Infinity Train’s Creator Says the Show’s Future Is in Jeopardy

infinity train
Image: Cartoon Network

Infinity Train is in the middle of airing its third season, but it might not get to finish its story. Creator Owen Dennis has revealed that the series is at risk of not being renewed for Book 4, mainly because of ratings and the idea that it might not appeal to kids. However, he’s hopeful for the future and said there are still many more seasons planned.

Infinity Train could get picked up for more, but only if it gets a lot of views on HBO Max,” Dennis told Gizmodo. “If the show gets picked up for more, then I’d love to make more and hire back as many people as we could. If it doesn’t, then I am but tears in the rain.”

In an interview conducted over email, Dennis confirmed to Gizmodo recent rumours that most of Infinity Train’s crew has moved onto other projects. He said it’s because the series still hasn’t been approved for another season and there are serious fears HBO Max and Cartoon Network might cancel the show after Book 3. The main concern? Apart from ratings, it’s “trepidation over the subject matter,” a belief that kids might not be able to relate to the show because it’s too mature for them. Dennis said this was an issue with Book 3 as well, which centres around the story of a cult-like group called the Apex that seeks to dominate and destroy the train by any means necessary.

“It’s pretty hard to sell the idea of, ‘Yeah, so we wanna make a story about these teens who lead a cult and don’t view anyone around them as living so they just kill and maim and destroy everything all time so that we can look at another angle of what the previous season talked about — and also we’re gonna grind someone in a gear. That’s cool, right?’” he said (referring to an episode four moment that stands out as one of the darkest the series has done so far).

Dennis said the tricky thing about Infinity Train is it’s marketed as a “kids’ show” when really it’s designed to appeal to teens and adults too, much like Steven Universe, Adventure Time, and Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts. Similar to BoJack Horseman’s creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg, who recently shared his hopes and fears about the future of adult animation, Dennis thinks there’s a lot of growing potential within the genre. Though he did admonish the trend in adult animated shows to assume that characters have to be raunchy and edgy in order to be seen as mature, and said there’s room for more drama and heart in animated shows. He sees it as being a lucrative market for whatever studio breaks through that barrier.

“I strongly believe that we can push animation into a more mature direction outside of the purely comedy space. If adults were able to finally understand that comic books aren’t just for children, then they’ll also be able to learn that animation isn’t either. Whichever studio produces the show or movie that finally breaks through and teaches that lesson, then that studio just got their own Marvel,” he said.

It’s unclear what’s going to happen with Infinity Train after Book 3 is over, but Dennis said he’s got several more seasons planned should it continue. When asked what stories he’d love to explore in the future, he said he wants to go more into the history of the train — possibly to a time when the Infinity Train existed before trains themselves. Really, the sky’s the limit. There are millions of cars and millions of stories. But there’s one thing Dennis does know: When it would end, if it were up to him.

“We have rough ideas for themes and which characters we’d like to follow for five more seasons, up to season eight,” he said. “Feels like ‘8’ is a good place to stop because it looks like an infinity symbol.”

Infinity Train is in the middle of season three, which is available on HBO Max. For more of Dennis’ thoughts, here is an edited, condensed version of our larger interview.

Beth Elderkin, Gizmodo: How does it feel to have gotten to Book 3 of Infinity Train?

Owen Dennis: It’s amazing! This is the most emotionally complex season we’ve ever done. I’m super proud not just of the writing and [storyboarding], but also just how well the art compliments the emotional gravity of what we’ve been talking about. It’s also really cool that we’ve been supported in going the directions in Infinity Train that we’ve been able to go. Most kids shows don’t get to talk as explicitly about subject matter like loss, emotional abuse, and othering as we’ve been able to. I’m continually shocked at what we’ve been allowed to do, and I think people watching this season will be as well.

Gizmodo: How many more seasons do you have outlined or prepared, and do you already have Book 4 mapped out?

Dennis: We’ve written more, but it’s all sitting on a server waiting for a greenlight. We have rough ideas for themes and which characters we’d like to follow for five more seasons, up to season eight. Feels like 8 is a good place to stop because it looks like an infinity symbol.

Gizmodo: How has the move from Cartoon Network to HBO Max impacted the show?

Dennis: It’s made Infinity Train more widely known, so that’s pretty cool. Nothing has changed content-wise from what we wanted to do though. Infinity Train was originally supposed to air on HBO Max in the first place, but the Warner/AT&T deal was held up in court so its launch missed our premiere. So this show was originally intended for streaming audiences, and now that it’s finally on there, it looks like it’s starting to get some traction.

Gizmodo: The Infinity Train is lovingly called the “Therapy Train.” What role does healing have on the series, and do you see the show as promoting mental health?

Dennis: Man, it’s tough. We really try to make sure that any message we send out with the show can be interpreted in the way that you need it to be. We think that even if we’re showing how things can go wrong, that’s still an example you can learn from. So, [a] character might get way worse in one direction, but we try to make sure it’s understandable why that happened and how they got to that place. We also try to make sure that there’s an example of a better way. It’s also tough because it’s like, you know, who are we to say what people should and shouldn’t do with their lives?

That’s kind of a big thing we do on the show as well, the train may have these good intentions, but in the end, it still kidnapped you and put you on a train and said: “Fix yourself according to our rules or you never get to see your family or friends again for the rest of your life. Also, we don’t tell you what the rules are or how to do that.” It’s really messed up.

In general, we have certain moral directions that we lean, and we want the show to be about growth. However, we can’t tell you what to do with your life, and these sorts of issues are kinda grey. That’s where the show lives, in the grey.

Gizmodo: Do you see the show as having different takeaways for children and adults, or are they the same no matter your age?

Dennis: I’m not entirely sure. I don’t really think about the age aspect of the show. We tend to think about what makes a good story, what makes a good theme, and what makes a good character. That’s kind of it. If kids are getting something out of it, then that’s great! If adults get something out of it, then that’s great too! I think because our show is technically “for kids,” it acts as a limitation that forces us to use metaphor and [subtlety] to tell the story more than you might be boxed into doing on an adult show.

I think this only further proves how much we need more aged-up content in the Western animation space. Right now, “adult” animation exists almost entirely in comedy. It’s like the only way a cartoon can “prove” that it’s for adults is if the main character is an alcoholic jerk who sleeps around and “tells it like it is.” That’s not to say that sort of thing can’t be good, it can often be very good! But when it’s the only thing that gets made, it becomes rote and loses its surprise factor and charm. It’s like ice cream. I love ice cream, I like to eat the different flavours of ice cream, but if the only kind of food I was ever allowed to eat was ice cream it wouldn’t matter how many flavours I had, it’s still just more ice cream.

I strongly believe that we can push animation into a more mature direction outside of the purely comedy space. If adults were able to finally understand that comic books aren’t just for children, then they’ll also be able to learn that animation isn’t either. Whichever studio produces the show or movie that finally breaks through and teaches that lesson, then that studio just got their own Marvel.

Gizmodo: What were the challenges in getting Infinity Train renewed for Book 2 or 3, and have you faced similar challenges for getting Book 4?

Dennis: Well, Book 2 was actually part of the first order, they surprised us by ordering 20 episodes instead of the 10 we asked for. The challenge there was showing how we could make a show that didn’t have our main character in it from the previous season.

Book 3 was difficult in that it’s pretty hard to sell the idea of, “Yeah, so we wanna make a story about these teens who lead a cult and don’t view anyone around them as living so they just kill and maim and destroy everything all time so that we can look at another angle of what the previous season talked about — and also we’re gonna grind someone in a gear. That’s cool right?”

Gizmodo: There have been rumours that some of Infinity Train’s crew has been laid off. Is that true? If so, is it because of the pandemic, or something else?

Dennis: Yes, the whole crew is gone now.

There’s some production staff left, but they’re transitioning onto other shows or other aspects of their career. They’ve all moved on because we haven’t been greenlit for more, it’s nothing to do with the pandemic. In fact, when the pandemic hit, our crew was so amazing and able to work from home with little in the way of production hiccups. Part of that had to do with the fact that we often allowed our crew to work from home if they felt like it anyway, so we already had a little bit of infrastructure in place. The other part was that our crew was just super talented and skilled and the people in leadership positions on our show were very good at coordinating all of it. My contract at [Cartoon Network] finishes in November and I’m currently opening to other projects.

Infinity Train could get picked up for more, but only if it gets a lot of views on HBO Max. That’s where that $US4 ($6) billion of Warner [Bros.] money is going, so that’s where they care about views the most. If the show gets picked up for more, then I’d love to make more and hire back as many people as we could. If it doesn’t, then I am but tears in the rain.

Gizmodo: Is the show at risk of not being renewed? If so, what would be the next step?

Dennis: Yes, the show is at risk of not being renewed. I mean almost all of the staff who made the show what it is are gone. It’s really unfortunate because we built such an amazing team of people and my heart aches thinking about not being able to work with them again. We’ve pitched other seasons of the show, but there’s trepidation over the subject matter, the age of the characters, and being afraid that kids won’t watch it or relate to it because of that. These are understandable fears to have when there is no data to back up the idea of “older kids, teens, and adults watch this show.” Show them the data and I’m sure they’d be happy to make more.

Therefore, the way to get this stuff made is to show that adults, teens, and kids all watch it, and they all watch it on HBO Max. They’ve got like a billion points of data they’re measuring — so if you’re watching it, they know. Whatever you wanna do, have fun and be kind. Eating a spoonful of honey is much more enjoyable than a spoonful of vinegar. This show was made because of the massive fan reaction to the pilot, and fans are what will help make more happen in the future.

Gizmodo: What are you hoping to see happen with Infinity Train in the future?

Dennis: I’d love for there to be a movie that follows Amelia’s story [the villain from season one]. I’d also like to do some other time periods of the train. Right now, we basically have seen a little over one year’s worth of time on the train I think. The cat has referenced being on the train for at least 150 years, so clearly the train has a much longer history. What was the train like before Amelia took over? How old is the train? Did someone get on the train when they were, like, a knight or something? Would they have even understood the concept of what a train was? Stuff like that.

I think it would also be really cool to do comic books that are in canon and could be written by or starring non-Americans. The train can show up anywhere, but everyone we ever meet on the train speaks English and comes from a Western country. I think that’s unfortunate because there are a lot of interesting stories that people could tell from their own culture and their own countries that we simply can’t write because we’re not from there and those aren’t our experiences to tell. However, the train “train-scends” all, and I think it should be available to the mental, moral, and personal issues of everyone around the world.