A Return to that Misty Island
2015 has been a year of revisits for me, such as reengaging with The Simpsons over the nightly FXX blocks, or rereading several books I had come across during my college days. One such series in this regard has been Thomas the Tank Engine (or Thomas & Friends, as it’s often titled). I rekindled my love of the old Ringo Starr- and George Carlin-narrated segments in college. But, as I’ve mentioned before, the series struck the ground hard for a time, where the CG conversion and HiT Entertainment’s storytelling only served to make things worse. However, as time went on, I grew to appreciate the CG animation, especially as the stories improved, come Andrew Brenner’s running of the helm. Since Season/Series 17, things have been getting better, much to my delight.
That said, I still have reservations about the earlier, Michael Brandon-narrated episodes and materials. After all, in my older “Mega-Rant” reviews, I covered Day of the Diesels, which was a frustratingly wasted opportunity punctuated by Percy whining over his BFF having the gall to hang out with someone that wasn’t him. And I remembered Misty Island Rescue before it, and how frustrating that was, with its own bouts of idiocy. But time does change. In the past, I found Hero of the Rails to be a rather “meh” production. However, upon giving it another watch earlier this year, I grew to like it-especially helped by Thomas’ sheer determination to help Hiro. I watched Blue Mountain Mystery, and that was actually pretty decent, too. And while I still don’t really care for much of the aforementioned Michael Brandon-narrated material, I decided to revisit it for old time’s sakes. And…most of it still is pretty crappy, but that’s besides the point.
As I am now approaching the early CG-animated episodes and specials with a mindset that didn’t immediately hold bias because of the conversion and lackluster narrator, I thought that, perhaps, it was time to revisit Misty Island Rescue. I am sure any fellow Thomas enthusiasts reading this will cringe a bit, and so did I. After all, this is the special that introduced “Logging Locos” Bash, Dash, and Ferdinand, three utterly imbecilic, redneck stereotypes that many fans-myself, included-found insufferable and pointless. And God, did I find them annoying in their respective episodes, like the one where they get Thomas to repair an old crane back into “working order” (read: so it throws logs around in an extremely dangerous and wasteful manner, because it’s “fun” to them). With that in mind, I dreaded coming back to Misty Island Rescue. Nevertheless, I decided to take another look at it, to evaluate if it was truly as bad as I remembered, now that I am past that old mindset.
And, whaddya know, it’s still horrible.
Because Thomas Always Makes Good Decisions
The plot is kicked into gear by the construction of a Search and Rescue Center, which requires a particularly durable material known as “Jobi wood” to build it. Sir Topham Hatt makes the announcement that the engine that proves to be “the most useful” will make the trip to the Mainland for the official job. Eager to prove himself, Thomas gets caught up in Diesel’s attempt to prove himself, which ends with Diesel losing the logs intended for the Center-and almost himself, too, before Thomas rescues him. (This isn’t helped by Thomas callously telling Diesel that he wouldn’t get the special job, because he’s a “diesel, not a steamie”, which prompts Diesel, who earnestly wanted to prove he could be useful, to take the ill-fated trip with the logs. And, unfortunately, Thomas gets away with what is effectively casual racism.) Believing himself to be triumphant and grand after Hatt commends him for making the good decision of saving Diesel, Thomas takes the Mainland job, but refuses to wait for another ship to safely carry him. Instead, in his infinite wisdom, the little tank engine elects to be tied to a rusty, worn raft chained behind the ship, so he doesn’t have to wait. And despite the chain breaking in the strong winds and Thomas being set adrift until he crashes onto the titular island, Thomas is convinced that he can do no wrong, just because Hatt said he “makes good decisions”.
Foreshadowed by a tale regarding its heavy mist, smoke signals, and the haunting sounds of lost engines, Misty Island does indeed present itself as ominous to Thomas. Eventually, he makes it to the derelict logging camp, where he encounters the terrible trio of Bash, Dash, and Ferdinand. They don’t hit it off very well at the start, largely due to Thomas’ delusion that he makes only right decisions and the Logging Locos’ unusual approach to life. (And what a life it is, running on oil and traversing things like the architecture’s nightmare Shake Shake Bridge.) Fortunately, there are plenty of Jobi logs on Misty Island, which renews Thomas’ hope in getting the job done and gives him further motivation to return to Sodor. Alas, being stuck on an island complicates things. However, there’s an old tunnel that may provide a means to get back. Unfortunately, it’s unstable and unpredictable, and even the idiotically reckless Logging Locos have enough sense to steer clear. Still holding to his Peggy Hill-esque delusions, Thomas pushes them to use what’s left of their oil reserve to carry their Jobi payload through the tunnel. Unfortunately for them, said tunnel is blocked off at one end, and they get trapped for their troubles. Thomas is forced to accept that he’s an idiot (which won’t last, considering episodes like the much-hated “Wonky Whistles” that followed this special).
On the Sodor side of things, Hatt receives the bad news about Thomas’ disappearance and arranges every engine on Sodor to search for him. (It makes me wonder if there’d be such a response to an engine other than Thomas vanishing like that.) He consults the waste dump managing (and oddly bespectacled) engine Whiff, who brings up an old tunnel that has since been blocked up on their end. Surprise, surprise, the tunnel turns out to be the very same one that Thomas and the Logging Locos are trapped inside. On the Misty Island end, an opening gives Thomas a chance to send smoke signals, much like in the story, that allow him to alert everyone on Sodor to his presence. Whiff and Percy successfully clear and make their way through the tunnel, allowing Thomas and the Logging Locos to escape unscathed. Unfortunately, Sir Topham attempts to search for Thomas with three engines on Misty Island, getting themselves lost in the heavy mist. Thomas returns to the Island, and manages to lead them back with his whistle. The Jobi wood is delivered, the Center is constructed, and the Logging Locos are officially made part of Sir Topham Hatt’s railway.
And I am horribly frustrated.
Nothing Really to Rescue, Nothing Really to Salvage
As you can tell from the description, one of the major problems with Misty Island Rescue is that it’s built around idiot moves and idiot actions that construct an idiot plot. The whole thing is kicked off with Thomas making the move of hitching himself to an unstable, rusty-chained raft, all because he can’t wait for another ship to take him to the Mainland. This alone should have been the first sign that something was amiss. They actually go through with it, and are surprised to hear that Thomas got lost at sea, despite that it’s a train chained down (and not very well secured, otherwise) to a raft being precariously towed behind a ship. No one actually stops to consider that doing so would be a terrible idea. And I just have to pity Thomas’ poor driver and fireman, who were apparently expected to wait in Thomas’ cab while they are carted dangerously atop a raft-since, again, no one apparently thought this would be a bad idea. (Then again, with the seeming independent movement, it was hard for me to tell if they were there.) So, from the get-go, you know that Misty Island Rescue is just going to get worse.
Not to say that Thomas’ behavior is any better. As previously noted, the loss of the Jobi wood in the first place was prompted by Thomas’ casually racist comment towards Diesel. Granted, the whole “steamies and diesels prejudice” angle is nothing new, but in most cases that I’ve seen, the prejudiced party in question comes to realize they were wrong to act in such a manner. Here, we don’t get that. We get Diesel, earnestly wanting to prove himself and show up Thomas’ assholish comment, being effectively shamed as a villain, because he’s the diesel and Thomas is the “heroic” steamie. Even worse, Thomas arguably caused Diesel to lose the Jobi logs in the first place, pursuing him under the rationale of “Diesel going too fast”, which prompted Diesel to go faster, and then taking his sweet time to reach Diesel, when he loses the logs and nearly loses himself in the ocean. (Although, to his credit, Thomas does save Diesel. But that’s small consolation in the grand scheme of things.) And while Diesel is pushed to apologize for his actions, Thomas never apologizes for setting off Diesel in the first place. Hooray for steamie racism.
And then there’s the character’s recurring insistence that he can’t make any bad decisions, because Sir Topham Hatt told him so. After the incident with the raft, which is a massive violation of common sense, Thomas doesn’t take the hint that he may not be that wise, after all. Nope, throughout the special, Thomas continues to recant, “I make good decisions, that’s what I was told! I will not be fearful; I’ll be brave and bold!” like a goddamned mantra (to where every utterance builds upon my annoyance). And all of this comes as he just makes more and more idiotic mistakes, such as running off into the mist without knowing where he is, and wasting all of the Logging Locos’ oil reserve in a bout of shortsightedness. At first glance, this could be taken to be the sign of Thomas fearfully trying to assert that he’s right, so as to ensure he never loses control of the situation. Unfortunately, his behavior pretty much shoots down that theory, showing him as an arrogant git who is thoroughly convinced that he does no wrong-even after the whole affair with the raft. Oddly, it’s not until his well-being is threatened a second time that it actually sinks into his thick smoke box that he might be wrong. Really, the plot couldn’t happen if Thomas wasn’t a complete idiot, and that doesn’t speak highly of the special.
(As an aside, this special pretty much reminds me why I hated Thomas as a character for some time. Being the titular character, he was shoehorned into just about everything, and various plots involving him required that he had to act like a stupid, easily excitable git. Sure, he’s gotten better, admittedly, especially in light of works like Tale of the Brave. But there’s still a bit of a bad aftertaste of his former characterization. And rewatching Misty Island Rescue just made me relive that. Not a pleasant experience.)
And speaking of idiots, there are also the Logging Locos, who pretty much exist to be loose-running, carless, reckless imbeciles. Their personalities, save for the few moments when they try to seriously address their dwindling oil reserve, can be defined as “wacky” and nothing more. They manage to make Thomas look competent by comparison, considering how they live. Seriously, for engines that are deathly afraid of losing all of their oil reserve, they speed around the island like guffawing numbskulls, make a game out of things like stalking Thomas, and “work” at the derelict camp. Their behavior becomes rather disturbing, when they get around over the threateningly-flimsy Shake Shake Bridge that could drop them at any second, and revel in the behavior of a crane, called “Ol’ Wheezy”, that tosses logs in a way that not only wastes good wood, but could also potentially destroy any of them with one mistimed hit. When they behave like this, it’s hard to sympathize with them. And it gets worse when Thomas, actually showing he has a brain for once, is understandably apprehensive, and they belittle him for “not being any fun”. Again, we’re supposed to like these morons and want to see them get saved? Quite frankly, I’m surprised they didn’t already get themselves killed by their idiocy.
Going beyond that, there’s also a sad waste of potential with los tres idiotas. Late in the tunnel entrapment sequence, they admit that the three of them were essentially abandoned on Misty Island because of their carelessness and refusal to work seriously. Taking everything in the previous paragraph into consideration, the Logging Locos could be understood as tragic beings trying to distract themselves from being abandoned for their failure. And, if you really wanted to get dark, their reckless, borderline-suicidal behavior with things like the Shake Shake Bridge and Ol’ Wheezy could be further explained and justified by these damaged emotional, mental states and attempts to recapture the lives they once had. How much of a depressing, but effective characterization would that be? And from there, you could work in some legitimately emotional moments, such as the Logging Locos realizing their reckless behavior will only in disaster and coming to terms with their situation, giving them a second chance in Sudrian society. With such an angle, we could actually sympathize with those poor engines and want to see them get saved. After all, being ditched onto an island for God knows how long wouldn’t do wonders to anyone’s psyche, even if they’re an engine.
Unfortunately, there’s no hope for such characterization here. Bash, Dash, and Ferdinand are just idiots who are driven by a love of all things fun and logic-defying. And because that revelation isn’t given to us until way too late in the plot to make any real difference, such characterization never stood a chance. Bash, Dash, and Ferdinand never realize how moronic they are, and are instead commended for their idiotic behavior. And when they’re called out for it, their typical responses are to merely mock and belittle Thomas, calling him a “spoilsport” or just outright laugh him off like the mentally-defunct fools they are. And despite their legitimate concern about losing their oil reserve, it doesn’t seem to stop them from chuffing all over the place, yukking it up in the times of their lives-which only further cements their incompetence. There’s nothing sympathetic or worthwhile about these characters, which only further wastes our time in this narrative.
Looking at the “plot” again, you could see that there’s an intended moral about listening to others, especially as Thomas’ problems largely come from his refusal to listen to anyone. Fair enough, except that the narrative doesn’t properly execute that moral. Don’t get me wrong. Misty Island Rescue tries to set up that moral with Thomas’ incompetence, but with that are two issues. One, no one ever thinks to really address Thomas when he says or suggests something stupid, aside from something small, like the feeble warning about the raft. And two, the Logging Locos become the main way for the narrative to enact this moral. Problem is, as I’ve established, the Logging Locos are reckless idiots. Sure, their concerns over their limited oil reserves are valid, and Thomas should have listened to them. However, in addition to the aforementioned tendency of the Locos to dwindle their supply on their stupid games, the Logging Locos also sabotage any credibility with their reactions. Ironically, Thomas actually realizes there’s an issue with the Shake Shake Bridge and Ol’ Wheezy, which prompts the Logging Locos to essentially peer pressure Thomas into crossing the extremely dangerous bridge and insult him for not wanting to be close to the maniacally swinging crane. With this in mind, why would anyone want to listen to these idiots? (I absolutely loved the irony of the Logging Locos deeming the tunnel “dangerous”, in light of their irresponsible habits.) And because they are not sympathetic in any real way, the moral’s dashed when you remember things like that.
As for Misty Island itself, I will admit that it had some cool facets about it. When Thomas’ raft crashes and he first sets his wheels onto the island, the scenery is absolutely and wonderfully atmospheric. There’s nothing but mist and trees for miles around, and the only path Thomas can take goes deeper and deeper into the unknown. Oddly, it almost carries a kind of Silent Hill vibe that makes the place otherworldly. Really, Misty Island does alright at first, giving us a creepy, yet interesting view of a seemingly abandoned place with the potential for adventure. And, as stupid as this might sound, I actually do kinda like the hollow log that serves as a tunnel. Yes, it’s actually pretty dumb and hazardous, when you think about it, but it suits the otherworldly nature of the setting so well. But it gets worse from there, especially when you reach the Shake Shake Bridge and Ol’ Wheezy.
Granted, I’m not one of those Thomas fans that will flag every episode that violates railroad protocol. After all, my favorite episode of the show is still “Henry’s Forest”, which was infamously decried by Thomas’ creator, the Reverend Awdry, for its railroad safety issues-such as the violation of Rule 55 (wherein trains that are waiting, stalled, or stopped must alert signal box personnel and others to their presence). I can see their reasons for disliking the piece, and I understand why. But despite that, I still love the episode and don’t care about those details in the long run. So, why, do I care a bit when I come across something like Misty Island Rescue here, when “Henry’s Forest” was alright? Because, to the episode’s credit, those violations benefit the plot of “Henry’s Forest”. Henry’s proximity to the trees and ability to just stop for a while provide atmosphere, illustrate his zenlike peace with the world, and demonstrate a level of tranquility that makes it heartbreaking when a storm destroys the forest, and heartwarming when everyone pitches in to restore it. For those faults, “Henry’s Forest” provides us with a pleasant experience and a pleasant story.
Misty Island Rescue, on the other hand, fails to accomplish that in long run. Although it has a strong introduction, the effect quickly wanes once we enter the derelict logging camp. Suddenly, instead of a place of wonder, it’s a mind-bogglingly, rickety, hazardous hellhole that makes the decision to cut the place off from the rest of Sodor seem quite sane. The otherworldly feel is pushed to the breaking limit with a crane that inexplicably moves on its own and chucks logs all over the place in a stupidly dangerous manner. And the Shake Shake Bridge just utterly destroys that limit, being so out of place with its impossibly ramshackle design that abandons all atmosphere and credibility for “ISN’T THIS FUN?!” The effect is also lost when the narrative shifts to the Logging Locos behaving like idiots and the underground tunnel that connects Sodor to Misty Island, the former killing any dramatic impact and the latter giving something of an easy out. (I get they’d need a way to get off the island, but it does feel kind of like a cheap deus ex machina.) Even I can’t really get past all that, especially when the narrative puts so much focus on the frustrating and inane Logging Locos. Too bad. With all the buildup, I thought it’d be fun to explore more of Misty Island and perhaps see more relics of the former logging operations. But, instead, we get this mess. (And it doesn’t get better in the following episodes.)
With all this in mind, I can’t really think of much else that is positive about Misty Island Rescue. If I had to choose something, I’d probably refer to Whiff’s role. Being a minor character who works around a garbage dump, it was pretty awesome to see him come into play and prove his worth with his knowledge of the tunnel. And if we recall that butchered moral from earlier, it’s possibly salvaged a bit when Whiff gets Thomas to listen to him, so that way he and the Logging Locos can be saved. All in all, this is a pretty awesome moment for a minor character.
But, aside from that, I can’t really say much else that’s positive about this special. Misty Island Rescue is…oh, boy…
The Skunk’s Final Thoughts
Misty Island Rescue, to be blunt, is a mess with a missed opportunity here and there. It is as horrible as I remembered. But I really shouldn’t be surprised. Even as I revisit these episodes and specials from the awkward era, I can’t help but feel very grateful that we’re past that point. Still, looking at the narrative itself, the idiot plot and the idiot actions only become all the more unbearable in light of the better things that were to come. I’m thankful that, to date, Misty Island has been cut off and the Logging Locos have been phased out…or not, given word that Misty Island has not been cut off permanently. Hopefully, they will remain shrouded on the island, faded from memory, save for this old shame that I reviewed today.