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How a Thomas the Tank Engine fandom made me less cynical about the internet

Amid all the moral panic about what young people get up to online, some are just forming extremely wholesome, nostalgic fan communities

As Brexit hangs over the the United Kingdom like whatever the force is in Final Destination that will at some point inevitably kill everyone, it’s hard to avoid just how angry people are online. I wake up each day and wonder, ‘what will people be angry about today?’ It’s easy to get cynical about things, and even to imagine that everything is worse than it really is. Cynicism protects us from being disappointed. Tim Bewes’s book Cynicism and Postmodernity describes postmodern cynicism as “a melancholic, self-pitying reaction to the apparent disintegration of political reality”.

My own cynicism recently led me, a grown man, to unexpectedly develop a deep and decidedly un-cynical interest in Thomas the Tank Engine. TTTE, I accidentally discovered, has a big online fandom consisting of teenage train fans who will not be pleased with you if you misrepresent their favourite kids’ show. Such was the flippant mistake I made when I used an episode of TTTE as a prop on which to hang a joke about Brexit, the ongoing but very real dramatisation of the political destruction of the United Kingdom.

If you cast your mind back to a few years ago, you might remember that TTTE was the subject of a number of articles accusing it of being a ‘story of neurosis, oppression, abuse and post-traumatic stress’, or a ‘repressive, authoritarian’ series teaching conservative morals to kids. The articles suggesting that TTTE was a dystopia concentrated in particular on the episode in which Henry refuses to leave his tunnel, and so is bricked up inside it by the Fat Controller (or Topham Hatt, as he’s called in the US version).

Having suggested on Twitter that the United Kingdom is in danger of being bricked up in its tunnel forever, just like Henry (see above), I soon learned that TTTE fans were not as amused by my joke as I was. They flocked to my tweet to tell me that Henry the moody train isn’t locked in a tunnel forever, but gets out in the next episode.

These fans had a much more straightforward, less sinister reading of the Henry incident, and they were sick of seeing people like me misrepresent the story. Given that the original books were written in the 1940s by an Anglican minister, Reverend Wilbert Awdry, it’s true that the original stories reflect a stricter approach to disciplining children than we’re comfortable with today. If you take the scene where Henry gets bricked up in his tunnel out of context, it’s definitely weird – but perhaps it’s also going out on a limb to suggest, as the New Yorker did, that TTTE is “a premodern corporate-totalitarian dystopia”. If you’re seeing dystopias everywhere, it might say more about the society we live in now and our levels of cynicism than anything inherent in the stories a priest told his son at bedtime in the 1940s.

I found this earnest, literal response to my tweet odd, and became intrigued by these people and their love for anthropomorphic trains. So, I asked them to fill out a questionnaire about themselves. I found out that 72 per cent of the 89 respondents were 18 or under, with the majority also having a technical interest in trains (which grew out of the show). I didn’t specifically ask about gender, but one fan on Twitter told me that “There are very few female Thomas fans in this community. And usually they are treated with upmost (sic) respect because they’re female. I guess it’s the same thing for the video game community. Whenever a girl says ‘oh yeah I like this thing’ the fans worship her.”

Looking at the Twitter bios of the people responding to my original tweet, I noticed certain themes to the type of people who cared a lot about the Thomas franchise: they liked trains, other fandoms, and were often geeky, gay, Christian or neurodiverse. Some bios stated the user is on the autistic spectrum, and many included references to other fandoms. A representative fan bio reads “25, Catholic Youth Minister, Power Rangers fanatic, Classic Who, Star Wars, Harry Potter, OSRS, Flarrow, British Railway Fanatic”.

“In our chaotic world, TTTE represents not just a kind of childhood nostalgia, but a simple, friendly world which is so benign and comforting that it can incorporate serious train accidents which can be laughed off”

TTTE is owned by Mattel, the US toy company with a revenue of around $5bn a year. There have been 22 series of Thomas and Friends, and 14 other specials since 1984, and a lot of fans seem to have really emotionally invested in the world created by the whole series.

One adult fan I talked to, who runs the wonderfully old school fansite Sodor Island, told me that “it’s the history of the brand that keeps me invested. It’s an ongoing story. The original Awdry stories take us through three decades of change in both our British transport industry and by and large, our changing society.”

The simple nature of the original Thomas and Friends production means there’s quite a lot of fan-made video content on YouTube. In terms of YouTube popularity though, none of this stuff has as many views as some Thomas toy unboxing videos, or the most viewed TTTE video on YouTube: a carefree song from the Alec Baldwin-narrated Fifth Series (1998) called “Accidents Will Happen” which recounts various accidents which had previously happened in the series. I’m pretty sure that this is what you’d get if J.G. Ballard had directed an episode of Thomas and Friends, but the fact that it’s the most-watched Thomas video online surely says more about the general public’s love of toy train crashes than about TTTE itself or its biggest fans.

“It seems like a shame that when looking at online communities from the outside, we often immediately treat it as something strange or disturbing, when that may just be a projection of our own feelings”

In our chaotic world, TTTE represents not just a kind of childhood nostalgia, but a simple, friendly world which is so benign and comforting that it can incorporate serious train accidents which can be laughed off with an upbeat song. “I think there’s a need to protect a world where some fans feel safe”, the owner of Sodor Island told me. “Thomas represents an area of their life where they were happiest, and it’s something they want to hold onto to maintain that.“ There’s an argument to be made that TTTE has an underlying conservative worldview, though one conservative fan I talked to complained that Mattel was a left-leaning company who had been trying to insert more ‘diversity’ into the show’s cast.

Other responses by fans about why they liked the show emphasised its simplicity, design, relatableness of the characters, or charming and unique nature. Even at its creation, the series played on nostalgia for steam trains which had already gone out of use. Plus, compared to some of the content made for children on YouTube now, like the mindless consumerism of unboxing videos, TTTE is charmingly human.

Fundamentally, in between the constant waves of moral panic that the media creates about kids online eating Tide Pods, being politically radicalised, bullied or playing Fortnite until their fingers are bloody, it’s quite easy to miss the fact that many young people are engaged in creating earnest and supportive fan communities like this one. It seems like a shame that when looking at online communities from the outside, we often immediately treat it as something strange or disturbing, when that may just be a projection of our own feelings. So thank you, anthropomorphic train stans, for making me slightly less cynical about the world – for a brief moment.