Monday, 14 August 2017

Series 20: Useful Railway

And so, the end is here. The last episode of series 20, the last small railway episode of the trilogy and the last proper episode review of this 13 post marathon. But will Useful Railway end things on a high?

To be fair, it would be hard to top Tit for Tat and Mike's Whistle's adaptation and... it didn't. But it's definitely just as good as those two, and that's perfectly fine by me.

The first downgrade is Thomas' appearance. While his first two were fantastic, and I'm more apathetic to him being included everywhere than I used to be, I still think that his appearance here added nothing that another character couldn't. He simply reverted to his usual bland, helpful persona which is actually rather jarring considering how cheeky and fussy he was in the previous two.

The second is the lack of any real interaction during the wool collection. This episode is much more reliant on the narrator than the characters and while that's not bad, it doesn't really give Rex or his driver to interact with anything during the journey, which is a real shame since the other two had some brilliant interactions.

All of that, coupled with the lack of humour, means that the slower pace that these stories have is much more noticeable here. The music does what it can to liven things up, but it's still kind of dull around the middle.

It's not awful though; the first act does allow humans to interact with the railway, and those were great. Their patronising tone to something they don't understand made sense and the reactions were entertaining (especially Rex's).

I also really liked the theme that the episode presented: don't judge a book by its cover. So many people, even today, just shrug others off solely because they're a bit different, not bothering to get to know the person or care about their feelings. And that's really sad, since there are so many interesting people out there that none should be ignored. Well, except for Nazis and other terrorists, but that's for another day..!

Willie was a really fun character as well.The narrator's description fit him to a tee and he was given a great performance by Keith Wickham. On a side note, does anyone else think he sounded like a less gruff Willie Rushton?

Also, yes, that crash was absolutely amazing. It's so overblown and ridiculous that it's become one of my favourite of the entire show. I wasn't much for many of the slow motion incidents during series 8-12 as it felt more like they were lessening the impact, whereas here you're right in the middle of the action, so the slow-mo feels more like they're trying to add drama and comedy, which they pulled off brilliantly.

Finally, I love that this episode shows off the whole range of the Arlesdale engines' dynamic. I've said it in the Tit for Tat review but it bears repeating: it's the most genuine one of the current era. They enjoy teasing each other, but at the end of the day they're always there for each other. I'm just hoping they keep these three acting this way as it'd be a shame if they became just another trio of happy go lucky friends. Maybe add Frank and Jock in the future too? Or characters that were mentioned in complimentary Railway Series books?

Final Thoughts
While this is the small railway adaptation that I like the least, it's still a brilliant episode in its own right, and a great way to end a superb trilogy. While it's disappointing that Rex and his driver didn't interact as much as Bert and Mike did with theirs previously, there isn't as much humour and Thomas is just kind of... there, the story is still great, the few character interactions there are are still entertaining enough that crash is absolutely fantastic.

But all in all, I just want to show my respect to Andrew Brenner. He didn't have to adapt these stories at all. He could've just written his own and things could've been different for the small engines. But it's a testament to how much he cares about the character and the franchise's roots that he thought this was the best way to properly cement the Arlesdale Railway into the show, and he was absolutely spot on.

So thank you Andrew Brenner and co. Keep up the good work no matter what the higher ups at Mattel throw at you. I have faith that you will make their ideas - good or bad - work, so please don't let your fans, young or old, down.

Episode Ratings
Final Rating

Series 20: Mike's Whistle

The penultimate episode of the series, and the second small railway adaptation. But will Mike's Whistle be as good, if not better, than its predecessor?

It's rather strange that, technically, this is the second time this story has been adapted for television, the first time being Faulty Whistles in series 6, only with the characters changed. And while that was a good adaptation, this is a brilliant one.

First off, it's much more entertaining. While I don't mention it too much any more, Thomas being away from his branch (in episodes) still irks me a bit. However, I absolutely loved him meeting the small engines here. His character actually felt right and he was the only engine (except maybe Percy) that could've pulled it off.

Second, a whistle being blocked by eggs makes much more sense than one being knocked off an engine, running at low speed, by a low hanging branch, especially since there's no indication that the whistle was loose in the first place. It feels like there was more focus on an insignificant train than having Peter Sam's whistle problem - a key plot point - make sense. Yes, it's easy to say "But Mike's Whistle had more time!", but it's up to the writers to use their specific time frames effectively. And I don't think Faulty Whistles did, at least the first minute of it.

Third, I honestly prefer the teasing from Rex and Bert than Duncan simply being ignored. Both are great, and it's understandable that Duncan would be ignored, but since there are no other engines, besides Peter Sam, in the yard at that point, there's no one to ignore him. Meanwhile, Mike being teased by Rex and Bert plays into their dynamic really well, and it's much more fun to watch.

Fourth, the ending plays out much better. Because Duncan still needs to get home without a whistle, he still has to take the organ with him... despite it being needed with the rest of the train at Strawberry Grove... apparently... even though the trucks end up getting dropped off at random places because who needs consistency in a story, am I right?

With this adaptation though, the story is simple: Mike has to take passengers up and down the line, little things annoy him and the cow is the final straw, meaning passengers have to help him whistle to get home. It's consistent, easy to follow and while, yes, the pacing is still a bit slow, the characters do their best to keep things entertaining throughout, which they do really well.

With the comparisons out of the way, what else does this adaptation do in its own right? Well, my first port of call is, surprisingly, Duck. He doesn't really get too much screen time, just a small role at the beginning and the end. But it's rather brilliant that they still managed to develop his character.

If you take every episode before this into account, he's been... well, rather condescending. Not so much in a "Great Western Way or the Wrong Way", in your face fashion, but in a much more subtle "I'm trying to help, but I'm doing it in my own smug way" style. So you could see his incident here in two ways: it's either knocking him down a peg or two or it really was just a genuine mishap.

But it's the end, when Mike returns without his whistle, where Duck really shines. Him saying "I know what that's like" was a great way of him showing that he is empathetic at times, which could help his character going forward. Or it could just be a throwaway line since he reverts to type soon after. That was a bit of a shame, but I guess character development doesn't happen instantly.

Also, Mike's driver is probably the most entertaining of the three. It's probably down to the engine he has to work with, but he was great throughout, especially when the whistle cap flies off.

The only niggle I have is that the ending seems... kind of elongated to fit the time. While they try and make the interactions between Rex, Bert and Thomas as entertaining as possible, they weren't really that necessary; they could've just had Rex and Bert tease him and things would've been fine. But it's not that big of an issue due to, as I say, the entertainment value.

Final Thoughts
While Faulty Whistles was an OK adaptation, this is the definitive one. The story is better, it's funnier and, comparing the two storytelling styles, this current style is by far the superior one. Yes, the narrator telling the whole story had its charm in the day and the characters were still well written, but this style allows the characters a lot more freedom to let them drive the story without the narrator disrupting the pacing too much.

Episode Ratings
Series Rating (so far)

Series 20: Tit for Tat

Well, we're on the home stretch now. And we've reached the three adaptations of the original small railway stories. We never really expected to see the Arlesdale Railway to be introduced to begin with - and then Lost Treasure came along. And we never expected their stories to be adapted. But here we are! So here are my thoughts on the first adaptation: Tit for Tat!

The ideal adaptation takes the original story's essence and adding your own spin to it in some way. This is something Britt Allcroft did, to mixed success, during series 3 and 4, but Andrew Brenner and co seem to completely understand and, both times, have nailed.

Moving the focus from Bert to "the visitors", as they're known as here, was a brilliant decision as it allowed them to not only have Thomas in the episode without moving him away from his branch line, but it also gave "the visitors" more character. Not only were their interactions with the tank engine a lot of fun, but was really nice that they cared more about getting a photo with Toby, which was a lovely nod to the Awdry family history with the J70 tram, Toby's basis.

I also loved the engine and crew interactions. It's something that I've been hoping for since the current team took over, and now that they've added some, I want more. Their connection is just so charming and genuine, and the CGI gives both engine and driver much more expression, making their interactions feel more real whether the detractors want to admit that or not.

Speaking of dynamics, the small engines have such a fantastic one. They tease each other a lot, but you can tell that they have a real bond. Their friendship feels like the most genuine of the entire show currently. It's one that will never get old or stop being entertaining.

And then there's the Small Controller, AKA Fergus Duncan. I'm glad they emulated his outfit from the books as it makes him stand out more from the other authority figures in the show. He's also the best of the three controllers by far in the CG era. Don't get me wrong, the Fat Controller is entertaining as hell, but more often than not he lacks that authoritative aura. Meanwhile, the Thin Controller is barely seen since the Skarloey Railway gets so little attention.

But Fergus Duncan gets stuff done. He has that no nonsense attitude that it takes to run a railway. Sure, you could put it down to "following the book", but here's the thing: they didn't have to. They could've easily changed the scene and lessened the punishment - or let Bert get away with it. But they changed nothing, and the story (and Fergus Duncan) benefited enormously. Now if more serious punishments could be dished out in original episodes a bit more, some morals may have better sticking power for the characters and audience.

Speaking of morals, the theme played out really well here. The pacing is a bit slow (that's honestly an issue with all three, but with such short stories there's little that can be done about that), but the lesson still plays out really well, and seeing Bert punished for his actions gives it more of an impact than Thomas & the Emergency Cable, an episode with the same theme (two wrongs don't make a right).

Also, that little meta joke right at the end was brilliant. It was really funny (that knowing wink was perfectly timed) and it was nice that Andrew incorporated this style of humour (that he'd use again in Journey Beyond Sodor). Fingers crossed it's something that's here to stay.

One gripe I do have though (and I'll freely admit this is a nitpick, but it's still kind of annoying) is that the visitors, for all the screen time they have, are simply called "the visitors". Why couldn't they have been given names, even fictitious ones? Or why couldn't they have been referred to as clergymen like they were in the books? Yes, I'm gay and yes, I have issues with many religious people who use their beliefs to discriminate against minorities, but I'm not against religious figures being in a piece of fiction, especially when said fiction was created by a clergyman.

Final Thoughts
Andrew Brenner's stories have been rather... inconsistent as of late. But his adaptations have been spot on. It's obvious that he cares about bringing classic stories to life to a modern audience in the most faithful, yet entertaining, way possible. This was evident with The Adventure Begins, but this episode was proof that the special was no fluke.

There is that quibble I have with not referring to the visitors either by name or as clergymen, but the rest is fantastic. It was entertaining, the slow pacing was compensated really well by the visual atmosphere and the theme was handled better than it was in Thomas & the Emergency Cable. You can't really ask for more than that.

Episode Ratings
Series Rating (so far)

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Series 20: Buckled Tracks and Bumpy Trucks

I don't really have anything decent to say for this first paragraph, so let's get stuck in. Here are my thoughts on Buckled Tracks and Bumpy Trucks.

Talk about an absolute mess of an episode. Did no one think of giving this a re-write or two? There's so much going on here that it's hard to keep up at times.

But let's get the obvious problem out of the way first: Flynn and Belle are completely pointless to the story. They put out a couple of random fires, sure, but that's all they are: random. The main focus is supposed to be the buckled track they're travelling on, yet Belle just ignores it due to low water levels. They don't even report the incident, it's just done over the phone! They could've been removed and the story would be the same. Actually, it could've been better since those role could easily have gone to far better characters.

Also, do you know the Bumpy Trucks part of the title? Yeah, that's completely pointless, too. We only see trucks for about 10 seconds, and they're not even troublesome ones, just the generic green ones associated with the waste dump. It would be nice if all coloured trucks could be given faces rather than upscaling narrow gauge stock (again...) and adding faces to them. It would add more variety to trains that just seeing a dull, grey one every time we see Troublesome Trucks. I thought Mattel wanted to keep kids engaged..?

Come to think of it, the Buckled Tracks part of the title doesn't really hold much weight either. They get a lot of the focus, no doubt. But we never really see them cause too much of an issue. Remember Thomas Gets Bumped? The episode where the tracks were bent, Thomas was derailed and they had to shut the whole branch line, supplying a replacement bus service, until it was repaired? There was actual consequence and urgency, two things this episode sorely lacks. Well, maybe not so much consequence since Belle ends up derailed, but you feel less sorry for her and more "serves you right for not doing anything about it sooner".

The best parts of the episode, and the only ones that weren't frustrating, were the parts involving the Fat Controller. His interactions with his mother, and the safari hat, were brilliant, and it was nice that it actually tied in to the plot's resolution, although that could just be relief that something did, since everything else felt more like "throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what stuck".

What also stuck was the inclusion of Toby. Granted, like the firefighting duo, he had little to do with anything, but his character was fine and maybe making him the star would've been better? Maybe give him a role akin to The Truth About Toby where he's too stubborn to report the problem? It would've worked better than not using water on an emergency situation... in case they encounter an emergency situation.

Final Thoughts
I've said it before, but this is a mess, to the point where the title barely equates to what happens in the actual episode. Take Belle and Flynn out, add troublesome trucks and put more emphasis on the tracks, and the impact the damage would have on the railway, and the episode would've worked much better. Instead, only a third of it was particularly interesting or fun to watch, to it's only fair to give it a score to reflect that.

Episode Ratings
Series Rating (so far)

Series 20: All in Vain

I wasn't looking forward to this episode at all. Considering other characters had development that stalled soon after, I assumed the same would happen here with James. But would All in Vain buck that trend?

I'm starting to become convinced that every episode Helen Farrall touches turns to gold. Only one episode has earned less than a 9, and even that wasn't bad by any stretch, just contrived in some places. This, however, is probably her greatest accomplishment as, not only is it the only modern day James episode I truly adore, it's his best outing since Old Iron back in series 2.

Is it a coincidence that both episodes have Edward as the supporting character? Possibly, but the reason both worked so well is that James - a really strong character - had a great supporting character to play off of. This is something Pouty James lacked, and when other characters were integrated, their behaviour was just as annoying as James', if not more so.

That said, I can't be too mad at that episode's end result any more since this led on from that beautifully. James slowly going mad as he got dirtier was really funny and the final freak out over the scratch (which we never actually see, which made the freak out even funnier) was the cherry on the hilarity cake. And that leads me on to...

The theme, which is "don't sweat the small stuff". This is, honestly, a much better theme than the one in Mucking About. There are always going to be annoyances in life, but ignoring scratches and bits of dirt, natural aspects of life (especially as a child) builds more of a positive character than ignoring more serious threats like bullies and lawbreakers.

Another thing I really liked is that the special job actually felt important. With so many conflicts these days focusing on normal, everyday things, jobs like these actually feel as special as the team wants us to think it is. A few years back, "special" was the norm, so you never really understood why engines were causing such a fuss. That and railway operations were completely devalued, which made you wonder "what's the point in watching a railway based show when that aspect is completely irrelevant?"

Final Thoughts
I keep saying it whenever I come across episodes I love, but they are incredibly difficult to talk about when there's little to nothing wrong with them. The story and theme are fantastic, the characters are great and the overall production values are top notch, as expected.

Fingers crossed James continues to be written this well. I know Pouty James wasn't the best episode, but it did still develop his character, and this added to that perfectly. It would be a real shame if all that work went to waste...

Episode Ratings
Series Rating (so far)

Series 20: Cautious Connor

I'd always found Connor to be a boring character before this episode, which is rather weird considering he's built up to be as fast as Gordon and Spencer (even here). But he's never really had much personality. Can Cautious Connor change that?

Well... no, not really. That's not to say they didn't try, but because there's very little to him before the incident with the coupling rods, we're given no real reason to care for his plight.

Also, it doesn't help when he's in an episode with Stephen, an engine with so much character and charisma that he steals every scene he's in. This episode was no different, especially with the scene at the end where he motivates Connor.

The theme they went for is simple: friends are there to pick you up when you're down. That's great; a really good message and one that will be beneficial to kids and adults throughout their life. However, I feel the need to add these two points. First off, we don't care enough about Connor for the moral to be as strong as it should. And second... well, what do you do if your friends can't help?

This is why I have a problem that this year's marketing strategy is "friendship": it's far too idealised and cuddly, when in reality (and The Railway Series, come to think of it), things are much more complex and difficult. Friends aren't always going to be there, they're going to be busy leading their own lives. So... what do you do then?

This is why I feel episodes like Edward's Exploit and Gallant Old Engine are better in terms of building a child's self confidence, determination and bravery. In the former, Edward's determined to bring visitors home with no side rods, a broken crank pin (and busted frames in the original story) and the weather firmly against him. In the latter, the Skarloey Railway faced bankruptcy, Rheneas had a jammed valve gear and still got his train home.

Taking those stories into account, what does it say for an engine of Connor's size, with zero stakes, when he just gives up on life after a broken coupling rod? It would destroy his character completely... if he had any to spare to begin with.

My point is that this theme makes Connor look like a wimp, and it makes him more of one if you take the efforts of certain characters in the past into account. You don't even need to go back as far as I did to show Connor was being rather cowardly, Henry's Hero did this theme better since a) Henry was a wuss, so him acting the way he did made sense at that time and b) he fought through the problem thanks to a combination of Hiro's advice and his own inner strength. And when Henry at his worst can be braver than you, there's a real problem there.

That said, I did think Thomas' new, layered character worked well here. His cheekiness was great, but it was rather interesting to see that he knew how far to take it and when to actually try and help a friend through a problem. It gave him more complexity that I don't think any other episode has; he's usually either cheeky or bland and helpful, making his character feel confused.

Also, Stephen's speech near the end was brilliant. I've said before that having Edward or Rheneas recount their tales would've been better, but now I don't think that's the case. While it would've been nice to reference those incidents, it wouldn't have meant that much to Connor, an engine that neither of them have interacted with. Meanwhile, he sees Stephen quite often since he goes to Ulfstead regularly, so their bond is more earnest.

Final Thoughts
This is one of the more forgettable episodes this series. The theme and story are fine, but it does nothing for Connor's character whatsoever and it's completely overshadowed by previous episodes that showcased determination and confidence issues in a much better, more memorable way. It's not bad at all, but it's not good either.

Episode Ratings
Series Rating (so far)