As it’s still June and I’m still celebrating all things dinosaur I thought it’d be fun to look at some dinosaur T.V. shows, specifically shows of the animated variety. Here’s the thing though, the preponderance of animated dinosaur shows range from awful to mediocre. There’s the well remembered but in actuality terrible Dinosaucers, rightfully forgotten mediocrity like Denver the Last Dinosaur or The Land Before Time animated series, and the decent if not terribly interesting installments like Extreme Dinosaurs. There is however one animated dinosaur show that not only holds up it holds up incredibly well thanks to a huge amount of non-narrative subtext. That show, as you may have guessed from the title, is Dino-Riders.
The series was pretty plainly part of the Transformers backwash that informed a lot of animated shows during the time; shows like Inhumanoids, Dinosaucers, Robotix, or RoboForce. Though there were some riffs on fellow popular success like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or He-Man, Transformers was easily the most impactful on the process of developing kids entertainment in the ‘80s. That’s probably because Transformers had the easiest set-up to copy and the very act of copying that formula intrinsically adds stakes to whatever your toy line happens to be.
As such Dino-Riders is a story about two alien factions crash landing on Earth and using our planet as their battleground. There’s a big McGuffin that both sides need to escape prehistoric Earth, there’s a lead bad guy and his scheming second in command, it’s basically everything you need to depict “epic struggle” as visualized through action figures. Our heroes are the Valorians, a race of telepathic space humans attacked by the villains Rulons, a race of human-animal hybrids that include shark men, bug men, and a frog man leader. Both groups are stranded on Earth so they decide to harness the might of dinosaurs to continue their cosmic war. The show is your pretty basic action adventure series, battling over resources, debuting new technology and organizations to battle one another, dueling leaders and big speeches, all the standard stuff. What makes Dino-Riders actually transcend its role as just another assembly line toy tie-in is the details of the world and its mechanics.
The first hints towards greater depth come in the first episode and the mechanics of how the Valorians and the Rulons enlist dinosaurs in their respective causes. The Valorians, as I mentioned, are a telepathic species so they’re able to utilize their psychic powers to actually communicate with the dinosaurs. For them the dinosaurs are actually allies rather than beasts of burden, creatures they convince to fight alongside them through mutual alignment. It’s an approach to technology that’s about harmony with nature. Meanwhile the Rulons use mind control technology, essentially enslaving the dinosaurs to their will. From the outset that might seem like very basic good guy/bad guy dichotomy but it’s actually a very subtle environmental message. The Rulons’ mind control technique affords them both greater control and a more powerful collection of dinosaurs, specifically they’re able to master the more ferocious and destructive dinosaurs. The only reason the Valorians’ telepathy works is because their dino-force is more limited and more docile. It’s a message about our relationship with nature and the very limited array of choices afford us there, either we accept nature as this vast and violent force that we can’t hope to control but for its calmest parts or we enforce our will over it use technology to subsume nature completely. It’s a very harsh truth to be sure but it’s actually only part of Dino-Riders overall commentary on themes of community, autonomy, purpose, and homogeny.
A lot of this comes from Dino-Riders’ thanksgiving episode where the show actually fleshes out some of the back-story for the two races. The Valorians are depicted as a peace-loving race that prior to their war with the Rulons didn’t have any form of centralized government. Their technology allowed every person to explore their own independent interests and their telepathy allowed them to communicate with ease. The thing is that the tacit reasoning behind this harmony is that Valorian society is isolated, a homogenous species. Everyone is the same species of “space human,” despite being an ancient species with space travel capabilities.
That wouldn’t be such a prevalent factor if not for the way that the Rulons are specifically depicted as confederation of various different species. The subtext of the conflict becomes about the trade offs of diversity and centralized authority against homogeny and autonomy. The Rulons maintain their society through a combination of mind control technology and war philosophy, engendering a sense of pan-demographic communalities through constant expansion and conflict. The term ‘Rulons’ isn’t even a species name, it’s just what they’ve decided to call their space state. Everyone has a role in the Rulons world, their culture is ordered strictly around a chain of command that unifies all species around a single driving goal.
The Valorians, conversely, are shown to have had almost no government, every person free to explore their own interests but every person is exactly the same. The only reason they’re able to achieve this anarchist utopia and even their telepathy is to do their mono-species culture.
The depth of meaning actually goes beyond that as Valorian society and culture are forced to warp and shift to face the Rulon threat. Things like a centralized commander and a military class are shown as new, sometimes dangerous, ideas. There’s an entire episode dedicated to a group called the Science Warriors, previous experts in different fields who now use their knowledge and skills for military purposes led by a former history teacher turned tactical leader. It’s a really good episode about the way the definition of Valorian culture has had to change and how simply the idea of authority and roles in service of a greater is incredibly transformative to their society. It honestly reminds me a lot of Star Trek: Deep Space 9, that also focused on the impact of shifting militaristic attitudes on a previously peaceful space state.
What’s so impressive about all of this in Dino-Riders is that none of these elements come explicitly from the narrative like with Adventure Time. Instead they’re furrowed into the details of the factions and their history and mechanics. As a result Dino-Riders is actually a very enjoyable and rewarding experience to watch because even though the stories are fairly simplistic and arch the details are highly nourishing. Dino-Riders has received a DVD release and is only 14 episodes long, I recommend checking it out for a great example of how well crafted detail and smart set-ups can create a meaningful story out of action figures.