Week of Cartoons – Day 1: Dino Riders (1988)

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Part 2 | Part 3

FROM JASON’S 13″ KITCHEN TV — There are two things that 8-year-old boys like: Dinosaurs and outer space. When I was that age, I couldn’t be bothered with the big pirates versus ninjas question. I just wanted a triceratops mounted with a laser cannon.

Along came Dino Riders and my world was complete.

Transformers had already set the standard for using cartoons as 22-minute ads for toys, and Dino Riders called on Peter Cullen and Frank Welker — again — to pretty much re-skin the eternal Transformers struggle with a whole bucket of prehistoric awesome. It was by all accounts a flop, with just 14 episodes made and 13 hitting the air. But its brevity belied the widespread appeal of the toys, which somehow managed to stay in my bedroom until the mid-90s.

The plot, briefly (it’s part of the show opener anyway): The Valorians are a peaceful people fighting the good fight against the evil Rulons. When the Valorians use an experimental time-travel warp drive to escape their attackers, the Rulons lock on a tractor beam. Both factions are hurled back in time to prehistoric Earth, where they use their advanced technology to carry on the eternal struggle.

Oh, did I mention that the good guys are telepaths and the bad guys are snake men, ant men, and shark men?

Dino Riders had the same premise flaw as all other 1980s cartoons: There were evil characters doing evil for the sake of being evil. There was no other motivation. The Valorians’ arch-nemesis, Emporer Krulos, was a Cobra Commander clone and just wanted to rule the universe for the sake of having power. There were no shades of gray in the Cold War mindset. America considered itself the soldier of the light, and it needed an Emmanuel Goldstein caricature to be the soldier of the dark.

The show was laced with a pretty cliché moral of universal harmony prevailing over coercion. The Valorians befriended the planet’s dinosaurs, forging alliances. The Rulons use force, creating mind-control devices called “brain boxes” to enslave vicious dinos.

There was no historical cohesiveness about the show, which mixed a few hundred million years worth of dinos into the same setting. In fact, there were primitive humans living alongside the dinosaurs, which in retrospect makes me wonder if stupid Young Earth creationists had something to do with the show.

Interestingly, the writers took great care to align docile and defensive saurians with the Valorians (stegasaurus, diplodocus, dimetrodon, brontosaurus). Meanwhile, the Rulons got dinos that were more or less tanks (T-Rex, ankylosaurus, and several triceratops-ish species). They also tried to evenly match the capabilities of the two factions; Transformers had always bothered me a bit because the Decepticons had all the jets and the Autobots were stuck with ground transportation (mostly). Dino Riders gave each side flying dinos.


TV advertisement for the toys.

My parents were at first a little upset about all the shooting of lasers and such (they were always prudish about cartoon violence), but finally caved and bought the toys because they were marginally educational. These were no cheap Chinese hunks of plastic. The dinos were extremely well-constructed and tremendously detailed, much larger-scaled than typical toys of the time (I never got the brontosaurus, which was HUGE), and often came with turrets or seats for multiple action figures.

I wish this concept would have worked out and that the stories would have been a bit more mature. Had the animation been a little more detailed, Dino Riders would have made an incredible anime cross-over hit like RoboTech, and I would have been a rabid fanatic. Oh well.

“We’re not Valorians anymore. We’re DINO RIDERS!”

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