Thomas the Repressed, Authoritarian Tank Engine


I remember the days of watching Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends traveling around the Island of Sodor. They would work hard to deliver goods, passengers and teach moral lessons at the same time. However, little did I know the lessons being taught may of had some deeper, strange meanings than what seemed on the surface. How could a show like Thomas the Tank Engine have some hidden agenda embedded within its moral messages? Well, there’s a theory Thomas the Tank Engine is set in post-apocalyptic wasteland. When I first heard this theory I thought that it was nuts. However, after looking at some things people have pointed out in the show and books, the theory doesn’t actually seem so uncrackable.

If you actually read the books or pay close attention to the show you can see the underlinings of a totalitarian government in place on the Island of Sodor. The trains are constantly fighting for more work and the approval of the Fat Controller, the man in charge of the trains. The trains on the Island of Sodor believe Sodor is the only “safe zone” and that other railways are dangerous. Even though they believe they have it rough on Sodor because they are constantly working, that it could be far worse in other places. In the book “Stepney the ‘Bluebell’ Engine” there is a green train named Percy who speaks about the other railways.

Percy said, “‘Engines on the Other Railway aren’t safe now. Their controllers are cruel. They don’t like engines anymore. They put them on cold damp sidings, and then,’ Percy nearly sobbed, ‘they . . . they c-c-cut them up.’”  

The illustration that accompanies that page in the book shows two trains: one train that’s frozen in fear and another train with a black void where his face use to be. If that doesn’t sound like some propaganda I don’t know what does. These trains can’t go to the other railways because they’re trains and they can’t just get off their rails to go to other rails. Life on the other railways may not be that bad, but maybe the Fat Controller wants his trains to believe that to keep them in line. The only way the Fat Controller can maintain his authoritarian rule is by using misinformation.

If you need another way to convince you of the authoritarian rule on Sodor, you should check out the episode “The Sad Story of Henry.” Mind you, this is the second episode in the first season, so this is one of the first “moral” lessons this show tries to teach kids. Some background information on the episode: Henry is a concerned green train with red stripes. Henry is afraid to ride the rails because he believes the rain will ruin his lovely paint. Well, Henry’s refusal to ride the rails doesn’t sit well with the overlord ruler, the Fat Controller. The Fat Controller demands the passengers pull Henry out of the tunnel with a rope, but they have no luck. Then he tells them to push Henry out from the back, but again Henry won’t budge. The passengers try to convince Henry that it’s not raining, but maybe Henry notices they are still using umbrellas, so he refuses to come out of the tunnel.

Henry doomed to a sad death.

Henry doomed to a sad death.

Well this whole ordeal takes time and slows down the work day. So, what does the Fat Controller think should happen because of this? He thinks that Henry deserves to be punished……..FOR LIFE! He decides to take away Henry’s rails so he can never leave the tunnel ever again, but he’s not done there. He then continues to construct a brick wall around Henry, but leaving his top half exposed so he can see the other trains as they go by. Henry watches as his friends go by and whistle at him, but Henry has no steam left to whistle back himself. Henry is left soot covered in the tunnel to die at the end of the episode. The narrator even goes as far as saying in the last line of the episode, “I think he deserved his punishment, don’t you?” So what lesson did we learn here today kids? Do what you’re told or you will live the rest of your life imprisoned in a brick tomb. Or not to question authority or you will be punished for life.

In order to understand this series let’s take a look at the creator of the Thomas the Tank Engine universe. Wilbert Awdry began writing the stories in 1942 as a way to entertain his son Christopher who had contracted the measles. Awdry would write twenty-seven books about the series and his son Christopher would write sixteen after his father’s death. From Awdry’s stories we can tell that he wasn’t a fan of change, loved order and enjoyed the handing out of punishment.

We can see these three aspects come up in some other books and the show. In one episode, a red double decker bus named Bulgy comes to the station speaking of revolution, “‘Free the roads from railway tyranny!’ Bulgy yelled.”

Bulgy is instantly labeled as a “scarlet deceiver,” tand trapped under a bridge to turn into a hen house. Once again, this episode screams a repressive rule is enforced amongst the trains because Bulgy was silenced so quickly and killed for going against the people in charge. In another episode, a showoff train named Smudger angers the wrong people and is promptly turned into a generator. There is also a recurring storyline of the “troublesome trucks.” They are eventually controlled through fear, public and symbolic punishment. The leader of the “troublesome trucks” is publicly killed by being pulled into two different directions until he’s torn in half. This is another example of the people in charge killing someone for going against their agenda.

As a child I didn’t realize what was going on in these books and show, but now as an adult this series seems disturbing. I watched this show sometimes as a kid, but not that often, I was more of a “Seinfeld” fan. Now looking back, I’m glad my mother wanted me to watch Seinfeld over this authoritarian manifesto of a series. I could have grown up to be some kind of sadistic, punishment loving, authoritative wacko. Now, this is just a theory and may not be the actual intentions of Wilbert Awdry, but the evidence is there. It’s up to you to believe in it or to not.

By Alex St. Peters