TV’s top anachronistic dinosaurs

In honour of the Doctor riding a triceratops in the new Doctor Who trailer, we salute the TV dinosaur appearances that would have Ross from Friends weeping into his oversized coffee cup…

Inside your TV dwells an uncanny world much like our own but for a few key points of difference: it hardly rains there, no one says goodbye at the end of phone-calls, all the women wear matching underwear, and its glossily beautiful population can’t get through a day without being caught up in a comic, dramatic, romantic, or thrilling scrape. And every so often in this parallel world, where history and logic dictate they really shouldn’t, dinosaurs show up.

There are usually in-world explanations for the appearance of said dinosaurs; sci-fi and fantasy events involving millennia-old frozen eggs defrosting, DNA cloning, intergalactic space travel, and rifts in time.

Often, it’s pesky time-travelling humans who are the anachronistic ones, boldly going where nature never intended, stepping on Ray Bradbury’s butterfly and causing all manner of mayhem in the process.

In honour of forthcoming Doctor Who episode Dinosaurs On A Spaceship then, are some memorable TV moments featuring the prehistoric superorder dinosaurian popping up where it doesn’t belong…

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Doctor Who

Due to the timey wimey sci-fi factor, Doctor Who is a repeat offender when it comes to dinosaurs mingling with modern-era types. Though not technically dinos, even last series’ The Wedding Of River Song  featured pterodactyls flapping around London thanks to the disorienting phenomenon of history all happening at once.

But decades before that, 1974’s Invasion Of The Dinosaurs saw the Third Doctor and companion Sarah Jane faced with stegosaurs, T-Rex and more in 1970s London. It all turned out to be part of a multi-pronged plan to evacuate the city and zap a group of eco-campaigners back in time to start a new civilisation, a plan eventually foiled by the Doctor and UNIT.

In that instance, the FX made suspending disbelief something of a challenge, as classic Who producer and writer Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks will readily admit. The task of creating the prehistoric beasties was outsourced to a specialist company whose work was, shall we say, not wholly convincing (the dinos came off less menacing monsters and more cereal box toys being waggled around in front of the camera).

Primeval

Whilst it lasted, the makers of ITV’s Primeval resisted comparisons with Doctor Who, though the adventure show was undeniably a bid to swipe the BBC’s newly regained dominance over Saturday teatime family viewing after the 2005 Doctor Who relaunch. What did Primeval have that Doctor Who didn’t? A former member of S-Club 7, and whopping great dinosaurs.

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Not just dinosaurs, but beasties past and future, who slipped through time anomalies to disrupt picnics and whatnot in the Forest of Dean and other modern-day locations. Raptors, Dracorex, Eotyrannus and more caused mischief for Primeval’s team of scientists and zoo-keepers over five series.

From the documentary team behind Walking With Dinosaurs, as you’d imagine, Primeval‘s special effects were usually pretty special. Unfortunately for fans of the show, one thing it proved not to have was Doctor Who’s longevity.

TV sci-fi in general seems to find unlimited excuses to bring terrible lizards back from extinction, as seen in the not-brilliant eighth season of Red Dwarf episode, Pete, in which a hapless crew member was transformed temporarily into a Tyrannosaurus Rex. I forget why.

Dinosaurs

Staying on the Saturday teatime viewing theme, the Disney and Jim Henson Company’s early-nineties puppet sitcom Dinosaurs gave us some of our most anachronistic and well-loved TV dinos. Henson’s concept put a Flintstones-like twist on the classic US sitcom family, but making the Sinclair family and their 2.4 kids dinosaurs instead of humans. In that respect, it was something like Eddie Izzard’s non-starter Cows, just, you know, funny.

Running from 1991 to 1994, Dinosaurs had a distinctly Simpsons feel, following the same blue-collar dad/capable stay-at-home mum/two kids and a baby format. It featured dinosaurs of all varieties (and somewhat confusingly, a range of species all in the same family), engaging in the usual late twentieth-century shenanigans: watching TV, going to work, wearing talking fur coats… 

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It deserves notable mention for taking a Blackadder Goes Forth approach to its series finale, essentially wiping out the Sinclair family and their entire civilisation with a nuclear winter-style scenario. 

Like the much longer-running Fox animation, Dinosaurs welcomed a number of guest voices over its four seasons including Tim Curry, Julia Louis Dreyfus, and even The Simpsons’ own Dan Castellaneta. Fun fact: if it wasn’t already obvious from their similarity in sound, Kevin Clash, the Sesame Street puppeteer whose career was recently chronicled in touching documentary Being Elmo, provided the voice of the Baby. Gotta love the baby.

Terra Nova

A case of humans showing up in the wrong era rather than dinos, this one. Sci-fi series Terra Nova (which Fox recently declined to pick up for a second season) took place in a dystopian future Earth, where exploratory colonist groups were sent through a handy rift in space and time back to the cretaceous period.

Debuting to general excitement last autumn, enthusiasm for the Spielberg-produced sci-fi waned as the first season progressed, though one thing remained a consistent source of praise: the dinosaur effects were top-notch (well, with the director of Jurassic Park involved, it’d be embarrassing if they weren’t…). 

More interloping humans appeared decades earlier in The Twilight Zone episode, The Odyssey Of Flight 33, which saw a commercial passenger plane accidentally do the time warp and ending up flying over a prehistoric land filled to the brim with dinosaurs of the genus beasty. Safe to say, they didn’t hang around.

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1999 adapted show Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World shared a similar premise to both, as well as another literary adaptation, 2002 series Dinotopia. All featured humans appearing, either by choice or by accident, in a strange land populated by all manner of things prehistoric.

Children’s Animation

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the great majority of chronologically errant dinosaurs pop up in the world of children’s animation. This is probably because it costs roughly the same amount of cash and time to draw a dinosaur as it does to draw a donkey, but kids, on the whole, tend to be less enthusiastic about donkeys.

Aside from the huge number of animated shows revolving around dinosaur characters, many are the TV cartoons that have reached for a dinosaur plot where you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find one. The New Adventures Of Superman, for instance, or The Little Mermaid TV series, have both featured dinosaurs defrosting from frozen stasis to cause havoc in non-dinosaur era cartoons.

Chip N Dale Rescue Rangers was one such show, and worth special mention for promulgating a  bogglingly Thetan-like dinosaur origin story in one episode. In Prehysterical Pet, a dinosaur egg/spaceship lands on modern-day Earth, befriends the titular chipmunk heroes, and explains that he hails from a distant utopian planet and has come in search of news on the fleet of dino-eggs that set off to Earth millennia ago and hadn’t been heard from since. It’s essentially Prometheus, but with dinosaurs and two detective chipmunks in place of Michael Fassbender.

Even that’s hardly the most out-there dinosaur cartoon appearance. Try Dino Squad’s teenager-into-dinosaur DNA-mutating ooze, Dino-Riders’ time-travelling intergalactic warriors, or Dinosaucers’ volcano-dwelling anthropomorphic dinos. Write the word ‘Dinosaur’ on a kids’ TV animation script, it seems, and you’re given free rein to write the craziest show you can dream up.

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It’s a wacko trend that continues to this day. New parents may have witnessed Five’s Harry And His Bucketful Of Dinosaurs, about a boy named Harry, who – you guessed it – keeps a load of dinosaurs in a bucket next to his bed, who systematically help him to work through his self-esteem issues.

The dinosaur-as-pal trend goes further back, as seen in late-eighties cartoon Denver The Last Dinosaur (“He’s our friend and a whole lot more”, ahem), a show surfing the crest of dino-fever following the release of The Land Before Time. Denver… centred around the titular hero: dinosaur by day, shade-wearing, flying V guitar-playing rock star by night. Anyone remember Poochie, the cool guy dog character inserted by focus group into The Simpsons‘ Itchy & Scratchy Show? Not a million miles away.

The Jim Henson Company’s Dinosaur Train is similarly nutso, telling the story as it does of a steam train packed to the rafters with animals of the prehistoric variety who travel the world and history using time tunnels. Is any of that battier though than the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers’ dinozords, Transformers’ Grimlock, or Super Mario World’s Yoshi, who dresses provocatively in a natty pair of boots and nothing else, the little scamp.

Craziness aside, any talk of anachronistic animated dinosaurs can only conclude with one classic character: voiced by animation legend Mel Blanc himself. Ladies and gentlement, we present: Mr Dino Flintstone.