact that they don't dumb down the concept of a dream/fantasy sequence for its audience is excellent, and something that most movie studios do, even for films aimed at older audiences.

And then there's the movements. These were slowly implemented as the series went on and... I personally didn't mind them. They are being done in a way that gives the characters more expressiveness and more character. So long as they stick to this, we shouldn't have anything to worry about.

Although I've got a bad feeling that Mattel might push Jam Filled to push the boundaries with this. They've already got trucks leaning at 45 degrees in the series 22 footage we've already seen, so it's definitely something that fans should be wary of.

It is a shame that there's a lack of real grass or ballast though. Instead, they're still flat textures. Hopefully that's worked on in the future now that Jam Filled have no financial issues or anything.

Voice Acting
Overall, the voice acting was fantastic as usual. There were a couple of moments that felt a bit forced (the Fat Controller celebrating the fact that spring was on the way in The Big Freeze being the most notable example), but they were few and far between.

There are a couple of notable cast choices though. The first is Colin McFarlane. He was brilliant as Beresford, but just as fantastic as Bulgy. The gruffness really fit his character. It was, simply, the perfect choice.

And then there's Lucy Montgomery. She had already done really well with Lexi, but she nailed Carly and Hannah too. The latter's loud and boisterous voice contrasted with Toby's more quiet, reserved voice brilliant. Meanwhile, Carly was just a charming Liverpudlian delight. It's a shame she wasn't given more dialogue to work with, but with Mark Moraghan leaving the show, it's nice that we'll still have a slice of Liverpool in the show going forward.

Speaking of which, it's an absolute travesty that Mark will no longer be involved with the main show. He was the best narrator we had and nailed every line he was given from the get go. It also helped that the writers knew how to use him effectively. Although the show hasn't really needed a narrator since the change to CG, it still feels like something will be missing next series when the characters talk to the audience. But I'd just like to say thank you to Mark for doing such a wonderful job the past four years. And I hope you'll still be involved with the franchise in the future.

There were only two voices I wasn't keen on. The first was Rosie. I'm sure Nicola Stapleton is a good actress - she wasn't that bad in Journey Beyond Sodor. But in The Fastest Red Engine on Sodor, it felt like her performance was phoned in. The delivery was rather flat, which was emphasised in the scene where she noticed James couldn't stop. Her "scream" of "JAMES!" had less of a feeling of urgency and more of "Oh, he's just gone past. I'd better call out to him".

The second was Terence. You'd think a tractor was have a voice akin to a farmer's. But instead... he sounded like Rex without his accent. It doesn't seem to fit, and it's a real disappointment.
Music
The music was so disappointing this series. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's the worst we've had since series 8-12. While there were a couple of good pieces scattered around, the rest is unmemorable and generic. To be fair, the show hasn't been famous for its music, but there have been a lot of excellent, almost iconic tunes in the past. Heck, Chris Renshaw's work in series 20 was was great.

This series though, it feels like he's going through the motions just to get something out there. Whether that's down to pressure from Mattel or a decision he made himself I can't say. But it's not good at all. It's not even bad. It's just... there.

Final Thoughts
This was a really good series on the whole. It was, however, a step down from the last one solely because I had more issues with it. Even with the episodes I gave perfect scores, I had more complaints than I did the ones from last series.

The one thing I did love though was the use of female characters. It's high time they were given more of a spotlight. They were all integrated into their stories brilliantly and they were really fun to watch overall. The only one that left no real impact was Rosie, which is a shame. But considering how many female characters did leave an impact, having only one fall flat is rather impressive.

However, I did feel a lot of frustration while watching this series. And it's resurfaced a bit while going through this overview. Whether it was stupid complaints from fans, a general sense of fan pandering during some of the episodes or others feeling unoriginal. This series sucked so much life out of me with every frustrating moment that it nearly turned me away completely. That's not entirely on the show since some of my frustration went to fans who need to find something better to do than screech at a show that doesn't suck them off 24/7 and squee every time it does (as much as I love 2015's specials and series 20, they really helped turn older fans into entitled brats).

But couple that with the story problems (and merging two problems by adding fan service to so-so stories) and the frustration turned into exhaustion. And it was that exhaustion that made me not want to bother writing reviews for certain episodes. If this is the series that ends up setting the tone for the future, I can't see myself being a fan of the show in a year or two.

To sum up, this series has been frustratingly good. There's been more to pick apart and criticise throughout, but I can't deny that the overall story quality has been really good. Whether that can be kept up when the show goes globetrotting, I don't know. But as I've already pointed out, there's a lot going against it..!

Series Rating: 8/10