Saturday, November 12, 2016

On Thomas the Tank Engine and Tom Moss, his evil alter ego

My lad loves Thomas the Tank Engine. Loves it. Could watch it through the apocalypse, and may have to, the way things are going.

You might have found certain programmes that you enjoyed as a child that you later, as an adult, realise had ironic depths, hidden jokes that had kept the adults entertained while leaving your enjoyment undisturbed. 60s-era Batman, with its campestry, or 80s-era Danger Mouse, with its puns, is the sort of thing I mean. Thomas the Tank Engine is the complete opposite of that. Thomas has no hidden depths, or if it does they are all awful hidden depths, the sort of hidden depths that vote Ukip. The island of Sodor, where Thomas and his pals reside, is a joyless, quasi-fascist regime. Everyone knows their place, one man's word is law and the trains do, indeed, run on time.

OK, that's not quite fair. The original TV show had Ringo Starr narrating, evidence that the makers did in fact have a sense of humour. Moreover, the island of Sodor is not actually a fascist regime. Sodor is much more an idealised British land of deeply stratified class, in which all engines know their place and fascism isn't necessary because even the basics of class consciousness have yet to manifest. In fact, Sodor represents a sort of Victorian capitalist vision of religious utopia, in which the Fat Controller stands in for Our Good Lord, dispensing stern, all-seeing justice to the misbehaving toddler-engines who populate the railway.

You might ask why, as a member of free society, I don't just turn it off. But I don't live in a free society; I live in my very own fascist regime, run by my small child.

Lately, even he's got bored of politically suspect tedium, and begun to demand "Toy Thomas" videos. My initial reaction, as with most things, was to say no. These videos, made by "enthusiasts", are a sort of YouTube fanfic. They employ copious supplies of Thomas-branded toy railways, dubious editing skills and what it would be generous to describe as "rudimentary" animation techniques. All these achievements are marshalled to tell new Thomas stories, of which, as you probably now realise, the world has absolutely no need. Furthermore, the more successful of these enterprises have become vast advertorials for the toy firms, so while you're off getting five minutes peace at the kitchen sink, your child is absorbing about £500-worth of plastic-tat desire.

I held out for a while – constantly trying to switch over to "real" Thomas, as if that was any better – but, as with all things child-related, I eventually caved in. And I'm glad I did, because it turns out these Toy Thomas stories are infinitely better than the dud-handed official ones. My and my son's favourite features 12 tales of a renegade engine named Tom Moss the Prank Engine (you can see what they did there). Tom Moss skulks in the deep forest of Sodor, where the other trains are too scared to go, sporadically visiting the town centre to pull absurdist pranks on the sheeple-engines of the trad Thomas realm. What's more, Tom Moss always gets away with it, speeding off back to his forest lair after pulling his stunts, which seems to me to be a much healthier life lesson than the Fat-Controller-is-always-right turgitude of the original.

It's a great relief to see the pompous idyll shattered by a much-needed trickster visitation, to watch the squabbling suckups of Sodor get comprehensively gypped by a giggling reprobate with a penchant for exploding pumpkins and guerrilla helium attacks. Occasionally, the Minions and Peppa Pig turn up, for no apparent reason. My boy watches in enthralled silence. I find myself drifting into questions about Dave, the mysterious narrator of the Tom Moss offshoot.

I think he's called Dave – I seem to remember he mentions his name in a Brechtian moment at one point. As a professional journalist with keen research skills, I went as far as to peruse the YouTube channel whence these videos issue. This reveals that the moviettes are made by an Ian and Ali Phillips, along with their three boys, Chris, Dave and Mike. Dave sounds a bit old to be of the younger partners in a film-making dynasty, but, well, what do I know. Their channel has more than 1.5 million subscribers, and has notched up more than 2.5bn views. For reference, the official Thomas & Friends channel has 310,000 subscribers, with 464m views. Perhaps, as a professional journalist with keen research skills and lofty, broadsheet standards, I should phone up the Phillips family and ask what the inspiration was behind Tom Moss, and other questions a professional journalist with such skills and standards would ask. I give you one guess whether I'm going to do that. Besides, my boy wants the computer to watch Thomas.