The Repressive, Authoritarian World of
“Thomas the Tank Engine” at the “Shining Time Station”
On the Island of Sodor, the only safe zone in a totalitarian dystopia, the steam engines engage in constant competition for big jobs, more work, and the approval of Sir Topham Hatt, the railway director. Less useful are the female passenger coaches named Annie and Clarabel.
The New Yorker, By Jia Tolentino, September 28, 2017
When I was a child, I could spend all day at Shining Time Station, the fictive train depot with its own eponymous TV show, where Thomas the Tank Engine and all his plate-faced locomotive friends worked and lived. To my undeveloped brain, each episode of the series seemed like a beautiful daydream, in which an orderly, magical, trance-inducing universe ticked on under bluebird skies. For company, there was the Conductor, voiced first by Ringo Starr and later by George Carlin, and then the trains: gentle blue Edward, moody green Henry, big strong Gordon, little red James, and, of course, Thomas, with his pointed eyebrows and perpetual smile.
The show, which included segments that had first aired on a British show called “Thomas & Friends,” began airing on PBS in 1989, and each episode opened with a Joe Cocker-ish theme song: “Reach for the steam, reach for the whistle, go where the railway runs/ Reach for the words, reach for the story, follow the rainbow sun.” I would hum along. How could I possibly have imagined that, decades later, I would get lost in obscure corners of the Internet where people interpret the show—at length—as a depiction of a premodern corporate-totalitarian dystopia?
If you have watched the series and not encountered such readings of it, you may assume that these interpretations are ridiculous. In that case, you should spend four minutes with “The Sad Story of Henry,” a segment from “Thomas & Friends” that aired on the second episode of the first season at PBS. (In the U.S., it was retitled “Come Out, Henry!”) It begins on a drizzly day in Sodor, the fictional island in the Irish Sea that serves as the show’s setting. Henry, the curmudgeonly train, is afraid to come out of his tunnel, because “the rain will ruin my lovely green paint and red stripes.” Then Sir Topham Hatt, the railway director, who is also known as the Fat Controller, arrives on the scene. (He looks like Monopoly’s Rich Uncle Pennybags but with eyes that have almost surely witnessed murder.)
The Fat Controller orders the passengers to pull Henry out with a rope, but Henry won’t budge. They push him from the other direction, to no avail. (The Fat Controller declines to physically participate in this effort, citing “doctor’s orders.”) The passengers then tell Henry that it’s not raining; Henry, perhaps noticing that everyone still has their umbrellas out, refuses to move.
Realizing that the day’s workflow is irrevocably disrupted, Fat Controller decides that Henry must be punished—for life. “We shall take away your rails, and leave you here for always and always,” he tells Henry. As Henry’s face contorts into anguish and the background music toots a series of Oompa Loompa faux-glum flourishes, railway employees build a brick prison around Henry, leaving only half of his face visible. His train friends pass by: one snubs him, and another whistles hello. Henry has no steam left to whistle back. He spends his days alone, soot-streaked, wondering if he’ll ever be allowed to go back to work.
The last line of the segment is the narrator saying, “I think he deserved his punishment, don’t you?” In the U.S. version, this voice-over is tweaked so that Henry’s fate seems temporary. But the original version is still on YouTube, and it’s comically bleak. As one commenter writes, “What moral lesson are kids supposed to learn from this? Do as you’re told or you will be entombed forever in the darkness to die?”
The Thomas the Tank Engine universe was the brainchild of an Anglican minister, the Reverend Wilbert Awdry, who in 1942 began spinning stories about trains to amuse his son Christopher, who had come down with the measles. The first volume in Awdry’s “The Railway Series” was published in 1945. Awdry wrote twenty-six more books, the last one in 1972; after his father’s death, Christopher wrote sixteen more.
Episodes of “Shining Time Station” are mostly faithful adaptations of “The Railway Series,” though Awdry’s plots are embellished onscreen with a colorful crew of additional human characters and the impish aesthetic courtesy of the set designer, Wayne White, who also worked on “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.” When I watched “Shining Time Station,” I was too young and too absorbed by the fever-dream visual textures to take in anything that was actually happening. But through the dedicated and comprehensive Thomas the Tank Engine Wikia, as well as a smattering of critical assessments and message-board threads from dedicated viewers, I have become a little obsessed with the show’s repressive, authoritarian soul.
It is clear from his work that Awdry disliked change, venerated order, and craved the administration of punishment. Henry wasn’t the only train to receive a death sentence. In one episode, a manager tells a showoff engine named Smudger that he’s going to “make him useful at last,” and then turns Smudger into a generator, never to move again. (There are several “R.I.P. Smudger” tribute videos on YouTube.)
In another episode, a double-decker bus named Bulgy comes to the station and talks about revolution—“Free the roads from railway tyranny!” he cries. He is quickly labelled a “scarlet deceiver,” trapped under a bridge, and turned into a henhouse.
A recurring storyline involves the “troublesome trucks,” which are disciplined into fearful obedience through public, symbolic punishments. Their leader, S. C. Ruffey, is pulled in two different directions until he breaks into pieces—“I guess the lesson is that if someone is bullying you, kill them?” a YouTube commenter writes—and, in another episode, a “spiteful” brake van is crushed into bits.
By the time Awdry wrote “The Railway Series,” the railway industry had shifted away from steam and toward diesel and electric. But on the Island of Sodor steam locomotives are permanently on top. The caste system is very rigid. There is one diesel engine, a black train known just as “Diesel,” who struggles to prove that he’s as useful as the steam trains. Less useful than Diesel are the female passenger coaches named Annie and Clarabel, who are awarded to Thomas as prizes after he helps with a train breakdown. (More information on the class and gender hierarchy of Thomas the Tank Engine can be found in “A Very Useful Engine: The Politics of Thomas and Friends,” a 2009 article by Shauna Wilton, a professor at the University of Alberta.)
On Sodor, the steam trains engage in constant competition for big jobs, more work, and the Fat Controller’s approval. Anthropomorphized trains in literature tend to be hard workers, but one Tumblr thread holds that Thomas and friends have other motivations. The show “canonically takes place in a train post-apocalypse where the Island of Sodor is the only safe zone in a totalitarian dystopia in which steam trains are routinely killed and their body parts are sold or cannibalized for repair,” a Tumblr user named frog-and-toad-are-friends argues, citing one of Awdry’s books, “Stepney the ‘Bluebell’ Engine.”
In that book, a green train named Percy expresses his fear of the “Other Railway,” which is what British Railways, the United Kingdom’s nationalized rail company, is called on Sodor: “ ‘Engines on the Other Railway aren’t safe now. Their controllers are cruel. They don’t like engines anymore. They put them on cold damp sidings, and then,’ Percy nearly sobbed, ‘they . . . they c-c-cut them up.’ ” (The accompanying illustration features two terrified trains facing dismemberment, and, behind them, a train with a chilling black void where its face used to be.) Another Tumblr user replies, “Maybe that’s just what Railway Management wants the engines to think.” And, in fact, it does seem that the Fat Controller maintains authoritarian rule through disinformation. In the foreword to the book, Awdry clarifies that British Railways actually supports the preservation of steam engines. It’s just a little joke that Percy fears for his life! (If you need some cheering up after this investigation, I recommend “Goths Rave to Thomas the Tank Engine,” a mashup that makes use of the show’s iconic transition music and has accumulated more than three million views.)
Though “Shining Time Station” ended in the nineties, Thomas the Tank Engine shows have aired almost continuously since. “Thomas & Friends” has gone on in some form for twenty seasons, two of which featured Alec Baldwin as the narrator. In 2009, the show went completely C.G.I. In 2014, the actor who had voiced Thomas for the previous five years quit, saying that the successful show was exploiting him by paying “a very low wage.” The trains seem overdue for a similar revolution.