Monday, 29 December 2014

Favourite TV Series Narrators

My last blog post of the year. Let's go out with a bang, eh? Requested by someone a few months ago, here's my list of favourite TV series narrators!

Over the last 30 years, Thomas and his friends have had his adventures told by 7 people over different periods in the UK and America. So it's only fair that I rate them from least favourite to favourite!

There are only two conditions here:
  1. English speaking narrators only. The UK and US dubs are the only ones I really watch and the only ones I can understand.
  2. TV series narrators only. So if their only contributions were either narrating one off segments or Railway Series stories, they're exempt.

Least Favourite: Alec Baldwin
Out of all the American narrators of the show, he was the first one I'd (unintentionally) heard due to Shining Time Station: The Movie. His acting was terrible and his narration just felt like he was bored throughout.

This is what happens when you spend your budget in the wrong places; you hire people that only care about the money, rather than making something entertaining to sit through! (although the movie itself was a huge abomination anyway, but I digress).

But when I heard some of his work during series 5 and 6, all became clear. His performances were consistently awful; even the most action packed episodes were boring to watch. Trust me, if I'd been born in America, Rusty and the Boulder would have been given a much worse rating (although, since the Railway Series isn't as common over there, maybe it wouldn't).

Like I said, Alec Baldwin felt like he took the job for all the wrong reasons, as far as entertainment goes. I'm sure his pay cheque was pretty substantial, though...

6. Pierce Brosnan
It was a tough choice between Baldwin and Brosnan as far as bad narration is concerned, but I prefer Brosnan's performance a bit more as there seemed to be some effort there. And he only narrated one special, so fans weren't stuck with him that long.

That said, it was a bit of a shame that his schedule meant he couldn't finish his work on series 12. It would have been interesting to hear if he'd improved or not. It does make The Great Discovery a bit more special though, even though his narration was one of the major things I didn't like about it.

5. Michael Brandon
I may get a bit of stick for this, but I think Michael Brandon is the most overhated narrator the show has had. Fair enough, he wasn't the best, but at least he tried, and I respect that.

The major problem he had was trying to make awful episodes feel entertaining, which is an unenviable task for anyone. Then there was the problem of too much narration when the show went CG. I personally think that, had he actually stayed on, he'd have done a great job with the current batch of episodes.

Also, his voice for Diesel was the best of the American cast, and was one of the few that I preferred the American voice to the UK one (the others being the Logging Locos and Victor from Hero of the Rails-series 16).

4. Ringo Starr
Another controversial choice, I imagine. We go from the most hated to the most overrated, in my view.

Whenever Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends is mentioned in any conversation I've had, Ringo's name quickly follows. While it's understandable, since he was the narrator of the first two series, I just don't think he was all that good. Sure, his voice was soothing, but we're watching television, not getting ready for bed. There should have been more enthusiasm there.

To be fair though, he was far better in series 2, where he picked up his game. And he also did really well reading the Ladybird book adaptations. That's where the soothing voice makes a lot more sense, as they can be listened to before bed and his narration would help a child settle down.

On the whole though, I don't think he was brilliant or terrible. More middle of the road, really. Fitting, isn't it?

3. George Carlin
You would have thought that someone who produces such risqué performances on stage in front of thousands of adults couldn't produce one that was suitable for kids.

You'd be wrong.

Since I'm British, I never knew of George Carlin growing up, but after getting the Internet and seeing his performances via YouTube, I grew attached (even if I'd say otherwise). He was, hands down, the best exclusive narrator that America had because he had the whole package.

He gave the engines distinctive voices. His charisma shone through with every episode. He was just a brilliant narrator overall. It was a crying shame that he was replaced for series 5, and his passing in 2008 was extremely sad. You'll always be missed, George...

2. Michael Angelis
I was born in 1990. I grew up during the "peak" of Thomas' television career. I hate series 3-5, but if there's one thing I couldn't hate about those episodes, it was Michael Angelis' superb narration.

For me, he's the most undervalued narrator the show has had. While, yes, his performances took a bit of a nosedive between series 8-12, his other performances were top drawer (even if he was used too much in the CG era).

The main thing I loved about his narration was that, from his first lines in A Scarf for Percy, he got it. He understood how to tell a story for television audiences fantastically and he was just a joy to listen to. Even in my most disliked episodes from his (series 3-5) stint, I can't hate his narrations.

The main thing is that I respect him for staying on for 21 years, despite being replaced. Twice. The dedication he had to the franchise was, in my view, second to none, narrating not just for the TV series, but for many audiobooks, including The Railway Stories. For that, I have a huge respect for him because of that, and I was disappointed to hear that he'd gone, but I was amazed by his replacement..!

Favourite: Mark Moraghan
Yes, he's only narrated two series and specials so far. Yes, the role of narrator is (rightly) limited now that the new team are in charge, but I absolutely love Mark Moraghan's performances.

My first experience seeing Mark Moraghan on screen was on British football drama Dream Team, which aired on Sky One dirung my teenage years. And while the show itself got a bit stale as it went on, the series where Mark played the manager were my favourites because everyone did a brilliant job in the roles they were in (especially him).

So to hear that he was going to narrate the show I've loved for my whole life was a dream combination for me and, thankfully, his performances have been absolutely amazing so far. As I've said, the narrator's role has been trimmed quite a bit in recent years, but he puts his all into every line, and because his role is relatively small, I can appreciate it so much more when he speaks.

Here's hoping that Mark can build further on Michael's legacy while continuing to carve out his own!

Have a happy new year, and I'll be back with the Thomas reviews on Tuesday Janiary 13th (unless something suddenly crops up between now and then!) Until then, if you wish to share your thoughts, feel free in the comments below or on Twitter @ChrisTomson2013!

Friday, 26 December 2014

Series 18: The Perfect Gift

Well, this episode has received a mixed bag of reviews from fans, so I think it's time to add one more to it. My final review of 2014: The Perfect Gift!

NOTE: This post contains strong language

I'm going to say this now: just because an episode copies elements from a previous one, it doesn't mean I'll dislike it straight away. It needs to do more than that. I say that because, while I think this is a rehash of Salty's Surprise, I really like this episode. Granted, this isn't as good as the previous two episodes this week, but it's still pretty admirable in its aim.

For me, what makes this better than Salty's Surprise is the choice of characters. In the former, the moral didn't really make much sense for Edward as he's old and wise, so he should know what Salty's ideal present should be. Here, it's Percy who's in the spotlight, so the moral is much stronger and it makes more sense for him to learn it.

I loved the character interactions here. They felt a lot more natural here than they did in Salty's Surprise as well, where they felt a bit too... happy. Here, we know that Reg isn't too keen on Percy's gestures, but we also know he doesn't want to upset the saddle tank engine. It's a fantastic case of "show, don't tell", which I'm pleased the new team are allowing these days. It's a prime example of teaching the target audience with respect.

And yes, this episode was also pretty repetitive, but the "Percy wasn't a 'giving up' sort of engine" justified its use really well, and it is really believable, especially when you consider Percy's Promise.

The episode is also pretty funny; some line deliveries were spot on. That said, Percy's singing, at least in the UK version, was a little bit... cringeworthy. But the rest of the voice acting was pretty spot on, especially Reg. It's really nice that he got such a large role.

I think my favourite part was the ending, which showed that some celebrate Christmas in different ways, which I love. There's far too much uniformity in society these days, and it's high time that stopped. I'm glad that the team are producing unique and interesting characters that don't do things "by the book".

That said, there was one thing I found pretty odd: Percy has never usually taken scrap to Crock's scrap yard before - on screen, at least. It's on Edward's branch and Percy works on Thomas'. Although, I don't really mind the contrivance too much since, again, the story hides it really well.

The animation, once again, is top quality. They really get these festive episodes right (bar a few niggly bits), and I'm already looking forward to next year's foursome.

The music was great as well. Like the previous episode, the soundtrack here felt really festive, and captured the mood of the episode brilliantly.

Fan Reaction

The Mad Controller's Corner

Final Thoughts
I can see this episode from both sides, but I personally really enjoyed it. The conflict, while rehashed, was better handled, the character interactions were brilliant and Percy was portrayed really well. It feels like Davey Moore really gets him, and the more each writer "gets" each character (and each role they play on Sodor), the series can only get better, can't it?

Episode Ratings

Series Rating (so far)

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Series 18: Duncan the Humbug

Merry Christmas! Unless you're like Duncan the Humbug, then... suit yourself!

There are many different ways that this current crop of episodes have succeeded. Duck and the Slip Coaches produced a brilliant study of railway history while producing great character interactions. Last Train for Christmas understood the purest essence of the North Western Railway's purpose. This episode got something different right: the truest essence of Christmas.

This is yet another fantastic festive episode, and I truly believe that this year's crop of festive treats are better than last year's. While last year's were fun to watch, they didn't really... touch me all that much. But this year's understand to keep the heart there while keeping them grounded in reality; the Railway Series at its core.

And for me, all of that here comes from the moral: you shouldn't try and change someone to suit your standards. I can relate to it quite a lot, as I've tried to do the same while being on the receiving end. And from that, I've learned that everyone is different, and if you can accept them for your flaws, then they're worth keeping in your life.

This is a bit repetitive, but like Long Lost Friend, it actually felt necessary, not only to get the point across that Duncan is a humbug, but to show Duncan's conflict between wanting a repaint and being his usual self. I don't mind repetitive plots they play out well, which didn't happen during series 9-16 far too often.

There are, though, a couple of nitpicks I have. First of which being Thomas' appearance. It just was not necessary, and it felt really contrived for him to be that far from his branch line. Anyone could have taken his role and plot would have been the same.

The second, to me, is that conflict feels a bit contrived as well. Not Duncan's actions, they were perfectly understandable. Everyone else's did, though. There have been many wintry/festive episodes involving the narrow gauge engines, and I can imagine there are a lot of Christmases off screen, too. Yet they only get depressed about Duncan's behaviour now? It just seems to come out of nowhere, and it just feels... odd.

That one shot shows my feelings towards the animation. It's absolutely stunning. I know that I've moaned about Arc's mistakes over the last couple of years, but it's only because I believe that they can produce something like this.

The voice acting here was top notch, but hearing Rheneas from Ben Small again felt really bitter-sweet. While his voice for Thomas has been hit and miss throughout the CGI era, his voice for Rheneas has always been spot on. But since he said in an interview that some side characters he's voiced throughout his years as an actor were his favourites, it really shows with Rheneas. His replacement has some big shoes to fill.

Out of all the festive episodes Robert Hartshorne's composed for, this is definitely my favourite score because... well, it actually felt festive. It was a nice idea to adapt some carols for it, and they just completed the whole feel, which the previous two episodes' soundtracks, while they were good, lacked.

Fan Reaction

The Mad Controller's Corner

Final Thoughts
Again, this isn't a perfect episode, but the heart and, I have to say, humour, pull it through brilliantly. It has an amazing moral and a lovely Christmas feel to it. And while I did moan about the contrivances, they really didn't deter from something so beautiful.

Episode Ratings

Series Rating (so far)

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Series 18: Last Train for Christmas

Merry Christmas Eve! To celebrate, we're taking the Last Train for Christmas!

Wow. I haven't been so impressed with an episode since Duck and the Slip Coaches. While it's not as steeped in railway history as that is, this does do many things right.

For me, the main thing it gets is the North Western Railway's purpose. No matter what adventures, scrapes or hardships the engines, or the railway, were in, there was always one constant: that the engines ensured that the railway continued running to serve the public. And this is the first non-Awdry episode that I've felt that vibe with since series 6's It's Only Snow.

I liked the conflict at Knapford, especially Diesel's role. Yes, you read that right. I felt that he was brilliant here. Unlike Diesel's Special Delivery, where he was trying to be a goody two shoes, he's acting like a voice of reason here.which is some great character growth that I admire Andrew Brenner for attempting. It's like he was trying to continue Christopher Awdry's continuity from Thomas and the Evil Diesel which, again, I admire. The situation also shows how gutsy and determined the steam engines are, which is always a positive in my book.

Using the slip coaches as the solution to Connor's problem was another great move. Since the weather seemed unpredictable, using their uncoupling capabilities with Connor's speed was very clever. Although the front coach uncoupling from the brake coach is a bit unrealistic (nitpick).

There were also some really good "show, don't tell" moments which gave the viewers more of a chance to hear Robert Hartshorne's music. The music itself was brilliant. Again, it told the story really well in its own right.

But there's one thing that bothered me: it seemed a bit... cruel of the people on the train to not let a child with crutches go on before them. I know that everyone was desperate to get home, but what about Christmas spirit and generosity? That said, he did get home in the end, and Connor did deliver on his promise to do just that, so it's not too bad, and it feels a lot better than the Emily incident.

Another little nitpick I'd have is that Connor seemingly mastered the first two slip coaches yet goofed on the third. If it was due to overconfidence, I'd understand, but it's never really brought to our attention. Either that, or having him goof with the first then progressively improving with the subsequent coaches would have made a bit more sense. Then again, they might have wanted to build some sort of tension to make the audience think Connor's plan would fail at the final hurdle which I can buy... sort of.

Also, Duck and Oliver's appearance felt... pointless. Yes, Oliver mentioning that he cleared the branch and that he hated the cold (reminiscent to Snow Engine) were really good moments, but their appearance didn't really add to much as far as the story was concerned. Maybe if Duck had been the one to find the slip coaches, his role could have been improved, but as it stands, it just felt a bit like fan service.

I also think this episode was a huge missed opportunity to bring Donald and Douglas back. Considering how used to the snowy conditions they are, they could have easily been the ones to help Connor get through rather than Hiro. But with a schedule to keep, I can also understand why that wasn't possible. It's also why I can understand Crovan's Gate being redressed to be the Mainland station. It felt a bit lazy, but it also seemed like a hark back to the classic series, so I'll let it slide.

The rest of he animation is fantastic. There's only one thing that can beat Sodor covered in snow, and that's Sodor covered in snow at night. Everything just looks so serene, even in the mad dash to get the line cleared in time for Connor. That said, Henry seems to tower over everyone at some points during the Knapford meeting.

Fan Reaction

The Mad Controller's Corner

Final Thoughts
This episode isn't perfect, but the story it tells is really close to it. Any things I picked out were nothing more than nitpicking and none of them hindered my liking of the production as a whole. Like I said, Andrew Brenner truly understands what the North Western Railway's purpose is, and for that, I truly respect him as a writer for the show, especially when he produces such heartfelt stories as this.

Episode Ratings

Series Rating (so far)

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Series 18: Long Lost Friend

It's Christmas time! And with that, there are festive episodes airing all around on British television. Thomas and Friends is no exception, and this week, Channel 5 will be airing the newest offerings! Today came the first: Long Lost Friend!

Take of the Brave is my favourite special that the show has produced so far. Yeah, the pacing was a bit wonky in places and some could argue that there were a few plot holes here and there, but it did a brilliant job reviving Percy's character and the heart was there in copious amounts.

But since then, my opinion has grown strongly on it, as the aftermath of it has really intrigued me. Toad's Bright Idea was a great way to fill gaps with Gator's story that the special left, Missing Gator was a great way to show how Percy was coping without his friend. And this episode reunites them in a really sweet, genuine way.

Yeah, I'm not in the mood to surprise anyone; I really like this one, for the exact same reason that I love Tale of the Brave: it has tons of heart and charm.

Other than that though, I love how this whole arc has built up some genuine continuity, rather than just referencing previous episodes and specials. It's another hark back to the The Railway Series, which is all good in my book. We saw how Percy dealt with losing Gator, and here we learn that he's pretty much accepted that his friend won't be returning for the foreseeable future, so he just stops looking out to sea for him.

I also liked the repetitive nature of the episode. Well, not so much "liked", but it made sense that they'd use the formula here since... well, the rock salt could have been used at any of the places Gator went to.

And yes, the ending was really sweet. Although I'm rather hoping that the team stick to their word and only bring Gator back for Christmas, otherwise he'll just be another Hiro (an engine that outstayed their welcome when they should have gone home).

And we FINALLY got some human interaction! The driver talking to Gator and to the workman at the Steamworks! I really hope this isn't a one off; this is what the series really needs if the new team are serious in being respectful to the source material, if you ask me (well that and everything else they've done so far this series).

One problem I do have though is with the rock salt. While it was a nice little device to get Gator to travel all over the place, couldn't the dock manager just telephone the Fat Controller to get some clarification on the situation? It was seen later in the episode that Sir Topham had a delivery notice as well. Although, I'd rather have him take something around Sodor trying to find answers as to where it should go rather than just have him travelling light engine. It also makes narrative sense, somewhat, since it would be less likely they'd bump into each other this way.

Another thing I found odd is Gator knowing Owen, and also saying "it's been a while" since they've seen each other. I know it doesn't really matter in the long run, but it would have been nice if Gator had been seen at the Blue Mountain Quarry beforehand rather than making it feel slightly convoluted.

Speaking of the BMQ, that leads to another problem. Yep, every narrow gauge engine is seen pulling standard gauge trucks. Seriously, how hard is it for the animators to render narrow gauge wagons?! And before anyone says anything about the dual gauge track there, none of the engines were travelling on it - as far as I could see. These goofs are really hindering Arc, and it's something they really need to get under control soon.

That's because the rest of their animation looked fantastic. The constant ambience changes throughout were joyful to watch and... well, do I have to mention how beautiful Sodor looks in the snow? Oh, and the new Steamworks layout looks fantastic, too. I'm glad Victor's little siding was ripped out so the narrow gauge track could stretch to the turntable. And the little boom gates are a nice touch, too.

As for the voice acting, it was the usual fare. The main cast were fantastic, and Gator's driver sounded fine, but the workman sounded... a bit lazy. It's just Keith Wickham's voice. He still voices him well, but when voice actors voice so many characters, theys become more recognisable more easily.

The music was the usual fare. It captured the emotions that were felt throughout really well, and it's great to listen to.

Fan Reaction

The Mad Controller's Corner

Final Thoughts
Despite what I've said about the episode, I still think it's the weakest of Gator's arc, although that's more of a testament to the other stories told within it, rather than this one being "bad". I'd say it's more contrived than the others, which is why I think it's the weakest, but there's still a lot of heart and emotion here that said contrivance is hidden pretty well as the story progresses.

My only real worry from here on out is that they sell out with Gator like the previous team did with Hiro. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to see him again, but only if he's really necessary.

Episode Ratings

Series Rating (so far)

Monday, 27 October 2014

DVD Review: Santa's Little Engine

October 27th saw the final UK DVD release of this year: Santa's Little Engine. It's also the third to feature episodes from the seventeenth series.

Main Episodes
Unlike the previous DVDs released this year, this one only features four episodes on the core programme. These are:
  1. Santa's Little Engine
  2. No Snow for Thomas
  3. The Frozen Turntable
  4. The Missing Christmas Decorations
I would say that it's disappointing, but there were only four festive episodes. Adding more to the core programme would have ruined the Christmas feeling they were going for. However, this doesn't automatically mean that the DVD is poor value. On the whole, the episodes are far superior than other releases with four episodes. Not only that, there is more to the DVD than these four episodes.

Bonus Episodes
For the first time since 2003, a DVD release has bonus episodes added as a separate feature. Luckily, they're all from Thomas & Friends, and not Rubbadubbers (does anyone remember that show?). These episodes are:
  1. Too Many Fire Engines
  2. Henry's Hero
  3. The Phantom Express
In the US, these three episodes were released as part of a bonus DVD with Tale of the Brave at Walmart. I'm glad that they released some of the episodes here in this way. Not only does it raise the value for money, but it would have been confusing to consumers having two Engines to the Rescue releases on shelves (even if the one from 2003 isn't around any more)

Bonus Features
Yep, there's more! Who's That Engine returned, and this time, Percy was the engine in the spotlight. After which, clips from Percy the Snowman aired. As I've said, I love that the animators are creating new footage for these segments, and I'm glad that HiT are allowing them to do so as well. The last animation studio that produced interactive learning segments (2004-2008) was terrible. As for the episode featured? It was bad, but it fit the theme of the DVD, so I can't complain too much.

The Mr Perkins Postcard segment... annoyed me. Don't get me wrong, it was brilliantly done, and hearing the lore of Ulfstead Castle again (as well as the Stephenson's Rocket reference) were fantastic. What annoyed me was that they specifically mentioned the recipient's residence was Japan. If they can mention that a one off, unseen person comes from that country, why can't they do the same for Hiro?

Mr Perkins Story Time tells of Henry's story with The Flying Kipper. And it taunted me by showing Henry as an LMS Black 5, which would have suited him so much more than what he actually became in the TV series, but I digress. Loraine Marshall's additional illustrations were wonderful as well, but it seemed like she couldn't quite nail Henry's rod design, only really focusing on the main coupling rods, which is a shame.

The Earl's Memory Game was, again, OK. It's a nice way to get kids involved, and while I don't like Toby's New Whistle at all, I really liked the inclusion of Tickled Pink. On a tangent, I'd love for the new team to dabble with the undercoat idea. Or maybe adapt the whole of the Railway Series book Henry and the Express to make him a proper Black 5..?

And finally, when the disc loads, there are two trailers: one for Tale of the Brave and one for Dinos and Discoveries. I've already left my thoughts on the trailer, which you can view here, so all I'll say on this post was that it was a nice surprise that showed off what to expect really well.

On the whole, the content on the DVD looks superb. There are no issues as far as sharpness is concerned and I love the how amazing the animation looks on disc.

The RRP is, as usual, £12.99. However, the cheapest price (from Asda) stands at £7, which is £2 more than the last release to feature new episodes. Is this DVD worth that price jump? Not particularly, especially when you consider that Spills and Thrills, which had 6 episodes that were never seen on TV up to that point, was £2 less and is currently at £3 (at Asda).

Final Thoughts
I wouldn't go so far as to say this was a "rip-off", as the content quality is pretty high, but at the price it's at, I wouldn't really recommend it. It's a nice Christmas DVD, but if you're after a DVD gift for the kids, get Tale of the Brave. It may be the same price as this, but it's definitely worth it more than Santa's Little Engine is.

DVD Rating: 7.5/10