You know that feeling when you discover a new show, and it’s everything you love? Smart, funny, creepy, wildly imaginative, and it slams you in the feels like a heavyweight champion?
You know that feeling when a show sets your imagination alight? And you devour every theory and analysis video, every piece of fanart you can find because you can’t wait to see what happens next?
You know that feeling when your favourite show gets cancelled before its time?
Infinity Train is an animated sci-fi/fantasy anthology series produced by Cartoon Network and airing on HBO Max. This is the story of how it died.
INFINITY TRAIN IS REALLY GOOD OKAY GUYS
Infinity Train follows aspiring game designer Tulip as she journeys through an infinite train, trying to solve its mysteries and return home. Each train car contains a new world, from a mirror dimension full of sentient reflections, to a kingdom of talking corgis, to a Beauty and the Beast-style ballroom populated by living ornaments.
At 11 minutes an episode it’s a very easy watch
Created by Regular Show alum Owen Dennis, Infinity Train began life as part of Cartoon Network’s pilot program way back in 2016. The pilot was an instant hit on YouTube and garnered a cult following, but for years CN did nothing to capitalise on its popularity.
Then, in 2018, CN finally picked up Infinity Train as a miniseries in the same vein as the widely acclaimed Over the Garden Wall.
The benefits of the miniseries format are immense: With only 10 11-minute episodes to fill, Infinity Train is tightly serialised, with a satisfying focus on developing its layered cast of characters. No Steven Universe-type filler here.
Even better, the niche appeal of a miniseries lets Infinity Train get darker and more emotionally mature than longform shows that need to generate marketable merchandise. Several jaw-dropping, ‘How did they get away with that’ moments give the show real stakes. Underneath its sheen of quirky worlds and loveable characters is a genuinely disturbing dystopia. It isn’t often a ‘kid’s show’ evokes Snowpiercer, Portal, The Matrix, Lord of the Flies and The Cube.
This anthology setup gives Infinity Train a huge breadth of perspectives. Each book ramps up the emotional complexity
Bolstered by a stellar voice cast, a lush synth-wave score and gorgeous visuals, Infinity Train combines the mystery-horror of Gravity Falls, zany creativity of Adventure Time and emotional core of Steven Universe. Its first season was a success and, surprise! It was returning for more!
Owen Dennis planned 8 10-episode books, each telling a self-contained story about new characters while expanding on the history, lore, and mysteries of the world.
This anthology setup gives Infinity Train a huge breadth of perspectives. Each book ramps up the emotional complexity: Book One offers mature commentary on divorce, Book Two a mediation on identity and free-will, and Book 3 studies the mechanics of a child-cult.
NUMBERS MATTER NOT
I’ve joined the fandoms of cancelled shows before (hi, Firefly) but I only found Infinity Train last month. I binged it in 3 days and fell in love, only to discover the show was under threat of cancellation. Imagine my elation when, the very next day, Book 4 was announced. I got two weeks of ignorant bliss.
Then. On March 11th, the trailer for Book 4: Duet released alongside the news that Infinity Train had been cancelled. Only halfway through its planned 8-season run.
Looking at the numbers, you’d think cancelling Infinity Train was insanity. It was HBO Max’s biggest animated original, and its 4th most-streamed show overall. According to Parrot Analytics, the show is in higher demand than 96.4% of children’s titles. Owen Dennis warned fans that to keep the show going they needed to support it on HBO Max, and they delivered.
So why did it die?
Infinity Train exists in the long-neglected no man’s land between the kids’ demographic (6-11 years) and adult demographic (18-59). Dennis created the show for the 12-17 audience that studios pretend doesn’t exist.
Networks don’t know how to handle such shows. As a result, they’re poorly marketed, underfunded, and prematurely axed (see Nickelodeon’s mistreatment of The Legend of Korra, which aimed for the same tween demographic).
Cartoon Network usually only advertises shows a week or two before they premiere. Even now, Infinity Train is barely promoted outside HBO Max’s YouTube channel. Given the three-year gap between its pilot and series premiere, it’s unsurprising a lot of those originally interested in it didn’t even know Infinity Train got picked up.
Infinity Train’s first two seasons only aired on CN in the US. There is no legal way to watch it outside of America, aside from buying the physical DVDs, and even then Book 2 won’t release until May 25th.
And after the show aired? No merchandise outside DVDs and a single t-shirt. On a network wall-to-wall with Teen Titans Go! reruns, Infinity Train got none.
But it’s okay! Because Infinity Train didn’t fit with CN’s other programming, with Book 3 it became a HBO Max exclusive! Moving off cable gave the show even more freedom, and Dennis said it helped Infinity Train find a bigger audience.
But it wasn’t enough.
HBO Max: “The worst streaming service” – Christopher Nolan
Recently tween animation has seen huge success on Netflix– see the complete runs of Voltron: Legendary Defender, The Dragon Prince, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, and Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts. Infinity Train could have thrived on Netflix.
But instead, it’s stuck on the streaming service with the most confusing name, biggest price-tag (double Disney+’s), and smallest reach.
Infinity Train was hobbled by an overpriced platform with a limited audience
As of 2021’s first quarter HBO Max has 40 million subscribers, but only 17.2 million of them have actively signed up to the service. In a similar timeframe Disney+ reached 73.3 million subscribers, and by now that’s bloated to 94.4 million. By comparison, Netflix hit 203.7 million subscribers in 2020.
HBO Max’s biggest problem is that it still isn’t available outside the US, almost a year after its launch. Latin America will finally get it in June but, hindered by longstanding licensing agreements with Sky, it won’t arrive in Europe until late 2021. It wasn’t even available on Roku devices until December.
So, Infinity Train was hobbled by an overpriced platform with a limited audience. For streaming shows, steady viewing figures are less important than the number of new people subscribing to watch. It’s why Netflix shows rarely survive 3 seasons – analytics show that constantly premiering new content draws in more new customers than continuing existing shows. Infinity Train’s strong numbers are unimportant if Book 3’s August premiere didn’t attract enough new subscribers to justify production costs.
Infinity Train was a victim of Warner Brothers’ huge corporate restructure in late 2020, which caused thousands of layoffs and razed entire divisions. New head of Kids and Family programming, Tom Ascheim, culled Warner’s existing slate to make way for his own vision.
Ascheim is prioritising the lucrative preschool market and refocusing on longstanding IPs- so you can thank him for this year’s god-awful Tom and Jerry movie (if you ever get to watch it – it’s another HBO Max exclusive).
Studios’ refusal to acknowledge the 12-17 demographic means Infinity Train is classed as a kids’ show and was at Ascheim’s mercy. Even younger-skewing projects like Trick Moon, another pilot with a cult following, got axed. So, the edgy, barely year-old Infinity Train stood no chance.
It’s even more frustrating knowing that another season of the show might already be written but will never see the light of day
Owen Dennis confirmed back in August that most of Infinity Train’s crew had already moved on to other projects. Even then he remained hopeful, pitching a movie and potential comic spinoffs. But then restructuring began in October, and by December production was ended after the completion of Book 4.
Writer Lindsay Katai confirmed on Twitter she was hired to write one ‘season’ of 26 half-hour episodes of the show, AKA 52 11-minute episodes. As Infinity Train is released in 10-episode books, this suggests that Book 5 has also been written. Unfortunately, Katai also confirmed that not all the episodes she wrote were produced. It’s even more frustrating knowing that another season of the show might already be written but will never see the light of day.
The future of Infinity Train looks bleak. It’s not impossible for cartoons to return from the dead. Family Guy did it twice. But Infinity Train is not a broad-appeal adult comedy, and restarting production would be expensive and difficult, especially if the crew have moved on to other projects.
Simultaneously too adult for kids and too ‘cartoony’ for mainstream adults, trapped on a streaming service that won’t be available worldwide until the end of 2021, it’s a miracle infinity Train even lasted this long. Owen Dennis remains hopeful that one day they might be able to continue the story. Maybe if fans like me kick up enough fuss on platforms like this, we might have a shot.
In the meantime, all 10 episodes of Infinity Train Book 4: Duet will premiere on HBO Max on April 15th. Fans have organised a watch/tweet-along of Books 1-3 counting down to the premiere, starting March 21st: If you’re a fan of western cartoons in any capacity I implore you to try the show out. At 11 minutes an episode it’s a very easy watch.
Featured Image courtesy of Gaspar Uhas via Unsplash. Image use license found here. No changes made to this image.
In article clips courtesy of Cartoon Network , Infinity Train – Topic ,Vailskibum94 and HBO Max via YouTube.
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I’m a big animation fan, and have been intrigued by this for years. Just so difficult there’s no way of watching this in the UK!