What's The Matter With Series 3?

D. Innes (The Old Bean) takes a look into the third series of Thomas, and examines the positive points of the series when it reached this turning point in 1991

This little caption accompanies the opening credits to every episode in the wonderful television series, Thomas the Tank Engine. In fact, the series no doubt owes a lot to the late Reverend whose stories to his son spawned a worldwide phenomenon. His talent for creating personalities and characters for the engines made every story a delight to read.

However, as blasphemous as it sounds, the series could have potentially remained as a cult icon – a series of books that have delighted train folk and their children – and perhaps not been such a dominant force in the world. Many websites on the Internet that focus on Thomas and his friends tend to not predominantly show pictures from the books. More often than not, the popularity of the series grew from the television series created by Britt Allcroft and directed by David Mitton. In fact, if it wasn’t for this programme, I wouldn’t be writing this essay now.

Many fans now have been told of all the old stories about the development of The Railway Series and other people’s attempts to transfer it to other media. Musicals, live television – most failed, bar talking books. However, during the late seventies a young business woman named Britt Allcroft offered to make the aging book series into a highly professional children’s television show.


With the excellent direction of David Mitton, the music of Campbell & O’Donnell and the soothing narration of Ringo Starr, it became an upmost success. The Thomas franchise began, with two series of the programme flying by before anybody could tell what was going on. All these stories were written by an Awdry – Wilbert or Christopher – and then adapted into the show.

As you might hear nowadays, “then there was a storm on the Island of Sodor.” The early nineties came and another series of Thomas was bound to turn up. ERTL toys, books, videos (which were relatively new, they’d only been around for the past 5 years or so) were filling up the shelves and the public demanded more. Plenty of stories by Wilbert and Christopher were there to be adapted. All was set. 


But Britt decided not to.  She had decided to take her own way – adapting quite a few of the books by Wilbert into the series and the rest she wrote with Mitton. This outraged many “purists” and it still does to this day. But I’d like to ask a big question to everyone – What’s The Matter With Series 3?

For a start, of the 26 episodes transmitted for the series, 13 of them were based on Rev. W. Awdry’s work, of which were slightly adapted given circumstances (Time for Trouble and Tender Engines would need extra engine models that would probably be too expensive).
Therefore, only half of these stories were Britt’s and could they have been all that bad? When I first saw them (I must have been what, 6 or 7?) I found these stories the most memorable. In fact, I can still see in my mind One Good Turn with the dramatic confrontation sequence between Bill and Ben.

However, scenes of Toby’s Tightrope, Mavis and Bulgy were also notably memorable but the best story of the season had to be Escape.  The start, mind you, was changed slightly to give the story perspective (although good on paper, to start a story in the Other Railway would be murder for TV narrative – why is Douglas there? Why does he care about Scrap? What is his motive?) but the product is terrific.


Ask any Thomas fan about Series 3, and more often than not they’ll speak of that terrific shot of the two engines triumphantly crossing the viaduct into the Fat Controller’s railway. So although purists may argue that Britt didn’t make all of Series 3 from Awdry stories, let me say this – the ones she did use, she used well!

Furthermore, fans of both The Railway Series and Thomas complain about the fact that the were lots of stories that could be adapted but weren’t. The Narrow Gauge engines, for a start, were not used in this series. Considering how expensive it would be, to not only have extensive main gauge railway stories, but to feature a few stories with whole new types of engines on completely different tracks would be awkward.


Hence this is a possible reason why they dominated Series 4 – but if you don’t mind me saying, this may have proven to be more awkward. Similarly, the Mountain Engines, the Small Railway Engines and such would be impossible to create for the show with the financial situation. Especially if they were only to be used for a few episodes.

Other than this, the main “accusation” purists to the Railway Series have towards Britt and Series 3 in particular was “How dare she write her own material – she knows nothing of Wilbert’s work!”.


Britt by the stage is an experienced writer and television producer. Wilbert is an experienced Author. What kids want to see on television is often different to what kids want to read in books. As someone in the shoes of many kids – I honestly did not care about the flagrant laws broken in Henry’s Forest. In fact, I loved this story.

It showed a different nature to Henry, that not only was he an express engine who takes trains and moans about things, but he’s a nature lover. Kids like beautiful things, like trees and such and often it’s devastating to see them torn down and such.


Britt was trying to interpret an engine into what kids can relate to and if it means sacrificing some of the train laws, then sometimes the end justifies the means. A casual viewer may not be as interested in the story if Henry wanted to look at trees and his driver said “No, that would break Railway Rule 55” or whatever it might be.

Furthermore, such stories as Heroes and Edward, Trevor and the Really Useful Party may appear to have convoluted storylines (where it appears that more than one story is going on and not flowing in the classic way of many Awdry stories), however they do have simple moralistic messages that appear frequently in children’s programming and stories – from Aesops Fables to Rocko’s Modern Life – about acting heroically and by helping out others.


They’ve simply been translated into wonderful little tales about engines on the Island of Sodor.  Stories in this season blended quite well with each other and unless you had read all The Railway Series stories before hand, you couldn’t really distinguish between which were “real” Thomas stories of which were designed specifically for the season – I for one, couldn’t and at the time the idea of that didn’t faze me.

The stories lead us into a world of fantasy and make believe. Thomas allowed children not to worry about cleaning your teeth and not running with scissors – they were seeing engine forms of themselves, looking at things and marvelling at things that they do themselves – a train ‘mirror’ almost.


Perhaps this is also a reason why Chris Awdry’s stories may not have been suited for the series. Terrific as they were, Chris’ stories were realistic, filled with detailed facts about railways and frankly, the television stories were not wanting to go in that direction. As cruel as it might sound, which story would interest kids more: Better Late than Never or Percy, James and the Fruitful Day?

Earlier, awkwardness was described of the decision to have Narrow Gauge engines dominate the fourth series. Additionally, Awdry had complained of the produces “shunting” Thomas into situations he otherwise wouldn’t have. If lots of new engines were put in, the show would end up being more of “and Friends” rather than “Thomas the Tank Engine”. Furthermore, considering the title, Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, it wouldn’t be good to have several stories about James all of a sudden.


It would be as the producers of Doctor Who did half a season all about the companion minus the Doctor. Although using his stories is terrific and as it should be, to be honest children really don’t mind who features in the story, as long as Thomas, their hero, is in it. Ask any child watching Thomas if they would like to see more: Different Engines they’ve never seen before or lots more Thomas? More often than not, you’d probably get the latter option as the main response.

Having covered all this ground, I can say that I dislike most of Season 5 onwards. Silly crashes and awful moralistic rubbish dominate the program that used to be so wonderful. Seasons 1 and 2 may have been terrific, but think about Season 3 – it was bold, it was action packed, it was enjoyable.


Wonderful characters such as Oliver and Mavis were introduced into the TV world at that time, some wonderful character developments were made and most of all it was entertaining. When we look at what we get now from the franchise, think back to the simpler times – where we kids were just wanting to be entertained by our favourite character. Was the little season that could, Series 3 all that bad? I think it was Really Useful.



I agree with you. The stories that Allcroft and Mitton wrote for Series 3 were actually quite excellent. Even the lower-quality (in terms of writing) stories such as "No Joke For James" are far more enjoyable than any episode done for Season 8. I can't think of any Series 3 episode where I wouldn't give the episode anything lower than a 7 out of 10-- in short, every episode was still pretty darn good, even if half of them weren't written by the Awdrys. (Except maybe "Trust Thomas"-- ever notice how oddly similar it is to "Trucks!"?)

From a pragmatic and financial standpoint I can see what you mean about Season 4 being "awkward," but honestly, when I was a young kid I gobbled up the Narrow Guage episodes. I thought these new and colorful characters were great, and on top of that, the half of the season with the regular cast was absolutely great (think "Fish," "Special Attraction," and "Toad Stands By").

Season 5 wasn't good, but my opinion of it has steadily improved with the releases of newer seasons (if you get what I mean). Season 6 was another step downhill; Season 7 was a bright step upwards, with innovative new characters (with the obvious exception of Emily, we got characters like Spencer instead of Salty), and the writing greatly improved, particularly for the narrow guage engines. I find anything from Seasons 1 to 7 basically watchable and enjoyable, despite low points like "Salty's Secret" and "Elizabeth the Vintage Lorry."




As a lover of Series 3 myself, I totally agree with this 100%.  You've made some interesting points, and it would be fair to say that whilst the Awdry Railway Series was still prominent in Allcroft's TV series, it DID have to become its own entity and shake off the reliance on it's original author.


Also, for the comment on Henry's Forest, I totally agree.  For anyone who quotes Rule 55 like they know what it means and didn't before it was disclosed by Awdry himself, I'd like to see them rhyme off Rules 1 to 54 and then 56 onward!  Mitton himself said he wasn't interested in knowing, he wanted to tell a story.  But while it conflicts with the idea Awdry had for his own stories and characters, I whole-heartedly think that that one thing should be respected alone, the audience.




Of the four non-Awdry series, I think Series 3 was definitely the weakest. Many of the made-up stories were quite poor, as were many of the Awdry adaptations (particularly "The Trouble With Mud"). And there were definite signs of moralism creeping in.

But Series 3 definitely wasn't as bad as it's been made out to be by many people. It had a much greater humour value than the other series did, and many of the made-up stories were actually quite good ("Thomas, Percy and the Dragon" and "Heroes" in particular). I find I can watch Series 3 over and over again and never get bored of it.

So really, though it lacked the classic touches of Series 1 and 2, Series 3 is a great collection of episodes. And even if it does get a bit weak on occasions, it wasn't anywhere near as bad as some of the later series.




Non-Awdry series? You mean S5 onwards plus S3? I wouldn't say it's the weakest of those myself, or I've misread you somewhere. However, I'd definitely say that S3 is my least favourite of the first 4 seasons.

That said, I like it a fair bit. Some of the non-RS stories are really enjoyable, I love the two Percy/Duck/docks episodes, Diesel Does it Again and All at Sea. The disappointing thing for me regards S3 is that all of the made up episodes do wind up all smiley and happy - there's no endings like in Tenders and Turntables, or Dirty Work. And a couple of the adaptations weren't 100% on the spot accurate. Admittedly, A Scarf For Percy did need to be fleshed out, but the ending was another disappointment. And Trouble With Mud couldn't be used in the same way as the books, as it appeared as though they had fixed up Gordon's troubles in S1, more through omission than anything else.

Season 3 is a good season. Not spectacular, not terrible. It's make a solid substitute in a game of footy. Not flashy, not noticeable, but gets the job done.

Stuart 7


Regarding Series 3; I don't think it was that bad. In spite some of the Awdry eps being extensively adapted (Tender Engines being an example, along with Trouble With Mud), some eps were great, including Escape and Oliver Owns Up. I even liked the made-up eps too. There were slightly unrealistic events, but none of the eps were quite as bad as Rusty and the Boulder, Thomas and the Jet Engine or Rheneas and the Rollercoaster, which were silly. Also, none of the stories were tediously moralistic.

Personally, I didn't mind Britt Allcroft doing made up episodes, as long as she kept to Wilbert Awdry's style and didn't stray from the books' plot, I'd've bee happy. No Joke For James, Thomas, Percy and the Dragon and Diesel Does It Again would've had to be my fav made-up episodes of that season. As for Henry's Forest, I'm sure that they could've fitted the 'stopping in the forest' part without the rule breaking; maybe (with expressed permission) they could've put him on a siding. That ep was good to show the kinder side of Henry's character.


Loey Machan


Season 3 is one of my personal favourites, but that might be due to overexposure. I collected all of the S3 VHS' before the other seasons.

Even when I first saw the episodes I was divided. Some, like Mavis, Escape and Thomas Percy and the Dragon were fantastic, and on the whole I was satisfied with the new eps.

Already though there were disturbing signs of weakness dropping in. Trust Thomas is an episode I simply never have enjoyed, simply because I never understood Thomas' accident. why was he on the siding, what was the point of that ferry across the pond etc.

Likewise Angelis' new voice gave me the spooks as well, along with the new engine models, such as Thomas' new 'smiling expression' which seemed distinctly off-kilter.

My only other complaint with season three was how the colour pallete seemed to have faded. Rewatching season 1 and 2 lately I can see how everything has a wonderful, rich golden hue to it. In comparison, season 3 seems 'plasticy' though this problem was rectified with the wonderfully rustic narrow-gague episodes in season 4.

So, although season three was by no means the best, I agree that it was dramatic, action packed, with great new characters (OLIVER!) and it was miles above some of the more recent seasons. I only hope that season 9 will be up to this high standard.


Jarrah White


I'm not really one to see something I like with a closed mind, I have always been willing to watch/read Thomas in any shape and form; regardless of the results. Personally when I watched the original episodes of S3 for the first time, I was uneducated as to where the originated from. But that never bothered me, I enjoyed them for what they were. "Henry's Forest" was also one of my favourites, but I think I see where the critics are coming from.

I also think I see Awdry's point of view on the way Britt took the series in S3; you see when someone dreams up an idea, they build it up and it becomes they're creation, they're child. But in some cases, when other people take what that person has created and do something different with it, those creators are known to developed some negative emotions as to how they're works were handled in other hands.