I’d like to imagine somewhere 20 years in the future from the time of this writing, someone will be able to open an application, search for the words Infinity Train and see four seasons, maybe even a fifth epilogue season, and be met with a flowery description about the saving of a beloved cult classic.
In an alternate future, the status of the show will likely remain the same that it is today. Price gouged DVDs, bootleg copies and compressed upload seeds cycling through pirated websites.
The erasure of film and television has been treated nonchalantly in the past: George Lucas permanently altering the negative of Star Wars, Paramount keeping Alfred Hitchcock’s classics from a rerelease, anime of the 1960s eroding away in storage, and Doctor Who episode tapes destroyed in a fire. In the 21st century, it’s legal binding that keeps cult classics from seeing the light of day.
If you haven’t heard the news, Warner Bros., aka Warnermedia, has been sold off yet again, this time changing hands from AT&T to Discovery. Over the last couple of weeks, the merger has been making loud waves, mainly due to the unreleased Batgirl film with a $90m budget being shelved forever even before the public could see a trailer, let alone watch it in a theater or on streaming. The reason: a tax write-off, as the merger saddled Discovery with $55m in debts.
The cuts over the past week kept coming and kept hitting harder as HBO MAX original films like Robert Zemekis’ The Witches and Seth Rogan’s An American Pickle, among others, were stealthily deleted from the servers following the news. These are the kinds of films that might have made a flash-in-the-pan release on Netflix or Amazon over a weekend and then slowly fall to the back of your watchlist as their viewership wanes. The same thing happened for a large list of TV shows: Tig n’ Seek, OK KO, and even Sesame Street’s Elmo got axed from his not-so-late night show. Fan favorite DC series Young Justice has been eradicated for the second time in a decade. One of the greatest losses for fans, however, was Infinity Train. At the time of this writing, these shows are no longer available on the HBO service in the United States and most other territories.
While the new CEO of WarnerDiscovery, David Zaslav, is not in an enviable position of inheriting a streaming app that only shares 1% of the market share according to Nielsen ratings, he has to cut projects after AT&T left the Warner Bros. library in ruins. Those debts were mostly the result of their expensive Day-and-Date plan to release blockbuster films in 2020 and 2021 and cost them a lot of their most prolific talent. Now, viewers can’t help but feel a sense of the disparity between the priorities of the new chief and what fans want out of the studio.
Niche but beloved titles get taken down and thrown away into cold storage in exchange for making the line on a chart go up. While the cold numbers of it all make sense, it’s hard to sympathize with the man who turned non-fiction networks like The History Channel and TLC into places for housing media like Duck Dynasty, Ice Road Truckers, and Honey Boo Boo. Zaslav looks to be continuing this trend, as Discovery has also announced a 90-Day Fiance Universe, and sales call for flagrantly splintering HBO media exclusively into a hardcore, male-skewed demographic, and all female-directed and casual viewing stays on the Discovery brand.
The showrunner of Infinity Train, Owen Dennis, advises fans that they’ll need to pirate the show if they intend to enjoy it again, relishing in the macabre cynicism on his Twitter account. He has every right to, given that the show had a rocky status even when it was still in production. You can always advocate buying physical media, but only Books 1 and 2 were released in that way, and only on DVD. They’re now sold out everywhere.
For now, the shows and movies in question are remaining online available to purchase individually on services like iTunes, Amazon, and YouTube, and the HBO streaming may just count as airing rights that have been foregone to cut marginal costs. However, given the show’s Pilot with five million views has been removed from the official Cartoon Network YouTube channel, viewers are left with a pit in their stomach, wondering when will be the day you simply can’t buy or stream it legally any longer, as though it never existed.
Infinity Train, much like Nickelodeon’s Avatar sequel series Legend of Korra, always struggled to find a bigger audience. It aired two seasons worth on Cartoon Network and, upon the launch of HBO MAX during the COVID-19 pandemic, struggled to give Books 3 and 4 their shot. The series is among many in modern animated media that boldly appeal to children and adults enthusiastic about animation. The series is able to marry comedic whimsy with its melancholic, mature themes, all of which are anchored by its sci-fi roots. It bleeds with an earnest synthwave style, love for its characters, and queer themes and doesn’t get itself bogged down in plot any more than it needs to. It had a significant audience as well, being among the top five original HBO MAX series since launch in late 2021 after Book 3’s release. Despite critics and audiences praising the heartfelt sci-fi original, it’s already been removed from HBO MAX. Dennis has previously discussed that his plans for the show were far from over, with a video game, at least four more seasons, and a movie about the train conductor Amelia’s rise to power.
Meanwhile, these changes don’t just affect the shows, but the staff as well. Layoffs at HBO MAX have already begun as the reorg has gone underway, and it doesn’t only affect payroll staff as removal of a lot of animated series mean contractors won’t be hired back. Not only is it heartbreaking for creators to work on a series for years and be wiped from streaming, but it hurts even more when they loved the project and believed in it.
Character and VFX designer Megan Phonesavanh sang praise about working on the show on her Twitter:
It’s rather common in the industry for shelved projects to directly affect animation talent by keeping artists from including the work their portfolio, but that is usually in the context of an NDA for unreleased work. Often these contracts prevent animators from sharing behind-the-scenes work in artists’ portfolios, making finding contract work in the medium tougher than it already is. Luckily, most of the artists for the show are still sharing behind the scenes animatics and character art from Infinity Train to remember their work on it. Presumably, no one has been asked to take anything down at this time, but if it were to happen, it would be unprecedented:
We’ve addressed this topic before on The Young Folks regarding the blending of business between films and video games being a potential negative. For the latter, developers can tell you all about canceled projects like THQ’s multiplayer Avengers title and LucasArts’ Star Wars 1313. There are games we’ll never know the name of, like Retro Studios “Project X”, a game with such a massive cloud over it, that creators still tiptoe around the topic a decade later. This kind of business practice is exemplary of the trends in the tech and video games space, but the Batgirl news and all the results in its wake have left Hollywood talent in shock. Infinity Train‘s removal from HBO is a symbol of the crucial importance of media preservation in a streaming dystopia, but if there is any silver lining, people are finally paying more attention to media preservation, why it’s happening, and ways they can seek to protect the art they love.