Thursday, 10 May 2012

Tugs - Thomas the Tank Engine Multiplied by Epic

In 1988, the creators of Thomas the Tank Engine decided the market was ripe for more industrial vehicles with human faces. They created ‘Tugs’, which was much more dramatic than you’d expect.

Read about the grit, the boats, the fires and the dockyard EXPLOSIONS after the click! That's right, explosions!

‘Tugs’ was remarketed to several networks from Japan to Canada, each time redubbed to make it more locally relevant. Thomas probably endured the same distortion depending on the broadcast region but his face is somehow globally iconic. Tugs never enjoyed that level of recognition even in the UK – which was, of course, the most gritty and realistic version.
If you remember it then you might remember the introduction montage I’m about to show you. Do you remember a different version? Compare your childhood memories to these epic, jazzy intro sequences:

There were two of them there. Although the first one was low-budget, the second one was lower-budget. The second one – the one that could be reproduced with any free video-editing software available these days – was the intro sequence for the whole first season.
See how it’s grittier and nastier than anything you’d associated with Thomas the Tank Engine? There’s more smoke and industry here than Thomas probably encountered in his whole life. Thomas lives on the island of Sodor where magic and enchantment keep the kids distracted. The people are all weird little plastic models, such as the Fat Controller and his stiff limbs.

Look into my cold, dead eyes. My nose itches ALL THE TIME! How do I touch myself?!

Meanwhile the Tugs live in ‘Bigg City’, which is a hub of seafaring trade and heavy industry. It’s set in the ‘roaring twenties’ which is a euphemism for gangster-era Chicago. Although the nastier UK version employed British vocal actors, you need only look at the villains to understand the intended caricatures:

His name may be Zebedee but this ain't no Magic Roundabout

See? He's not an exception - he's a clone! They all have similar hats and similar mustaches. They’re only a violin case and an Italian restaurant away from being major criminals. In the series it’s never explicitly stated that they’re smuggling hooch, they’re merely minor criminals guilty of sometimes lightly breaking maritime law. However, if the boats were people they’d probably be shaking down ice cream parlors, extorting pawn shops and conducting massacres in speak-easies.

Since it’s the 20s, they also have no radio or radar (which are staples of safe, modern coastal industry) so they can only communicate face-to-face. This is usually a huge issue in the various major industrial accidents they find themselves involved with. Almost every single episode of Tugs involves at least one if not more. For example, an episode titled ‘Munitions’: Naval arrogance results in a raging firestorm.

Here's the whole episode in two parts, hosted by Youtube. In total it's less than twenty minutes long, but I'll summarise below if you don't want to watch the epic heroism.

Part One:

Part Two:

If you didn’t watch the two-part links there, what we just saw was a major, major mistake by the naval officer. The accident that ensued closed an entire industrial port for several months, if not years. In real life the port authorities would have had to call in fire barges from every city along the coast just to quench the flames. It’s stated during the episode that if the fire wasn’t controlled it would have reached the wider city itself. At night with buildings full of sleeping families? The unspoken implication is that hundreds of thousands of people would have died. A huge evacuation would have been undertaken, resulting in panic, looting and further loss of human life. But weirdly, in this universe at least, we never see an actual human. Who lives in this city?!

The disaster plays out like this: explosives are being transferred from a barge to a naval ship while it also refuels. A naval boat bungles away amongst this delicate procedure, causing a barge full of munitions to catch fire. The fire then spreads to the neighbouring fuel barge (I think? It all gets a bit confusing when the explosions start).

The whole dock is apparently under the jurisdiction of Big Mickey the crane. When he sees his dock is going up in irreversible flames, he turns himself sideways at the correct angle just in time to fall safely, rather than crushing everyone beneath him. The old sea hand comments sadly that it took real skill to pull off a move like that, but of course we can’t help thinking of the human crane-operator sitting inside Big Mickey. His was the noblest of sacrifices. “Never has so much been owed by so many to so few” and all that.

As the fire boats race along the coast towards the blaze, summoning ships as they go (remember there’s no radio), all of the heroic ships prove themselves actual heroes. A mid-weight tugboat, Ten Cents, drives into the blaze to push a fuel barge out of the way and out to sea. He’s out there for quite some time and his barge explodes while he’s right next to it. His sacrifice was not in vain – he prevented a tonne of fire damage on his own! How many lives did he save? The whole city? WHO CAN SAY!

Meanwhile a lightweight tugboat, Sunshine, mans the hoses of a fire barge to douse warehouses and prevent further spreading. Warrior the heavyweight turns up with his own fire hose and turns it onto the fire. The fire boat tells him to retreat but no, Warrior has to stick in and save the docks to prevent damage to his friend, the dockyard train called Puffer.

Strangely, the dockyard train has no face. Make of that what you will.

 “If Warrior and Sunshine hadn’t contained the fire, it could have easily spread to the city” – direct quote from the fire boat

This was a night of sacrifice. This was a night of heroes. This was a night of humble working boats somehow saving an entire dockside region from the worst of all pre-nuclear industrial tragedies. If you were a boat-hand or seaman on these ships that night then you would feel proud to call yourself a sailor. YOU WOULD FEEL PROUD TO CALL YOURSELF A HERO. The fire may claim crew, boat and captaincy, but the innocent sleepers in Bigg City were saved. God damn it, THEY SAVED THE SLEEPING CHILDREN FROM THE FIRE.

When the dawn finally rises and there is nothing left but ash, there is a brief moment where the tugboats all mourn for Ten Cents, the tugboat who pushed off the fuel barge into the sea. But NO! TEN CENTS IS ALIVE! He emerges through the smoke and fog with a cheery whistle! He limped back into port with a flooded engine and broken lights, the luckiest and bravest tugboat of them all. He got clear of the fuel barge just as it exploded! Hooray!

No, you look fine. Very heroic. Do... do boats feel pain?

Meanwhile the arsehole naval boat has gone into shock and had a nervous breakdown, and is towed away by the local submarine (he is also a character; just accept it). Everyone laughs to see the officious naval bastard reap the just desserts of serious post-traumatic stress disorder. Then the long, arduous process of rebuilding a major industrial port begins off-screen before economic stagnation sets in and thousands of livelihoods are ruined.
As with every child’s television show there is a lesson to be learned. The narrator also informs us in case we had missed it: “Orders may be orders, but they don’t supersede common sense”. I’d say it was pretty good advice for the UK as it moved out of the politically charged 80s – with all the civil unrest, IRA action and widespread union strikes – into the entirely peaceful 90s.

There is also a chance that this episode was intended for Guy Fawkes Night or some other kind of bonfire celebration, because after warning us about the perils of blindly following authority he continues with a much more universal and terrifying message:
“Always respect fire. If you don’t, it will destroy you, your surroundings and your friends.”






But no, I’m sure Thomas the Tank Engine and his magical island is much more interesting.


William said...

This was a awesome article. Good to see TUGS isn't as forgotten as we would think.

Anonymous said...

I can remember as a kid thinking Thomas was great, then watching Tugs and thinking that was great, then trying to go back to Thomas wondering what I saw in the merry little trains chuffing happily around their magical island. It always amazed me that Tugs didn't enjoy the same success.

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