I originally published this elsewhere online. But I had a sense that I might find a greater number of critical viewers of children's television in my audience here.
I've been meaning to parse the social implications of Thomas the Tank Engine for some time now. My son is monomaniacal on the subject of the creepy-faced little blue engine, so I've had ample opportunity to consider.
But when you boil the subject down to its particulars, there isn't too much to be said, really. There's only one story line, that gets played out again and again: Thomas or one of his friends wants to be the important or impressive engine, or to have fun playing with the other engines. If the goal is to show off, then they are humbled. If the goal is to play, then play leads to disaster.
Only when they submit their will to Sir Topham Hatt, the monopolist who keeps the island of Sodor in strange thrall to Victorian-era industry (despite the presence of Jeremy the Jet and innumerable, quasi-malicious diesel trains) are they redeemed. Give over your pride, your pleasure in your sense of self, little trains, and harness yourself to the yoke of usefulness to a small fat man sporting a beaver. Then you will gain your reward: a "special."
That man wants to make you work for a "special." Don't be alarmed. Don't wonder why you were given the gift of sentience when it clearly works against your functioning as desired by your bourgeois foster-father overlord.
And particularly don't wonder why this tiny island has jets but no mag-lev trains.
A friend pointed out that this humility and devotion to work and submitting to authority are central tenets of Church of England doctrine. Which would be what you might expect, given that the story was created by an English reverend. I agree, though I think these are the sorts of policies that have proven useful to authorities since time immemorial. I'm hoping that my son just likes watching the happy trains, and isn't absorbing the morality.
We are led to think that "spreading confusion and delay" are near-capital crimes on Sodor-- yet timetables never seem to suffer by the fact that these supposedly "really useful" engines need to do every job at least twice. How much float is Topham Hatt building in to these jobs? Boss Tweed had nothing on this guy-- he has quasi-human trains, and dehumanized engineer automatons that maintain the trains and serve as their hands when needed, and so far as I can tell, he doesn't need to pay them anything beyond basic shelter in Tidmouth Sheds and the necessities of fuel and water. And he owns all the railways that cover the island! He's not even accountable to the citizens of Sodor. What does he care about confusion and delay?
He is a 'sir.' Perhaps his pretensions to nobility have gotten him in good with the mysterious duke and duchess of the island...
I think it's pretty apparent that something is rotten in Sodor. Thomas and his friends are infantilized slaves to capital interests.
Rise up, Thomas! Rally your friends! They're two, they're four, they're six, they're eight-- that's plenty to corner that villain Hatt and leave his body broken on the tracks.
But do it on a day my son's not watching. That sounds... kinda violent.