by Tim May
The 1980s were riddled with cartoons created for the sole purpose of selling toys. Transformers, G.I. Joe, and He-Man are the most notable examples of this phenomenon, but there are a legion of 13-or-26-episode cast-offs which hoped to share in the riches (cocaine) enjoyed by toy companies who had gotten into the lucrative Saturday morning cartoon business.
The remote control titan Tyco offered an entry into this dubious genre with Dino-Riders on Marvel’s Action Universe cartoon block in 1988, but Tyco self-released the first episode on VHS ahead of time in 1987, complete with commercials for other Tyco products.
Perhaps it’s that Marvel connection which enticed Gerry Conway, the man who killed Gwen Stacy, to come on as the credited writer for “The Adventure Begins,” a rather tepid, far too plot heavy set-up of a first episode.
The tape begins with an exclusive live action intro, which was changed in the broadcast version. It features a kid on a tour in a natural history museum, who breaks away from the group and finds a portal into pre-history where he becomes semi-animated/rotoscoped. It’s all very “Take On Me,” but it’s a fun way to open the tape and place you in the context of the Dino-Riders era. Then the show starts.
Dino-Riders throws the viewer into an intergalactic war between the peaceful (yet quite proficient with lasers and the like) Valorians and the war-mongering sort-of lizard-ish Rulons. During one of their space battles, both groups are trapped in a “tractor beam” which somehow sends them back in time to pre-historic Earth.
The cast of bland Valorians includes Questar, Aryan leader, Yungstar, obligatory viewer surrogate, Mind-Zei, blind dude, Serena, irritating ESP bitch, and way too many other people. Dino-Riders had a larger cast than LOST.
COMMERCIAL BREAK! Shortly after landing on Earth, Tyco treats us to some (overt) commercials it proudly promised us on the front of the box. There’s Tyco Superblocks, a blatant LEGO knock-off (the ad even makes a point of the fact that they work with LEGOs) and the Aero Turbo Hopper, one of the RC vehicles Tyco was known for.
Back in pre-history, the Valorians have apparently become friends with the dinosaurs and quickly developed a familiar enough relationship with them to be able to ride them around without any worry of death or injury. Meanwhile, the Rulons’ leader Krulos, who is either a frog or a lizard man, hasn’t been as lucky taming the dinos, so he simply develops mind control technology so that he can ride around on them, too!
I guess this whole war is over some Valorian power crystal Krulos is after, so he sends in his henchmen riding on pterodactyls and there’s a pretty forgettable climax (aside from the blind dude pulling a Daredevil/Zatoichi and mopping the floor with the Rulon henchmen) culminating in Krulos retreating so that there can be 13 more of these things. Just in case you didn’t catch the show’s title, Questar sends you into the credits proclaiming, “We’re not Valorians anymore. We’re Dino-Riders!”
Dino-Riders is from the generation before mine, the Transformers/He-Man generation. I’m relatively familiar with (and ambivalent about) those shows, due to long syndication deals extending far into my childhood and a steady stream of television, comic book, or cinematic reboots. Dino-Riders didn’t last past its initial 14 episode order and there haven’t been any new toys since 1990, and aside from a small group of die-hards, has mostly faded from the cultural memory. That doesn’t mean Transformers is good and Dino-Riders is bad. It has the same bad storytelling and characterization, horrible animation, and cynical money-grubbing vibe. They’re equally terrible. Transformers was just a better commercial.
Watch the entire tape, complete with commercials, above.