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

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