Media Essays: The History of Thomas the Tank Engine Part 4

Updated: Jul 22



Our story so far: Britt Allcroft made The Railway Series into a popular television series. She then tried to make a movie out of it.

So now the series has been sold off to HiT Entertainment, leaving them in charge of the franchise. So how did that go? Let's dive in:


The HiT Era Begins

It was during the airing of the sixth series of the show when HiT acquired the rights to the franchise. They bought Gullane Entertainment (the rebranded Britt Allcroft Company) on July the 5th 2002, yet Gullane wouldn't last much longer as it went defunct in 2003. Around the time of the sixth series, Britt Allcroft was no longer in charge of the company or the show but did retain sharing responsibilities and remained as an executive producer, but would be uncredited for her time in that position during the series. She would eventually step down as executive producer after Season 7. While that was happening, David Mitton turned over as a camera operator and a script consultant for all script writers during production. David would also leave the show after Season 7 due to him going into retirement the same year and he would constantly get frustrated with the lack of creative freedom that HiT Entertainment would provide him when it came to their demands and choices on the franchise. Also, composers Mike O' Donnell and Junior Campbell would leave the series too with Robert Hartshorne being the sole composer for the series starting from Season 8.

This season would also see the introduction of a writing staff and new characters to be introduced. And they would only keep adding more and more new ones as the show went on but that's not important.


While Season 6 was being made, the crew were also working on what was meant to be the first ever spin-off of Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends, which was to be called Jack and the Sodor Construction Company. One of the episodes that came out of Series 6, Jack Jumps In was even meant to be a sort-of pilot for the series. 26 episodes were planned, but only 13 were ever filmed, with Michael Angelis narrating the UK version and Michael Brandon narrating the US version, and completed with the later half being stored away before the series could even be finished. So why was it cancelled? Multiple reasons: it proved too expensive to continue making and considering HiT Entertainment now owns the franchise, they likely weren't too keen on the idea of a Thomas-related spin-off show starring construction vehicles while also being aimed at kids. I mean doesn't that kinda sound familiar to a certain other HiT Entertainment property that was also really popular back in the day...?

I know, it's on the tip of my tongue but I just can't quite think of it!


So sadly, the series had to go, but it IS possible to still see the completed episodes. All 13 of the completed episodes were released on DVD so for any Thomas fans who might be interested in seeing what could've been, you still have a chance to see it.


Anyway, when HiT Entertainment took over the franchise, they demanded A LOT of changes and most of these would start to show at around Season 8 as Seasons 6 & 7 were being made at the time HiT was buying the franchise. First of all, the show was no longer titled Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends. They shortened it to Thomas and Friends, which honestly rolls off the tongue easier so that was a beneficial change at least. Second of all, a new theme song composed by Ed Welch and Robert Hartshorne was made and would go on to be the de facto theme song for the series with an instrumental version first and then later versions of the theme would gain lyrics which we would first hear in their first ever direct-to-video movie, but we'll get to that later.


Another big change HiT made was for the tone and writing of the series. The plots would become more formulaic in nature and would put more of a focus on morals and education. Also, much like the demand for more focus on Thomas in The Railway Series, the TV show itself would also put more focus on Thomas and pretty much make him the main character, even if there were still episodes he wouldn't appear in. Starting from Series 8, this format would prove very successful for the series, even if fans of The Railway Series likely didn't approve of these changes as it goes against Wilbert's original stories and vision for the series and just turned Thomas and Friends into another generic kid's show. But what could they do? HiT is in charge now and they call all the shots and given it worked, why change it?


Also the look of the show would differ too. The series would be produced using digital camera, which would create a somewhat new look for the show and the episodes would include additional CGI educational sequences and transitions between stories. Also the episodes would run for seven minutes instead of the previous five-six minute run times of before. And finally, the show would have a more centralised cast unlike before with Thomas, Edward, Henry, Gordon, James, Percy, Toby and Emily being the main cast of the series going forward and collectively being referred to as "The Steam Team".

2005 would see the franchise make another attempt to hit the movie business, but they wouldn't be going to theatres this time...but direct-to-video instead. The new attempt came in the form of Calling All Engines!. The special was made in order to celebrate the franchise's 60th anniversary. The plot would see the steam engines and diesels feuding with each other while also trying to build a new airport for the Island of Sodor and in the end, they have to learn to work as a team to get the work done. Interestingly enough, this special would see Lady and Diesel 10 from Magic Railroad make appearances, which was down to being successful in merchandise sales and as a result, HiT wanted them in the plot. Naturally, the writers have insisted that this movie is NOT a sequel to Magic Railroad. Also this wouldn't be Diesel 10's only appearance in these direct-to-video movies as he would go onto be the antagonist of Day of the Diesels which came later down the line.

The film proved to be more successful than Thomas's big screen attempt so of course, more direct-to-video movies would go on to get made with some making it into the CGI-era of the show (we'll get to that) and one of them, The Great Discovery would even somehow get Pierce Brosnan of all people to be the narrator. Yes people, James Bond himself narrated a Thomas the Tank Engine movie! While you're busy picking your jaws up off the floor after hearing that mind-blowing fact, Pierce actually has an interest and a love for the characters which stemmed from raising his children. He would often read the stories to them when they were young so I imagine they might've been surprised to hear their dad was hired to narrate a Thomas movie. XD Interestingly enough, Pierce could've been in the series itself as he had recorded lines for the twelfth series of Thomas and Friends but they ended up keeping Michael Angelis and Michael Brandon respectively. Had he stayed narrator, he would have narrated up to Series 14 along with three specials. Nobody knows why he didn't return or why he was replaced. Personally I think he might've been too expensive to hire on a regular basis because you know, big movie star and all, but that's just my theory. Clips of him narrating Gordon Takes A Shortcut and a few other short clips have at least been found.


Also, The Great Discovery would be the final full live-action production for the series. Why? Because...


The Transition To CGI


2008 would be the year where everything started to change for Thomas and Friends. While they had kept using the models for many years, Season 12 would see a small change that would become a much bigger one as time went on. The faces of the trains would be animated with CGI, which was done in Canada at Nitrogen Studios, so they would actually be able to express in multiple ways and not be relying on face masks all the time. They would also use CGI to fully animate the human and animal characters too and the result is...well...awkward. Just see for yourself:

What we ended up with is the trains having these out-of-place moving faces while the CGI human and animal characters looked like they came out of a completely different show as they didn't blend that seamlessly into the live-action backgrounds. This change would only last until the next season, making Season 12 the last ever season of the show to ever use models and sets. Come the next season, the show would change forever by ditching the models and going completely CGI. The reason for this was down to budget cuts and government tax breaks for UK animation that occurred in 2007. Naturally many weren't too happy with this change, but some would grow to like the CGI animation for the series as time went on. The first ever Thomas product to make use of this new step in being fully-animated...

Was yet another direct-to-video movie with Hero of the Rails. Released in 2009, the movie sees Thomas make a new friend in the form of Hiro, a Japanese steam engine who was once the "Hero of the Rails" and has since fallen into a derelict state. Thomas tries to work on restoring him to his former glory while also making sure Spencer and Sir Topham Hatt don't find out about him in fear of Hiro getting sent to the scrapyards.


The movie was directed by Greg Tiernan, whom you may also recognize as the complete douchebag who mistreated his animators when working on Sausage Party and was written by the then current series head writer, Sharon Miller. The film had intended to be the last to feature the models at the time of production but in the end, they had to go with the all CGI look. This film would not only bring changes to the franchise's visuals, but also to the voices. From this movie onwards, the series would no longer use a single narrator, but an entire voice cast. For the UK dub of this movie, they cast Ben Small as Thomas and Toby, Keith Wickham as Edward, Henry Gordon, James, Percy AND the Fat Controller (all at once!), Teresa Gallagher as Emily, Mavis and the Duchess of Boxford, Matt Wilkinson as Spencer, Victor, Rocky, Kevin and the Duke of Boxford and Togo Igawa as Hiro with Michael Angelis still providing narration for the movie. Originally, Kerry Shale was going to voice Thomas and Spencer but was ultimately cut.


Speaking of Kerry, the US and Canadian dubs would cast Martin T. Sherman as Thomas and Percy, William Hope as Edward, Toby, Rocky and the Duke of Boxford, Kerry Shale as Henry, Gordon, James, Kevin and Sir Topham Hatt, Jules de Jongh as Emily, Mavis and the Duchess of Boxford, Glenn Wrage as Spencer and David Bedella as Victor while Togo Igawa would remain as Hiro and Michael Brandon would provide the narrations.


But this wouldn't be the last of the big changes coming to Thomas and Friends. For you see, HiT Entertainment was going to be sold off by Apax, the company that owned HiT at the time. They needed to sell off HiT and its franchises in order to clear off its debts. So who became the new owners of Thomas after yet ANOTHER sell-out?


The Mattel Era

None other than another toy-making corporation, Mattel, the very company responsible for creating the Barbie, He-Man, Hot Wheels, Mega Blocks, Fisher-Price and Polly Pocket brands. As of today, they are now the current owners of the Thomas and Friends franchise, and certainly NOT for the best as many people will tell you...


Anyway, during Mattel's run on the show, Sharon Miller stepped down as head-writer during production of Series 16 and was replaced by Andrew Brenner, whom has had some previous experience with the franchise due to writing some stories in the third series, and the animation production was moved from Nitrogen Studios to Arc Productions, another Canadian studio. King of the Railway (another direct-to-video movie) and Series 17 serve as the first special and series produced by the new animation and production teams respectively. Going back to Season 16 for a moment, Michael Angelis and Michael Brandon would conclude their times as narrators on the UK and US versions of the show with Mark Moraghan going on to be the UK and US narrator up to Season 21. For the last three seasons of the show, there would no longer be a narrator and Thomas would just provide first-person narrations with John Hasler providing his UK voice and Joseph May providing his US voice. Speaking of those last three seasons...

Mattel gave Thomas and Friends its big drastic change in direction by giving us Thomas and Friends: Big World! Big Adventures! which would serve as the show's status quo for the remainder of its lifespan. It started off with a special movie of the same name and would form the basis of Seasons 22, 23 and 24. Big World! Big Adventures saw many changes that would leave the show feeling borderline unrecognizable to Thomas purists and die-hard fans with many of these starting in Season 21 in an attempt to ease viewers into Big World! Big Adventures! such as more slapstick humour, more action, a faster pacing, animals being featured more prominently than before and weirdly enough....fantasy sequences. At least one of these would happen in every episode. Cause yeah, when I think of Thomas and Friends, I think fantasy sequences! They go so hand-in-hand, am I right? (sarcasm)


Also, this series would see Edward, Henry and Toby being removed from the Steam Team and replaced by two new characters, Rebecca and Nia, in order to bring the gender ratio among the main cast to a 50/50 split. Cause yeah, replacing iconic characters with brand new ones works SO well for other franchises... (rolls eyes) These changes were made in an attempt to keep the show relevant by making it more similar to other preschool shows, especially PAW Patrol as that is the world's current pre-school franchise juggernaut.


Fans...did not like this series for pretty obvious reasons. The show had just gone so far away from what makes Thomas and Friends what it is that it just didn't feel the same anymore and was seen as a complete betrayal to the late Wilbert Awdry's original writings that gave birth to the franchise. Heck, it's been alleged that children were put off from this series due to the drastic tone shift and change from the norm, and THEY were the target audience! Sadly, things would only get worse from here...


Thomas and Friends would eventually come to an end on January the 20th 2021 with 24 seasons, 584 episodes, 14 films and 6 double-length specials produced and aired over the course of 37 years. What came next was...


Ugh...


Do I HAVE to talk about this? Argh...lets just get this over with. (sighs loudly) In 2021, Mattel rebooted the franchise with...


A Whole New Era

...Thomas and Friends: All Engines Go. Lord have pity on me...


The series is a co-production partnership between mattel Television and Corus Entertainment's Nelvana Studio. They greenlit 104 11 minute episodes and two 60 minute specials and the show was also given a whole new format and direction as a result of this being a reboot. The series is still completely animated, but it's 2-D animated instead of CGI and Thomas is now the lead character of every episode. Geez, how did he go from just being a character in the books to being the biggest spotlight hogger of the bunch and making it all about him? And people give Charizard from the Pokémon franchise or Batman from the DC Universe crap for that! XD


Executive producer, Christopher Keenan, explained that the series was animated this way to allow the crew to cater to contemporary audiences and introduce more physicality and expressiveness to the characters. As a result, the trains are more anthropomorphized in nature and are considerably cartoonier in how they move and function.


Other changes made to the series includes the cast. Thomas, Percy, Nia and Diesel are main characters alongside a new character named Kana the Speedy Engine, Diesel is no longer villainous or even antagonistic at all and is now one of the good guys and the voice cast was changed completely. The only interesting thing to note is that in the US dub, Neil Crone came back to voice Gordon once again, making him the only voice-cast member of Magic Railroad to so far reprise his role in another Thomas property.


When the series was announced, it was seemingly going to be a new series for Thomas and Friends. The first two seasons were even labelled as Seasons 25 & 26 respectively and this error would be repeated in some promotional material and marketing. However, the head writer of the series, Rick Suvalle, would confirm that these were only working titles for the series during production and the series is not a continuation of Thomas and Friends, but a reboot and a whole new continuity instead.


When the show was released on September the 13th 2021...well...how can I put this?


It.

WAS.

HATED!!!!!

Thomas fans left and right were utterly ripping the show apart for being drastically different to what came before, its Americanisation of the franchise and being an utter desecration of the great works of Wilbert Awdry. Most of the hate, naturally, comes from the UK and the show was so hated that over in Mexico, they ended up pulling the show off the air and re-aired Big World! Big Adventures! in its place! Remember when Wilbert said the Americans would ruin the show? Turns out he was right all along, doesn't it?!


Reportedly, even parents of children weren't keen on this show, saying that their kids didn't like it and some of the even wackier reports would have parents claiming the show's animation looked "menacing", "frightening" and "sinister" to their children. I seriously ask how this show's animation can possibly be considered "menacing". The only thing "menacing" about it is that Mattel somehow thought this show was a good idea!


Autistic fans especially hate the show as it took away one of the things that made the original show so accessible to them. The original show had become a HUGE hit amongst the autistic community due to its slower pace and simplistic nature with not much sensory overload and Mattel has, in their eyes, taken all that away.

But the biggest and most notorious backlash came from two of the biggest names associated with the Thomas brand themselves: Britt Allcroft and Veronica Chambers. Veronica simply stated in a tweet on Twitter that she didn't like it very much and Britt produced a lengthy Facebook post where she disowned All Engines Go and felt that Mattel and what they'd done with the franchise had tarnished the magic of the series she and Wilbert before her had created with her show and his books.


In spite of the backlash, the series continues to do well enough ratings wise and merchandise sales have especially been doing well so All Engines Go will be here to stay for the forseeable future. Will it last long? Will it end as quickly as it started and we get another reboot for the series? Will that reboot be any better if so? I have no idea. For now, we have recapped the entire history of the franchise and all we can do is wait and see what will happen next. The history of Thomas the Tank Engine is at an end for now and my work here is done...


Conclusion


Thomas the Tank Engine has delighted and entertained audiences for many years be it The Railway Series books that started it all by the Rev. Wilbert Awdry or the TV series that Britt Allcroft brought to life and made the little tank engine a household name and pop culture icon that has entertained many generations since its inception. Through the good times and bad times, Thomas has continued puffing along his merry way and continuing to bring smiles to people's faces both young and old. His history may not be as glamorous as life on the Island of Sodor, but it is a most interesting tale on how a father telling bedtime stories to his sick child created one of the biggest children's franchises in history. His future may look bleak now, but we all know that nothing can take away the magic and charm that the original series has brought us.


To this day, Thomas maintains a strong following with even some noteworthy online content creators specializing on the subject such as Headmaster Hastings with his fantastic covers of classic Thomas tunes, Silver Band with his fan-made Thomas and the Railtour series or The Unlucky Tug with his historical video essays on the show and its characters and also for giving us this glorious meme:


I'm banishing you to the shadow realm! - YouTube


Speaking of memes, Thomas has frequently become a VERY popular source of memes and YouTube Poops during the rise in internet culture and is still a popular subject for memes alongside Shrek, SpongeBob SquarePants and The Simpsons.


Whether it's through books, TV shows, movies or even memes, Thomas is a tank engine that has forever chuffed his way into our hearts and will forever be hailed as a children's icon that will charm us all for many more years to come. He is, and always has been, a really useful engine...


And that's the end of this history document! I hope you've enjoyed this trip down memory lane for the Thomas franchise and I'd love to hear your thoughts down below. Feel free to suggest any other medias you'd like to see a history essay about in the future. As for next week, it's back to smaller posts as I review Top Gun: Maverick. See you then, media fans!

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Sources: Wikipedia, The Thomas Wiki, IMDB and TVTropes.





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