Tulip Olsen just wants to get to game design camp. But her journey takes a weird turn when she hops on a mysterious train, meets a spherical robot and discovers she has a glowing number on her hand.
Created by Owen Dennis, “Infinity Train” follows Tulip as she tries to figure out a way off the train — and why the number on her hand is changing. All 10 episodes of the animated series are airing this week on Cartoon Network, nearly three years after the pilot short debuted online.
“It’s a kids’ mystery-horror-comedy-science-fiction show,” Dennis told The Times. “It deals a lot more with issues that a lot of shows — especially for kids — might not lean towards dealing with.”
“Infinity Train” stands out because it does lean into those issues. As much as it is a series about this mysterious train where each car contains a completely unique world, it’s also a story about a girl who is dealing with aspects of her life that are just beyond her control.
Even before she becomes trapped on a big, weird train, Tulip is frustrated with her parents, their divorce and how it has affected her. Part of why she ends up on the train to begin with is because a miscommunication left Tulip with no way to get to the game design camp she was so looking forward to.
Adapting to the different train cars to figure out how to get to the next one seems almost easier in comparison to some of the real-life changes Tulip has been adjusting to.
According to Dennis, everything started with the feeling of waking up in an unsettling space.
He traces “Infinity Train’s” origins to a 2010 return flight to the U.S. from China, where he was working as an English teacher.
“There’s this part of the ocean that’s really big and quiet, and it’s very still,” said Dennis. “The plane was flying over that section and I’d woken up. I looked around, and there were a bunch of people staring into screens in the dark in this quiet room. I thought this was kind of creepy. And it sort of started from there.”
After deciding on having a train be this unsettling environment, some of the other pieces started falling into place.
“I started thinking about what kind of person would grow the most from being a place where every single train car is a different experience, a different everything all the time,” said Dennis. “What sort of things can you learn from having to do that?”
According to Dennis, Tulip’s love of STEM and science developed after some women from Google visited Cartoon Network to talk about their experiences.
“Everything they were describing, all the feelings that they had, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s Tulip. You’re describing the character I’ve been working with and have been trying to figure out for a while now,’” said Dennis. “So I thought, well, she should just do what they all are doing. It made a lot of sense because it just fit well.”
Tulip’s affinity for the sciences stands out at a time when people are increasingly aware of how women have continually been underrepresented in science and engineering work. But for Dennis, it made sense for Tulip because he grew up around women involved in science.
“My mom was a botanist and my girlfriend is a chemist,” said Dennis. “And her friends are scientists, and my mom’s friends were scientists and engineers. Growing up, that’s what scientists and engineers were in my head. They were women.”
Joining Tulip as she tries to make her way through the train is One-One, a spherical robot with two personalities, and Atticus, a royal corgi. The characters who stand in her way are a cat and the mysterious Steward.
Inspired by the song “My Friend Dario” by Vitalic and art by Lucian Stanculescu, the Steward was just something Dennis drew while on vacation in the mountains.
“It wasn’t ever supposed to be a part of ‘Infinity Train,’ ” said Dennis. But as he was thinking about having something that would threaten the corgis in the pilot, he remembered “that creepy robot thing” that he drew.
“I popped that in there, and it seemed to work really well because it was so different from everything we’ve seen up to that point,” said Dennis. “I feel like people get very startled by it, but I feel like most of the fear that people have is because it’s so different-looking.”
He added: “It’s not so much because it is a scary-looking thing. It’s the difference, the contrast that is so startling. I think that’s a fun aspect of the Steward.”
The Steward definitely helps add to “Infinity Train’s” unsettling vibe. And the show itself balances comedy and mystery while threading in reminders of Tulip’s family drama.
“Everybody’s kind of looking at the show for different things,” said Dennis. “Some people want this big mystery thing. Some people want a family drama. Some people want just pure comedy. It’s all over the place. I just hope that whatever it is that people were looking for from the show, they can get that.”