This past weekend, right out of the blue, Amazon.com sent me a free $4 credit towards any of their VOD (video on demand) products, so I finally picked up a couple of episodes from a cartoon series that I’ve been dying to watch again, the Dinosaucers. Originally syndicated back by DiC in 1987, the Dinosaucers was a show that I’d only catch sporadically, mostly it seems when the family was on vacation in other states. I’m not sure if my local affiliates even carried the series. What made the cartoon even rarer was the fact that there was little to no domestic merchandising (except some prototypes and some limited toy releases in South America), so there was really no push to get kids interested in the series.
The basic premise of the show involved two groups of interstellar reptilian (evolved dinosaurs) travelers who converge on Earth to wage the tried and true war between good and evil. One the one hand you have the titular Dinosaucers lead by Allo who fight for peace and freedom, and on the other are the Tyranos led by Genghis Rex who are trying to take control of the planet. Upon landing on Earth, the Dinosaucers met up with four teenagers, the brother and sister duo Ryan & Sara Spenser, as well as their two friends Paul and David, who agree to help out the team by becoming the Secret Scouts, allies in the battle against Genghis Rex and the Tyranos.
Granted, the premise is a carbon copy of about half of the 80s syndicated cartoons (just replace alien anthropomorphic dinosaurs with robots and you’ve got yourself the Transformers), but the series does have a few tricks up its sleeve. Though not one of my personal favorite action animation innovations stemming from the late 80s, Dinosaucers was one of the first shows to really push the idea of having child characters in the series that acted as avatars for the viewing audience; the Secret Scouts are basically a vehicle with which kids can feel like they could be part of the action. If the show had taken off, I’d be willing to bet that becoming an honorary Secret Scout would have been a surefire promotion. In fact, it’s kind of interesting to note that just three years later DiC, which was the studio behind Dinosaucers, helped Turner Broadcasting in bring Captain Planet to life. Many of the Secret Scout tropes introduced in the Dinosaucers cartoon are carried over to CP, including the gifting of magical rings that gave the “ordinary teenagers” some special powers to help defeat the forces of evil. Heck, even their outfits are kind of similar. To take the conspiracy just a bit further, Robby London worked on both projects in a producorial capacity.
Another aspect where Dinosaucers differed from your standard action cartoon is in it’s use of vaudevillian and very broad comedy to lighten the tone of the series. I’ll talk a bit more about this in a minute, but suffice it to say that the overall tone of the series feels nothing like Transformers or G.I. Joe, and was a bit ahead of it’s time when you consider the mega hits of the 90s like the Power Rangers which relied heavily on a blend of action and comedy. Again, it’s not one of my favorite aspects per-se, but it has been growing on me. You get a taste of this humor in the opening credits as the whole gang of Dinosaucers is getting set up for a group photo, and at the last second before the camera snaps the shot, the Tyranos jump in the frame to ruin it for them…
Speaking of this rivalry, I’d have to say that besides some of the design work on the series, it’s this age old good vs. evil, black and white struggle that really sells me on the series. I don’t care if it’s hackneyed and overdone, you put together two factions full of loud personalities and pit against each other in battle and I’ll watch it. There’s just something buried deep in my psyche that responds to this kind of set up. The X-Men, Star Wars, G.I. Joe, the Transformers, Thundercats, Silverhawks, Voltron, Buckaroo Banzai, Big Trouble in Little China, etc., I could go on forever. With the Dinosaucers there’s one aspect to the various character’s thunder-lizard designs that I was kind of sad wasn’t used which is the dichotomy between herbivores and carnivores. Granted, I know the lines weren’t that distinct in the dinosaur hierarchy, but it the character designs were almost laid out that way with the cartoon. Five of the eight Dinosaucers were based on herbivores (with Allo, an allosaurus, and Ichy, an ichthyosaurus, and Teryx, an archaeopteryx, as carnivorous exceptions, though Ichy could be considered a loose fish-eating vegetarian), while only three of the Tyranos were carnivores (Genghis Rex, a tyrannosaurus, Terrible Dactyl, a pteranodon, and Plesio, a plesiosaurus.) I think this was a missed opportunity, and instead the production and design team decided instead to pair up the good and bad dinosaurs so that each would have similar counterparts (flying vs. flying, etc.)
The series doesn’t have a specific origin story that kicks it off. Instead the idea is quickly stated in the opening narration and theme song (done again by Haim Saban.) The first episode of the series called Dino Valley and was written by series story editor Diane Duane, and centers around the Tyranos stumbling upon a hidden environment where there is still a small pocket of terrestrial dinosaurs that have survived throughout the millennia. They plan on enslaving these beasts and using them for labor and as the front line in their war to conquest earth…
Basically, the Tyranos have electronic slave collars that completely bend the will of the wearer to who ever has the control box.
While this is going on we get our first glimpse of the Secret Scouts, as Paul sits in the Dinosaucers head quarters monitoring the actions of the Tyranos. Unfortunately, some of the writing here is a bit lazy as the Dinosaucers apparently have the ability to watch over their enemies like Big Brother in 1984. It’s this kind of passionless writing that tends to give these 80s shows such a bad reputation, which is kind of unfortunate. Granted, I’ve yet to re-watch the entire series, but I have a feeling based on the tone and story ideas behind the handful of episodes that I’ve watched that the rest of the episodes follow suit. On the upside, the design of the Dinosaucers HQ is pretty swanky. It’s hidden in a giant rock that looks like a fossilized dinosaur skull for crying out loud. How cool is that?
After learning of Genghis Rex’s plan, Paul contacts the Dinosaucers and Sara Spencer so that they can track down the Tyranos and foil their plot. We’re introduced to Allo, the leader of the team, as well as Dimetro, the Panthro of the Dinosaucers, and Bronto Thunder, which is just a weird way of saying Thunder Thunder as Bronto mean thunder in ancient Greek .
Simply from a design aspect, I enjoy the look of the series, in particular the various vehicles and costuming. I love it when vehicles and architecture reflect the characters conceptually in 80s cartoons (like Hawk Haven in the Silverhawks, Cat’s Lair and the Thunder Tank from thundercats, etc.), and Dinosaucers is no exception. The Tyranos not only fly around in a giant red mechanized tyrannosaurus mother ship, but each of the characters also has their own specific ship that shares design elements of whatever dinosaur they’re based on. Similarly the Dinosaucers have a giant pterodactyl mother ship and personalized craft as well.
I also really dig the way the Secret Scouts are outfitted with their own flying motorcycles or ATVs. What kid wouldn’t want a jet powered motorcycle?!?
Similarly I really dig the anthropomorphication of the dinosaur characters. It’s like a cross between Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers and He-Man….
The animation on the series is pretty solid too. Though the characters tend to be a bit pudgy looking, there’s a nice blend of American and Japanese work on the show. Like most DiC productions, the ink and paint on Dinosaucers was outsourced to Asia, and every once in awhile you can see the animators letting loose a bit and bringing some of the intensity of anime into the series. There’s a sequence with a Seismosaurus (diplodocus) charging at the Dinosaucers and getting its head stuck in a cave that is kind of freakishly weird. It ends with a crazy-eyed Leone-style close-up that fades into a commercial break cliffhanger that had me laughing out loud at its way over-the-top tone.
I also find it interesting in the number of ways that the series is sort of derivative of other 80s action cartoon conventions. Not only is the series made up of the ongoing battles between to clearly delineated factions, as well as being made up of cast of animalisticly designed characters (ala Thundercats and the Silverhawks), but it also features transformation sequences (ala He-Man, She-Ra, Transformers, etc.) The Dinosaucers have the ability to Dino-volve into a more traditional dinosaur form for a short period time. They keep their awareness and ability to speak while also gaining the strength and girth of their larger more ferocious counterparts.
What’s kind of strange is that this power is only known to the Dinosaucers; it’s a secret they keep from the Tyranos. I find it strange because this seems like a concept that would be perfect for the battle sequences between the two factions, but instead it’s used more for subterfuge and problem-solving (like the ability to use Bronto Thunder’s dino-volved form as a bridge-layer.)
I mentioned above that the series has some very interesting, yet kind of unfortunate weak points, and the largest is its strange tone. For an action series in the 80s, the Dinosaucers has an extremely unbalanced amount of comedy that has the potential to really throw the viewer off. Most cartoons in the 80s had some comedy, but in the Dinosaucers case, I’d have to say that the series is more comedy than action.
What’s even stranger is that so much of it is slapstick, 3 Stooges, almost vaudevillian in style, with tons of pratfalls, head slapping, and moustache curling monologues (though not quite in the same megalomaniacal fashion as say a Starscream or a Cobra Commander.) If Genghis Rex had a moustache, he’d certainly, literally, be twirling it. It’s not just relegated to the villains either. There are three separate segments involving Bronto Thunder tripping, falling, and flailing in various muddy, wet, and sticky situations, all within five minutes of animation. To top it off there are a plethora of clichéd one-liners that even kids would groan at.
This comedic tone also carries over to the action of the show which consists of more pratfalls and goofiness. The characters are more likely to get run over in a stampede or thrown into the bushes than really battle it out. There’s even a sequence where Genghis Rex is push backward so that he’ll trip over the hunched and waiting Dimetro. It really does feel like a 3 Stooges short at points.
What’s also kind of weird is the role that the Secret Scouts play in the series. Though I would assume they were introduced as a way of providing the kids in the audience with a way of glomming onto the characters and in turn feeling like they were part of the action from afar, the Secret Scouts actually take part full force in the Dinosaucers’ adventures. Outfitted with their rocket bikes and magical rings, they right in the thick of the action as if they were full members of the team. This just plays a bit weird to me because of the danger the characters are in, and the recklessness with which the Dinosaucers allow them to take part. Typically in these 80s cartoons, the idea was to reinforce the idea that this type of action was make believe and that in the real world this kind of danger should be avoided. I guess at this point in 1987 it was kind of confusing for the production teams because of the backing-off of kid-vid regulations. Where they supposed to be upping the action or producing PSAs? Who knows, but this confusing tone sure makes the Dinosaucers a strange beast among the pack.
All in all, even though the series is off balance and weird, I still love it for its design and the gushy nostalgic memories I have of catching episodes here and there as a kid…
Unfortunately, the series isn’t available on DVD, though the first 21 episodes are being offered via digital download through Amazon.com’s Unbox service. You can only view the episodes with their Unbox player which is sort of a pain, especially at $1.99 an episode, but I suppose it’s better than nothing.