Really a “Terrible Place”: Dinotopia, the Mini-series: Review Take 1

I’m finally ready to trash—er, review—the Dinotopia mini-series. For this review, I’m going to try a slightly different format. I won’t be sorting things into spoiler and non-spoiler because as far as I’m concerned, that show is totally rotten and I am NOT recommending it. I do apologize for including some spoilers from the books by James Gurney and the related novel series, but they were necessary for context. Now, I have a lot of reasons why you shouldn’t watch the mini-series (let’s call it DMS for short), but since I know rants get old fast when they’re too long, I’ll take two approaches to this topic. I’ll start with some quick-fire coverage of a few topics that drew my ire or amusement. Next post will use some of the lessons I took from the Dinotopia books to frame my disgruntlement at DMS. Now, let’s get down to it.

Fittingly, most of the trailer clips for DMS are low-quality. This is one of the better (and quicker) ones.

A Quick Overview

The story begins with half-brothers David and Carl Scott spending time with their dad. All are apparently invulnerable demi-gods since Dad-dude thinks sleeping at the wheel of a private plane flying over the ocean is a great vacation idea. After they crash, the bros swim to shore. Traveling inward, they meet Professor Lupin, cursed into the role of vague villain Cyrus Crabb; Marion, their blandly serene guide and love interest; and the most horrifying monster of all, Zippo (more on him shortly). Onward they go to Waterfall City, where they learn to use footprint stamps but seemingly nothing about Dinotopian culture or history since they are constantly shocked or confused later. A tussle send them falling from the clifftop city and washing downriver, which conveniently leaves them near a hatchery run by Marion’s mother Rosemary. David is dragged off to Skybax training but ends up flying a Pteranodon. Carl gets the ultimate parenthood egg assignment that hatches into an adorable Chasmosaurus named 26. Meanwhile, everyone goes bananas because the sunstones are failing.

Newcomers to Dinotopia are called “dolphinbacks” because they are guided by dolphins. Since Carl and David swam on their own, I guess they’re just wetbacks. Sculpture Of Boy With A Dolphin, Chelsea Embankment, London. Photo by Lonpicman, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

DMS is clearly an alternate timeline from book Dinotopia. They have mayors, a history of 207 in fact, and a “Dinotopian Senate” that never existed in the 1860s original setting.1 Waterfall City is a center of government rather than learning, and despite every major Dinotopian character being related to them, the cast from the books have all been wiped out by a mysterious editorial disease. Their stories are also altered. Arthur Denison, for instance, was arrested for traveling to the World Beneath instead of celebrated and encouraged to return.2 Then there’s Mayor Waldo’s legend of the World Beneath, where a “young woman” uses sunstones to lead humans and saurians in a time of darkness.3 That “darkness” was the extinction event of the dinosaurs, which should be before humans evolved unless this takes place in the same universe as The Flintstones. The mythical half-saurian King Ogthar even gets a makeover with a face that looks more like Zippo than a ceratopsian!

Carl and David seem mostly based on Hugh and Raymond from Scott Ciencin’s Windchaser. Like Hugh, Carl resists Dinotopia’s attempts to educate him while David loves Dinotopia and befriends an outcast flyer like Raymond. Between flat acting and little backstory, however, the Scott brothers’ arguments just feel like petty bickering. Hugh’s perspective as a London pickpocket bound for penal colony Australia brings depth to his conversations and character. He asks hard questions about prisons and homelessness, showing Dinotopia lacks both. Zippo flips out over a “stolen” library book,4 while Hugh threatening to steal library scrolls is met with, “If your need is so strong, so be it.”5 The deeper issues with trust and self-confidence that motivate Hugh’s desire to escape are gradually revealed, while Carl wants to leave…because he does? And he’s fine once he has a cute baby dinosaur and his dad. Yet his harsh words about DMS’ Dinotopia don’t feel so off-mark, where jails apparently do exist, the mayor has servants, and library archives are restricted.

Cyrus Crabb

Cyrus is supposedly the son of Lee Crabb, the main antagonist from the books. More evidence this is an alternate reality, since DMS Lee kept journals and died in prison after talking to his clearly acknowledged son.6 In the books, Lee is a loner, constantly chasing gold and stuck in patterns that no longer serve in the barter-based world of Dinotopia. Even when he steals the ruby sunstone and tries to flee the island, his only punishment is being followed by two “spike-headed” Stygimoloch.7 Cyrus does take after Lee in concocting pointlessly bad plans, like trying to murder(?) a bagged Zippo by wheeling him (conscious and yelling) through the street and then dumping him in a canal where he floats until rescued. DMS is much crueler to Cyrus than the books were to Lee, whom Arthur saves from drowning at the risk of his own life. Carl coldly marks Cyrus’ death by mutant Dunkleosteus with a pleased, “No more Cyrus.”8 Yes, he just shot Carl in the leg, but really?

Artist’s impression of Dunkleosteus terrelli, as it was supposed to look. DMS turns it into a monster eel. Image by Tim Bertelink, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Footprint “Language”

Over and over in DMS, we hear about the “footprint language” of Dinotopia. Gurney accurately labeled it the “footprint alphabet” instead because each arrangement corresponds to an English letter or number. A true language has its own grammar and palette of sounds or handshapes that make units of meaning. Dinotopians do have their own language, formed from the various heritage languages there, but the footprint code simply makes writing accessible for dinosaurs who can’t hold pens. Most of the footprint inscriptions in the books translate to English, even the ancient note about the arrival of humans—“Thumbs come”—on the way to the World Beneath.9 Yet despite assigning the brothers a whole textbook on the subject, the prop-makers clearly couldn’t be bothered to consult the alphabet key in every one of Gurney’s books. Carl and David pass a stone that reads “Maxnesq Trail, L, Waterfall Aity.”10 If you think that’s a mess, try translating the signs at the “bus” station where “Cargo Shipping” is apparently “Loxing Platfoms.”

A childhood Dinotopian inscription in cement. Though eroded by time, it still accurately reads, “Home is within us all,” a saying from Windchaser. Photo by author.

Zippo

Oh, Zippo, how I hate you. When I first heard of a Dinotopia show, I waited eagerly to see the wise and wise-cracking, poised and practical Protoceratops Bix come to life before my eyes. Instead I got a rubber-faced cartoon dinosaur with the name of a rejected Marx brother who whines and warbles like a C3PO wannabe. He identifies himself as “Stenosaurus,” probably meant to be Stenonychosaurus, the species whose bones were sometimes described as “Troodon.”11 But he has too many fingers, he sits on his butt despite Gurney’s thoughtful invention of the resting couch, and he cooks vegetables. Stenonychosaurus was a predator, so technically Zippo should be out guarding the entrances to the World Beneath. Worse, he has the audacity to claim “Sylvia of the Hatchery” as his “life partner.”12 She hasn’t been “of the Hatchery” since 1865 when she began training as a Skybax rider!13 Seriously, erasing her accomplishments to make her this thing’s arm candy…Ok, trying to seek peace here, but sometimes I really wish the crocodile had eaten this fool.

Saurian Life Partner

This concept didn’t have to be there, and it didn’t have to be weird, but that’s where DMS went. Many people have close dinosaur friends on Dinotopia because kids like dinosaurs and want their own dinosaur friend. It was never a codified relationship “like a marriage.”14 Hatchling by Midori Snyder mentions “nestfriends,”15 probably somewhere between BFFs and the Habitat Partners, which do officially pair a human with a prehistoric creature. The Partners are a work relationship, though, linked by shared interest in maintaining part of the ecosystem. Zippo mourning his departed “beloved” strikes a very different note.16 Why, DMS? Why did you have to make this so creepy?!

Drawing of Stenonychosaurus inequalis, which looks nothing like Zippo. Image by IJReid, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Why is Sylvia departed anyway? Dinotopian humans over 24 regularly take the herb Arctium longevus, allowing them to “approach or even exceed” the 250 year lifespan of dinosaurs.17 Then again, maybe 26 holds the answer. Carl is understandably weirded out at the thought of a “lizard girlfriend,”18 and it gets even more uncomfortable when he’s handed an egg and told, “It’s your saurian life partner.”19 Uh, so this Dinotopia does arranged embryo “marriages”? Shouldn’t they both be consenting adults?!

The Mysticism

DMS’ attempts to sell Dinotopia as a mystical place are decidedly uninspiring. Rosemary, Matriarch of the Udabba (spelling uncertain) Earth Farm, supposedly “knows everything,” but her only explanation is, “I just know things.”20 So either she’s too grumpy to explain, or the writers didn’t bother to create a vision of Dinotopian metaphysics beyond “generic psychic stuff.” Rosemary is kind of unsettling, honestly. It’s hard not to think drugs are involved in that scene where she gathers the teens “to see as the dinosaurs see.” Gurney’s portrait of dinosaur vision was a trippy wash of color, after all. After suddenly falling and gazing vacantly upward while trying to leave, Carl even reports he “can’t remember feeling this good.” Rosemary apparently read everyone’s futures during this time, so basically we have a bunch of semi-conscious teens with an adult creepily smiling at them for four hours. Yeek.

Book Dinotopia had occasional mystical experiences, but they were subtle and personal, like Oriana mediating in the sunstone mines and seeing a vision of her female ancestors.21 There’s nothing as overt as Marion summoning David’s consciousness back when he’s “ill.”22 Honestly, why couldn’t they have explained that the obvious way, that he hit his head on a rock? That makes more sense than suddenly contracting a disease from falling down a waterfall. Anyway, Marion touches David’s chest and he’s awake, but what did she actually do? Partially heal him? Call back his wandering soul? The attempted mysticism is so vaguely defined and yet so upfront that it’s unbelievable. And I say that as someone who used a kendama as an intuitive check when buying a used car.

Post-Script: Journey to Chandara

DMS aired in 2002 and managed to spawn a short-lived series the same year. Then in 2007, Gurney published Journey to Chandara. This is the first of his books to show feathered dinosaurs and a sunstone23 being used in everyday Dinotopian life. Yet I suspect some elements are reactions against DMS. Take the people of Bilgewater, who dress in Elizabethan-style clothes and live in old ships, which they believe will fly them into space in a future apocalypse.24 In DMS, Waterfall City is dominated by similar fashion and official business, like laughing at David’s description of the moon landing, is carried out under the prow of a wrecked ship.25 Lee Crabb even manages to get into one last scrape that neatly seals his fate. Exposed after stealing Arthur’s pass and identity to reach Chandara, Lee is given the tyrannosaur name Grungchock and sent to cook for the “Acrocanthosaurus warrior-monks” of Shaoling monastery.26 Hey, it’s got a better chance of survival than tangling with a Dunkleosteus!  

 

Drawing of Acrocanthosaurus, a predatory dinosaur nearly the size of tyrannosaurus. Image by Mariolanzas, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The hardest part of reviewing DMS (besides forcing myself to re-watch it) was trimming down my internal rant into something manageable. I’ve often observed that rants are only funny if they are either short or have some depth to them. This time I’ve tried the short-ish path, and next time I hope to add a bit of thoughtfulness to the mix. I’ll be interested to learn which you prefer! And if you have any additional thoughts on DMS or Dinotopia, please do share!

Sources
  1. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 1, directed by Marco Brambilla, written by Simon Moore, ABC, May 12, 2002.
  2. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 3, directed by Marco Brambilla, written by Simon Moore, ABC, May 12, 2002.
  3. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 1.
  4. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 2, directed by Marco Brambilla, written by Simon Moore, ABC, May 12, 2002.
  5. Ciencin, Scott, Windchaser (New York: Bullseye Random House, 1995), 60.
  6. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 3.
  7. Gurney, James, The World Beneath (Atlanta: Turner Publishing, 1995), 155.
  8. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 3.
  9. Gurney, James, Dinotopia (Atlanta: Turner Publishing, 1992), 128.
  10. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 1.
  11. “Stenonychosaurus,” Prehistoric Wildlife, accessed Aug. 30, 2021, https://www.prehistoric-wildlife.com/species/s/stenonychosaurus.html.
  12. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 1.
  13. Gurney, Dinotopia, 120.
  14. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 1.
  15. Snyder, Midori, Hatchling (New York: Bullseye Random House, 1995), 8.
  16. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 3.
  17. Gurney, Dinotopia, 100.
  18. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 1.
  19. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 2.
  20. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 2.
  21. Gurney, World, 95.
  22. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 2.
  23. Gurney, James, Journey to Chandara (Kansas City: Andrew McMeel Publishing, 2007), 78.
  24. Gurney, Journey, 27.
  25. Dinotopia (mini-series), episode 1.
  26. Gurney, Journey, 147.

12 thoughts on “Really a “Terrible Place”: Dinotopia, the Mini-series: Review Take 1

  1. Excellent trashing — I mean, reviewing. 😂 Definitely made me giggle. Interesting insights. That is a shame about Rosemary being so flat and basic about her psychic skills. Seems that there was so much potential for mysticism that was missed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! And it really is a shame that they didn’t try to develop things more. They actually did have some ideas that could have been interesting, if totally not Dinotopia, but at every turn they just fell back on old plot devices instead of creating something unique.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Finally! It’s here! Best news ever!

    “I know rants get old fast when they’re too long”
    How dare you… 😠

    Oh man some of your slams are great, lolol you’re murdering these characters.
    Knowing that there are spoilers meant I had to read with a bit of trepidation, and sort of averted my eyes here and there, and I did wish you elaborated on the DMS’s initial premise and what might be called the “first act” a bit more, but you hit your stride when you moved to characters and comparisons of the world-building details with DMS and the books.
    Oh ya the saurian life partners! I forgot about that… how the hell did I forget that little nugget of electrifying insanity. What a bad take for the filmmakers.

    “next time”

    Fantastic, so more is coming. Best way to end it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “…too long” Ah, but your amazing coverage of the mini-series isn’t too long! It’s an episodic chronicle of the absurdity you uncover in that strange world. That’s why it’s fresh every time. 😊 I based that comment on a few comedies and attempted satires that ran their outrage into the ground. Also on some meditations after watching Star Wreck. 😅

      Oh, whew! Some of the hits you scored on these characters were so hilarious I was nervous about my own trashing ability. Especially since it’s been a while since I really exercised it. 🏋️‍♀️

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ha thx!

        “I was nervous”
        You should make humorous reviews a permanent feature. Secret posts perhaps? Or even better(!) how about bad book reviews? That pterodactyl one would be hilarious!

        I’m a sucker for old school rifftrax heckling myself, I’ll have to check out Star Wreck… looking it up, is it this Finnish one or something? What other satires were you thinking of?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I might! I’ll probably stick to things I read or watched without realizing they were going to be terrible, though. I could certainly wallop Haunted Junction!

          Ah, looks like it’s actually “Star Wreck Zone.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rfuiVnrOAOs

          Well, let’s just say I’m not a big fan of Gulliver’s Travels. 😣 I was actually also thinking of Mystery Science Theater 2000 compared to Honest Trailers. I know a lot of people love that show, but for me, watching a whole movie while a group of fictional friends make occasional cracks was boring. Especially since some of the jokes seemed super obvious while they missed great opportunities to really hit home.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. “I could certainly wallop Haunted Junction!” Sounds perfect!

            I’ll be checking Star Wreck Zone soon.

            You don’t like Gulliver’s Travels? Ah, oh well.
            I enjoy rifftrax now and again, but I understand your feelings about MST3K. In my opinion you really need to have a bunch of friends to watch it, otherwise it really is sort of boring.

            Liked by 1 person

    1. I only recently found out the series existed. I watched the mini-series when it first came out and, once burned, went back to the books for good. Dinotopia is such an awesome world to imagine, and it was infuriating to see it warped into something so…dull and predictable.

      Liked by 1 person

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