Sunday, 18 June 2017

Series 2: Edward's Exploit

I want to start by saying I'm genuinely quite surprised about the reaction to my previous post. Considering how popular it is in the wider community, I expected to be chewed up, spit out and harassed. But a lot of the responses have been really positive, and I'm glad that I've been able to make fans think about The Flying Kipper in a more critical way.

With that out of the way though, I think it'd be good to balance things out a bit by talking about an episode that I absolutely adore.

It's far to say that Edward had a stellar run in series 2, one that really hasn't been matched since. His starring roles were fantastic, his supporting roles just as good (if not better in cases like The Diseasel and Wrong Road). But the cream of the crop has always been this episode.

Edward's Exploit is the masterpiece that SIF and the fans who voted in their "Best Of" poll wish The Flying Kipper was. Because while the latter did have fantastic atmosphere and music, the former had everything.

The characters, first and foremost, really were at the top of their game. The big engines' looking down on Edward (Henry and James laughing at his expense while Gordon was straight faced in saying Edward should just retire), Duck and BoCo jumping in to defend him (which was really nice considering how he'd helped them in A Close Shave and The Diseasel respectively) and Edward just being a determined badass, it was a story that could only have fit these characters.

Although it was rather weird that BoCo knew Duck by name when they hadn't even met by that point in the books (Buzz, Buzz was the second story with Wrong Road and this following on). It's a minor quibble though.

Then there's the visuals. While not being as atmospheric as Kipper (at least until the second half where it gets close), it's still wonderful to watch. The direction is outstanding, especially having the crack happen off screen. Whether it was done due to budget constraints or to keep the suspense up to keep audiences guessing as to what happened I can't say, but it was still wonderfully done. The lighting was also superb, that's all I can really say about that.

Although, for an afternoon that was supposed to be "rainy", there's no water droplets seen anywhere on the sets (although there was a puddle on one) or on Edward. I'll let it slide though as I imagine it's fairly difficult to get an authentic rain scene looking right with what they had to work with.

The music too was absolutely brilliant. Granted, saying the music was great back then is stating the obvious, but in this episode it's on another level. Each piece suits each scene so perfectly that it could tell the story on its own. This is, I feel, something that a future narrow gauge episode with a similar premise (that I may get to soon) lacked.

The highlights for me are the theme when the weather changes and when Edward starts with the now altered train. The latter especially still gives me goosebumps to this day. Starting slowly and building to the triumphant piece where Edward realises he's got things under control, it's the most perfect blend of audio-visual storytelling the show's ever produced.

Speaking of "storytelling": I've said in the past that Ringo Starr wasn't a great narrator. He told the stories well enough, but I feel that his enthusiasm just wasn't there for the majority of his short tenure. This episode, however, he produced his best performance of his entire run. He captured the emotions perfectly and he made you care about what was happening, which is what the ideal vocal performance should do.

I also want to give a special mention to a person that's largely forgotten about fans: the editor. Sure, the director's job to ensure each shot looks right on screen and they give, I presume, a basic guide on how the episodes should look post production, but it's the editor's job to collate all of the footage and audio and squash it down into the time frame they have to work with, and Rebecca de Burgh Mound is the best editor the show's had.

She was consistently good throughout series 2, but she really produced something magical here. If it hadn't been for her amazing editing, I don't think this would've turned out as perfectly as it did, and I feel fans should be commending her as much as everyone else who had a hand in making series 2 so wonderful, and a series that hasn't yet been matched in terms of quality (although series 20 was agonisingly close)

Overall, this is the best episode of the entire show, and unless each individual element comes together again as well as this, it will never be topped. The characters and story are superb, and everything else around them just enhance the experience so much.

The model series had its limitations, of that there's no doubt. But this episode proved that those limitations mean nothing when there were so many people working on it who cared about making a preschool show look and sound as good as it did.
Rating: 10/10

Friday, 16 June 2017

Series 1: The Flying Kipper

If the old reviews from 2011 have taught me anything, it's that working on blog posts whilst trying to better your personal life isn't a smart idea, especially when that leads to me looking like a nitpicky tool. That's why you haven't seen reviews for any other series 20 episodes and blog posts coming out at really sporadic times recently: I'm sorting my business out and uploading posts when I feel the time is right to write and publish them.

With that said, it's time I tackled a really popular episode from back in 1984 - again.

The Reverend Awdry was known to say that he had no favourite characters as they were "his family". Honestly though, it's fairly obvious who his least favourite was: Henry. Sure, Thomas, Percy and others got into more trouble, but they were great characters who needed bringing down a peg or two. Henry's misfortune came about due to personal grievances, seemingly.

It's common knowledge that Awdry's model for Henry was a constant pain, and the fact that he wanted the character to stay in the tunnel after The Sad Story of Henry was rather metaphorical. It look a lot of convincing, apparently, for Awdry to write him out of the predicament for the next story.

The problems continued in the books. Because he and Gordon looked similar already, the artist confused the two for each other completely, giving Henry square buffers rather than round ones in Thomas & the Guard. That's why I like that they kept him green throughout the first half of series 1. It made sense on a character standpoint for him to be painted (it was something he wanted), but with budgetary restrictions and the headache it would've caused, keeping that out of the TV adaptation made sense.

And then there was his character arc which... actually, come to think of it, was only really mentioned three times before it ended. Seriously, out of all the stories from Henry the Green Engine, Coal was the only one that properly dealt with his issues, unlike The Flying Kipper where everything's fine until sheer convenience gets in the way and knocks Henry back down again.

I'm going to be honest, I don't understand why this gets praised so much. In terms of an overall experience, fair enough. The music is superb, the models and sets are gorgeous and the direction is some of the finest of the entire model era. But there's one problem that the pretty exterior masks. Big time.

The story and characters are completely non-existent. Sure, Henry talks, but it's only six lines and none of them really give us a gauge of his character. He's just really... bland here. He may have acted like Gordon in previous episodes, but at least he had something to work with. Maybe this is because, as I said, Henry's arc pretty much ended in the last episode and now he was just happy to be around? I don't know, but he literally said nothing that other engines (except Gordon) couldn't have.

Then there's the crash. Again, it looked brilliant (even if Henry almost mounting the train was weird. But hey, let's not bother complaining about that lack of realism because engine movements are destroying the show... if, you know, you have the mindset of a nostalgia blind idiot), but there's no real tension there. There could have been, but it was stated (long before impact) that everyone got out in time and it was pretty clear that Henry was going to hit the train, so... you know, no real tension.

And then there's the rebuild. Now I'm not going to go into how slapdash it looks - even to this day - as there's little that could've been done. They only had finite resources and that's the best they could do. No, the problem is how the Fat Controller just comes up with the idea - out of the blue - after the crash rather than, you know, last episode? Seriously, he could think of importing coal from Wales and outright replacing him with a different engine, but a rebuild was out of the question?

Here's what I'd have done. Have the Fat Controller be upfront with two options in Coal: replacement or rebuild (I know he said "you've had new parts", but that could just be bits and bobs rather than major fittings). Have the fireman bring up the coal issue with a response being "it's expensive, but it could be just what we need right now". Then leave the rest as it is with those other two options up in the air.

Then at the shed, have Henry bring up the rebuild to his driver saying something like "has the Fat Controller decided what he'll do with me yet?" to which the response could be "not yet, but we're taking the Flying Kipper early tomorrow, etc., etc.". Then, on the journey, you could have him be confident on the outside but nervous within, meaning he'd have a character justification for not noticing what had happened to the points or signal rather than seeming blissfully ignorant of the situation. It would've carried his arc on, since the coal is made apparent to be a temporary thing, it would've felt more character focused, rather than just following a locomotive that just happened to have a face on a journey, and the decision on a rebuild would've been a more considered decision rather than just something that's sprung on the audience to try and get out of removing a main character.

Do I blame the TV production team for this episode's shortcomings? No, not at all. They did an excellent job bringing the story to life. The problem is that the story itself had very little substance and character, the climax came and went in about 15 seconds and the resolution came out of nowhere and felt more like something Awdry had pulled out of his backside rather than something that was pre-planned.

At least Henry got to pull the express by the end of it though...
Rating: 3/10

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Theo and Lexi

Round two. Ding ding.

In my previous post, I put fans on blast over something petty and insignificant. Now I didn't really want to do it again, but with Journey Beyond Sodor causing controversy for... pretty much anything it does (seriously, the only complaint I agree with is the poor ground texturing that could end up being fixed by the special's release for all we know. Besides which, it would be a rush job since it would've taken a while to rebuild after Arc went bankrupt), I feel like I have to.

The problem this time? The two newest characters, Theo and Lexi. Or, more specifically, what they are.

In an interview with i News, producer Ian McCue stated that Theo was autistic traits and implied that Lexi would be gender fluid. Cue whining and moaning from fans who'd rather jump to the worst case scenarios they came up than actually waiting to see what happens with both characters.

Let's start with Theo. First off, it seems incredibly ironic to me that autistic people are complaining that a show they love is introducing an autistic character. 

Second, if fans actually read the report before saying "he'll just introduce himself as autistic!", you'd see that Ian said that it'd be handled with subtlety. So basically, he wouldn't introduce (or mention) himself as autistic. Heck, a lot of fans don't say they have it unless they act like awful people and use it as a defence mechanism for their behaviour. Or, if they're just honest and open, others will have it in social media bios.

And then we come to Lexi's implied gender fluidity. To be fair, the questioning of this is (as surprising as it is for me to say) easy to understand. In terms of "different people", gender fluidity seems a bit more obscure as someone who's LGBT, autistic, etc.

However, what's the big deal in bringing that to the attention of kids at an early age? Surely teaching them that people/engines are different and should feel happy within themselves to be what they want to be is a good thing, right? With so many terrorist attacks hellbent on tearing the world apart (and world leaders doing very little to stop it), I applaud Thomas & Friends, a show that I will always hold dear, taking some positive steps to be inclusive.

And if older fans don't like that? Then, like the "argument" against the engines' movements, they really are just entitled spoiled brats who think the show should only be centred around them (even though, when you get what you want, you still complain about something). And that's their petty issue to deal with.

If Theo and Lexi bring more eyes on the show, meaning that more kids will be able to enjoy a show we all have for years, then I'm all for it. If they turn out to be bad or uninteresting characters, then it's not because they've been "forced in" (which is a non-argument). It's because they came from the same writers and producers who gave us Hugo, Timothy and the international engines. Grow up.