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A Series Introduction: TUGS

By Yoamiwaii, Jan 18 2018 02:46AM

[ARTICLE BY: Amiwaii]

Rewinding to the 1980’s, an era that was showing leaps and bounds with practical effects in television and film. It’s a time prior to the advent of CGI as a constant medium on our screens, but as the technology vastly improved, it proved to be a cheaper and less restrictive way of creating intricate shows. During this decade of excessive synthesizer usage and shoulder pads, came Thomas the Tank Engine, an adaptation of Reverend W. Awdry’s series of books, depicting the adventures on-screen of anthropomorphic model trains in their everyday lives. Stepping out from the success of Thomas came two creative minds who had worked on the series, Robert D. Cardona and David Mitton, the owners of Clearwater Studios. They seemed to take an iota of inspiration from their time on the show to throw themselves into creating an even more elaborate project with its own particular style and appeal.

Thus, the rail tracks were tossed aside, and in its place, a huge water tank took centre stage, in what was a whole different vision in itself, with stories that involved more grit and character depth, and copious amounts of beautifully detailed model work.

This… is TUGS!

Aimed at a slightly older age group, TUGS explored a whole new world of quirkiness, relating the stories of two rival tugboat fleets as they competed to succeed in the fictional Bigg City Port during the Roaring 20’s! Sometimes things went right, sometimes they didn’t, but whatever the case, success wasn’t a necessity to appreciate how tough life could be in the business of tugboats, particularly made more engaging as the boats were the characters themselves, with faces, voices and personalities all of their own. Let’s take a walk down memory lane to explore the short-lived series.

My first introduction to TUGS as a child was through a VHS tape my parents bought for me. I had missed the boat (Ha! Pun!) when TUGS had first been televised for its brief stint, so I had never heard of the series beforehand. I did however recognise the style as an off-shoot of Thomas (which was boldly mentioned on the VHS cover!), and seeing as I’d grown up with the dear old Tank Engine, it was pretty much an assumption that I would get on well with TUGS as well. The VHS I got contained the episodes: ‘Trapped’, ‘Ghosts’ and ‘High Winds’. Going in with absolutely no expectations, I was utterly enthralled from the first episode I saw. It was completely unlike Thomas in tone and storytelling. Characters were much more distinctive, and the stories had greater attention to detail, with a few other plot threads woven in to give some layering to many of the episodes. I instantly became enamoured with the series. I clearly remember being on the lookout for more tapes, and I eventually got hold of the cassette that had ‘High Tide’, ‘Warrior’ and ‘Bigg Freeze’ on. These were the only episodes I physically owned as a child, despite my efforts to find more; though I vaguely remember seeing ‘Regatta’, going by its alternative title ‘4th July’, at someone else’s house, but never managed to see or obtain any of the other episodes.

Some time ago, I remember coming across TUGS again during a nostalgia kick, which made me wonder what happened to the series; it certainly wasn’t well recognised, like Thomas per say, which it’s sadly stuck in the shadow of because of style and aesthetic similarities. I was shocked that it hadn’t lasted more than one series – consisting of thirteen episodes to be exact – and I had a brief cup of coffee with watching the episodes in low quality on YouTube and then promptly forgot about it again. Fast forward to present times (which will soon be past times whenever you read this!), and my recollection of the series was nudged once again. So, I decided to dust off my nostalgia goggles once more and really give the series the time of day as YouTube offered some cleaned up copies of the episodes this time around. Kudos to whoever spent the time cleaning up the VHS footage as best they could! It must have been a tough task!

Of course, revisiting anything you loved as a child comes with the concern that because you’re much older you won’t appreciate it as much, or that it wouldn’t hold up to the tests of time, possibly souring any previous recollections. I mean, my view of a lot of kid’s television today is that it seems a lot more ‘simplistic’ – or in other words, dumbed down to the point of tedium. It’s not always the case, but sometimes it just doesn’t feel family accessible, and is almost like microwaving your brain. In the case of TUGS, thankfully, my concerns were quickly tossed out the window. It was still as engaging and charming as it ever was. I even found myself appreciating it a lot more now as an adult, as some elements went straight over my head as a kid. Clearly when the scriptwriters wrote the series, they made plenty of allowances for material that an older audience could appreciate (without going overboard……. Another pun! LOL!) as they sat down to watch with their little ones. It takes a special kind of writer to craft a show kids could understand, but write the content with a mature tone so they weren’t necessarily speaking down to them. It even felt rather educational, as there was a lot of boating terminology involved (which required me to pause to look up!).

I’m not quite sure about the overall success of the series, and it’s fairly hard to gauge whether a lot of the praise has come later on or was from the time of release. From what I’ve gleaned from info out there, it seems like it did have a successful run on UK TV (enough to be ported overseas to the likes of Japan with a redub); the problem, which led to TUGS downfall, came from the companies involved going bankrupt, whether it be from overspending on making the show or some poor marketing decisions. Not sure if this is true or not, but they may have released the VHS’s before it even hit TV, hoping to ride off the commercial success of Thomas? But how can you sell something to an audience that has no idea it exists? Food for thought there! It did seem like they were thinking ahead for a second series, as scripts had already been written, but with the company going under, it put pay to their ever being a continuation.

Below I have listed the titles of the thirteen episodes from the series, all of which I’m covering individually with reviews. Though, you might want to heed the warning that I might be talking about a children’s show, but my reviews will be far from kid friendly! It will definitely be an adult’s perspective revisiting the show, with the language to boot! The episodes are as follows: -

1. Sunshine

2. Pirate

3. Trapped (Coming Soon)

4. Regatta (Coming Soon)

5. Munitions (Coming Soon)

6. Warrior (Coming Soon)

7. High Tide (Coming Soon)

8. Quarantine (Coming Soon)

9. Ghosts (Coming Soon)

10. Jinxed (Coming Soon)

11. High Winds (Coming Soon)

12. Up River (Coming Soon)

13. Bigg Freeze (Coming Soon)

(You can access the reviews as they become available by tapping on the titles!)

Unlike Thomas the Tank Engine, TUGS dealt with grittier subjects in their plots. Theft, death, attempted murder, suicidal tendencies, physical violence, suspected drug dealing, gangsters… Okay, so yeah, they weren’t exactly addressed as such. It might have been the eighties, which had some pretty traumatic stuff in kid’s media (The Dark Crystal, I’m looking at you for one!), but they did keep it reigned in. The darker subject matter was laced into the plots subtly, accompanied by some moral finger wagging at the end of most episodes to rather get the point across in a way kids would understand and keep their innocence relatively intact. Though, even then, there was some hard-hitting honesty that a lot of kids shows today would balk at.

Not to say Thomas didn’t have dangerous situations and the like, but as they were dealing with a pre-school audience, there was a lot more pandering to wrap up any perilous situations with a duly wholesome and whimsical outlook in the aftermath. It’s okay, kids! The problem is over, all is right with the world! Yeah, it wasn’t exactly a very realistic representation of an actual functioning railway, but you can’t let that get in the way of prime storytelling, right? TUGS on the other hand attempted to at least inject a bit of realism in aspects of the show that depicted the life and running of a 1920’s harbour. Of course, you can’t really claim realism as the main point when you have anthropomorphic talking boats with faces. Same goes for the trains!

TUGS had quite a hefty main cast of characters, mostly consisting of the tugs who made up the two fleets of the Star Tugs and Z-Stacks. There are a few side characters also who turn up on a reoccurring basis, though I probably won’t cover all of them, as it’s quite an extensive list. So anyway, without further ado, let me introduce you to the main characters, starting with the Star Tugs: -

TEN CENTS – Pretty much the main protagonist and poster boy (er, boat) for TUGS. He’s one of the younger members of the fleet and recognisable with his cockney accent. He’s a bit of a cheeky chappy, though he’s an all-around hero who isn’t afraid to stand up against the bullies – namely the Z-Stacks. He can be a bit of a hot-head at times, but he is wise enough to listen to advice from his peers. He’s the first one to stand up for his friends when they are in trouble.

BIG MAC – The gruff muscle of the team. He has a distinctive Scottish accent. Though intimidating at times, he’s actually a big softy who enjoys a bit of banter with his friends. Though, if you decide to insult his friends, you’re liable to get chewed out big time. In no way related to the McDonalds burger. (So hungry…)

TOP HAT – Whatever anyone says, he is a clear homage to the Fat Controller from Thomas the Tank Engine. Come on, a railway tug in a top hat whose creators also worked on the aforementioned show! Yeah, sorry, too much of a coincidence. But anyway… Top Hat’s a snooty, self-absorbed dandy, who has an overinflated opinion of himself. He speaks in an exaggerated, posh accent. He does tend to rub his team mates up the wrong way with some snide remarks, but despite his arrogance, is usually pretty dependable and cares about his companions, though, in his own hoity-toity way.

O.J. – The last paddle steamer in Bigg City Port and the ‘old man’ of the bunch. He’s the wise owl of the group, looking out for his younger companions constantly and dishing out sage advice to boot. Though he might be slowed down by age and condition, his mind is still sharp and ready, and he can come up with a cunning plan right when you need one. He has a Welsh accent, and tends to call some of the others ‘Boyo’.

WARRIOR – What can you say about Warrior? He’s not the brightest bulb in the box by any means, but he makes up for it with his strength and dedication alone. Bless him, he’s well-meaning and good-natured whatever he does, but he is inherently clumsy as well, and ends up the butt of many a joke. Despite this, he shows great loyalty and values his friends wholeheartedly, and will put himself in harm’s way to protect them.

HERCULES – As with his namesake, he is the strongest of his fellow Stars and is a well-respected name around Bigg City Port. He is cool-headed and suave, and isn’t easily fooled by the Z-Stacks, who tend to have to wait until he’s not around before they start messing about with the other Star Tugs. Probably the only one with any real common sense and tends to turn up at the right time to help fix problems and offer support. He is well spoken and reflects extensive intelligence in the way he articulates. Regularly likes to call those around him: ‘M’dears’, ‘Sweethearts’, and ‘Old darlings’.

SUNSHINE – The smallest of the Star Tugs. He joins the team in the first episode. He plays the role of Ten Cents sidekick most of the time, and is quite a chipper little boat with a great level of optimism (and with cheek to match Ten Cents!). Speaks with a distinctive Geordie accent, highlighted by a bit of a whistle.

CAPTAIN STAR – The leader of the Star Tugs. He offers the narration for the episodes, referring to the stories as if in recollection from the past. He a voice of authority behind his megaphone (I’m still trying to work out if he is actually human or a talking building!). He can be strict at times, but he shows a lot of care and consideration for his fleet.

Moving on, we have the Z-Stacks!

ZORRAN – The de facto leader of his tug fleet. He’s a conniving individual, always thinking up ways to try to undermine the Star Tugs. Though he will participate in deceitful methods to achieve his goals, he’s not stupid when the chips are down and won’t do anything that will compromise himself or his fleet mates. Does tend to accidentally screw himself over on a few occasions though.

ZAK – The gruff spoken muscle of the group. He tends to come off as a sadist at times, though to be honest, he seems to be dumb as a brick. He doesn't always consider things unilaterally. He has a bit of a dodgy engine as well, which means he can be a tad unreliable at times.

ZEBEDEE – Has a smooth-talking tone, though is pretty rough around the edges. He does appear to have something of a moral compass, and will help others off his own back when not following his team mates, though his loyalties will always remain true to himself and his fleet.

ZUG – A small tug who tends to talk and act big, but usually ends up being pushed around by his own bigger fleet mates. He’s a bit of a petulant child at heart, who takes out a lot of his frustrations on his dense partner in crime, Zip. He shows a little bit of intelligence on occasion, and can be incredibly cruel with his intentions, but truth be told, he’s mostly a coward who ends up being put in his place in the end.

ZIP – A bit of a naïve dimwit, he tends to just follow the lead of the other Z-Stacks. He’s excitable and eager to please, though does tend to blurt out nonsense at times. He has been shown to have a little decency inside him, but unfortunately, he’s too easily manipulated to really think for himself. He does have a cheeky side to him as well!

CAPTAIN ZERO – The devious owner of the Z-Stacks. Another man behind the megaphone (or building, whatever!) He has a rampant temper and ridiculously high expectations of his fleet, expecting them to win contracts by any means. Known for his dodgy dealings and scrimping on the upkeep of his tugs.

A couple of other characters worth mentioning (who make more than one appearance) are: -

GRAMPUS – A mini naval submarine, who is happy to turn up and help the Star Tugs when he can. He has a noticeable lisp when he speaks. One of his distinctive characteristics sees him spitting water, and it doesn’t matter who’s in the way. Despite his size, he proves himself especially useful around Bigg City Port.

LILLIE LIGHTSHIP – The only female boat to be seen in TUGS (And as mentioned, she's a lightship!). She is based out near Dem Der Rocks to prevent ships running aground. She speaks in a somewhat coy way, though she is always friendly and jovial to whomever she speaks to (unless they’re a Z-Stack!). She is very good friends with the Star Tugs, who are contracted to supply her fuel for her light; in particular, it’s hinted that she has a close relationship with Hercules.

BILLY SHOEPACK – An alligator tug, who has a distinctive country accent. Tends to work with dynamite a lot, and is a bit trigger happy, enjoying blowing things up whenever he can – in some cases for the better, and in other cases… yeah, not so. Despite his tendencies, he’s a cheery, well-meaning chap who likes to prove his worth with whatever means he can.

For all the other reoccurring characters, you can find them mentioned in the episode reviews!

TUGS is an innately fun show for its time, and it’s truly a shame that circumstances behind the scenes prevented it from progressing into a second series. It seemed like the show could have run on for a few years given the chance. It felt like there was so much more still left to do; they seemed to have plentiful scope to create education and thrilling adventures, which were not necessarily constrained to Bigg City Port. What’s also very sad is that the rights to TUGS are scattered here, there and everywhere, which has prevented the series being released on DVD/Blu-Ray.

I really hope somehow, they sort out the issues surrounding the rights and finally bring this classic to a new generation. I think kids today might just appreciate something a little different in a world of children’s television oversaturated with CGI. A hopeful part of me wishes that the show will eventually be revived, carrying some of the spirit of the old show, even if it has to conform to more stringent rules surrounding kids’ TV nowadays. Yeah, it would probably end up as CGI as well, as the cost to make a model powered show would just be unfeasible in this day and age to really recoup a decent profit, but if they could get the same aesthetic feel and detail, then it wouldn’t be too far flung from its past self.

On a completely different side note, a team of fans a few years back managed to purchase the majority of major character models from the series. They formed the ‘Star Tugs Company’, and have spent a lot of time and money restoring and exhibiting the models. Their main residence is at Midland Railway, Butterley, and they travel to numerous events across the UK to showcase the intricately made models for everyone to appreciate! It’s great to see that TUGS in some way still has a presence all this time later, and hopefully this may inspire something down the line on a bigger scale!

With all that said, I bow out of my introduction and point you to my episode reviews (when they are complete, that is!), to ride on the nostalgia boat with me and appreciate a classic show, the likes of which we will probably never see again. TUGS may seem to be a footnote of the 80’s, but like any good show – even how short-lived – the fond memories that remain prevent it from ever truly fading away completely. And I’m sure there are many people out there who truly appreciated it will never forget it either (and may try to introduce their kids, grandkids, or whoever, to it via the like of YouTube while they wait to see if the DVD ever appears!)

As is a fitting way to go out, I will now imagine myself walking away accompanied by a rocking saxophone solo. Because, come on, there’s no better way to go out!

Images copyright to Cardona/Mitton/Clearwater/Anybody else who has a slice of the pie!

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