Saturday, 24 September 2016

Why the Hate for Vinnie?

Alright, I promised myself that I wouldn't talk about this character again, but it's been a talking point on Twitter, I can't get my thoughts out properly in 140 characters, so here we go.

First off, can we all just stop the name calling and snide comments when you see a person/group whose opinions of two "similar" characters are completely different? It's a great opportunity to discuss the differences between two characters, not one where you can act like it's some sort of playground squabble. This is supposedly the "mature" Thomas fanbase, and people should start acting that way.

Back to the question at hand: why is Vinnie being given constant hate? I've already explained my reasoning in his character analysis, but since that isn't enough for some, I shall simply use one word to state why Vinnie is a terrible character and Sailor John, Diesel and the like are: charisma.

Sailor John is one of the best antagonists that the show's ever had because of this. Sure, he gets more serious as time goes on. but you're so invested in his plan succeeding by that point that it makes him great. He wouldn't have been as great if he wasn't able to manipulate Thomas the way he did or if he wasn't so humorous at times (sure the "disguise yourself as a poster" joke has been done many times, but it's still pretty funny in Lost Treasure).

Diesel is still regarded as one of the best antagonists the show's ever had because he has bags of charisma and character. From his nasally, oily voice given to him by Ringo to the slightly less nasally, but more jovial, voice from Michael Angelis all the way to Kerry Shale's voice nowadays, you just hang on his every word because his voice is just so mesmerising that you can't not like him.

When they first arrived, 'Arry and Bert were terrifying. Granted, you had no idea why they wanted Stepney dead (probably just relying on the "they're diesels, Stepney's a steam engine" thing), but they were so menacing and calculated that they were liked by a lot of fans who are now disappointed that a) they do very little these days and b) they left such an impression here that anything else just pales in comparison.

Hell, as sick as it makes me, even Diesel 10's portrayal in Thomas & the Magic Railroad made him a character that many fans liked because he was really well voiced and downright hilarious in certain scenes.

Sharon Miller understood this (to an extent) in Day of the Diesels, which made him the highlight of a special that was, in hindsight, boring and unpleasant to watch in other areas.

And I'll keep praising it until I'm turning in my grave; James was a great antagonist in Tale of the Brave. Sure he wasn't as menacing as the ones I've already mentioned. but he knew how to push buttons, he was intuitive in trying to get his own back and a few of his scenes were rather funny.

The only uninteresting antagonist that we'd had before is D261, who added nothing new to the table and was so uninteresting that he was only in half the episode/story he was in.

Compare all of them to Vinnie, and maybe then you'll realise why he sucks. I'm not saying that putting a bully on TV is a bad thing - they are, sadly, a part of life that we all have to deal with. But just because they're on a TV screen and not next door, at school or wherever, it doesn't make him any more pleasant to watch. Difference is great, yes, but that can be turned to say that Vinnie could've been a different kind of bully.

Tie his attitude into the story and we'll root for him. Give him a legitimate reason to throw his weight around (besides being big and because he can) and he'd have left a less sour taste. Maybe have Philip intentionally get in the way so that Vinnie had a reason to be angry. Or just give him some charisma that made the antagonists I've mentioned so great!

Bottom line is this: if you like Vinnie, fine. Just don't go around acting like him towards those who don't (and vice versa). Liking different things is what makes the world diverse (and I'll give Vinnie that much) and interesting, just don't act like someone should be in the wrong over a God damned opinion. Discuss them, don't deride them.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Season 20 Schedule

Like with season 19, Channel 5 have decided to spread season 20 over the remainder of this year and the first half of next. And, like last time, fans are pretty miffed about. I... don't really share that sentiment. Not any more, at least.

First off, let's get this out of the way: season 19's scheduling was a total shambles. With only four new episodes airing in the first week, only three festive episodes airing in January (rather than around Christmas as we'd reasonably expect) and two episodes (Wild Water Rescue and Diesel's Ghostly Christmas) still waiting to air (to the point where they'll end up being released on DVD before airing, which I doubt was the intention), it's been a total mess from the get go. It hasn't helped that every episode was aired and posted online by the end of 2015 by Japanese YouTube users - even the extra five that are meant to be DVD exclusive.

All that said, the idea of special "Thomas Weeks" where new episodes are slated to air isn't a bad one. It keeps the interest in the season relatively high for a longer period (rather than splurging out every non-festive, non-DVD exclusive episode in one go), and it keeps us wanting more. 

It's a much better idea than one that was employed in the 80s and 90s for seasons 1-4, where you had to wait a week - or even months - for just one episode. And this was when it was on CITV, probably one of the best children's blocks British TV had.

However, it's the execution that many fans (myself included; I wrote a post a year ago criticising the decision) have an issue with. It's not exactly the fault of broadcasters or production companies, but the internet has made the hunt for new episodes easier than ever. As soon as one is released on DVD or on another network around the world, it's online shortly after. Heck, Crunchyroll's anime streaming service offers the subbed versions of brand new anime hours after they've aired in Japan so that no one gets left behind (this isn't sponsored, by the way).

And that's where things falter for TV channels: without the internet, there'd be no complaints about these things as they'd have monopoly over our visual entertainment. But with YouTube, Netflix and other streaming services, the whole scheduling system that broadcasters still rely on is outdated. Well, it's outdated in multiple ways, but this is another highlight as to why.

Season 18 was literally splurged on TV (except the festive episodes), but it was the most suitable way to go about it as it meant that Channel 5 were ahead of the game for the majority of the series, and waiting for those festive episodes didn't feel as much like a chore as... well, you'd expect them to air the festive episodes then. And it's only 4 episodes to wait for, so it's not that much of an issue.

I didn't expect to turn this into another post about why the scheduling sucks, to be honest. But at least now it's been done in a more thoughtful way than just saying "Viacom sucks". To sum up, they have a really good idea with their scheduling, and had they done this 10 years ago, it would've been a great way to spread the series out and keep excitement up. But in this day and age, it's not working. Broadcasters need to be ahead of the game as much as possible (which Channel 5 has been in the past), but when they have these specific weeks over 12 months, it leaves them far behind and fans feeling frustrated to the point where they look for the newest episodes elsewhere.


No, this isn't a review of the episode (I've already done that). Instead, I'll be delving more into the character that made that episode so great. So here are my thoughts on Bradford the Brake Van!

Can I just say, from the get go, that we need more rolling stock characters? Yes, having loads of engines is fine, but they're not the only aspect of ensuring that a railway runs efficiently. You also have S. C. Ruffey and the Spiteful Brake Van, two fondly remembered characters that caused as much trouble as they possibly could. Heck, I don't think Hector was too bad either. He went through a nice character arc and ended up being James' adviser in James Works it Out.

The current team themselves have shown how well written rolling stock characters can be. Annie, Clarabel and Henrietta have been fantastic, Toad has quickly become one of my favourites after being given nothing since series 7, while the slip coaches were... pretty good. Not particularly groundbreaking characters by any means (even if that particular coach type had never been seen in the franchise before), but a solid base that they can work from in the future. And there's still Jerome and Judy waiting in the wings.

And now we have Bradford, who's already proven to be one of the best characters the series has had up to this point. Sure, his no nonsense approach is nothing new, but compared to someone like Duck, it's not as annoying as they're not forcing a catchphrase down the throats of viewers.

Not only that, but his true personality was completely unexpected. Sure, the episode description said that he was "a stickler for the rules" who could keep the trucks in order, but no one could've predicted that he'd act like someone from the military, especially since he was rather timid and uninteresting when he first arrived in the yard. It was great!

His pairing with Samson was, as I've said before, a great decision. We've seen that Samson can be stubborn and overconfident in his ability, and Bradford's is the perfect character type to keep him in order. The only problem is that his episode never really showcased that, and while I stand by my near glowing review, I can't help feeling that it would've been perfect (or as close as you can get to it) had Samson been in Thomas' place. Not only would it have given Samson some great development, but it could've delved into why their relationship is as strong as it is.

However, I don't think he'd have been as good of a character had it not been for Rob Rackstraw's fantastic performance. Something I didn't bring up in the review of The Great Race was that his characters just sounded so similar: Axel to Etienne, Raul (despite his "accent") to Nigel (that announcer). But Bradford sounds so different to any character he's voiced before, and his mannerisms have been nailed completely. It's his best performance yet (and I include his great performances as Toby), and it completes the character beautifully.

All in all, I love Bradford. He's a huge breath of fresh air, really entertaining and very well designed in pretty much every aspect (the decision to add two lamps at the front and one at the back still confuses me though). I really hope that he doesn't become this season's Slip Coaches: seen for one or two episodes, then completely forgotten about. He's far too good a character to be treated that way.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Film and DVD Review: The Great Race

After a few weeks of screenings in late May/early June, The Great Race has been released on DVD in the UK this week! And here are my thoughts on it!

It's fair to say that the 70th anniversary of Thomas & Friends was pretty huge for the TV series. With the 19th series (slowly) releasing at the tail end of that year (and most of this year), it'll mostly be remembered for the two amazing specials that were released. The Adventure Begins was a superb, heartfelt love letter to Thomas' roots while Sodor's Legend of the Lost Treasure was an action packed thrill ride that brought back Daisy, Donald and Douglas while introducing the small engines, Ryan and Sailor John, the best villain the franchise has had.

So even before The Great Race was released, or even announced, it was clear that it would have a tough time trying to match, or even better, the quality of last year's offerings. But the big question is: could the team deliver once again?

So we begin with Thomas taking The Local to Vicarstown. I've already voiced my annoyances with that train, so I'll link to my post on the subject rather than repeating myself fully. Needless to say I prefer the days where they didn't pull a convoluted reason for Thomas to be away from his branch. And I much prefer the way they handled him being kept away from it in Lost Treasure and Tale of the Brave; at least those reasons made sense.

Then we get a fun scene where Thomas "races" Gordon to a signal box. It's a bit like The Little Engine who Raced Ahead, only this is better since, while we knew Gordon wasn't racing here, there was a bit of tension that Thomas would've "lost" as we see them both going along at a considerable speed. Meanwhile, we knew that Philip wasn't being chased in his episode, so there was nothing to feel excited or tense about.

Family Reunion
At Vicarstown station (which is seen for the first time here), Thomas dreams of going to the mainland again (nice, subtle nod to The Fat Controller's Engines/Thomas and the the Special Letter there!) when a certain green mainland engine backs in. I love the Flying Scotsman's introduction here. Not only is he introduced in a way that feels like it fits in (unlike Tender Engines. Regardless of budgetary constraints, that was a disappointing way to introduce him back then), but it gives him a strong character from the get go. That's not to mention that him backing into the station felt really similar to his introduction in The Railway Series. Thomas' surprise is also great as they're not pretending that he and Scotsman know each other beforehand.

Scotsman tells Gordon that he'll be participating in the Great Railway Show, which brings up an issue that I'll get out of the way now. The Great Race really doesn't feel like an apt title for this special whatsoever. The race itself is only four minutes long, about 46 minutes in. Honestly, The Great Railway Show would be a better one. Sure, it takes over half the special to get there, but at least it's the focus for the rest of it and the first half constantly tries to build up to it.

And here's another side note: I don't like Scotsman's coaches. I like that they've given him the red bogie coaches, and they've been given a definitive role (unlike series 2-12), but I'd have much preferred them to make a new render rather than take the really bad Nitrogen ones and recolour them.

Arc produced new renders for the slip coaches, for goodness sake, and they're probably the best looking coaches the show's ever had (well, maybe apart from those old coaches from series 1. And the express coaches in series 4 that took the great series 2 designs and made them a tad more realistic)! Don't tell me they couldn't do the same for the express coaches.

Will You, Won't You
After a simplistic intro (it's just Scotsman leaving the station, then transitioning to Knapford), we hear the first musical number of the special. And this one isn't too bad, actually. It shows that everyone wants to compete in a unique way for the show, it doesn't disrupt the pacing and the lyrics are pretty good.

That said, it's a bit weird that the small and narrow gauge engines would want to go as it would be much more difficult for them to get there. You have to admire their heart, though! And it actually gave Sir Handel something to do, which is always good in an era where he's gone unappreciated.

Missing Out?
Then we see Thomas complaining that he won't be going to the Great Railway Show. And... this is where things start to fall apart. Remember Blue Mountain Mystery where we were told about a "mysterious engine" that ended up on the DVD's front cover? Yeah, the exact same thing happens here. We know that Thomas is going to the show; we've seen him, alongside Ashima, at the show on all of the promotional material! So there's really no tension here and all it does is make him look like a whinger. Also, considering all the places Thomas has been to in the past (including the first Great Railway Show in York), can we really believe that he won't be going?

Philip then tells Thomas that he can do anything he sets his mind to. First off, that's basically what Percy said to Thomas - verbatim - in Hero of the Rails. Secondly, this leads to my biggest bugbear about the whole thing: the moral is constantly shoved down your throat to the point where you'll be thinking that they based the story around it completely. Well, that or the toys. Or both... That said, seeing Philip get antsy when Percy calls him out on the "race" with Gordon was pretty good.

Oh, hello "BUY OUR TOY" instance number one..! Seriously though, this song isn't that great. It gets better in the second half by making it feel as though Thomas has insecurities, but the first half just makes him look selfish and arrogant ("give me the curves I deserve"). The only other thing this makes me think is that the whole special is literally just an elongated, musical version of series 11's Dream On which (spoiler alert) does this plot so much better in every way.

Pitching the Idea
So Thomas tells the Fat Controller about his streamlining idea and he chooses Gordon to get the treatment. And Gordon... just goes along with it. Now I feel two things about this scene:
  1. Why is Gordon so enthusiastic about being streamlined when he was shown to have no interest in it? He's even directly mocked Spencer and Caitlin in King of the Railway and Calm Down Caitlin respectively because they're streamlined!
  2. This story would have worked so much better with Gordon as the star. Think about it: we're constantly being given a character study of Thomas in almost every special, yet we've never had one for Gordon on such a grand scale. We could have been given reasoning for his eagerness for the streamlining, we could have had reasoning for the jealousy towards his brother (apart from Scotsman's fame). There was a lot they could have done with him, yet his arc just fizzles out as though it isn't important.
I've really liked Diesel in recent years. Yeah, he's not as "devious" as he used to be, but I'm all for him being a comical antagonist with a warm side to him; it makes you like him even more. And his voice really suits that kind of character.

I know some will say "but Diesel 10 has that role covered!", but in all honesty, I've always seen him as the more menacing villain than Diesel. He has a claw attached to his roof and he almost destroyed the universe! The most Diesel's done is manipulate Percy (Day of the Diesels) and try and prove his strength (The World's Strongest Engine).

The International Engines Arrive
And now we come to the most forced scene of the entire special. Now I get that they'd have either a delivery to, or collection from, Brendam, but are you seriously suggesting that a) the workmen would be stupid enough to lower the bridge if the delivery wasn't anything that ran on rails, b) the captain would simply moor up at that precise spot so that he could unload and c) the engines would travel hundreds of miles without being chained down?! And they were all ready to leave the boat, too! The whole plot hinged entirely on this scene, yet it's so forced and convoluted that you end up sucked out of it completely!

Axel's misunderstanding was pretty funny, but the scene leading up to it was so muddled that I couldn't really appreciate the joke all that much. I get that the engines would think it was the right stop, but everyone else involved with their transport?

Thomas Meets Ashima
This scene felt rather forced, too, but at least it was surprising (kind of) that Thomas almost ended up in the sea. But hey, that's plot armour for you: it's alright for Kevin to take a dive, but heaven forbid Thomas do the same. At least Salty was pretty funny and it introduces us to Ashima.

Then we see Thomas complain about Ashima... despite her saying she didn't mean to do what she did. Yeah, Thomas just comes off as an arsehole here, and he's meant to be the hero of the story. Sure, I get that he had a bad thing happen to him, but to come up with ridiculous theories about why she did what she did after she put her side across instantly doesn't look good for his character.

They meet up again at Kellsthorpe Road station, where Ashima explains that she doesn't know how to get to the mainland by rail. And this is where Thomas and Ashima's dynamic really feels forced. So they mean to say that an engine coming from Vicarstown (when she speaks to Thomas in this scene), where there's a huge drawbridge, can't get to where she needs to go?! Keep in mind she ends up going this way to get to the Railway Show, proving once and for all that she's only here for a character arc that Thomas doesn't even need to go through! Also, Thomas is jealous of Ashima, because we've never seen Thomas be jealous of a newcomer before...

As Thomas comes up with another idea to compete in the show, Ashima goes through a pointless scene where she tries to get to the mainland. I'm not going to repeat why this is pointless as I mentioned it above. I wouldn't mind if it ended up adding something to her character, but it doesn't. It's just a generic "I can't find my way" plot point, only this is more illogical and dull.

And then we come to (from a railway standpoint) the stupidest part of the special: Thomas, an engine who has no say in terms of timetables, miraculously cancels a train in order to carry out his plan to be chosen to go to the show! Sure, it leads to a good character moment for him, Annie and Clarabel, but couldn't they have come up with a better excuse than that? Especially in a special that hammers in the point that "there's a railway to run!"? They could've had Thomas get to Crovan's Gate, feign a problem with his boiler or something and had Ashima come and collect the coaches from there. At least that wouldn't have made this already forced plot feel even more so.

We then cut to Gordon moaning about the speed in which he's being streamlined. This probably would've had more weight if we knew why Gordon wanted to be streamlined in the first place. And no, I don't really count "I'll miss the race" as that sounds superficial. He already has confidence in his own speed and, again, he's sniffed at the idea twice before, so what's the point? The only reason I can think of is "to sell the toy", which is hardly ever a good reason to include gimmicks as, more often than not, the story and characters are neglected.

And to complete my point, Thomas comes in to ask for a repaint. One design is inspired by David Bowie which, considering his sad passing earlier in the year, is a nice little tribute. The other was turned into a Take-n-Play toy. And, despite being busy, the workmen agree to paint Thomas because of course they do.

Diesel's Plan
At the Dieselworks, we see Diesel plotting to replace Henry in the strength test at the Great Railway show. And if this special had a highlight, this whole sub-plot is it. It's really fun, well written and really suits the character that they're going for with Diesel. Also, his strength rivalry is a nice little nod to The World's Strongest Engine.

I'm Full of Surprises
The song doesn't really add anything to the story, solely being there to emphasise how much of a joker and "surprise" Diesel can be. But it's still pretty fun, really catchy and Paxton's dialogue throughout is really humorous. Also, the visuals play up Diesel's surprising nature brilliantly. It's definitely one of the better songs the special has, even if it's pointless to the story.

Caught Out
Thomas is then being prepared for the repainting. I like the little surround that we see around him, but it's only really there for the plot so that he can draw attention to himself. It hasn't been seen before, and I'll bet that it'll never be seen again.

Conveniently, the Fat Controller sees it, Thomas explains his plan and... then Sir Topham wonders why Thomas isn't on his branch. OK, I have to rant here. I don't mind seeing Thomas shunt; he can do that with no problem between trains, but they really need to stick with Thomas pulling "The Local" or having him on his branch line, because having him everywhere just devalues his branch, makes no logical sense and could make it tough for kids to follow where he's going. Also, and this is borderline nitpicking, why does the Fat Controller make decisions on who'll be competing in the Great Railway Show on the fly? If he knows of the events in advance, why not announce competitors in advance too? I know international teams are announced close to big events, but it usually takes place a few weeks (or months) before so that everyone can train. The only "on the fly thought" that made sense was Gordon's streamlining since he probably never thought of that idea before it was brought up.

Coach Trouble
Thomas returns to Maron to find his coaches are gone. After a conversation with Emily and James, he goes back to his branch and confronts Ashima for taking his coaches. I really like this scene as it gives Clarabel a rather over-dramatic personality that I rather hope we see more of (seriously, it's great) and it makes Thomas face up to his selfishness. The only problem? It's never brought up again. In fact, after Thomas finds out about the shunting challenge, Annie and Clarabel are absent from the special.

You Can Only Be You
OK, this is where things start to get preachy and the moral starts to be hammered in. Don't get me wrong, the moral is great, especially these days, but I don't really like any moral being constantly shoved down a viewer's throat.

This is why, I feel, Best Engine Ever did this moral a lot better. Emily and Caitlin's relationship developed in a more natural way (i.e. she didn't dislike Caitlin before pulling a complete 180 after one musical number), she didn't really believe anyone who said that she was great as she was, whereas Thomas ends up feeling better after the song and when he hears about the shunting challenge. Finally, the story doesn't take a back seat so they can teach the moral.

The song itself is alright, though. It has a nice duality between Thomas and Ashima's feelings as it progresses and it's rather well sung. Its heart is in the right place, and I can appreciate that, even if it's preachy and leads to that 180 turn by Thomas that I mentioned earlier.

Good At Shunting?
I know I've brought the word up a lot already, but "forced" is the most apt description for a lot of this special, and this scene is no exception. The fact that the shunting competition is brought up now, of all moments, is convenient to the nth degree. Yes, we wouldn't have had Thomas' character arc had it been mentioned earlier, but as I've said: this was an arc that Thomas didn't need to go through!

As Thomas goes to the yard, we see Diesel arrive with a line of trucks, as well as Den, Dart and Paxton under some crates. Now, I like Diesel's sub-plot, but I really have to ask: how did no one notice that there was something off with three crates moving along? You can't really say they look like trucks either as standard box vans aren't that shape! I know that it's not a major plot hole, but there are so many of them, Swiss cheese is laughing at this special.

At the station, the Fat Controller now decides to finalise his picks for the Great Railway Show... half an hour in. Seriously, the pacing of this is all over the place at times. Honestly, I'd have gotten rid of all the build up in the first 5-10 minutes (while having a few episodes in series 19 where the engines show what they're capable of). It would allow them more time at the event itself, they could still have some good character arcs and dynamics during said events, they could have spent more time on the events and it wouldn't have made series 19 itself feel like a filler series (even if two of the show's best episodes were written for it).

Collision Course
Thomas decides to move the trucks, which leads to another stupid moment that they actually try and ridicule later. One problem, though: pointing out a flaw like that doesn't make it go away! They can say "it's hard to hear under a crate" until the cows come home, but when Thomas' whistle and Diesel's horn sound so different, it should be easy to tell the difference even under a crate. It may restrict hearing, but it doesn't make you deaf, nor should it make you stupid! Paxton's naive so he can get away with it, but Den and Dart? Really? Norman popped up a few seconds later. Why not just have him sound his horn? The whole scene would have made a bit more sense had they done that.

Also, why should the Fat Controller be surprised that Thomas is that strong? He sent the tank engine to deliver an 11 wagon goods train to the docks in Who's Geoffrey? completely unaided! Of course he can pull a train that long with no problem (even without the diesels under the crates).

The crash itself is rather anti-climactic as we never actually see it, but considering both engines return to service mere days later (maybe. The time transitions are terrible again here like they were in Lost Treasure), you can consider the whole thing completely pointless. It's a half-arsed way to make you think that Thomas won't be going to the show, even though the promotional material tells you that he'll be there anyway. So yeah, pointless.

The Gathering
The competing engines are gathered at the Steamworks. From this point, the plot revolves around Gordon for a bit, which is what should've happened to begin with. Maybe if that was the case, we'd get why he was so proud of being streamlined despite bemoaning the treatment twice before.

Also, Philip's inclusion makes zero sense. Why is he the only flag bearer in the whole competition? His only real purpose from this point is to get into a character arc that I'll talk about later. He honestly feels shoehorned into the whole spectacle to try and combat the whole "all new characters are pointless" complaint that they've already destroyed by making twelve others pointless!

Finally, where is Stephen in this scene? Later, we see him leading the parade of decorated engines while pulling a brass band, yet when the engines leave for the show (and return from it), he was nowhere to be seen. The only thing I can think of is that he was transported by ship, but it would have been nice to have some sort of indication.

Diesel's Problem
Diesel then scolds the other diesels which leads to him being trapped in a crate. Again, it's a bright spot, even if Diesel literally being trapped in a crate made little sense; it was rather ridiculous that he was dropped from the crane and was unharmed and he pointed out a problem that could easily have been fixed with a re-write or two. But it wasn't terrible.

Replacing Thomas
This scene would have real emotional weight if... well, you know my complaint by now about the promotional material (and the DVD's menu screen) ruining the suspense. The voice acting throughout it is great and the music is perfect, but you know that something will end up happening to render this scene pointless.

Also, Ashima mentions that there was something funny about the trucks... and the whole thing is never mentioned again. I get that they have to get to the race and everything, but don't bring in plot points if you're not going to bring them to a natural stopping point. This has happened a couple of times in Brenner's specials, but it hasn't been as noticeable as it was here, partly because there were so many that were dropped minutes after they were brought up. It's not good storytelling, and it's something that needs to be worked on in the future.

Arriving At the Show
A boring scene that's just exposition on what events will take place where. Plot points slow to a near crawl from this point, and the only real character moment was between Gordon and Flying Scotsman. I still maintain that the latter was turned into a brilliant character, and it's nice that Brenner looked beyond the fame that the real engine has and saw something interesting in him as a character.

The Safety Valve
And here we get the scene where Thomas ends up going to the show anyway. All this does is make the workmen look terrible. How in the world could they forget, during the building process, about the safety valve mechanism?! It feels like the most convoluted way to get Thomas to the show - from this position, at least - that they could have thought of. What would've happened if Thomas hadn't had that accident? Literally the same thing. Thomas would have still gone to the show and Gordon would've been minus his safety valve still.

They could have easily had this scene without Thomas. Just have Kevin bring the mechanism to Victor, have him react in a similar way ("he needs that safety valve right now"), but have Kevin say "but neither of us can go and there's no one else here", and the scene ends with Victor hoping that Gordon doesn't push himself too hard. They would've had the same effect that they were going for and it wouldn't have meant that one plot point was pointless and this one wouldn't have been used as a lazy, convoluted way to get Thomas where they needed him to be.

Jumping the Sha... Bridge
More needless drama and pointless tension as Thomas jumps over the bridge to save Gordon. I get why they did it; Thomas does look really heroic by risking himself to get to Gordon (and they needed a Trackmaster set to sell), but let's look at this from a different angle. Thomas is willing to jump over a bridge and save an engine who's berated him so much for years. Hell, this special started with Gordon laughing at the idea of Thomas being chosen to go to the show in the first place!

Meanwhile, in series 18, Thomas' coaches, who he loves dearly and had realised how much he'd teased them and taken them for granted, didn't jump the bridge when Caitlin went to the mainland with them (accidentally). Yes, I know that the latter wasn't a life or death situation, but come on! Are they trying to say (unintentionally, I admit) he cares more for Gordon than Annie and Clarabel?

Like I said though, there's no real tension in the bridge jump anyway. We all know that plot armour will prevent any further damage, so what's the point other than to sell that set? A bit of superficial excitement? I felt more excitement for Lost Treasure and The Adventure Begins when they weren't even trying. I'd feel excitement here if it actually led to something other than pointless near collisions that points out another overused Thomas & Friends special trope that comes across as "pointing out your stupid plot points doesn't make them any less stupid" than humorous.

Philip vs Vinnie
And now we come to the worst sub-plot of them all. Now I'm not saying that Vinnie's a bad character; he's good in the role he has and he really looks like a big bully. However, that doesn't mean he's fun to watch. And it only goes to confirm that the only reason Philip is even here is for this. You can say he's there for "support", but no other country has a flag bearer, and the only ones to have more than one representative in general is India and the UK.

The Test of Strength
What a mess this was. It wasn't off to the most stellar of starts considering we saw Hiro there mere moments after nearly colliding with Thomas, but considering focus immediately turned to the tank engine trying to find Gordon - and the Fat Controller eyeing up a trophy - it made the whole thing feel pointless.

It felt like no thought was put into it whatsoever. The engines struggled with one flatbed that class 08s could shunt no problem, and the only other mention it gets after the few seconds of spotlight is Henry saying he came last. This is why the special should've primarily taken place at the show rather than coming here 40 minutes in. They could've made all the events feel important, given them more fleshed out rules and not made one or two feel more important than the rest. Have the strength test go along a similar route to the sprint race itself, have competitors pull 20 trucks rather than one and you'd have a more interesting event that people can get behind.

Best Decorated Engine
Another event that felt unimportant, but at least we knew the winner of this one. There's not much to say; Rajiv looked great so he probably deserved it most, but it's just another event that no one can really care all that much about.

The Great Race
Thomas tells Percy, Henry and Philip about Gordon, who they find on the starting line for his race... 14 minutes away from the end of the special. This seems like it's the main conflict of the special (or Thomas being insecure about his appearance, I don't know. The whole thing feels like what fans think King of the Railway is; so many different plot points thrown in a blender and it gets to the point where you don't know which the main one is), so to have it this far in is a prime example of how off the pacing is.

The Shooting Star is Coming Through
A long winded title for a song that... actually feels like there was no effort put into it whatsoever. Seriously, this could have been a normal conversation and the result would have remained the same. If anything, it could've been better if we didn't have the song as we could have had a great character moment where we learn why Gordon's pushing himself the way he is (other than the obvious "he wanted to win") rather than just being a throwaway line in a mediocre song. I don't mind them making a musical adventure, but at least make the songs feel necessary to the story. Oh, and don't cut the number off without a definitive ending. That's a real giveaway that the song is throwaway.

If you want any more proof that the song is pointless, during its instrumental, Scotsman has a fantastic moment showing how much he cares about his brother's well-being. It's probably his best scene; showing that, although he has a rivalry with Gordon, he cares deeply for him. Well, mostly..!

The Race's Climax
When Gordon's boiler actually bursts, we see Scotsman's worst scene and, although the whole explosion would prove to be pointless (I'll get to that), having Scotsman just pass his brother without so much as a second thought sends out some unfortunate implications. Are they trying to say that he'd rather win a meaningless race than help his brother who could be seriously damaged? Thomas did more to show what he'd do to help him and Gordon has constantly ran the tank engine down verbally! There were two very simple ways to fix this:
  1. Have Scotsman finish the race, then go back and help Gordon.
  2. (the better one for his character) Have him forfeit the race to help his brother to the finish line.
Sure, the second option is cliche, but I'd rather that than what we got. At least the cliched outcome would have taught another very good, important moral to kids. And that's what the show is about, right?

The race itself is alright. Yes, the ending is rather exciting, and after neglecting the result of one event, it'd be stupid to do the same with an event that the special is named after. But let's not forget: while we're watching this, we're still worrying about whether or not Gordon could be killed by his ruptured boiler! One of these two scenes feels completely out of place.

You Again..!
Philip runs into Vinnie again and the American engine throws his weight around solely because the boxcab accidentally bumped into him again. Seriously, there is zero motivation for Vinnie to do what he's doing. Granted, bullies don't need one as such, but in story terms, it would've been better if he had one by this point. Maybe if Vinnie lost the strength test and wanted to take his frustrations out on somebody? Or maybe he won and wanted to rub his victory in everyone's face? Anything would have done! But instead, Vinnie just lives up to the American stereotype I talked about in an earlier post (link is in the "New Characters" section).

The Shunting Challenge
Emily and Percy then persuade Thomas to compete in the shunting challenge. And, I'll be honest, I don't like Percy's character here. I get why he wouldn't want to compete due to stage fright, but it completely de-values what he'd learned from Gator in Tale of the Brave, and had retained in Missing Gator. This could've been another great chance to show off his bravery, and to teach him that losing is OK as long as you did your best. But no, we just had to have Thomas in there regardless of any backward steps other characters take.

The shunting competition itself is actually pretty fun to watch, though. Sure, it's a bit silly, but at least there was some thought put into it. It's just a shame that...

Helping Philip
...this happened. Even forgetting the fact that someone could have easily spun the turntable to help Philip when he reached that point, it completely ruins Philip's character. Yes, Vinnie's huge and intimidating, but the fact that Philip didn't even try to stand up for himself is another unfortunate implication, especially for a character who hasn't exactly endeared himself beforehand. What does it teach kids that could be in a similar situation when no one is there to help them?! If Philip had put up a fight, it would've made him look great, but it feels like the story was written solely to make Thomas look good, despite the fact that he acted selfishly in the first 20 minutes!

What's worse is that, when Thomas and Ashima pull Vinnie clear, Philip acts all cocky and arrogant. I actually feel sorry for him, but not in the way the team want me to. I've explained it in Vinnie's post (again, link is in the "New Characters" section), and his own character assessment, but as a childlike character, they've constantly missed the mark, and this special is no exception. The fact he learns nothing makes the whole arc pointless, as well as his appearance in general.

You'd also think that Vinnie smashing into a pylon would be a good thing; he hits it, realises that smaller engines are stronger than he realised and he ends up being pulled free. Nope! He stays there and learns... nothing, making his arc feel pointless, too! Like I've said, though, why should he learn anything? The only reason Philip got away is because two engines came to help him! The whole thing feels like it wasn't thought through enough.

Forfeiting Victory
I hypothesised earlier that the whole special feels like it was made to make Thomas look good. This scene all but proves said hypothesis correct. Thomas sacrifices victory as Ashima's line was blocked by the trucks that Vinnie knocked over. Yes, it suits his character, and it is a very good scene, but I feel the need to reiterate: why couldn't they have done something similar for Flying Scotsman and Gordon?! That little arc needed it just as much as this one, but they'd rather Scotsman sacrifice his brother in an attempt to get a cheap win!

And, of course, they decided to give Thomas an award for his bravery and sacrifice. It's fine. It's a blatant way to give Thomas an award for "being himself" (as if being kind hearted and helpful isn't its own reward these days), and it means they'd need to find another trophy from somewhere (unless the Fat Controller stole the one he was holding in Gordon's cab), but it's not a bad scene.

Made of Sterner Stuff
After another "just be yourself" preach, we see Gordon roll, under his own power, despite having boiler issues to go with his missing safety valve (meaning all of the tension that he went through was pointless), have a 20 second chat. I've already explained how this could be improved, but as it is, Scotsman's comments are good for his character. Gordon's though? Not so much. He said he'd had enough of the "streamlining lark", when that wasn't even the problem, meaning his "be yourself" epiphany (I guess..?) is completely muddled.

Be Who You Are And Go Far
Thomas persuades Ashima to catch the ferry back at Brendam (why it would stop there again is never explained) and the special ends with the cast singing one final song. It's annoyingly catchy, yet extremely generic and preachy. It also makes little sense for every other character to sing it as the only ones who actually have six small wheels are Thomas and (if only driving wheels are counted) James.

Also, if Percy was who he was in this special (as wimpy as he was before), he wouldn't get very far. Nor would Philip for that matter. Yes, it's good to be yourself, but the only way to bring out the best within you is to develop your character to the point where your flaws mean nothing. That is something this song, and special, happily ignores.

He's Full of Surprises
The special includes an end credits scene where Paxton, Den and Dart look for Diesel, only to discover he's on a ship to... somewhere. It's pretty funny, but we all know he'll be back, so it's rather meaningless in the grand scheme of things. It does bring that sub-plot to a fun end, though.

The reprised song is fine. It's kind of lazy as they just changed the "I" pronouns to "he". It's well sung, it's fun and it's probably the most surprising part of the special.

Remember when Blue Mountain Mystery came along and fans said it was "their [Nitrogen Studios] best animation ever" when, in actuality, it looked exactly the same as it did in Hero of the Rails? Well, Arc was constantly striving to up their game with every project, and it actually showed year on year, and the fact they had financial troubles (and they've been taken over by a fellow Canadian animation studio called Jam Filled Entertainment) is rather sad for their employees. Thankfully, some of them have been acquired by Jam Filled, but it's still a big loss. At least the studio went out on a high.

I've complained a lot about this special, but of all the aspects of it, I can't complain about the animation. Sure, there are quite a few errors throughout, some of the lip syncing is a bit off and the Fat Controller wasn't animated when Thomas began singing after being praised, but despite those things, it looks absolutely gorgeous.

It starts brilliantly where they add a spotlight to Thomas (when he's racing Gordon) to make him look more dynamic, and they do really well to distinguish the musical numbers and the "story" really well. The aforementioned spotlights on the engines during the first song, the blur as Thomas races by in the second, it all works really well for each song.

Their most recent addition is one that may divide fans, but it's one that I really like and I want to see more of. And that the camera wobble whenever we follow a moving engine. On first viewing, I'll admit that it's pretty jarring, but it makes the camerawork feel a bit more realistic, which is really cool for an animated project.

Also, this shot. Arc created some beautiful sunrise/sunset shots over their short tenure, but this one is definitely up there with the best of them, and it's one of those that I'll always remember when reflecting on their work. You shall be missed, Arc. And I hope that Jam Filled manages to seamlessly pick up where you left off.

New Characters
Ashima is an OK character. She's very confident in herself, bubbly and caring. However, she has one huge issue: she's boring. She has absolutely no flaws whatsoever, which doesn't make for an interesting character. Say what you will about Marion, but her absent mindedness and stubborn nature can get her into trouble, which makes her a lot more interesting. There are also far more story possibilities with her either as a star or a supporting character due to her stern, motherly nature.

Due to her lack of flaws, Ashima feels a lot more like a life coach than a "friend" to Thomas. Compare her to Gator, another visitor who helped a main character with their problems. He taught Percy how to be brave, and the true meaning of the term. Likewise, Percy taught Gator that conquering his fears wasn't that difficult either. Their friendship was mutually beneficial, and it gave their final moment together so much more emotional weight. Because Ashima's so "perfect", I never particularly cared about the fact that she'd be leaving (although the fact the main story ended with an upbeat, generic song didn't really help either).

Ashima, on the whole, is rather unnecessary. Thomas ends up being friends with her, and heeding her words, on a whim solely for the plot to happen, her lack of flaws make her dull, her inclusion in the plot was one of the most convoluted parts of the whole special and the only reason she may be remembered is her stand out livery and a voice actress who, I'll be honest, was brilliant, especially with the script she was given.

For extra thoughts, click the picture
(I know that Flying Scotsman has been seen on TV before, but he was more of a prop than a character back then, so I'd rather just put him here instead)

As I've said before, Scotsman is a fantastic character. It's obvious that he cares about his brother, and he has a sweet moment with Thomas as well. Unfortunately, while his competitiveness is great, leaving his brother to nearly die - after shouting a lot of concern - just made him look bad. Yeah, Gordon didn't heed Scotsman's advice, but good brothers should stand by each other regardless.

Also, his render does feel like it lacks details that would really lift it. Even discounting the fact he has two six wheeled tenders rather than the proper eight wheeled ones, there are just so many livery details that make him look rather plain. Hopefully this is worked on for any future appearances he may have.

For extra thoughts, click the picture
I still can't stand Vinnie. Not only is his subplot with Philip minuscule and pointless since it doesn't go anywhere or lead to any development for either engine, he's just really unpleasant to watch. Yes, bullies exist in the real world, but that doesn't mean they have to be liked whenever they show up. Writers need to give us something to like about them (personality-wise, not in terms of look...) otherwise they're just mean spirited and detestable. And I don't think all bullies are like that.

And I said it before, but the fact that Vinnie's American (I don't care where he was built, the bios say he's American so that's what I'm going with) doesn't help matters. Some Brits genuinely think that Americans act this way, so to see this kind of portrayal for one is truly disappointing to me. Yes, there's Hank, but kids won't know who he is; most parents just get the latest DVDs since they're 100% CG and they're relatively good value.

I honestly can't be bothered to make separate segments for the other new characters as, apart from the three above, they have very little personality between them. And that's disappointing as they all look interesting (except the class 08 diesels), yet very annoying as last year showed they could bring in loads of new and returning characters and give them a solid baseline (except Max and Monty). I didn't expect them to have huge backstories or complex character arcs, but I wanted them to have something.

The only ones that do have something to them include Frieda, who's rather bolshie and rude. To be fair though, I can't really blame her; if you were mistaken by someone who looks completely different to you (even from the back) by a tank engine who, by the way, should know what his friend looks like (even when he's streamlined), you'd be pretty miffed, too.

As well as her, there's Yong Bao, who was given some really fun character without actually saying anything. You can tell that he's just there because he was told to be and is rather jealous of anyone who gets the spotlight more than him. Considering the animators put that character in, not the writer, that's pretty impressive.

Everyone else is just there to make up the numbers though. They're just as forgettable as the majority of characters introduced during series 9-16 and, since they'll never be seen again, just as disposable (that said, at least those characters had something to them). The only real hope that I have is that, with Etienne being an engine powered by overhead electric wiring, it could open the door for the Peel Godred engines to debut at some point in the future.

New Locations
It's fair to say that Vicarstown has divided opinion among fans, the station building especially. The majority of complaints saying that it's too big. And after seeing it a few times, and getting used to it, yeah, it is.

But... I still rather like it. It was made to feel like a very important station in the past, and I honestly think the team responsible for the sets (and probably Sam Wilkinson) did an excellent job in making it feel important. The fact that there's an impressive looking town around it really lifts the look of the whole place as well.

The most curious part of it, however, is the railway line running beside the roads (which was pointed out by someone on Twitter). It seems like there could be a new tramway in the works around there, which would be very interesting. Maybe a place for Flora to work..? I'd be interested in that!

For what it was made for, it looks really impressive. I wouldn't be surprised if it was never seen again, but at the same time, it'd be a shame. I'd quite like for an engine to take a trip here just for the sake of it in a future episode. Maybe to deliver a midnight goods? Maybe to collect a slow goods? Who knows?

Voice Acting
The voice acting for this special is fine. It's nothing outstanding, but then there weren't really any moments where they could truly stand out. John Hasler's voice when Thomas mimicked the Fat Controller was about as close as we got (and, admittedly, that was rather funny).

Having the cast sing their own songs was good, though. It made the whole musical experience feel more authentic than if they just got soundalikes to do the job. John Hasler and Tina Desai were the standout performers, and Teresa Gallagher was great (although she is in a band, so she has an advantage over the rest of the cast). But Keith Wickham wasn't that good.

In fairness, he wasn't really trying with Henry, and that worked slightly better. But when he really tried with Gordon, it just didn't work.

So Robert and Peter Hartshorne have stepped down from composing (for now), and they've been replaced by Chris Renshaw. And... it's actually difficult to tell the difference. Sure, the music isn't as grand as it was for Lost Treasure (although, considering that had a live orchestra, the music for this was never going to reach that level of spectacle), but it's still a great soundtrack, and probably one of the best aspects the special has.

The musical numbers from Oliver Davis and Andrew Brenner, however, were hit and miss. Will You, Won't You was a great start, and I'm Full of Surprises, despite having no plot significance, was fun and straight up humorous, Streamlining only really picked up during the second half and You Can Only Be You and Be Who You Are and Go Far just felt too preachy for my taste, even if they had the best intentions at heart.

Final Thoughts (Film)
I honestly think this is the worst special since Misty Island Rescue, and although they're written very differently, they both have have similar problems: forced plot points, unfortunate implications and the fact that both feel like toy commercials (which this fails at as well, as a couple of the international engines haven't even got toys). However, this feels too over-reliant on Thomas to actually see it through. The sad thing is that this had a ton of potential hiding away that could have been lived up to with a few more drafts.

They had two great ideas for Gordon and Percy (heck, even Henry and Philip could have had standout moments), but they were squandered because they felt that Thomas needed another starring role. For this kind of story, though, I don't think he did. Have him in the special by all means, but when you have characters that could've been explored in a fascinating way, and a story that could've taken advantage of that, you can only really see this as wasted potential.

For kids, it's fun enough. The jump is exhilarating, the race and shunting challenge are both exciting, the songs are really catchy and the characters aren't abhorrently bad. And, in terms of money, this made enough from cinema revenue (thanks to the publicity beforehand, I imagine) to reach the top 10 in the UK film charts for a week, and it'll make a ton from DVD, book and toy sales. But I honestly wish that it didn't all come at the expense of a story that's so flawed and ends up going in so many different directions, that by the end you'd think they had loads of different ideas and cobbled them all into a 60 minute run time.
Film Rating: 2/10

Bonus Features
The main bonus feature of this DVD included all 20 Meet the Character segments that have been uploaded on YouTube by the main channel. Some are stereotypical, others are fine. Two, however, are downright baffling.

First off, Percy ends up getting one, which would be fine if he actually competed. Meanwhile, James and Hiro, who actually did compete, didn't even get one!

Also, Thomas ended up getting one, even though the special's main "story" was hellbent on keeping him away from the thing! Sure, the fact that the commentator doesn't know in which event he was competing was well done and tried not to spoil anything. But it's still baffling that he even got one and, if you ended up seeing his segment before the special, it destroys any tension The Great Race may have had (which was very little in the first place, but I've explained why constantly, so let's move on).

Other features include "music videos" for the main songs in the special. They're basically what we see in the special, only with the usual sing-along lyrics on display. They're fine for what they are, but as I've said before, the songs are hit and miss.

The RRP for this special is the usual £9.99. Amazon currently have it four pounds cheaper at £5.99, although there will be a delivery charge unless you have Prime. Fortunately, HMV sell it in store for the same price. However, if you have an iTunes account, and prefer HD quality, you can get this for £7.99.

Final Thoughts (DVD)
This is probably the trickiest DVD of a special to actually recommend as its story is so lacklustre. But if you took your kids to see it in the cinema and they liked it, I'd say it's worth getting on DVD (or iTunes if you want the HD experience). Anyone else though? Nah, I think I'd skip this one unless you really want to add it to your collection.