Fatherhood²: There’s No Place for Goodies and Baddies in our House

January 17, 2012 at 8:47 pm

Here’s a sentence I never imagined I’d say five years ago: I’ve recently been giving quite a bit of thought to the fundamental differences between Thomas the Tank Engine and Chuggington…

Before you start worrying for my sanity, I should clarify – I’m not a train spotter, and haven’t been putting any (okay, much) thought in to the logistics of a train with a face. No, I’m talking about the main differences between the two shows – which might explain why I find one much more preferable than the other.

Until very recently, Robert has been an almost exclusively-BBC child – or to be more accurate, a Cbeebies viewer. We’ve steered clear of commercial or non-British programming, as we’ve grown to know and trust the content put out by the BBC. Before Christmas however, Robert began taking a big interest in Thomas the Tank Engine – so he now watches the TV version on Channel 5 most mornings.

If you’ve not seen Thomas since the days of Ringo Starr, you won’t be too far behind. The main differences between old and new Thomas are the animation (it’s now photo-real CGI) and the narration format (the trains and characters now speak, though the narration is still a big part). The stories themselves are still the same, and remain startlingly faithful to the original books by Reverend W Awdry (and his son).

If you don’t know Thomas OR Chuggington, there’s probably not much point in you reading on – but for the uninitiated, Chuggington is a popular CG-show on Cbeebies, also about talking trains, though set in a much more modern setting.

Robert’s recent fandom of Thomas has reminded me of something I’d forgotten since the days of my own Thomas-watching. Namely: I don’t much like them. I used to think it was just the creepy animation, but the new CG-animated style has crossed that off my list – I still don’t like it. But in comparing the two shows, I finally realised what my dislike stems from, and it’s a fairly fundamental difference between Thomas and a lot of the kid shows that I DO like:

In a nutshell, it’s that old chestnut – good vs evil. To be more specific, the Thomas the Tank Engine stories feature some quite nasty characters, whereas Chuggington gets it’s drama from less “evil” themes, such as peril or mistakes made by characters. I don’t think Chuggington features a single “bad” character. Neither, in fact, does Robert’s other favourite show, The Octonauts. In fact, thinking more widely, very few of the shows aimed at pre-schoolers DO feature nasty characters – and the ones that do (Numberjacks, Tommy Zoom etc) have never been too popular in our house.

I suspect my preference for shows that avoid the “Good vs Evil” element may see me being accused of “coddling” or wrapping my children up in cotton wool. But I’d heartily disagree – I’m more than happy for my 3 year old son to only have minimal exposure to “baddies” at this stage in his development – there’s plenty of time for that when he’s older.

Plus, I’m sure some of you will agree, I often find the cut-and-dry approach to baddies quite patronising – after all, I don’t actually believe that anybody is fundamentally Good or Bad, but characters like the Diesels in the Thomas stories are often painted as having very little redeeming qualities.

The approach taken in Thomas is probably due in no small part to it’s creator’s Christian leanings – something which modern programming is most likely keen to steer clear of, for equality reasons. I should point out that I have no problem with this moral message – or even some of the more overtly-religious messages that come through – in the same way as I enjoy The Hobbit or the Narnia stories, both of which have very clear religious messages. No, my issue with Thomas is mainly because of the baddies.

I should clarify that Robert is still watching Thomas – I’m not going to stop him based on my own preferences, as that would seem rather cruel. But I will be very interested to see how the stories affect him in the coming years – most likely the answer will be “not at all”. But if he starts calling me “The fat controller”, I’m drawing the line…!

Amusingly, reading a review of one of the Thomas “feature length” shows – “Thomas and Friends: Day of the Diesels” lead me to THIS amazing user review, which I have to share. It’s worth reading the whole thing – if for no other reason that to see if you can figure out whether it’s serious or a joke – but I thought I’d share my favourite paragraph for you here… enjoy!

The final disappointment is when Sir Topham Hat arrives at the Steam Works to put a stop to the shenanigans. He scolds Diesel 10 who cowers at Hat’s stern voice. I was under the impression that Diesel 10 was his own man and didn’t follow anyone’s rules. Apparently he is just another slave on the plantation.

I won’t give away the big happy ending but while the movie looks great and Diesel 10 shows potential, it is ultimately a disappointment in my eyes. When are we going to see a truly evil Diesel 10 who maims Sir Topham Hat and destroys a few of the goody goody steamies? I thought this movie was going to be it, but it is not. Let me just add that while I was let down by the movie my kid loves and has already watched it 20 times. Great for kids but not for adults hoping for evil and terror on the island of Sodor.