Thursday, September 16, 2004

Thomas the Zombie Tank Engine

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?


Mike Giberson said...

I used to regularly watch Thomas the Tank Engine with my son, and worried in an idle sort of way about similar philosophical concerns. My biggest concern was the overriding theme of sticking to your place in the social hierarchy.

If a steam engine resented the power of the diesel engines at the start of a show, you knew that before the show was out, (1) the steam engine would do something somewhat risky or foolish in an attempt to show he was as good as a diesel, (2) it would turn out badly, (3) the steam engine would learn that everybody is better off just being what they are and not trying to change anything.

As for the trashing of the cars in the "A Spotless Record" episode, they are clearly peripheral to the Thomas's engine-centric views of the world. A few cars smashed up? Who cares, just give the engines a good washing and all will be right in the world of Thomas the Tank Engine again.

My now eight-year-old son seems to have suffered no ill effects traceable to Thomas the Tank Engine.

Saxdrop said...

I remember both George Carlin and Ringo Starr playing the part of the station conductor in turn. Are one of these two still featured in the episodes your son watches? Just curious.

I always thought it would be great, after one of Thomas' laughable mishaps, the script would cut back to the "real world" train station where George Carlin proceeds to go into his "7 Dirty Words" routine.

"That f-bomb-in Thomas! He should watch where the f-bomb he's going!"

Tom W. Bell said...

No, Saxdrop, I don't recognize the name of the guy who narrates the stories on my son's videos. I'd heard about Ringo narrating; that would be pretty cool. I didn't know about George Carlin, though. I'm afraid that hearing his voice would have me picturing the same sorts of hilariously inappropriate results that you imagine. The really strange outcome, though, would be Kai's reaction when, years after associating Carlin's voice with the wholesome Thomas, he hears some of the man's other work! It would be sort of like seeing Mr. Rodgers in a strip club.

Anomaly UK said...

As it happens, I am this morning reading "Thomas comes to Breakfast". This may go some way to clearing up the philosophical mystery.

In this, Thomas, having heard his driver joke that he could drive himself, thinks that he is driving himself away, but really he is only moving because a cleaner has bumped his brake lever.

The philosophical basis of the Rev. Audrey's writings is now clear. As a Church of England clergyman, he holds to Decartes' dualism. Thomas's spirit thinks he is driving himself, but in the world of matter, he is following mechanical laws -- it happens by divinely constructed coincidence that these produce the same effect. Thomas's will to propel himself and the position of his brake lever both propel him into the stationmaster's house.


I've checked wikipedia, and it describes what I've written as Dualistic Parallelism, or Pre-established harmony and associates it more with Leibniz than Descartes, to whom it attributes a more sensible form of Dualism.

Anonymous said...

Isn't the most interesting question why Kai is so in love with it?

Neal said...

I'm with you, Tom! Adam went through a Thomas phase a year or two ago, and I often found myself asking, "Who's in charge here, anyway?" AMcGuinn's comment about "Thomas Comes to Breakfast" and Dualistic Parallelism is on the mark--I liked that episode myself because it specifically addressed the issue of who determined when and where the engines moved. But that's just one episode. In other episodes, the existence or nonexistence of a driver seems to depend only on whether the plot requires one. For example, in one episode, a pesky plane called Tiger Moth keeps bothering some of the other vehicles. At the end, it's not Tiger Moth who gets chewed out, but Tiger Moth's pilot, whose existence comes as kind of a surprise. On the other hand, when two evil engines hatch a plot to drag Stepney into the smelting shed and melt him down, I was saying, "What do the drivers think they're doing? Aren't they going to get fired for this?" But when Sir Topham Hatt came to save the day, no drivers were ever even mentioned; Stepney just got a mild rebuke for not being satisfied with staying at home.

As for some other questions raised: We have one video narrated by Ringo Starr; two by Alec Baldwin; and the other ten or so by George Carlin, who does a pretty good job. I like his voice for George, the Surly Steamroller. Furthermore, George Carlin even seems to have re-narrated the Ringo episodes: I saw a newer version of the Ringo video in the store, with GC listed as the narrator. Finally, none of the videos I've seen in stores have the "Shining Time Station" framing stories that Saxdrop refers to.

Anonymous said...

While I agree with your observations and the assessments of other participants regarding incongruities in Thomas, let us please remember: Thomas the Tank Engine is a show directed at children. With that in mind, the trains' abilities to act seemingly independently but under the partial control of others do not raise such sinister philosophical incongruities. I believe the trains are merely 'children' and Sir Topham Hatt is the 'dad'. The show seeks to teach some simple social lessons, eg 'share', 'play nice together', etc. Whether it succeeds at that modest goal is debatable, of course.

victorian said...

Why is it everyone loves Thomas the tank engine,I now look for websites showing smashed up or scrapped steam trains,if you see a preserved steam engine on a modern railway it has been deface by graffiti on the front of it with a smiley face.
My poor son is brainwashed so much by Thomas I shall not be a neard and take him train spotting.
I would like to find a website where Thomas the tank engine is scrapped cut up and as I am an envromentalist recycled into something usefull ,no body ever thought the effects steam trains had on the enviorment all I can say is roll on the modern electric trains!

Anonymous said...

I think there is nothing wrong with thomas the tank engine. He teaches how to never give up what you want. My son is three and if he is fifteen and still watching it is fine by me, I think it a very good show. I think if you don't like it then turn it to something else because there are plenty of parents would rather have their children watch thomas the tank engine than some of the other junk on television. There are far worse things than talking trains!!!!!!

Laura Modrell said...

Loved reading about your Thomas Train adventures. Here is a great site I found with lots of great Thomas the train merchandise on sale! Check out you will love it. Happy Train Play!

Anonymous said...

My kids love Thomas. We've actually kept them away from a lot of the shows because Thomas is somewhat disrespectful to others. This seems to be confined to the first 2 or 3 seasons though. My kids love playing with the toys and making up their own stories though.

david a khan said...

the over all easy forgiveness of the characters could be disturbing but overall lets remember that this is a children's show to teach manners (by repetition) emotions (by facial expressions)and consequences (by audio/visual cues). I certainly understand all of the concerns we have, we're parents it what we do. we just over-analyze these things and see them as an adult would for that is how we were trained - though when i gave my son the visual excitement of thomas the train engine (he has loved real trains and toys alike, but we live nowhere near a railway) i found it amusing to hear nobody other than george carlin narrating with sound effects and all. give him credit though, he obviously enjoys it, his professional persona need not mirror his personal life in totality.

post script - victorian, to say that thomas the tank engine is a brainwashing trap and to desire the witness of his physical destruction proclaims nothiung but closed-mindedness. consider that a child will eventually come across your dream site and witness something he or she loves be destroyed. THAT would be traumatizing for a child to bear. and in the180's no one gave mind to the environment because as a race we didn't know we had to. and most electricity comes from coal anyway. until the maglev becomes more fiscally viable, lets just leave things as they are, yeah?

Anonymous said...

Unbelievable.. This show is absolutely something from out of this world! I hope and wish all the time that I would have been able to catch every episode, but :( no luck.. That's fine though, knowing about the show is enough to know how good it is, I actually have a couple friends who are comedians so when they watch the show they love to tell me how the episodes went, and the way to tell the story of what happens in the episode, just makes me crack up even if it's a dramatic situation because of their comic persona! haha well Until Next Time!
Take care