Kids love Thomas the Tank Engine, and fair enough – kids are stupid. But this franchise is another one that I’ve been exposed to a lot lately, and, like the Toy Story series, it gets more disturbing the more I see of it.
They’re conscious and sentient metal paraplegics
Now, I’m far from the first to have this reaction – here’s an article that sums up a lot of the disquiet. There’s the totalitarian atmosphere on Sodor, as the trains are constantly required to prove themselves to be Really Useful Engines if they want to avoid the scrap heap; not to mention the worrying class structure/racism of the steam train/diesel train divide. (And what the hell is going on with the trucks? Are they meant to be like children, or are they goblins or something?) While these things suggest a life of quiet misery for Thomas and Friends, the real, actual horror becomes evident when you look at what sort of existence the trains lead.
The story “Thomas Comes to Breakfast” shows this best:
It always seemed a bit weird to me that these living trains have drivers – what do they need them for*? This story answers that question: the trains need drivers because they’re inanimate objects incapable of independent movement – it’s made quite clear that there’s no possibility of the trains acting on their own, and that they don’t appear to realise it. They’re conscious and sentient metal paraplegics, unknowingly trapped in their steam-driven shells, reliant on their human keepers to feed them and steer them from place to place.
You probably have better things to do than watch non-pornographic videos on the Internet, so here’s a quick summary: Thomas hears his driver jokingly mention that Thomas knows his line so well he hardly even needs a driver. (Ha ha ha! The very idea that he could be a complete being in charge of its own destiny!) Brimming with conceit and denial, Thomas takes the human at his word, and starts boasting to the other trains about how he doesn’t need a driver. His hubris is punished the next morning, when he decides to roll driverlessly out of his shed and wake up his neighbours as a joke. What he doesn’t know is that when one of his keepers was cleaning him as he slept, they’d accidentally let his brakes off, so while he thinks he’s moving of his own volition, he’s actually just the victim of a human’s inattention.
The truth very quickly dawns as Thomas discovers that he’s out of control with no ability to stop himself – he hurtles to the end of the track, across a road and into the house of a family having breakfast. Things get even more sinister at this point as, having established that Thomas was in no way in control of his own actions, he finds himself being mocked and berated by everyone around him. The family yell at him, the Fat Controller scolds him, and the trains who come to pull him out all have a laugh at his expense. No blame appears to go on the person who left his brakes off, nor on whoever decided to build a train track with no buffers that runs directly into someone’s front yard.
So Thomas is hauled away in disgrace to be repaired and put back to work – hopefully with a better grasp of his place in the world – while a filthy diesel engine does his work for him. The end. Of the TV episode, anyway – in the book on which it’s based, the author decides we haven’t piled enough trauma onto Thomas yet, and throws in a bit of existential dread at the end – as he’s being repaired, Thomas complains that he’s had so many parts pulled off and replaced, he’s not sure if he’s still himself anymore. Think about that for a while; I’ll coming back when you’ve stopped screaming.
The Railway Series was created by the Reverend W. Awdry, an Anglican priest – strange that a man of the cloth would devote a children’s series to proving that there is no God. Or maybe this is his vision of Hell – are Thomas and his fellow trains being punished for sins in a previous life by being locked into bodies that aren’t theirs to control and made subject to the whims of the uncaring beings around them? I guess that’d make the Fat Controller Satan, which sounds about right, really.
*Apart from making crude references to Thomas having multiple grown men inside him. Did I say “crude”? I meant “never not hilarious”.