My boy, Kai, obsesses over Thomas the Tank Engine as only a toddler can obsess. I often wake up to the sound of his cheerful wee voice saying, somewhere off in the darkness at the edge of my bed, “Choo choo! Bideo! Peeeees?” (Translation: “Might I please watch, yet again, that charming video relating the adventures of Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends?”)
Although I don’t let Kai start his day with Thomas the Tank engine, he does usually get to watch one or both of his two videos each day. As a consequence, I usually end up watching them, too. My repeated observations lead me to conclude that Thomas the Tank Engine relies on some very disturbing notions of moral causation.
That philosophical weirdness arises from the quasi-zombie nature of the main characters. They are machines—train engines, a bus, earth-moving equipment, and so forth—that operate largely at the whim of human direction. They labor under both the verbal commands of white-collar bosses, such as Sir Topham Hatt, and the direct physical control that engineers, brakemen, and other blue-collar workers evidently wield over Thomas and his clanking friends.
Notwithstanding those two human sources of control, the non-human characters also enjoy some freedom of action. They clearly hold their own opinions. They chat, argue, joke, and—surprisingly for a show that enjoys a reputation for teaching children good values—frequently bitch and back-bite. More than that, though, Thomas and the other machines sometimes act on their whims, rolling along the tracks in search of one another, playing mischievous pranks on fellow machines, or racing each other through the verdant hills of the Island of Sodor.
The resulting, bizarre mixture of servitude and independence shows clearly in “A Spotless Record,” a tale relating the hazing of a new engine, Arthur. Sir Topham Hatt introduces Arthur as an engine with a spotless record of on-time arrivals and flawless deliveries. Setting to work, the up-tight Arthur quickly takes offense at the rude singing of some freight cars he has been assigned to pull. Thomas, piqued by Arthur’s reputation and prim manner, decides to have some fun with the newcomer by telling him that Hatt doesn’t like railroad cars to sing. Arthur thanks him, leaves the rail yard with the onery cars in tow, and berates them to hush up. Offended, the cars make Arthur lose control on the way down a steep hill. He smashes into a train parked at the hill’s base, utterly demolishing a number of cars. Thomas, a witness to this mishap, confesses to the irate Hatt that he caused the accident by tricking Arthur. All ends well with Hatt laughing off the matter and Arthur forgiving Thomas.
Consider a few of the moral mysteries in “A Spotless Record”: Why should Thomas take the blame for Arthur’s over-reaction to the freight cars’ harmless singing? Aren’t Arthur and the cars in fact to blame? How did the cars, lacking all motive force, cause Arthur to lose control? Moreover, how did those cars overcome the control exercised by Arthur’s engineer and brakeman? And, gruesomely, why does no one express the slightest concern about the apparent slaughter of several cars?
Granted, these puzzles of moral agency appear to have no impact on my boy. But, given that I also have to watch Thomas the Tank Engine, they certainly vex me. And who knows what deep and insidious effects exposure to such philosophically confused stories might be wreaking on his psyche?