It was a hot day in July where I paced up and down the platform waiting for a train. Like most little kids I thought riding the train was fun. I was a tiny thing back then and didn’t really understand the extraordinary thing I was about to see. There came a whistle that literally sounds like someone screaming a soft ‘a’. I seemed to hear it forever before a low but bright headlight appeared beneath a highway bridge in the distance. I remember laughing at how she didn’t seem to create much smoke until crossing under that bridge and giving the people who curiously waited on it a shower of coal cinders. My dad warned me again to be careful of the cinders. I was so excited to see my friend the N&W 1218 again.
I have never forgotten N&W 1218 and 611 arriving into the station that day. As a five year old I felt small as a cat next to the dull roar the two big steam locomotives idling in the station. 1218 and 611 were like shining leviathans black and shiny steal looking up their sides from along their drivers’ spokes and the complex majesty of their running gear. That was the start of everything. Not long after that my dad went on a trip to London and he brought back a souvenir for me.
That moment from the distant past resonated again as I watched the engines pull into the stations in The Adventure Begins from that cat’s eye view as Sodor Island Forums’ Knuckles put it. The perspectives chosen and quality of the textures used in the animation perfectly translating from the screen that sense of tallness, tonnage, power, and most of all wonder of being in the presence of what in my opinion are the most majestic of all machines created by man. The steam locomotive. I love them all big or small, no matter where they are from.
It may not be fair to compare the classic series and Britt Alcroft’s work. Really I see the different eras of the TV series as apples to oranges. They are no more alike than the Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars is the same thing as Star Wars The Clone Wars. Both are Star Wars TV shows covering the same time period but that is where the similarities end. These are all called Thomas and Friends series. But they seem to be different things with the same title. The Adventure Begins created these feelings I believe simply never could have been created by the beloved models that will always be dear to my heart. Ordinary cartoon animation back in the day could have opened up these same doors but without the models Thomas and those short, sweet installments Thomas may never have left his mark on TV and there might be far fewer people talking about how its been 70 years.
The CGI from Tale of the Brave going forward has been wonderful but The Adventure Begins sets the bar and I believe Thomas and Friends now rivals Star Wars: The Clone Wars in animation quality. Don’t think that’s a high bar? I beg to differ. I dare you to go watch the The Fugitive arc that ended up serving as the series’ TV finale at the end of season 5 and tell me what else has animation that good on TV? I’d say Thomas and Friends.. My friends in the Star Wars fandom will probably hang me for that. Its CGI of this caliber that really leaves a mark like no mere cartoon, nothing else ever could.
But the CGI is just one of the things that makes this glorious trip down memory lane feel fresh and extraordinary. Part of that is how well these stories were weaved together to tell one big story about how Thomas went from the bumbling new guy nobody would want handling anything fragile to the selfess hero who earned his own branchline and coaches. Its not precisely an origin story but serves as one for the new generation.
Another thing that makes it fresh and I know this will probably piss purists off is the bigger sense of linear character development and over arching plots that comes from great execution. Some of that speaks to the source material which is one of the points. This may seem like I’m looking to deeply into things. One of the things I loved about Star Wars: The Clone Wars was how it didn’t spoon feed everything to the viewer. It utilized a type of storytelling that required fans to piece it together and even use their imagination. Each of the characters developed over the course of this special. Even Henry who had less screentime by the end had gotten great depth of character.
-Thomas again goes from the cheeky, arrogant, bumbling punk to the funnier, well meaning, sensitive, cooler arrogance he has evolved into as of TOTB and Series 18.
-Edward starts off almost with a hint of his dark ages personality but seems to step into his familiar kind mentoring personality. Working with Thomas and Gordon he seemed to get more sarcastic over the course of the special. Interestingly watching this and Reliable Old Edward back to back the character evolution which even borders on curmudgeon in series 17 and 18 is entertaining.
-Thomas and Edward’s friendship gets good depth. I don’t know if its ever gotten focus like this before. Their bond forged by sympathy and a mentor/student relationship worthy of Obi-wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker. Fortunately without the mentor’s death. The bond gets tested a couple times.
-Gordon remains proud but learns to be more excepting. The writers did a good job allowing his character and actions prove why he to an extent deserves to wear the crown he thinks he does.
-Henry still isn’t the same Henry but I don’t hate this take on him but rather appreciate it. I can see where the worry wart thing made sense. In spite of that he’s much more optimistic and smart. I can relate to having silly fears like being afraid of balloons. He didn’t get much development but got surprising depth with the little screentime he had. He had always been the sensitive guy to Gordon and even James’ manly man trope.
-Without a doubt I think the biggest props from me goes to James. Seems like his vanity and arrogance may have been grafted on to an inferiority complex do to being smaller than Gordon and Henry while Edward has experience and whatever steam engines’ have for brains. He was not able to move Henry when he was trapped in the tunnel, his old wooden brakes smoked, later caught fire causing a crash which allowed the others to get away with teasing him, and finally not getting his own branchline. In spite of a red paint job he’s ironically one of the most average of the North Western’s engines. Even once the likes of Percy and Toby arrive he’ll still struggle to stand out. As a prequel to his turning as of TOTB and Series 18 into more of a bully and a jerkass with a pretty significant rivalry with a certain Great Western engine who will eventually show up and has a similar personality but is probably smarter and stands out over him, just wow…
-The rescue cranes having faces and personalities makes perfect sense. They didn’t do much but I liked that addition.
-Dang what they did with the coffeepot was actually pretty dark. I bet they’ll come back to this. I can see where Hiro might stumble on him and make it a mission to help him out.
-Topham is alway great as a butt monkey but comes off as very much a business man. I like how he just seems terrible at it when dealing with upset passengers.
-Character work seems to be one of the series strongest points now. I like how the characters are very much treated like a cast of snowflakes where no one seems to orbit around Thomas. Everyone mostly seems to be doing their own thing.
I liked the touches of mild slapstick, smart random humor, and even occasional social satire which is a staples of this era which keeps things feeling very much like a 90s show full of campy goodness. There is nothing wrong with that. The climax with James’ big crash may have been the new bar for the animation. I loved the erie sound played that made me forget it wasn’t going to cut to a commercial break right as the crash happened. There was a real sense of peril and urgency. Holy cow the crash looked bad. I liked how the cow licking James’ face provided comic relief during the serious moment. Sure in the end we all knew it would be alright.
Ofcourse I loved hearing the old OST re-purposed in medleys. I really hope those are used again in series and specials to come. But The Adventure Begins is not a mere homage to The Railway Series. It does not exist to feed fanboys things to make them squee. What it is, is a celebration of the franchises’ heritage and a look into its a future in the hands of good people who observe that heritage but aren’t afraid to innovate and try new things. This special is an introduction for the new generation of fans, a new start. The journey is what counts and it will always be a fun one with Thomas. That’s a perfect metaphor for this milestone anniversary.
I’m a person who tends to stay stuck in the past. That’s a big part of being a railfan, loving railway/railroad history, and advocating its preservation so generations after mine can have the opportunity to experience what its like to be that little girl or boy watching a steam locomotive pulling into the station. To have the chance to smell that burly coal smoke, shield their eyes from the cinders, and reach out to touch it.
#RestoreTheMagic is not about staying stuck in the past. None of these stuff is likely ever to make it back into the TV Series though I can find selfish reasons to wish for Shining Time Station to be rebooted. #RestoreTheMagic is fans who love trains, having fun trying to reach out, and grasp parts of this franchise so they don’t get lost like the complete vision of Thomas and the Magic Railroad which does provide endless entertaining fanon and especially Shining Time Station so fans who grew up with them may have the chance to share them with their children. So I may have a chance to talk to my children about the information Billy Twofeathers provides them about railroading.
These parts of the franchise are ugly to some. Much like how an American steam locomotive may seem ugly to someone in the U.K. or visa versa. But in my eyes and I’m sure many feel the same all steam is precious. No steam engine should be forgotten rusting into the ground in an overgrown park or the backlot of a museum. These things are all thoroughbreds of steam- Born to run- Born to be free. Everything #RestoreTheMagic is for is part of our favorite talking trains’ franchise and that celebration of it.
To sum it up. I thought this special was awesome. I hope to see a follow up. This is great for reintroducing a new generation to the franchise for the 70th anniversary. Watch this with the little ones. My copy will be regifted to my young Nephew. But continue to keep it fresh and keep trying new things like you do well Mr. Brenner. There is no need to get stuck in the past but let’s cherish it like my memories of seeing my first steam engines. I’m confident the future will hold many surprises just like that.
The journey with Thomas is a perfect metaphor for what its like to be a railfan riding on trains or chasing them in real life. Its the journey. I used to think a lot of things were impossible…
-That there would be an episode 7
-That Thomas and Friends would have some of the best animation on Television
-That a Big Boy would be restored to operational condition
And here I am celebrating my fandom and life with Thomas on the eve of my old friend Norfolk and Western 611’s return to steam (www.fireup611.org). My 70th anniversary tribute will be to take Bachmann Edward, my second favorite character and place him on the real life living breathing 611 and take a picture as my memento to that journey. That shouldn’t be a surprise to friends on SiF who read my “The Station Girl” chapters where I didn’t hesitate to make the old iron the series’ deuteragonist and where I am always throwing railroad geek nonsense in whether its appreciated or not. My favorite character Gordon will wait for that someday that N&W 1218 runs again.
#RestoreTheMagic #FollowTheRainbowSun #MagicRailroadComplete #ShiningTimeOnDVD #FireUp611 Its not impossible anymore…