Tuned In

JPTV Jr.: Don't Screw With Thomas the Tank Engine

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Thomas is watching you. / Photo: HIT Entertainment

In the New York Times, reporter David Barboza writes about his experiences as a prisoner of Thomas the Tank Engine, or more accurately, of the Chinese factory he was investigating after reports emerged of lead paint in Chinese-made Thomas toys. It’s not a TV story, exactly, but I had to link it because it fits perfectly with uneasy suspicions I’ve always had. Not about China, but about Thomas.

OK, don’t get me wrong: I know that the makers of Thomas the Tank Engine, the estate of the Rev. W. Awdry and so forth are not really responsible for the actions of factory managers and authorities in China. But, back me up here, parents: Isn’t there something just a little scary, a little totalitarian, about the Isle of Sodor?

Thomas and Friends has always been the children’s media empire that’s creeped me out the most, and not only because of the slave-like devotion its expensive train sets inspire in toddlers. (Fortunately, Tuned In Jr. Jr. has developed only a mild case of this addiction.) What are the themes of the stories? Obedience. Fitting in. Order and discipline. Be a useful engine, Thomas! No whining, Percy! Be a team player, James! Work hard and keep the cars rolling on time!

OK, I know that seen with a less jaundiced eye, Thomas’ lessons are actually about sharing and co-operation and a lot of other delightful things that small children should learn to keep from stabbing one another over the Lego blocks. And I guess the show (and the books) simply reflect a British, mustn’t-grumble, stiff-upper-lip sensibility that I don’t share. But to my American, individualist ear, there’s something unnerving about small children being taught to be good, productive, compliant employees for their corpulent industrialist master, Sir Topham Hatt. (Speaking of whom: I much prefer his original name, The Fat Controller.)

Is anybody with me out there? Any parents who will join me in smashing the iron shackles of the Sodor regime? Or have I just been ingesting too much lead paint?

[Update: For a better thought-out Thomas critique, see also Bub and Pie. Mon sembable! Ma soeur!]