The Dark & Disturbing World of Thomas the Train

Sir Topham Hatt ("The Fat Controller"...

Image via Wikipedia

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?


About zachdundas

Freelance journalist. Author of The Renegade Sportsman (Riverhead Books). Thank you.
This entry was posted in Parenting, The Arts and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Dark & Disturbing World of Thomas the Train

  1. bunbunmyers says:

    Funny…I was just thinking much (or at least some) of that saturday morning. I really like Thomas, mostly because it’s a good show for half-sleeping and still being able to act like you’re watching. One thing I’m surprised you didn’t mention is the ultimate goal an engine strives for in pre-democratic Sodor. Not original, brave, smart, groundbreaking, fast, smart etc. No, the penultimate compliment in Sodor is “useful.” Being a really useful engine is a good goal for us all I suppose.

  2. Mr. Dundas,

    I am a veteran of the world of Thomas the Tank Engine. My children were small when it first debuted in the US around 20 years ago. What you have noticed is a fact that perennially surprise adults, children appreciate the dark side of human life, if it is step or two on the path to the light. Consider perhaps the best selling and influential children’s book of all time “Where the Wild Things Are”. This too is a dark and distant tale, entirely devoid of visibly human life other than the hot-headed and willful protagonist. The darkness of the tale only serves, however, to provide contrast to the warmer and brighter ending. Even the masterful “Winnie the Pooh” is full of these dark shadings and emotional conflicts (here I mean the books, not the Disney adaptations).

    When “Where the Wild Things Are” was first released, it too frightened the adult world but children, brave souls that they are, embraced it. Thomas’ world is the same, it is not a world without conflict or bad feelings, it is a world full of the real feelings, including the darker ones. Children understand that this is how the human world is, it is only adults who think children should only be exposed to bright and cheerful images all of the time. This is why adults like Barney more than kids do.

    The world of children is the same as the world of adults, only more so.

  3. D.D. Cook says:

    Zach, if you rearrange the letters in “Sodor” you get “Doors.” Which is a completely meaningless exercise but something I do anyway.

    Great post–I got my kid a complete set of Thomas the Tank Engine characters cast in steel–right before he lost interest. I think my wife and I loved the show more than he did. And it is a spooky land that somehow reminds me of The Matrix in the way that the machines take over and do most of the thinking. Avery was a deeply angry man, a draft dodger/pacifist who was severely punished for refusing to fight in WWI. I think that has a lot to do with his creation.
    Also, he could not get along with any of his wonderful illustrators.
    And, if you’re still in Portland, we should hang out and chew the fat sometime. I love your writing style and subject matter.

    • Zach Dundas says:

      Dan Cook! Thanks for the comment, and yes, I’m around. Drop me a line via one of The Matrix portals…I’m @zachdundas on Twitter, on Facebook, my email’s on my personal website, etc.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s