Gorgonna, walking before a veritable wall of Thomas & Friends toys.

Idol Worship: Thomas & Friends

“Peep, peep!” All aboarrrrd! FOR OBSESSION.

It didn’t take long for Gorgonna to begin paying tribute to a new deity. Although she’s been idolizing both Daniel Tiger and Thomas the Tank Engine for nearly the same length of time, our ebullient engine has been swiftly picking up steam as the primary divine power.

But from my standpoint, all’s not well with this latest change in faith. The Island of Sodor, where Thomas & Friends reign, has been well-known to the likes of Man (and Man’s Childs) for over seventy years, with TV programs, books, and toys serving as the holy word and scripture. To this day, its perverse nature has been seriously understated — like a thinly veiled Shyamalanian plot, something dark and twisted has been lurking amidst this well-to-do English island of industry…

A creatively reassembled Thomas, made from Mega Bloks.
John Carpenter’s “Thomas & Friends.”

A Thomas Upon Us

Sentient trains populate this depraved hell-dimension. Faces have been carved into them –by whom I know not — making them the steam-powered counterparts to the Game of Thrones‘s weirwoods. As impulsive and vindictive as Norse gods, the engines bicker and fight amongst themselves in the name of “hard work” and being “Really Useful.”

Deifying these denizens of diesel and steam are an enslaved human population. They’re at the mercy of these loco locomotives — literally along for the ride, as every driver seems utterly powerless to stop his engine from fucking up the countryside or getting into who-knows-what kind of tedious mischief. That “Sodor” rhymes with “Mordor” can’t be coincidence — the twisted world of Thomas & Friends is every bit as bleak as Lord Sauron’s domain.

Gorgonna, coloring in the Book of Thomas.

Now, I’m all for Gorgonna getting stoked about new stuff — especially when it comes to male-dominant vehicular pursuits (it’s 2017, trucks and trains ain’t just for boys). And although I may have embellished in the previous section for entertainment’s sake, I can’t say I entirely support the conceptual pillars that have held up Thomas & Friends for three decades.

For one, the adventures that the engines have — and by extension, the books and television episodes we indulge Gorgonna with on a daily basis — rarely have a wholesome message to them. I wasn’t kidding about likening Thomas and his engine pals to Odin, Loki, Thor, and Co. — when you get down to it, when the boiler runs dry, they really do seem like a bunch of juvenile brats. There are few substantial lessons tying the stories together — no morals to transmit onto impressionable young minds. The fictitious world of Thomas & Friends is portrayed as a series of random, unrelated, ultimately pointless events:

 

  • Episode One: Trucks cause mischief for the engines. They fuck up everyone’s schedules. The end.
  • Episode Two: Sir Topham Hatt’s car wants to go fast. He does, and he is admonished for it.
  • Episode Three: The naughty Diesel has to stop being naughty because Thomas saw that he liked some ducks.

 

Like, you don’t have to bust a blood vessel picking out thematic elements to all of those scenarios — tidy little morals you could feasibly wrap up into tidy little vignettes — but are they present in the actual episodes? Nope. Shit just happens on Sodor; the wheels turn and turn, clickety-clack, clickety-clack. It’s an autonomous world that doesn’t care how many kids are watching or what educational value it imparts. Maybe there’s a zen quality you can get from that, but there are FAR better sources for that, I think.

Also, “Usefulness” isn’t a quality I’m thrilled that Thomas & Friends is projecting onto its young viewers. I understand there’s probably some kind of brand guide, possibly bound in the grotesque, leathery skin of Rev. W. Awdry’s corpse (may he rest in peace), but the Thomas team could afford to be a little flexible. It’s a tough time for the Arts, and every offering needs to pull its weight.

James, dripping in white... milk.
This picture of James presented to you entirely without context.

His Dark Materials

The primary difference between Thomas and other, newer gods is his sheer presence. Criticize him all you want — the merchandise is ON POINT. What started as a few board books here and there for Gorgonna’s reading pleasure has proliferated into two pajama sets, a coloring book, a shirt, and several wooden toys. She’s delighted when she gets to wear the Steam Team to bed, and she could flip through her Thomas “mazagine” all day. He’s omnipresent, the Alpha and Omega.

And it’s not just the relics we have in our home — Gorgonna has found houses of the holy in the local library, as well as the Barnes & Nobles scattered across our fair county. Each one houses an altar — a coveted train table — upon which his disciples enact the engines’ earthly adventures. And while the entire steam- and diesel-powered pantheon are available to her, Gorgonna choo-choo-chooses Thomas — even if another kid is currently playing with him. Gorgonna would bust into a confessional if it meant getting one-on-one time with Tommy Boy himself.

She has, however, begun devoting her affections to Gordon, the big, haughty express train; her smitten reactions to the very sight of him would be enough to make ol’ Tom jealous.

Spencer, from Thomas & Friends, covered in brown... mud.
Not even Spencer is safe from the nocontext treatment.

Pulling into Incantation Station

Thankfully, we don’t own any Thomas videos; they’re strictly stream engines (sorry). But that doesn’t keep me from panicking every time we boot an episode up because I know the insufferable theme song is going to drill deep into my skull and make itself at home for the next few days. Singing British children are a universal fear, a horrifyingly contagious force that compels you to follow them into whatever hell they’ve got planned for you. (Although I’ll admit that “Shunting trucks!” makes for an appealing alternative swear-word.)

Still, as excruciating as it is, the main theme is worlds better than the Thomas team’s attempts at appealing to a modern, hip crowd:

I don’t normally associate cock rock with iconic train-themed children’s shows, but someone over there clearly has the right vision.

Benediction

Despite all this, I find that trains, in whatever form they happen to take, are still pretty fucking neat. Powerful metal machines, racing noisily along, blasting their horns belligerently — I don’t know, man. Maybe the kids are onto something…

Wait — what am I saying? Oh, good one, Thomas! You almost got me there! You see, his allure is more potent than I’d anticipated. I’m already buying into Gorgonna’s obsession — every time we find ourselves at a toy store, I feel an irresistible pull toward the wall of Thomas toys, thinking how neat it’d be for Gorgonna to own all her favorites…

We’re metalheads; collections are in our blood.

My advice to you is if you value your wallet as much as your sanity (or if you simply think a train with a face is freakish), you could do worse than to stay far, far away from Thomas and his brood. Save yourself a heap of trouble. But if your kid’s got an eye for the classics, like her father before her, then be prepared to invest.

Idol Worship: Daniel Tiger

Ronnie James Dio. Lemmy Kilmister. Tony Iommi. Rob Halford.

I could go on.

The Metalsphere has no shortage of iconic figures, both among the living and the dearly departed. But no matter their current mortal state, they all share one thing — the ability to inspire and motivate new blood to follow in their combat-booted footsteps toward new heights of metal greatness.

But idol worship isn’t limited to rock gods, y’know; Gorgonna and her kiddie cohorts have their own holy heroes. And I don’t mean the ones we’ve imposed on her — Gorgonna took to revering these ones all on her own. Maybe you’ve heard of them, maybe you haven’t — it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that some upstart fictional figures have usurped a large chunk of the hero-worship supply that Mama and Daddy used to receive.

I know — I had the same gut reaction you’re having now. (“How dare they!!”) But surely you can remember your own parents’ quizzical looks when they saw how into the kooky music video for “Holy Diver” you were, or their raised eyebrows as you stapled posters of some upstanding, pink-bearded gentleman named “Dimebag” to the plaster walls of your room.

As parents we have a right to be skeptic, but as mostly metal parents, who most certainly looked up to some freaky-deaky folk as youngins, we should know better. So I’d like to share with you my ongoing investigation into this whole… experience. Maybe you can see for yourself if I should be worried about Gorgonna’s latest obsessions, or if I just need to accept them as my new personal lords and saviors.

First up: Daniel Tiger.

The cast of Daniel Tiger.
Friendship. Oh, how I wish I were talking about the Japanese grind band.

Preaching the Good Word

“O, Daniel!” Any time, any place – that’s when you could hear this phrase in the MMD household. Gorgonna warbles it with the same frequency as an “amen!” or a “hallelujah!” not only when she sees his holy image at Target or in one of her books, but as a reaffirmation of her faith, AKA for no reason at all.

Locking the door and heading to the car: “O, Daniel!” Putting the laundry in the dryer: “O, Daniel!” Strapping her in her high chair for lunch: “O, Daniel!” Okay, we get it, you like Daniel Tiger. But by constantly invoking his name, she shows me just how much sway he holds over her. You can bet I’ll be keeping my ears and eyes open for any subliminal messages hidden away inside each episode’s upbeat songs and positive lessons about friendship and tolerance.

Houses of the Holy

For us metalheads, the concert venue is our temple. The stage is the altar, the mosh pit our pew. We bend the knee to riffs, and in return we are blessed with shredding solos and ripping rhythms. And yea, ’twas good.

There’s a key difference between the kind of worshipping we do and the kind Gorgonna does. Rather than seek out a place of worship, Gorgonna absorbed her knowledge directly from her everyday environment, by which I mean KPBS at Grandma’s house. God came in the form of a burning bush, and the burning bush is an LG flatscreen.

I’m a firm supporter of the Arts — always will be, I suspect. But I’m still battling with the idea of her being exposed to TV at all, even that transmitted by the liberal-as-fuck Public Broadcasting. Then again, maybe that’s just my own personal prejudice (paranoia?). After all, my wife and I haven’t had cable since we first started dating, and we don’t have any plans to change that anytime soon. Still, I’d rather Gorgonna not have Ye Olde Bewb Tube blaring at her for extended periods of time.

Eventually/inevitably, our own home became a satellite altar for her. We began bringing Daniel Tiger DVDs home from the library to pop on while she was sick (she sometimes got up to four or five a day). Then we started going on KPBS’s website and streaming them. Our internet isn’t the greatest, so the video stutters a bit, but Gorgonna doesn’t seem to mind. Now that she’s healthy (crossin’ my MFin’ fingers), we try to go a few days in between watching an episode here or there. Besides, the episodes don’t update very often, and if I have to hear about Daniel Tiger’s trip to the clock factory one more time, I’m gonna scream.

At the weekly mecca to Grandma’s house though — that’s when she starts pumpin’ out those prayers. I’m not saying she’s got the TV going all the time there, but it’s a lot less regulated. That’s what grandparents are for, no?

The Holy Relics

A pile of Daniel Tiger books.
Maybe, just maybe, there’s a copy of the Necronomicon in there.

It’s time to confess — we supported her idol worship at first. Even facilitated it. Wife bought her a Daniel Tiger plushie; I bought her a six-pack of DT books from Costco. Both have instantly become some of her favorite things. She takes the plushie with her on every excursion, and while the books aren’t quite as highly regarded as, say, a pocket Bible filled with raving scribblings, they are effective at getting her to take her afternoon nap. Or maybe they’re just that boring. Lord knows how many times I’ve fallen asleep during Sunday Service as a lad.

Conclusion/Benediction

I’ll always be wary of what my daughter chooses to focus on. I can’t help it. She brings us every piece of trash she finds at the park, including cigarette butts; I’m steeling myself for the day she hands me a hypodermic needle. Her recent reverence for Daniel Tiger is a slightly jarring change, but ultimately I think it’s pretty harmless. I mean, it won’t stop here, right? I’m already dreading taking her to her first boy band concert (do they still make those??).

I figure the more things she likes, the easier she is to distract. WITH MODERATION! And only when it counts, like when a pot’s boiling over and I absolutely don’t want her anywhere near that. We can’t control what Gorgonna sees or hears all the time, right? Besides, the Sleep Lady (whose work I’ll stand by) says “loveys” can help kids feels more at ease. And really, that’s the least I could ask for in this day and age.

Just remember — you may think a well-to-do anthropomorphic tiger-child carrying on the last will and testament of Fred Rogers is weird, but remember you first idolized a gay, motorcycle-riding poster child for BDSM with an glass-shattering falsetto. Just sayin’.

So, I gotta ask: what gods do your kids worship? Who else do I need to watch out for? Conversely, who should I support? I need to know who to cast my lot with in case there’s some kind of kids’ Ragnarok, and all the gods for both the young and the old clash to determine our eternal fate.