The basic premise of “Wonky Whistle” is that Thomas is looking forward to a country show, but needs to have his whistle repaired. He’s assigned to collect a freight van of farm animals to take to the show, and, being an overexcited git, Thomas completely disregards that his whistle is broken (or “wonky”, as the episode refers to it). Thomas takes off to spread the news of the country show and collect the animals, stopping just about everywhere along the way to tell the people. But everything is steadily ruined when his “wonky” whistle startles the animals into fleeing the van, and convinces the public to not show up. Of course, this predictably leads to Thomas failing his job, but getting the also predictable second chance to make amends, by getting food that conveniently brings the animals back. Everything ends so happy-happy, and, oh, where to start?
Well, there’s the obvious incompetence of the lead character. Admittedly, I actually grew to hate Thomas over time because of this characterization that was frequent in the then-newer episodes (that, and how he kept being shoehorned into plots that had nothing to do with him, but I digress). I get that he’s excitable and wants to do good-and good for him. Problem is, it was a recurring problem where you honestly had to wonder if Thomas wasn’t just a bloody idiot incapable of learning from past experiences. One episode, it was the barrel of bubble mix. Another, it was a truck of sparkling lemonade bottles that he steadily wasted because he loved the sound of the corks popping at the higher speeds, without ever considering that he might damage his cargo. And, oh, there is plenty of cases where Thomas bolts off before he’s told an oh-so-important piece of information. But in “Wonky Whistle”, Thomas actually manages to be even stupider than before. The case in point that many others have cited? Well, during the scene where he rushes off before his whistle can be prepared, Thomas takes off while the workmen were still atop him. Granted, in a show like this, nothing serious would come of it, but it comes off as a massive moment of stupidity to recklessly endanger people like that. It’s also a tad creepy how quickly it’s brushed off-as well as how it’s never addressed again, which makes me wonder why they even incorporated that part in the episode in the first place. If it was to enforce the moral of not rushing into things, they sure as hell ignored it as soon as they threw it in. Again, I find that kinda creepy.
And following that, there are a couple of occasions where, upon “whistling”, various characters were trying to alert him that the animals have run off. Thomas assumes that they’re saying hello…as he’s taking off and leaving them behind. Yeah, you’re not a “silly engine”, Thomas. You’re an idiot.
There’s also the aforementioned “enforced moral” note that ties into the use of idiot plots to ensure they happen. This episode essentially embodies the problem of the idiot plot. The protagonist has to be an idiot for it to work, and, boy, do they accomplish that with Thomas. As mentioned earlier, this was a common problem with him in those episodes. If there is meant to be a sense of continuity between these episodes, then Thomas is pretty much all but stated outright to be such a dolt that the lesson never sinks in. (Although he was hardly the only character to suffer that problem, Thomas was particularly infuriating.) But let’s ignore continuity for a moment. If you take the episode as itself, the plot still suffers because it would fall completely apart if Thomas weren’t an utter moron (or made into one for the sake of the story). This is a story where a character has to act reckless for the sake of itself, not because it fits into the narrative or works with the character. After all, if Thomas wasn’t a total git in the story, would it even work? Even more condemning is how this sort of plot could have been executed without resorting to making the lead an idiot. He was carting farm animals, after all. Just about anything could have prompted them to run out, and Thomas’ acts to retrieve them would not require rendering him a fool.
And, the more I think about, the more I realize that the “wonky whistle” was not truly the central issue, as you might think after reading the title. In fact, the “wonky whistle” could have been removed completely due to how it’s never fully addressed, aside from how it causes the animals to flee for their lives. Honestly, the episode makes it clear that the real cause of conflict is Thomas’ overexcitedness, which would lead to running off before the van carrying the animals was properly closed whether he had a “wonky” whistle or not. Hell, Thomas’ normal whistle would have likely scared the animals into running, along with the open door on rolling stock in motion. Looking at a majority of the plot, the whistle itself really plays no role that couldn’t have easily been substituted by an undamaged whistle, or just about anything, really. In that regard, it does seem peculiar that they’d even have it as a plot element when Thomas constantly rushing off (as he did in other episodes) is the real issue at hand. So why a “wonky” whistle, aside from maybe just wanting to make a weird and uncomfortable noise (that curiously never bothers Thomas, despite his close proximity)?
Going beyond that, the episode is further damaged when Thomas is, when you think about it, actually rewarded for and gets away with his incompetence. Seriously, Thomas is never truly held accountable for what he does in the episode. Aside from briefly feeling shame when it finally occurs to him that maybe that damn “wonky” whistle has done more harm than good, there is never really a moment where Thomas is made to actually face his actions. Sure, he gets the animals back, but its execution makes it feel like less of a desire to make amends, and more that the story conveniently gives him a way to wrap things up (despite establishing the animals as having completely fled the areas they escaped from the freight van in). If the episode sought to present Thomas as legitimately making amends, it was rather half-assed and too quick to truly feel like he made an effort beyond “I lay out food, and they happen to still be around”. It just...after all that crapola the episode puts you through, it does not make a satisfying conclusion. Thomas never truly faces the consequences of his stupidity because the plot decides to make fixing it easy. Honestly, had the episode put more time into showing Thomas going out of his way to find the lost animals, rather than simply laying bait and waiting five seconds for them to opportunely reappear, it could have made the ending a lot more legitimate. And, once again, there’s the issue of the workmen he could have potentially injured, which is never brought up-which further cements how much Thomas gets away with in this episode, because the plot says so. I’d think that’d be a little damaging to the enforced moral.
So, with all this in consideration, I can definitely see why this episode is so particularly despised. It seems to represent a number of the problems that could be seen with the show throughout those years. And even if you take it for what it is, it’s still an insufferably stupid plot with an insufferably stupid (for the plot) lead character. Yeah, the whistle wasn’t what was “wonky” about this one.