Friday, 29 September 2017

Series 21: Unscheduled Stops

They say things always come in threes. We’ve already had three brilliant episodes, but with two painfully mediocre episodes in the last two days, here's hoping Unscheduled Stops doesn't live up to that saying in the bad way.

Unfortunately, it does. And the worst part is that it's Helen Farrall who wrote it.

It’s fair to say that Thomas and Bertie’s appearances together in recent years have followed a similar formula: the two race each other (or have some form of competition), one gets into trouble and the other helps out. While this does follow that, it’s done with in the first minute or so, meaning the focus can go towards the rest of the story.

And the rest of the story is good. It’s basically Thomas Gets Bumped but from Thomas’ perspective. There’s also much more character since there’s so little reliance on the narrator to tell the story. In hindsight, I feel that style of storytelling held the model era back a bit.

I also love how the Fat Controller was handled here. Some critics have (fairly) bemoaned the fact that he's far too goofy in recent years and no as authoritative as he once was. But this gives us a great balance of both. In fact, it's because he wants to be authoritative that the goofiness occurs. It's a great juxtaposition.

Also, Bulgy returned. It's nice that we got a genuine surprise for the first time in years. Big Mickey would've been more of one had Channel 5 not spoiled it with the thumbnail for New Crane on the Dock, Hannah's introduction would've meant more had fans not turned into tabloid journalists and Daisy, Donald and Douglas' return (and the small engines' introduction) in Lost Treasure would've been more amazing had official sources not revealed them ahead of time. We need more surprises in the future; they're fantastic.

That said, it's four days in a row where the target audience is introduced to someone new or someone only older fans are likely to know about. That's... overkill, and a lot for a preschooler to take in. Don't get me wrong, the specials have the exact same problem (if not worse since there's so many that get little to no character whatsoever). But that's become expected and banal. This, however, was a freak occurrence so it's more noticeable. However, there is a 24 hour gap between each one, so at least there's a bit of breathing room, unlike the specials where the newbies are all crammed in to 60/70 minutes.

Back to the episode, which has one major flaw: Thomas gets no comeuppance for his actions. He gets told off, but that's it. Fact is that if their parents are going to rely on TV to drag their kids up for them, they need to be taught valuable lessons through the characters, and that doesn't happen. Maybe if Thomas had been sent to the shed and Percy or Emily had taken the passengers instead? As written, Bulgy taking Bertie's passengers feels like they're rewarding Thomas' bad behaviour by taking some of the load off him.

Because of this, any themes the episode tries to portray are incredibly weak; the weakest that Helen's ever produced. Maybe with a re-write or two, this could've been fixed, but as written, it feels slightly toxic.

Final Thoughts
Apparently, this could be Helen Farrall's last series as her CV says she only has three episodes commissioned. If so, Mattel will be losing someone incredibly talented. I’m not going to make baseless claims as to why she won’t be returning (or if the rumours are true). All I’ll say is that she’ll be a huge loss and her work will forever be appreciated by a majority of fans.

This episode isn't that great overall. It’s funny and well paced, but its theme and lesson are so bad due to Thomas not getting any punishment for his actions that it drags the whole thing down. The fact that she brought Bulgy back was great, but it doesn't take away from its flaws.

Episode Ratings

Cumulative Total (So Far)

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Series 21: New Crane on the Dock

So Cranky has been joined on the dockside by Carly, a really charming yellow crane with a Liverpudlian accent. But will they get on? Well, New Crane on the Dock answers that. The question is: will it be good and prove that Cranky at the End of the Line was just a blip?

I ended the last review hoping there'd be something fresh lest it be a sign that the show was becoming stagnant and either needed something fresh or it needed to end. The team's best answer to this? An episode all about teamwork. Again...

To be fair, they did add a bit of nuance by including the communication aspect, and it was a lesson they both needed to learn. The narrative also did a good job explaining the impact of what would happen if they didn't work together.

There is, however, a problem. Not necessarily with this story (although this did bring it to light more since the narrative was so stock) but with the show as a whole. Simply, things feel incredibly confused, especially when it comes to the humans. The team are getting so much comedy out of them. Yet when it comes to important story aspects, they're completely forgotten solely so cartoony shenanigans can ensue. I'm not as bothered about this as most fans, but it is an issue.

"If Mattel Creations want a really fun, cartoony show, why not just make a new IP?" fans ask. Well, the last IP HiT made was Mike the Knight. And, as far as I can tell, that show quickly became irrelevant. So the next "best" thing is to just put everything into Thomas.

With all that said, the ending is the biggest takeaway of the entire thing. I'm not a fan of TUGS. I was back in the day, but I was so desperate to fit in that I'd like anything. But even I got excited when Big Mickey spoke. The best thing about it though is that it fit the communication theme really well.

Final Thoughts
I apologise that this review is so short, but the fact is there's little to talk about with it. The plot and theme are so stock that there's little you can do to make it fresh. The comedy was fine, but it was also nothing to write home about. It's painfully average in every way.

Episode Ratings

Cumulative Total (So Far)

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Series 21: Cranky at the End of the Line

Cranky has never really been the most interesting character, but he did star in one of the better episodes from both series 5 and 6. And Kevin's Cranky Friend was great as well. But will Cranky at the End of the Line be as good, or better, as his previous starring roles?

Usually, I'm not as bothered about recycled story ideas as most fans as the writers do what they can to give those ideas something new to enjoy. This one, however, gave us... nothing new. At all.

The plot trope of "character fears they're being scrapped" has been done (ironically) to death. The idea of a character being overworked and needing help has been done (even with Cranky, back in series 17). Even Thomas and Edward's arc of not believing rumours has been done so often. These three feel tired enough as it is, but putting them all together really shines a spotlight on how old they all are.

I have let previous episodes off for that this series since they were entertaining enough to take my mind off the lack of originality. But this episode... didn't have that. It was fairly entertaining, granted. But the lack of originality elsewhere was so prevalent that it ended up detracting from the humour.

One unfortunate thing this had going against it though was predictability. The rails behind Cranky gave away the fact they were planning to get a new crane, it's just a case of what it would look like. The worst thing is this could be seen coming before this episode aired.

Stuck in Gear included some shots where the rails for a gantry crane were clearly visible. So it was less of a case of if there'd be a new crane, but when and how.

Also, (and this is more of a nitpick compared to everything else, this devalues Thomas' conflict in Journey Beyond Sodor even more than it already had been. Why could Henry not have gone to get the parts, deliver them to Wellsworth and have Thomas and Edward double head the train from there?

Speaking of Edward though, he was definitely the best aspect of the episode. In fact, he's felt so well written throughout the series. He's genuinely felt like his old self again, and I love it.

Also, Carly seems incredibly charming. I can't wait to see her again. Fans have said "she looks like a toy", which is hilarious considering Lady is so lauded. Then again, the Britt Allcroft era is beyond reproach and any company after that is the devil incarnate. Fans haven't been saying it. But the implications are so heavy that they may as well do.

I'll also admit that the scene with Thomas and Edward at Knapford was fantastic. They could easily have taken it down the "don't believe rumours" route again. I'm honestly surprised that they didn't go down that route considering how much the rest of the episode did reuse. But they had Thomas immediately brush it off, even though he had every reason to believe Edward. That was a nice little touch.

Final Thoughts
To answer the question I started with, it's one of Cranky's worst outings as the main character so far. And by far, it's my least favourite of the series up to this point. There's absolutely nothing new here; it's just an amalgamation of ideas that worked before thrown into a blender. It was fairly entertaining, and Carly seems incredibly charming. But I'm just hoping tomorrow's episode brings forth some new ideas. Otherwise it could be a sign that it's not just Cranky that's reaching the end of the line...

Episode Ratings
Springtime for Diesel: 10/10
A Most Singular Engine: 10/10
Dowager Hatt's Busy Day: 10/10
Stuck in Gear: 8/10
Runaway Engine: 9/10
P.A. Problems: 8/10
Hasty Hannah: 9/10
Cranky at the End of the Line: 4/10

Cumulative Total (So Far)

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Series 21: Hasty Hannah

I'd have been more excited about this episode had entitled, impatient brats that call themselves "fans" not harassed Lee Pressman for information about it around a year ago. It would've been a nice surprise (like Bradford was). But no. Thomas fans, being Thomas fans, have to suck the life out of everything in the franchise in so many insidious, pathetic ways. Anyway, here are my thoughts on Hasty Hannah.

So we have another episode where Toby is more timid than he once was. And... it honestly works well here. It's not ideal, and I think that it probably would've worked better if he was as stubborn as Henrietta is (constantly fighting against Hannah's desires). But with Henrietta being reupholstered and Hannah so loud and overbearing, it makes sense that he'd be more reserved.

Speaking of which, I loved Hannah. She's so charismatic and self assured that it leads to some really entertaining scenes. It also makes sense as to why she looks so much like Henrietta. And it's not laziness like fans seemed it would be (because they'd rather see the negatives in anything new these days).

James' involvement was great... but also kind of disappointing and weird. Think about it: why would he want to pull such an old coach when he'd rather pull smarter looking ones? If that part of him is dead, fair enough. But it's still rather odd.

The disappointment comes when you realise that he barely got any lines. It would've been great if he and Toby had interacted at least once. They had such a brilliant dynamic in the books and classic era. And while it probably wouldn't have been as it once was, since Toby isn't as quick witted and cheeky as he was, it still would've been pretty fun.

The biggest issue though is that Sodor's mapping is completely inaccurate for story purposes. While Toby's response to Thomas was pretty funny, it also implied that he got from Crovan's Gate to Knapford in that time. I can imagine that would be unlikely for even Gordon, but for an engine that went at a snail's pace, it would've been impossible.

Also, Toby goes from Dryaw to Gordon's Hill seamlessly. If you're going to put Toby on the main line for an episode, fair enough. But at least make sure all the stops and locations belong there! It's probably nitpicky as hell, I get that. But I love the fact that Sodor feels real, and ignoring its mapping for... whatever reason takes away from that a little bit.

Back to the positives though, and this was yet another entertaining episode. It was really thrilling seeing Toby and Hannah speed along, but it was also rather dramatic when you realise that James could've destroyed (or killed in this world) Hannah.

Which leads me to the theme. I really like how it played out. It was really effective and it got the message across well. But... I'm unsure what to make of it not sticking with Hannah. I get that she can be an adrenaline junkie, and this could probably be a case of old habits dying hard. But, and I'll say it again, she could have been killed! It feels weird that that wouldn't affect her even a tiny bit. Unless this is a common occurrence for her..!

Final Thoughts
Can Hannah be Toby's second coach? I know that Victoria is in the books, but Hannah feels much more charismatic and entertaining. Not only that, there's more of a chemistry there than Victoria who, although she could be great, was still a coach they found behind a station that was used because she was the only available option. Then again, she was only in one of the last books published..!

Anyway, the story is great (even if there are mapping inconsistencies), the theme worked brilliantly (even if it didn't stick with her) and it was really entertaining. But again, please don't let Hannah be a one off!

Episode Ratings

Cumulative Total (So Far)

Monday, 25 September 2017

Series 21: P.A. Problems

It's fair to say that week one of series 21 set the bar sky high. But with week two looking really good as well, it's incredibly likely that the quality is set to continue. Will P.A. Problems kick things off in the right way?

Let's get this out of the the way: this is really similar to The Fogman. Because of this, and the way both episodes concluded, they both have have the same problem: the moral is incredibly flawed. Yes, in certain circumstances, replacing old with new is not going to work. For example, Steam and YouTube use automated systems for... pretty much everything, really. These lead to false DMCA claims (YouTube) or terrible games being filtered through while the best ones are buried (Steam). These things would work better if there was some human oversight, but neither system does. And that's what both episodes showcased really well.

However, saying that all new technology is flawed and we should stick with the old is short sighted and stupid. New cars work better than old ones (although electric cars still have a way to go). New TVs are better than the old bulky, less clear ones. MP3 players are better than CD players. Ereaders are better than physical books, especially if you're going on holiday and read a lot.

My point is that, although new technology can be flawed, it shouldn't be dismissed completely. And I feel that this was where the episode dropped the ball. Yes, the new P.A. system was faulty (even sparking out for... some reason). But as far as we know, that's all it was. There's absolutely no effort to fix it and show that new things can work well if given the right care and attention. Heck, we never even discover what the problem was.

This is where The Fogman worked a lot better: they actually showed why the foghorn was not suitable in that situation when it caused the rock slide. And rather than get a new one at a much higher expense, it was easier, and probably cheaper, to bring Cyril back.

Maybe if there was a more concerted effort to fix the new system (a 20 second scene isn't enough, especially if it's the speaker itself is the problem, not the control panel) rather than constantly focusing on the fact that it was faulty, the moral would be stronger. And their decision to bring the old one back would've made more sense.

Another problem here is more of a niggle, but it's still a bit stupid. How do the workmen not know which train they needed to take? Wouldn't they have taken the same one for years?

Adding to that, how did no one know where the pigs were supposed to go? Goods have delivery notes, were they just forgotten about to allow that to happen? Granted, it's a funny scene, and seeing Lord Callan again was great. But on the whole, the scene (and much of the episode, to be honest) is really contrived.

That said, it was still enjoyable. And it's great that Edward got a solid amount of screen time (and on his branch line too!). And it actually felt like the role fit his character really well.  Considering how much they shoehorned Thomas into starring roles in previous series, it would've been easy to do the same here. But they actually went with the character that would really have suited the role best, and the story is all the better for it.

Speaking of which, despite the story being unoriginal, I do still think it's a good one. It's entertaining and really well paced for the most part. The ending is a bit slow though, and I do think more could've been done to fix the new system rather than discarding it the second something bad happened to it.

And although I've been critical of the "old vs new" theme, I do think it worked well here. Focusing on the "new things are great, but old things can be useful too" angle was much better than flat out saying "old things are best, new things suck" (like fans do on a regular basis). And it was rather funny that Edward was the one imparting the lesson since he was one being useful.

Also, it was nice to see more of Reg. Before Beresford was introduced, he was my favourite crane on the show, and this episode is another example of why. He's just so excitable and entertaining that it becomes rather contagious after a while.

Final Thoughts
Although the plot and theme are both similar to The Fogman, and it has a couple of niggles in its own right, this was another good episode. The characters were top notch and the story was solid. But with the slow ending and the difficult to ignore contrivances throuhout, it's definitely one of the weaker episodes so far.

Episode Ratings

Cumulative Total (So Far)

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Big World! Big Adventures!

I've been holding off talking about this. The whole thing was announced a few months ago, and was the source of fans saying the show "deserved to die" or "it's going to die". But now that a bit more has been revealed, I feel more confident in making a post about it.


Can people grow the f**k up?

I'm being serious about this. The complaints about this are completely baseless and ridiculous. It says a lot when there's more credence to the complaints about the engine movements (another thing that hasn't negatively impacted the show whatsoever. Hell, you could barely tell they were there in this week's episodes, even though there were instances) than there is about this.

The long and short of it is this: it's yet another theme that Mattel are going to market the hell out of. These themed years are nothing new; they've been doing this since they bought HiT out and took over the show. This year's theme is friendship, last year's was racing, 2015 was teamwork, I could go on.

The only difference is that Mattel are actually making a big deal out of this one like they did in 2016 for the racing theme (since it coincided with the Rio Olympics). The story quality should remain exactly the same... with regard to the main show at least.

My concern is that the special won't be that great. Weirdly, the title of it, Big World! Big Adventures!, is enough of a reason for that. Remember when King of the Railway was released and felt like a huge cluster of story ideas revolving around Stephen and Ulfstead Castle? I'm getting a fairly similar vibe about this special already, only they'll be their own separate stories that don't fit together whatsoever, only that they'll feature Thomas, Ace and Nia and they could possibly bump into the international engines from The Great Race.

Now, to be fair to fans, I can't exactly blame them for being as angry as they were back when this was first announced. The press release was so vague that it could've meant that anything was going to happen; a TV spin off, an online series rivalling Great Race Friends Near and Far, etc. That is on Mattel Creations for keeping cards close to their chest for as long as they did.

What fans should be criticised for is stirring up bulls**t about it and saying the show "deserved to die". Fact is the show doesn't revolve around you or I, as much as your fragile psyches would lead you to believe. The franchise is aimed at preschoolers primarily, and is only liked by adults because the writing doesn't treat them like idiots. Calling for the death of a show solely because you don't like the theme, or direction, it will take for one year and a special says more about your intolerance to try something new than it does Mattel. Then again, quite a few fans admitted they were Conservatives, so that's no surprise to me.

Oh, and as for those rumours that Edward and Henry will be replaced in the main cast next year, shove them up your arse. Anyone can say they know a guy from Mattel, that doesn't validate anything! Hell, why anyone is believing s**t stirring s**t stains after that bollocks with the counterfeit Wood toy is anyone's guess. But the fact is this behaviour needs to stop.

If you're that sick of being a fan of this show, go and find something else to watch. Go and find something to do that you'll actually enjoy. Because the fact of the matter is that your bitching, rumour mongering and amateur tabloid journalism (also making money from a criminal offence, Carson!) is making this fanbase look atrocious. And it's high time other fans actually stood up to this behaviour rather than sweep it under the carpet and say "nothing to do with me".

I'll probably devote more time to that in a separate blog post. But as far as this new theme goes, I'm interested to see where it goes. Because if more characters than just Thomas are going to get in on the action, next year could be a really fun one. There's a lot you could do with the theme too. Just... don't leave Sodor high and dry. Please. That's my only caveat about this.