Most children - and some adults - remain in ignorance of many dark Thomas the Tank Engine moments. Despite the evolution of Thomas the Tank Engine to Thomas and Friends, the strange but revealing description of these animated steam engines is in the intro lyrics: "They're the really useful crew, all with different roles to play."
In the 1940s, Anglican clergyman Wilbert Awdry created Thomas the Tank Engine, which takes place in a fictional world full of sentient steam engines, trains, and cars that seek to please their leader and contribute to their island of Sodor. It's charming on the surface, but a closer inspection of the story reveals nonconformist train engines that suffer from punishment and public shaming.
You might think this is simply a fan theory about a children's show, but the true story behind Thomas the Tank Engine is unquestionably rooted in darkness.
Sodor Has A Rigid Hierarchy
Unsurprisingly, facets from Awdry's life as a clergyman, a profession enshrined in hierarchy, entered his work. Awdry's characters live within a rigid structure. In the Railway series, the engines are the "big dogs," and the freight cars are apparently their subordinates. The freight cars, known as the "troublesome trucks" or "foolish freight cars," frequently play tricks on the engines and generally take it easy.
Awdry often portrays the superiors punishing the less powerful for insubordination, including in the story of S.C. Ruffey, a freight car. After S.C. Ruffey annoys Oliver, a Great Western tank engine, the freight car gets pulled apart. When Sir Topham Hatt discovers this, instead of punishing Oliver, he asks him to keep it a secret, as it would be "bad for discipline" if word got out. The trucks end up respecting Oliver out of fear they'll meet a similar fate.
On Sodor, Characters Get Disciplined With Public Humiliation
The hierarchy of Sodor supports the ways in which Awdry doles out punishment in his Railway series. Characters who dare step out of line are frequently pointed out as examples, getting subjected to public humiliation.
In one episode of Thomas and Friends, the engine Duke tells the tale of Smudger, a tank engine. Smudger lived proudly and almost derailed himself quite a bit. Because Smudger never listened to Sir Topham Hatt, the Sodor authorities removed his wheels and turned him into a generator.
The Engines Are Unable To Fight Sodor's System
While Sir Topham Hatt metaphorically dangles carrots for the engines, such as giving them extra chores or pulling "special" freight, he also makes sure that every engine knows its place on the tracks. On Sodor, it doesn't matter how much precious freight an engine pulls, as a freight car will always be just that, and Sir Topham Hatt will always be on top.
When engines try to fight this system, Sir Topham Hatt harshly rebukes them. In "Trouble in the Shed," engines Gordon, James, and Henry go on strike. Rather than listen to their demands, Sir Topham Hatt hires a scab to pull their weight while locking the three engines away for insubordination. He warns the rest of Sodor not to follow in their footsteps, lest they suffer the same fate.
By the end of the episode, the three engines feel foolish for their actions rather than horrified by their unfair treatment.
- Photo: Thomas & Friends/Mattel
Sodor Is Hostile To Immigrants And New Ideas
At the same time Awdry created the world of Thomas the Tank Engine, England underwent massive changes and a status decline as an imperial power. The country experienced a significant increase in immigration due to WWII. As a result, areas like Nottingham and London experienced race-based tensions and civil unrest.
In episodes of Thomas and Friends like "Hiro Helps Out," the well-intentioned Hiro, an immigrant train from Asia, sees Sir Topham Hatt growing frazzled by the sheer amount of work he must undertake. In an attempt to help out, Hiro starts to give orders to the trains individually.
Rather than thank his employee for his assistance, Sir Topham Hatt becomes enraged, forcing Hiro to humble himself to the other trains and acknowledge his inferiority. Hiro's struggle seems eerily emblematic of the negative sentiments regarding immigration expressed during Awdry's time and even today.
Sodor appears regressive in more ways than just its politics. In the book Stafford Gets Stuck, the steam and diesel engines are at a loss at how to help out the title character Stafford, an electrical engine. The island appears content with remaining technologically disadvantaged, and it sees no widespread advances even into the '80s, though this is conveyed as quaint rather than problematic.