When I was young, I, like many reading this, was a Thomas the Tank Engine superfan. I had all the merch, knew all the train's names, the works. The books and the series still holds a special place in my inner child's heart. The mostly jolly adventures of talking trains getting into scrapes and learning lessons was a big influence on my younger self. Note the use of the word, 'mostly'.
You see, there was a dark side to Thomas and Co.'s escapades. Often, and even now, the trains make reference to being 'really useful engines' and underlining the importance of that. Now you may ask yourself why that is, and what the implications of not being useful are. And to answer that question, we need to go back to the start, to a very early episode entitled 'The Sad Story of Henry'.
Henry in happier times…
The episode title itself is something of an understatement, the reasons for which will soon become abundantly clear. Henry is a hardworking train, some may even say 'really useful'. One day, Henry is chugging along, doing his trainly duties, when it begins to rain. So, what? I hear you cry, he's not the Wicked Witch of the West, trains are waterproof. Who cares? Henry, that's who. Because he's vain. And he's worried that his lovely green paint will be ruined. It's never really clarified whether this is a valid concern due to Henry being painted that very morning, if they're known for using substandard paint on the Island of Sodor, or because he's a train and he doesn't have an understanding of how paint works. Ultimately it doesn't matter as it's a concern for Henry regardless.
So, when he spots a tunnel, in he goes, and in he stays, opting to remain under cover until the inclement weather has stopped. Understandably, the passengers are rather miffed, and his driver tries his best to cajole the stubborn engine from his refuge. Why the driver couldn't simply drive Henry out of the tunnel remains a mystery.
So, then they have no choice but to bust out the big guns. The Fat Controller arrives, and he's royally pissed. Such is his power and influence, he orders the passengers themselves to try and push and pull Henry out of the tunnel. If National Rail tried to pull a stunt like that, it'd be all over social media like a rash. The most we have to worry about is leaves on the line, we should be grateful. Then they enlist the help of Thomas, who pretty much wrote the book on toeing the party line and following orders, to try and push Henry out of the tunnel. This was always going to fail, seeing as how Thomas is about a third the size of Henry.
"Don't fuck with me, Henry."
Having exhausted all of his options and clearly with no more intention of fucking around, The Fat Controller then decides to BRICK HENRY UP IN THE TUNNEL, a sentence I never thought I'd have to write when discussing a kid's TV show. You may recognize this as the behavior of a complete and utter psychopath. It'd be bad enough to do this to a non-sentient train, but to do it to something that clearly experiences thoughts and emotions in the same way as humans is just insane.
And as a further 'fuck you' to Henry, he doesn't brick the tunnel up completely, he leaves just enough space so that Henry can watch all the other trains enjoying their sweet, sweet freedom. Jigsaw would be proud of this level of fuckery.
Then, as we slowly pan out from the tunnel and Henry's sad little face, the narrator (famously Ringo Starr) says, 'But I think Henry deserved his punishment, don't you?' This is probably the most insane thing Ringo has ever said, which is saying something considering he once sang about an octopus's garden. To be fair to Ringo, he was probably scared shitless of stepping out of line, lest The Fat Controller brick him up in the recording studio, his power apparently extending beyond the 4th wall. Either that, or Ringo's time In India with the rest of The Beatles were finally catching up with him.
But the single worst thing about this entire debacle is that, and I cannot stress this enough, it ends with Henry STILL IN THE FUCKING TUNNEL. Any vague hopes you may have had of his story reaching a conclusion are dashed. They just straight up leave him there. That's cold. Game of Thrones level fucked up. And no lessons are learnt either, unless you count 'don't fuck with a morbidly obese bloke in a top hat' as a lesson.
The closest thing to a lesson I can glean is 'if you show any emotional weakness, you will be punished in the worst possible way for all time.' For a kid that's a horrifically poor lesson to be taught. It's up there with 'reservoirs are basically giant water parks', or 'make sure you grip the firework with both hands!' You can't teach kids that life is unnecessarily cruel through anthropomorphic trains, they need to find that shit out for themselves, in their own time.
All you've done there is leave a generation of kids scared that if they ever act up in any way, then their parents might just decide to lock them in their room for 'always and always and always.' (Not my words, but the words of The Fat Controller, who at this point is quite effortlessly putting the 'cunt' in 'controller'). Henry is eventually freed after a couple of episodes, but the damage to our childhoods had already been done.
In doing some research for this article (yes, really), I was shocked to discover that 'The Sad Story of Henry' was just the tip of the psychologically warped iceberg. Numerous episodes feature dismemberment, torture, train graveyards, attempted murder and sentient boulders (yes, you read that right). So, by all means sit down with your little one to watch some classic ‘Thomas and Friends’ adventures. Just make sure you've got some spare funds set aside for the inevitable therapy they'll need in later life.