Tuesday, January 10, 2012

On the limits of anthropomorphic machines

The following is a post that has been a long time in the writing, sitting un-finished in the "edit posts" section while I tinkered with it. I mentioned something about it the other day on Twitter and it seemed to gain enough of a reaction to fool me into thinking that it might be of general interest. I've split it into two parts because it seemed rather long. I'll post the second bit in a couple of days. 

I spend an awful lot of time watching Thomas the Tank Engine. To be more precise I spend a lot of time with someone who spends an awful lot of time watching Thomas the Tank Engine. My (nearly) three year old son is obsessed by it; he sleeps with his Thomas trains, eats with a Thomas knife and fork and wears Thomas pyjamas. The words to the Thomas songs comprise almost his entire vocabulary. I loved the Railway Series (as the Thomas books used to be known) as a child too, although in a slightly less obsessive and merchandise saturated way. That was in the 1970's when the little landscape format, cloth-bound books already seemed like something from the distant past.

The first Railway Series story was published in 1945 and although the last one to be written by Reverend W. Awdry*, the series' original author, came out in 1972, very little about the world they depicted changed over thirty years. Since then ever more Thomas books have appeared to accompany the TV series, various spin-off movies and a terrifying looking theme park called Drayton Manor. And still the cars in the station car park are 1950's Jaguars and Rovers, the men on the platforms wear hats and the women sport headscarves.

I've spent a lot of time wondering about the roots of my son's obsession. I'm fairly sure that he's unaware of the antiquarian nature of steam trains or that the setting is nominally in a slightly distant past.  My son doesn't seem to care that there are aren't any traction engines to be found anymore or that men don't dress in spats and a top hat like the Fat Controller**. In that sense the appeal of the books might genuinely be considered timeless. The world they depict is somehow complete enough in itself to form a hermetic, self-sustaining universe.

As any parent knows, children are Utopians. They construct fantasy worlds that run on rules of their own devising. These rules are often rigidly inflexible and uncompromising. The appeal of Thomas then might lie in the precise logic of an imaginary railway network. The simple rules that underpin the movement and actions of the trains might also be the part that makes them so successful. The engines themselves have very limited scope for independent action. They can move forwards and backwards, speed up and down, occasionally break down or have an accident but that's about it. They can't fight, or dance or play football or run. They don't chase villains or solve mysteries and they have no special powers. Although they have been anthropomorphised they remain far more train than human. They are in many ways merely extensions of the way that we often attribute human characteristics to machines, giving them names and celebrating their faults as charming idiosyncrasies

The engines also depend on humans for operation. In the original stories the relationship of the trains to their drivers and guards is very carefully delineated. It does not intrude so much that the trains become 'simply' machines but neither are they allowed any genuine independence. They can only deviate from the control of their human operators to a  limited degree, normally with fairly disastrous results. These limitations also extend to the minimal nature of the stories where a fallen tree or a faulty turntable provides pretty much the only narrative hook. The legendarily boring nature of the stories is actually cleverly consistent with the repetitive nature of the engine's tasks.  The text mirrors this, repeating simple phrases in a way that is analogous to the movements of the trains. "Clickety clack went the trucks", "We did it together, we did it together" etc.

Alongside this physically limited universe is an equally restricting moral one. Unsurprisingly perhaps given the identity of the author of the stories, the Thomas books are filled with simple pieties and swift retribution for crimes and misdemeanors. Instructions and justice are metered out by the all-powerful Fat Controller*. Sometimes they get abandoned, like Duke the Lost Engine, or decommissioned or even on occasion cut up for scrap. A bleak Victorian morality hangs over the stories allowing for sentimentality and indulgence but only up to a point and only after the work has been done. The aspiration for the all the engines is to be considered "really useful", a reward that that confirms both their status as machines and their role within an over-arching morality of duty.

The TV series of Thomas remained faithful to both the storylines and the moral universe of the books for some time. The fact that it was filmed using an actual model railway gave it in some ways an even greater degree of fidelity to the concept than the original illustrated books. If the model trains couldn't do something then neither could the ones in the stories. The wobbly, home-made aesthetic of the model railway became part of the series' 'charm', an anachronistic 1950's toy used to recreate the equally anachronistic world of 1950's steam engines.

More recently the series has been introducing new characters, partly as a way of boosting merchandise sales but also in order to create new plot lines.  The relatively recent switch to CGI has produced a more decisive shift though. In contrast to the earlier stories, recent feature length Thomas' have involved the discovery of lost towns, psychotically deranged diesel engines*** and journeys to magic islands. This expansion beyond the tightly controlled constraints of the original books pushes the logic of the series' scenario beyond plausible limits. 

In Misty Island Rescue, for instance, Thomas is set adrift on a raft at sea, eventually running ashore on an island that appears to be in the deep south of America. Even more bizarrely, when Thomas' raft hits the beach the engine rolls straight onto a conveniently placed set of tracks running directly out of the water. Later on Thomas discovers some kind of portal or short-cut between Sodor and Misty Island via a vast hollowed out tree trunk. In other recent films Thomas discovers lost towns (The Great Discovery), battles evil baddies (Day of the Diesels****) and travels through yet another portal to a contemporary mid-Western village called Shining Time (Thomas and the Magic Railroad*****). 

These fantastical adventures cause a kind of conceptual crisis in Thomas' carefully controlled universe. His actions are no longer those of a railway engine stuck shunting trucks but of a buccaneering adventurer. The Reverend Awdry's pedantic fidelity to the movements of steam engines and railway lines is long gone. The driver and guard have become like those film crews accompanying TV explorers, something that it's convenient to forget about lest they spoilt the mystique. It's no coincidence that this capitulation to pure fantasy has come about at the same time as a shift from real-time modeling to CGI. Computer rendering allows Thomas the physical and conceptual freedom to inhabit any kind of environment in more or less any way. Thomas has moved from being an anthropomorphised machine into a human being who just happens to look like a train.  

* In the original books the railway has a more complex command structure. As well as the Fat Controller (who was known pre-nationalisation as the Fat Director) there was also the Thin Controller (who occasionally appears in contemporary Thomas adventures as the bowler hatted Mr Percival), The Owner and a shadowy aristocratic figure above him known as His Grace. Various clergymen also appear with unspecified but authoritative roles. 

** The Fat Controller's outfit is also interesting, being a kind of post-war parody of a Victorian capitalist. At the time of the book's original issue it must have already been extremely out-of-date. The series' role as an allegory of capitalism and the split between labour and capital is well described by Richard's comment below. 

*** The Rev. W. Awdry's son Christopher continued to publish stories through the 1980's and '90's.

**** The role of the diesel engines as some sort of servant class/ethnic minority in the Railway Series books has always been symbolically highly suspect. 

***** This last film is worth watching for its sheer bizarreness. Not only does it mix human action with model based animation but it attempts to fuse an American TV series called Shining Time with the Thomas franchise to utterly implausible effect. It also features a memorably awful performance from Peter Fonda. 


Anonymous said...

zero comments? aw sad. That was thoughtfully written and truly lovely. As mom to an 8 month old, I'm fascinated even now by her fast development and interaction with her toys, and it will be interesting to prove this theory - so well elucidated here - out as she grows. Thank you for your thoughts!

richard said...

One can write a distressingly complete account of Kapital out of Thomas the Tank Engine stories - the three class system, including engines that have responsibility but no autonomy, in particular fits straight into Marxian theories of colonialism, as does the ever-present threat of obsolescence, presented by the (as you note) racially impure diesel engines.

I'm still prevaricating about doing a Thomas/1984 mashup, in fact. The Fat Controller is not concerned with the feckless Troublesome Trucks. It is the engines who must be disciplined, and the means for disciplining them is to give them the responsibility of disciplining the trucks.

Charles Holland said...

Thanks for comments both. Anonymous: I only posted it late last night so give it time!

Richard, your comments inspired me to go back and add a note about the Fat Controller's dress which, oddly enough, I had already thought about as being similar to the images of Victorian capitalists used as propaganda in 1984. I would love to read your mash-up so I do hope you get round to it. There was a rather typically anti-intellectual piece written by Ian Jack in The Guardian a few years ago having a pop at academic studies of Thomas.....http://bit.ly/wU4tiy

Pippa said...

Should be working on my Localism essay but having *suffered* many years of reading Thomas books to my sons I have to comment! So sexist! So snobby! The female carriages! The dirty proletarian freight trucks. Also detected notes of anti-semitism when the fat 'troller denounced a passenger (possibly slightly foreign looking)for not giving up his shoe laces to mend the train.
Oh dear - the lost years of reading Thomas books have taken their toll. Back to my essay...

Lang Rabbie said...

I see you have included the (in)famous scrapyard picture that led to childhood nightmares for so many. Does scrapping = death etc?

I wondered whether you might stumble across that in any discussion on anthropormorphism in the Thomas stories.

Charles Holland said...

Pippa, all true of course although I retain affection for the books if only for rather beautiful illustrations....

Lang, yep i searched for that pic because I remembered it as I remembered the disturbing story of Duke the Lost Engine which is partly revived in the recent Thomas adventure Hero of the rails! Also, Gunvor Edwards is my favourite of the artists who illustrated the books. Part of a tradition of gloomy and rather gothic children's book illustrations.

Kosmograd said...

Nice article, looking forward to part 2. Fortunately my kids are now past the Thomas phase, been there, done that, got the duvet set.

My analysis of Thomas the Tank Engine is that it is an allegory not of Kapital as Richard would have it, but of Communism, or more accurately the corruption of communism under Stalin. Probe deeper and you can read the Thomas books as Animal Farm on rails.

In many ways the Soviet state under Stalin mirrored the tripartite social structure that Marx identifies in his critique of capitalism. At the foot of the pyramid , the troublesome trucks represent the peasantry. Rather than a repressed proletariat, they are the unruly masses, the true power and thus need to be cruelly oppressed, literally shunted into place.

The trains themselves are loyal low-level Party apparatchiks. As Richard says, they have responsibility but not autonomy, there movements are carefully proscribed and observed. Their loyalty is constantly being questioned, and live in constant fear of Terror (i.e. the scrapyard/ gulag) for perceived crimes against the state, and being replaced by Diesels.

At the head of this power structure sits the supreme power, the Fat Controller, i.e. Stalin. He might dress like a Victorian industrialist, but unlike one, he does not answer to the higher power of Capital. The Fat Controller is a dictator, whose decisions have no commercial basis or rationale. The functioning of the railway of Sodor operates to no known social enterprise or business model, it is a totalitarian regime which exists purely to serve the wishes of the Party, manifested purely through the diktat of the Fat Controller.

For the Party, the enemy is not Diesel powered trains, but motorised transport, the car and the bus, which represents the decadent West., with its spatial freedoms, material possessions, and the lure of the open road. This the race between Thomas and Bertie the bus can be seen as is an forewarning of an arms race between the Eastern Bloc and the West Of course, the Fat Controller drives around in a big car himself ...

The trains are kept in line not only through the fear of Terror, but also by the tactic of Shock Work, where they are commanded to perform heroic feats in order to demonstrate their loyalty and be deemed Really Useful Engines. Trains will find themselves ordered to race to the other side of the island of Sodor, or to pull immense loads, or travel ever quicker, in Stakhanovite feats of over-production. These tasks are over undertaken in order to assist in the building of a series of grand, largely pointless, projects, always to be urgently completed according to some arbitrary deadline and show of power.

richard said...

@Kosmograd: you've completely won me over. I've been thinking about Sodor as a sort of interwar, commercial Raj, but Stalinism fits perfectly, bravo!

I wonder what Awdry's intention was.

Charles Holland said...

Kosmograd, thanks for comment and good effort! Very plausible although you've overlooked a couple of things. Firstly, the Fat Controller doesn't own the railway, The Owner does and even he is below His Grace! Plausibly The Owner could be the state with His Grace as some Big Brother figure but for my money the stories are entirely consistent with a high Anglican, one nation Tory mentality. All the issues of duty, sacrifice, responsibility etc emanate from this as does the representation of essentially stable class divisions which need occasional reinstatement. Everybody knows their place fulfillment resides in executing your role usefully. A railway is the perfect allegory for such a system shown to be running like a well-oiled machine with the occasional hicccup!

Ashley said...

This made my day lol My almost three year old has been utterly obsessed with EVERYTHING thomas the tank engine since age 1. We own so much thomas stuff we could start our own museum. I completely agree with everything said and often wonder just how many dictatorship references could be made in the whole series. Especially in Day of the Diesels!! Racism is very evident in that movie towards the diesels. And at the end, only after the revolt, the Fat Controller gives them what they want only to keep everyone obedient and quiet. Honestly I could recite these movies and books. My son enjoys it. I just cant wait until he hits school and actually learns aboit real countries who were and still are under totalitarian governments like the Island Of Sodor.