Thursday, 7 February 2013

The Miller Era

With the airing of The Christmas Tree Express (in the UK and Australia) on Christmas Day 2012, two eras came to a close: Nitrogen Studios as animators (the topic of my next blog post sometime soon) and, the topic of this review, the Sharon Miller era as head writer for Thomas and Friends.

In this review, my main focus will be the episodes SHE wrote herself, with a little section noting who my favourite, and least favourite, writers were during her tenure (other than Miller herself).  I shall leave my opinions on her contributions for each series (and special), then leave an overall opinion of her stint at the very end.

Seven years ago, Sharon Miller arrived with the fans having no idea who she was.  Now, she leaves fans WISHING they had no idea who she was!  But, was she REALLY as bad as people say she was?

NOTE 1: Links to my reviews of each series/special are embedded in the title of each heading.
NOTE 2: From Hero of the Rails onwards, I won't mention the animation, as that will be the focus of a future blog post.

Sharon Miller joined the writing team in the ninth series, created during Thomas' 60th anniversary.  Her contributions included Thomas and the Birthday Picnic, where Thomas takes the Hatts to find the best place to have a birthday picnic for Dowager Hatt, Tuneful Toots, where Rusty takes the Brass Band on a tour before their concert, The Magic Lamp, in which Peter Sam tries to find Proteus and his magic lamp, and Thomas' Day Off, where Thomas helps Dennis on his day off.

In only four episodes, she pretty much laid out HER plans for what a Thomas and Friends episode was to be like: an engine goes to three random locations before the engines do something badly and try to make amends.  To be honest, I forgave Miller for using this formula in her episodes (although The Magic Lamp was just appallingly bad), not realising what she had in store for us in the future.

However, she DID bring back Dowager Hatt who is a great addition to the Hatt family, especially in the animated series, and she did write Proteus in who, despite being seen for only 5 seconds, used Sir Handel's basis as his own.  So maybe she was a major part in Sir Handel's return in the next series..?

With two more episodes scheduled, Sharon took it upon herself to write six episodes: The Green Controller, Follow That Flour, Thomas' Tricky Tree, Edward Strikes Out, Thomas' Frosty Friend and Topped Off Thomas.

The last two episodes are two of the worst in the model series.  The three strikes were an integral part of their downfall, but they are both extremely degrading to the children they're aimed at, the adults that watch with their offspring and the characters' personalities.  The dumbing down in these episodes was also degrading and extremely annoying: "Mr Snowman", "Mr Wind".  The series was a massive success without dialogue like this, so why she felt compelled to do so is baffling.  Only she will know why she wrote those things.  This series really showed that Sharon Miller knew nothing about Thomas and Friends or how railways worked.

Then there was Edward Strikes Out...  I didn't like it when Edward bullied Harvey in Series 6, so to see a WHOLE episode where the supposed "hero" was just a bully to Rocky just sickened me.  It was made even worse when it turned out that, rather than working side by side with the existing breakdown crane, Rocky would REPLACE it!  What sort of people would replace TWO cranes with ONE?!

The Green Controller (engines don't run railways and James wouldn't have been painted in just one day) and Follow That Flour (how could Thomas not see the flour when he reversed the truck?) were extremely illogical, and both followed the same three strikes formula, but they were watchable and, although I'm not a big fan of them, I don't hate them either.

Five episodes came from Sharon this series: Thomas and the Spaceship, Thomas Sets Sail, Don't Be Silly, Billy, Thomas and the Runaway Car and Ding-a-Ling.

I found Thomas and the Spaceship to be quite watchable, as spaceships might intrigue younger viewers, although it is very repetitive.  Thomas and the Runaway Car was OK, as she brought Arthur back to the series after two series away.  However, the constant reference to the runaway car as "the runaway brand new Hatt Blue car" got very annoying very quickly.

The other three episodes were just terrible.  How an engine as old as Freddie wouldn't know what a bicycle bell was for is just ridiculous, Thomas Sets Sail was just silly, and the worst thing is this wouldn't be the first time where Thomas thought he could deliver a load without an important person assisting him...  And Don't Be Silly, Billy?  Let's just say Billy's the prelude to another ridiculously stupid character.  Only Billy has less detail, a different paint scheme and buck teeth...  The episode itself is far too repetitive and annoying.

However, she did allow Paul Larson to write Gordon and the Engineer, the episode that saw the return of Donald and Douglas.  But, like the previous two series, the best contribution of Series 11 never came from her (Thomas Tries His Best was written by James Mason while Thomas and Skarloey's Big Day Out came from Paul Larson).

Many fans say that the only area where Sharon Miller excelled was when she wrote specials.  I must say right now that I am NOT one of those people (and you'll see why later).  However, I DO think her best contribution was this special.

Yes, I'm not fond of Pierce Brosnan narrating (he sounds like he was telling a bedtime story which this isn't) and yes it wasn't the most realistic.  But I love the action and suspense, not to mention the sheer size of the cast.  Plus, this is the ONLY character that she's developed that I instantly liked: Stanley.  His personality is a joy and he just looks brilliant.  I'm just glad he hasn't turned out as... generic as the Steam Team - and, in fact, ANY characters that star in an episode - have become personality-wise.

It's also the models' final send-off before the series incorporated CGI.  Yes, I know Series 12 was primarily filmed with the models, but this was the last project that used ONLY models from start to end, unlike S12 which was a model/CG hybrid.

Ms Miller wrote 7 episodes this series, the most episodes she wrote that featured the models.  They were Steady Eddie, Mountain Marvel, Heave Ho Thomas, Toby's Special Surprise, Tram Trouble, The Man in the Hills and Push Me, Pull You.

This was, by far, her worst series writing for Thomas and Friends (that featured the models).  Steady Eddie was unrealistic, Edward's out of character and the way the water wheel "hopped" on to the flatbed was so ridiculous it was laughable.  Mountain Marvel was OK, as was Heave Ho Thomas, even though having an American engine on a British railway is really off-putting.

The others were awful.  Toby's Special Surprise didn't bother mentioning Toby's previous find, and the thing he DID find was never seen again.  Tram Trouble just introduced a character that destroyed everything original about the old tram engine (I hope Flora NEVER appears again and Toby is referred to as Sodor's ONLY tram engine again), The Man in the Hills was just boring and illogical while Push Me, Pull You was just pathetic.

It's also interesting (though unsurprising) to note that ALL of the episodes that Stanley appeared in weren't written by her, which meant that other writers actually cared about a character SHE created, yet she didn't! (I mention this purely because I'm a Stanley fanboy)

I think this series is overrated, but not to the extent as Series 4 and 5 are.  Visually, it was brilliant; the CGI breathing new life into the series.  However, the stories, on the whole, were bad.  The three strikes formula really kicked in here, which made the stories repetitive and boring, not to mention characters being out of character and new characters being overshadowed by Thomas (except Colin).  Although, to be fair to her, she DID bring Oliver back in Steady Eddie and she allowed Duck to return in Excellent Emily (and three other episodes).  But for a third series in a row, the best contribution (Best Friends by Anna Starkey) never came from Ms Miller.

The first animated production wasn't too bad.  Although I thought that Spencer was a strange villain for the piece, the alliteration annoyed the hell out of me and there was far too much racing around (which just felt like padding), the basic plot was good.  And I really admired the engines' determination to repair the old engine (to the detriment of their jobs), and I understood (sort of) their concern about telling the Fat Controller.  I say "sort of" because the Fat Controller has a knack for repairing old things (Trevor in the Railway Series, Oliver, Toad, Isabel, an old narrow gauge coach, etc), so they really shouldn't have been worried.

The characters and locations introduced were quite good, too.  Hiro was an engaging character, although by the end of things he moaned so much about everything I just lost sympathy for him.  Victor is brilliant, a real father figure, very wise and very helpful.  Kevin though is just an idiot and really should be kicked off the show.  The Steamworks is brilliant.  I love that there's now a PROPER space for locomotives to be fixed, unlike the model series where engines were fixed all over the place, and it's made even better that it's located at Crovan's Gate, like the Works in the Railway Series.

Thankfully, before this special, Ed Welch was relieved of his duties in the music department, which allowed Robert Hartshorne greater creative freedom with the music, and this showed as themes were now a lot better than they were during Series 8-12.

For her first contribution to the new, fully animated series, Sharon wrote eight episodes: Creaky Cranky, Double Trouble, Play Time, Steamy Sodor, Splish, Splash, Splosh, The Biggest Present of All, Buzzy Bees and Hiro Helps Out.

Only two of her episodes were good this series: Steamy Sodor was entertaining, although Kevin doing all that stuff in a dangerous environment is a very bad message to send to an impressionable audience.  The other one is The Biggest Present of All.  It was actually quite sweet of Thomas to find Hiro a present (even if his gift ideas were a bit stupid) and Hiro's response to Thomas' failure was heart warming too.  It makes you appreciate what you have.

However, the rest were just awful.  Creaky Cranky was just stupid (Cranky's lifted heavier things than Thomas before and he's managed fine.  Alhtough his parts could've been old), Sir Lowham could've caused trouble in Double Trouble, Charlie and Thomas just proved that fun is more important than work (and peer pressure is fine) in Play Time, railways would NEVER operate under the conditions portrayed in Splish, Splash, Splosh, Buzzy Bees is a terrible re-write (I suppose?) of Buzz Buzz and Hiro just acts like a complete idiot, destroying his personality even more in the process, in Hiro Helps Out.

I'm not just saying that Ms Miller wrote bad episodes, as the whole series was rather bad (The Lion of Sodor and Thomas and the Pigs being prime examples as they were carbon copies of each other).  I'd say its ONLY saving grace was Tickled Pink.  The only problem with that was the three strikes formula.  If the writer (Allan Plenderleith) hadn't abided by that, it could have been as close to a Classic Series episode as fans had hoped for.  However, I do still think it was the best animated episode under the Miller (and Nitrogen) era.

Misty Island Rescue
This was, by far, the worst Thomas and Friends special since Thomas and the Magic Railroad.  The characters were awful, the "racism" Thomas showed towards Diesel was frightening, Misty Island - especially that Shake Shake Bridge - the rhyming, the alliteration, Ferdinand constantly saying "That's right!", the pointlessness of Captain and who can ever forget the grammatical error: "I feel badly"...  EVERYTHING was just terrible when it came to the writing.  The only good thing about it was Diesel 10's appearance and dialogue (apart from him saying "steamies"...)

Series 14
Miller wrote half the episodes for this series (10 out of 20).  They were Thomas' Tall Friend, Charlie and Eddie, Henry's Health and Safety, Thomas' Crazy Day, Jumping Jobi Wood!, Thomas and Scruff, O the Indignity, Jitters and Japes, Merry Misty Island and Henry's Magic Box.

The majority of her episodes were bad this series.  Thomas' Tall Friend and Henry's Magic Box were just boring and degrading, Jitters and Japes and Jumping Jobi Wood! were stupid and dangerous (mainly because of that stupid Shake Shake Bridge), Charlie and Eddie was just a re-write of Play Time, O the Indignity was repetitive and badly cast (there are other engines that could've worked at the waste dump), Merry Misty Island was just pathetic (like Ferdinand's "tree") and Thomas and Scruff sent out a very negative message (you're only useful if you're clean).

Henry's Health and Safety was bad too, but unlike the eight mentioned previously, this one had a LOT of untapped potential.  There are many HEALTH AND SAFETY aspects (I capitalised "health and safety" as that was the episode's subject, NOT crashes!) that could have been focused on, but sadly they were all neglected.  Thomas' Crazy Day wasn't too bad, although Thomas should've focused more on his job than pleasing an engine that should've been working - regardless of  their friendship.

Again, the best contribution (Being Percy) didn't come from Ms Miller, but from Rachel Dawson.  It was a simple, feel good story that was perfectly suited for Percy, and the moral - just be yourself - was lovely.  Victor Says Yes by Denise Cassar was also a highlight, but mainly because of the returns of 'Arry and Bert rather than the story itself.

Day of the Diesels
This was better than Misty Island Rescue, but not by much...  The fires were OK, but there was FAR too much dialogue padding that they just didn't feel as dramatic.  The pointless diesels were just painful, especially since Paxton could EASILY have been held back until Blue Mountain Mystery, the three strikes formula managed to weasel its way into the film, the alliteration, the racist undertones and the grammatical errors ("None of my engines IS ever forgotten" rather than "...ARE ever forgotten") also took the shine off those fire scenes.

On the plus side, at least Flynn and Belle actually ACTED like heroes rather than mindless, self-conscious idiots (Flynn) or bolshy, overbearing idiots (Belle)

Series 15
Miller made her biggest contribution to a series here, writing 15 out of the 20 episodes.  The only ones she didn't write were Percy's New Friends, Spencer the Grand, Kevin the Steamie, Wonky Whistle and Percy the Snowman, although these were so bad, you wouldn't really know they weren't written by her...

This series was the first since the Classic Series to feature a trilogy (Gordon and Ferdinand, Toby and Bash and Emily and Dash), and the first in the Miller era.  However, it was absolutely dreadful.  How it managed to come SECOND in the Roll Along Thomas blog's poll of trilogies is absolutely ridiculous, and it really disgraces the memory and legacy that the Awdry family, and Britt Allcroft, created for Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends.  But her worst episodes were Fiery Flynn (dangerous moral and actions) and Up, Up and Away (boring and degrading).  Not to mention the fact that EVERY episode this series included so much rhyming,. alliteration and repetition that every fan was driven crazy.

However, Ms Miller DID write two good episodes this series: Stop That Bus was like Thomas and Skarloey's Big Day Out, but it was good - and memorable - because it was the first fully animated episode to give Bertie a speaking role  and it showed that the Shake Shake Bridge IS actually as dangerous as it looks, although it would've been better if Bertie fell off the bridge completely.  Edward the Hero was another highlight.  Even though Edward's been a hero MANY times before, and the things he did in the episode weren't exactly THAT heroic, it actually felt as though he was in character for a change.

Overall though, this series was EXTREMELY poor.  The rhyming and alliteration were unbearable, some of the actions by the engines were extremely dangerous, the episodes were far too repetitive and there was far too much negative discrimination against the diesels (by Thomas) and Toby (by James).  The worst episode this series was - yep, you guessed it, - Wonky Whistle by Neil Ben.  This episode wasn't just the worst of this series, but the worst of all time.

Blue Mountain Mystery
This was, by far, the best animated special.  The narrow gauge engines were all in character, Paxton was developed so brilliantly that the audience  actually cared about him, brilliant quotes, the drama, the brilliant back stories for Luke and Victor (Victor's especially, as it gave new depth to a character that was already great) and the natural conclusion just made the special feel more complete and well rounded than all the others - including Hero of the Rails, as that ending was spoiled by the fact that Hiro's pretty much stayed on Sodor despite his being homesick.

The underdevelopment of Winston and Merrick, the collapsing bridge, the unrealistic - albeit understandable - actions of Thomas trying to sort things out with Luke and Rheneas being yellow (despite it bringing the story to a natural close) were downsides, but overall it was a fantastic special.

Despite all this though,  you HAVE to wonder how different it would've been if Andrew Brenner hadn't been script editor...

Series 16
For her last series, Miller wrote 11 episodes: Race to the Rescue, Ol Wheezy Wobbles, Express Coming Through, Percy and the Monster of Brendam, Ho Ho Snowman, Bust My Buffers!, Salty's Surprise, Welcome Stafford, Don't Bother Victor, Happy Birthday Sir! and The Christmas Tree Express.

There were many bad episodes this series, especially Race to the Rescue (Flynn was as idiotic and self conscious as he was in Fiery Flynn), Bust My Buffers (more racial discrimination by steam engines to diesels), Ho Ho Snowman (just terrible, like all of Charlie's episodes), Happy Birthday Sir! (repetitive and generic, despite the ending), Don't Bother Victor! (IT WAS DONE TWICE BEFORE, PEOPLE!), Percy and the Monster of Brendam (illogical, demeaning and characters that were out of character) and The Christmas Tree Express (extremely underwhelming after Blue Mountain Mystery, repetitive and dull)

However, Express Coming Through was actually her best episode throughout her tenure.  Thomas and Gordon felt like they were in character, Thomas pulling the Express was similar to Thomas' Train and the dialogue felt more natural, even if the episode itself was quite repetitive.  And while Welcome Stafford was average and repetitive, Stafford himself was brilliant.  His dialect was fantastic and his basis was great.  And the fact that he came from the old North Staffordshire Railway inspired me to look into writing a book series about said line (since I'm from Staffordshire).

The best and worst episodes from this series came from the same writer: Max Allen.  The best was Percy and the Calliope.  Percy and Diesel were a great partnership, the three strikes formula actually worked really well and the calliope playing a remix of the classic Thomas theme meant that the episode was fantastic, even though one incident was similar to Wonky Whistle.

Speaking of that episode, the worst this series was a near re-write of it, and that was Muddy Matters.  While some may not see the similarities, the animals escaping from James' train made me think of Wonky Whistle, and I hate episode where animals are put in danger.  Another memorable mention for worst episode is Sodor Surprise Day by Jessica Kedward and Kirsty Peart.  It was ridiculous, and those rogue fireworks could've caused some serious damage to machines or people.

Favourite Writer
There have been many writers throughout Sharon Miller's seven year stint as head writer, including Paul Larson, Wayne Jackman, Abi Grant and Miranda Larson.  But my favourite writer of her tenure has to be Anna Starkey.  She only wrote one episode (Best Friends), but it's one of my all time favourites.  It's simple, it has a good choice of characters and it has a plot that kids, and some parents, can relate to.

Least Favourite Writer I need to say it?  Hands down, the worst writer is Neil Ben, for writing the worst episode of Series 15, the worst episode of the animated era and the worst episode in Thomas' 68 year history combined: Wonky Whistle.  While other writers have written some bad episodes, Sharon Miller included, Neil Ben outshines them all as it was his first, and so far only, episode.

Final Thoughts
Sharon Miller has been credited for a lot of things over her 20+ year career, so I can't really have an opinion on whether she is good at what she does. All I can go on is her 7 year tenure as the head writer of Thomas and Friends (and her contribution to Bob the Builder).  I don't think her best move was children's television.  It seems that she has no real idea that children are more intelligent than she, and the other writers, thinks they are, judging by the episodes throughout her tenure.  Not to mention the sheer lack of railway intelligence.

Many of her episodes talk down to kids as if they're stupid.  The charm of Thomas the Tank Engine in the first place was that it could be related to by adults AND children, despite the series being aimed at younger audiences.  There was humour, action, drama and worthwhile morals in the Railway Series and older television episodes, and I can say with my hand on my heart that very few of the Miller era episodes, and three of the five specials, had these aspects.

Another problem is that the episodes were just far too repetitive.  The now infamous "three strikes" formula has been noticeable since her arrival, but as the series has progressed it's become more prominent.  It's been made even more prominent by the fact that, especially in recent episodes, the dialogue is as repetitive as an engine's actions.

Rhyming was also a constant pain when she was head writer.  Thankfully, by Day of the Diesels, she took the MASSIVE hint from fans' displeasure of this and toned it down, but by then the damage was done, and all the other messes she caused were just left alone.  Well, ALMOST all of them...

In 2011, a member of the Awdry family was featured in a British newspaper article. In it, she criticised HiT Entertainment for omitting Christmas from the content of the Series 9 DVD "Little Engines, Big Days Out".  To rectify this, HiT held Merry Winter Wish (a Christmas themed DVD due for release later that year) back until October 2012 so they could re-dub the episodes, replacing "Winter Holidays" with "Christmas Holidays".  Also, The Christmas Tree Express was re-written for the UK dub, replacing '"Winter Holidays" with "Christmas".

Throughout the CG era, fans and parents (including myself) have criticised the prices of new releases, as they only had 4 episodes yet were priced at £12.99 (RRP).  Again, HiT acted on this, by adding an additional 2 episodes to the UK releases of Merry Winter Wish and Sticky Situations, while 5 episodes will be on all future releases in all English speaking territories.  So although it's taken a while for them to do anything, HiT are, slowly, trying to win fans over again.

Back to Miller, I really do think that more issues have arisen with her as head writer.  Repetitive plots and dialogue, rhyming, alliteration, the "heroes" of the show being "racist" and "discriminatory" to diesels and any other engines that are a bit "different" and the plain overkill of new characters that are either underdeveloped (Merrick, Winston, Norman, Sidney, Captain, Dennis to name a few) or just plain terrible as far as personalities are concerned (Bash, Dash, Ferdinand, Billy, Charlie).  Don't get me wrong, I know that HiT need to make money by introducing new things that can be merchandised, but that doesn't mean that should be their only purpose.  Kids should feel that they can connect with characters personally, and I don't think they can say that about most characters from Series 9-16.

Which reminds me, Sharon Miller has been in charge of HALF of Thomas and Friends' TV life span (she's been in charge of eight of Thomas' sixteen series)!  I find that fact to be alarming, I must be honest.

Let's not forget though that during her tenure, there have been SOME positives: two new Railway Series books, the expansion of the Hornby (Murdoch, Spencer, Oliver, Bear, Stepney) and Bachmann (too many to list :P) ranges with better detailed models, the CGI change (it wasn't a positive at first but fans were eventually won over), a voice cast rather than a narrator providing character voices (again, fans had to be won over by it), more UK complete series DVDs (sadly, the US is still waiting on that front...) and the re-re-release (they'd been released twice before with original footage) of the first three series with remastered footage (UK only). If anyone hasn't noticed, none of these things had nothing to do with the writing of the television series...

So, that's the Miller era summed up really. 95% of the positive things throughout her tenure had nothing to do with her or her episodes.  So while some (including myself) are hoping she'll never write for Thomas and Friends again, no one can really say if this really is the last we'll see, or hear, of her. However, if she DOES write again for Thomas, at least her damage will be limited if Blue Mountain Mystery is anything to go by.  For now though, all that can be said is this: Sharon Miller, good riddance.

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