Before I get into the film, a quick word about myself and documentaries:
I’ve become quite picky about documentaries. Not in terms of subject matter, but in delivery. I don’t like being told how to feel about a subject, or being swayed by fancifully narrated dissertations trying to impose importance upon the topic. In a bid to create narratives and through lines, and at the very worst, try to be “cinematic,” certain documentaries can turn into little more than video essays with a hefty dose of undying pretense. This is especially common in the natural habitat of the video essay; the internet.
I open with this anecdotal tirade to highlight just how discriminating I’ve become. And I am pleased to say, from the bottom of my heart, that a team of talented young filmmakers have managed to dodge that colossal bullet, and produce something I am tremendously impressed by.
Lewis D. Gilbert’s TUGS: A Bigg Retrospective is a 2023 documentary, produced by independent outfit Insert Title Here Productions, and works to trace back the history of the 1989 ITV model-animated adventure drama TUGS. The show was the brainchild of Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends producer Robert D. Cardona and long-time series director David Mitton, and centered on rival fleets of sentient tugboats, set in a fictional American harbor during the Roaring 20s. The 13-episode show was one of the most expensive productions of its day, and easily the most expensive British children’s program at the time, utilizing elaborate model boats, massive sets, a talented cast of veteran voice artists, and an ambition beyond anything produced at the time.
And explosions. Lots of explosions. You can thank Mitton’s time with Gerry Anderson (and Terrahawks technician Ross King) for those.
A labor of love from all involved, the series’ expenses and inability to find American investors ultimately led to its unceremonious drawing-and-quartering in a string of bankruptcies and buyouts that scattered the rights to the four winds, making its reemergence into any form of syndication or home video just shy of completely impossible.
However, due to its ties with the cheeky blue tank engine, and its own merits as a boldly mature children’s drama, the series has grown a devout cult following over the years, and after the resurfacing of many props, production materials, and behind-the-scenes photographs across the 2010s, seemed ripe for an exploration and complete retrospective.
And that is precisely what it has received.
For the next two-and-a-half hours, I was treated to an onslaught of interviews from as much of the cast and crew as seemingly possible, detailing the trials, tribulations, joys, and excitement of working on a series as grand in scope and dense in technicality as TUGS. From the creation of the props to the complications of filming in the massive water tank in Shepperton Studios to the creation of voices and the recording sessions, the world unseen of this mammoth program is finally allowed into the light of day where it’s efforts can be appreciated. Of particular delight was hearing stage and screen veteran Shaun Prendergast (the voice of Star Tug switcher “Sunshine” and devious Z-Stack “Zak”) speak of his involvement and his interactions with fans over the years.
Even for those who couldn’t be interviewed, be it for logistics, scheduling, or the sad fact that many are long since gone, you get a great feel for everyone involved. There’s nothing but fond memories and a sincere love for the program, something amplified by a specific section devoted to the fanbase of the program. And to be 100% honest, this section is probably the only part of the film I’d recommend having been cut down. Hearing from the fans is more than worthwhile, but the segment does drag the pacing down something fierce, especially after having been treated to such a rapidly delivered wealth of never-before-seen and heard anecdotes that keeps the film moving at top speed.
But aside from that, and some minor issues with the titles and text (the credit scroll happens way too fast, even knowing it’s a call-back to the original series’ end credits), TUGS: A Bigg Retrospective is such a beautiful work of passion that manages to do what I hoped it would: play things hands-off. Through a brilliant tribute to series narrator Patrick Allen, performed to perfection by Sean Ruttledge, the narration is even-handed, sparse, and occasionally humorous, but most important of all, never gets in the way of the film. It’s established at the outset, and its periodical appearance is never grating nor unwelcome. And best of all, it lets the interviewees and the wealth of materials speak for themselves, rather than superimpose some frivolous storyline or milk profundity out of the subject. Every frame of this film pays respect to its subject matter, from the opening narration to the amusing post-credits quip from modelmaker Jeremy King, and it allows its story to be told unencumbered.
You can find TUGS: A Bigg Retrospective available on YouTube and I highly encourage everyone to go see it. Whether you are a devotee of the show, curious what the lads behind Thomas the Tank Engine pulled off beyond the famed Island of Sodor, or are willing to hear out a story yet to be told in full, Gilbert & Company’s production has set the benchmark and will likely be a go-to fountain of knowledge for anyone wishing to learn more about the true power behind the docks and waterways that made up Bigg City Port all those years ago. Hats off to all involved in the series, involved in this production, and the legions of fans whose undying interest undoubtedly willed this into being.
Now that’s what I call documentary.