By virtue of nursing a sick two-year-old, I am spending much of my day in the strange universe of Thomas the Tank Engine. This realm appears to consist solely of a quasi-British island known as Sodor (and, as I learn from the indefatigable Wikipedia, derives from a defunct Norse kingdom, no less) and its intricate, sentient railway system. And—let me tell you—Sodor is a sobering place.
Ask just about anyone with kids: Thomas is huge. Kids love Thomas; they devour the vast array of toys, books, movies and other paraphernalia spun off from the original work of the Rev. W. V. Awdry; if my kid is any indication, elaborate fantasy games featuring the little blue engine and his clan of steam-powered accomplices account for a large percentage of pre-K America’s imaginative labor. Narrating the televisual Thomas also seems to carry some cool-factor prestige. The mini-episodes we pull off our cable’s on-demand service feature the vocal stylings of the late George Carlin and the ever-looming Alec Baldwin.
What I don’t understand, as I sit here typing these words and watching the one where Thomas accidentally ingests a bunch of fish and suffers indigestion, is why.
The world of Thomas is dark and somewhat atavistic. The talking trains of Sodor provide transit for a faceless and nameless human population that appears to subsist in some kind of pre-War economy of small trades and manual farm labor with minor sidelines in mining and shipping. These people inhabit small villages and isolated rural hamlets; otherwise, Sodor seems largely empty, a land of lonely horizons, abandoned castles and dangerous viaducts. In some twisted realization of a mass-transit advocate’s dream, these peasants, proletarians and shopkeepers seem completely dependent on the railroad. Individual Sodorites (Sodorians?) seldom distinguish themselves among the herds of passengers—frequently dissatisfied with the level of service—who await Thomas and his comrades on station platforms. The anonymous and interchangeable drivers and workmen who labor alongside the trains epitomize the breed. In fact, Sodor looks to have achieved a uniformity of class and social condition that the German Democratic Republic would envy—with one notable exception.
That exception is Sir Topham Hatt. Jowly, dressed in sinister undertaker’s garb, stentorian and bullying, this Topham Hatt commands the railroads. Thus, he rules all of Sodor as a kind of industrial-feudal dominion. (I have recently learned that Topham Hatt also answers to the icy Orwellian sobriquet “The Fat Controller.”) In the absence of any visible outside governmental structure or other check on his power, the neutral observer must conclude that Topham Hatt is a Cheney-like law unto himself. Certainly, he wields unchecked authority over Thomas and the other trains, enforcing a capricious discipline through verbal abuse, “shunning” and arbitrary changes in work assignment pour encourager les autres.
The thinking of Marx and Engels has not yet reached Sodor, and the trains respond to Topham Hatt’s ironfisted rule in a predictable way: They turn on one another. Indeed, the roundhouse at Sodor’s main trainyard is a festering snakepit of jealousy, backbiting, gossip and one-upmanship. Thomas is forever sniping at Gordon. Gordon is a pretentious old bore. Percy and Thomas are classic “frenemies,” always on the lookout for any loss of face or transgression against the peer-enforced standards of the yard.
A grim scene. To make matters worse, the steam engines live in perpetual fear of technological obsolescence at the hands of the diesel engines, which Topham Hatt uses as a largely off-stage threat to enforce obedience. When diesels do appear, they are invariably portrayed as narcissistic sociopaths with Leninist delusions. (“We diesels know everything. We come to a yard and make it better. We are revolutionary.”) One little Thomas-brand book in our possession, Diesel 10 Means Trouble, has such a nasty edge to it that the wife and I have to expurgate our readings.
The redeeming factor here is that my kid doesn’t seem to notice any of this. Good thing, too, because his Thomas obsession recently went into overdrive. We used to temper his Thomas consumption with liberal doses of the jolly Bob the Builder series, which chronicles the exploits of a group of cheerful eco-constructivists engaged in a cooperative, low-impact takeover of a place called Sunflower Valley. Bob and the gang are forever throwing up solar-powered sunflower oil factories and yurts and chanting “Can we build it! Yes we can!” While these Bob-based affirmations remain in heavy rotation in our household, lately Thomas’s downbeat affairs have assumed much more prominence.
Is this, I ask, any way to run a railroad?