There’s a wide range of TV selections available to my daughter now. Some are terrible remakes, and clunky attempts to copy a successful formula, but on the whole I’m kind of impressed. I’ve seen quality comedy writing, excellent and varied music, fun use of guest stars, decent computer graphics, and superhero adventures that respect the source material. Even the educational ones, for the most part, have valuable content and well thought out lessons. (I do miss the pacing of the New York based children’s programs from my youth, though. In the time between Dora asking a question and answering it, you could fit three Electric Company sketches and still have time for Paula and Carole to race you down the mountain.)
Then there’s Dino Dan. My daughter started watching this recently and it renewed her interest in dinosaurs (which is always good). As a life long dinosaur geek, I was excited to see it. From the ads, I first thought that it was a live action series about a kid who liked dinosaurs, and had imagination sections using CGI to illustrate what the animals would look like in current surroundings, providing a useful size reference.
When I watched the show, it wasn’t surprising to learn that it does suffer from a few common problems of current live action kid’s television. The child performers all behave in that super emotional Grammar School play style, apparently taught at the Nickelodeon/Disney Channel School of Overemoting. There’s also the often seen “Carnivore Discrimination”, where plant eaters are constantly rescued from the “big bad” meat eaters. (Every time Diego saves this week’s cute baby herbivore fuzzball or whatever from the predator, I say something like, “And then the poor hawk and his little babies died horribly from starvation.” This nets unhappy glares and thrown pillows from my wife and child.)
Oh yeah…and the dinosaurs are real.
This revelation definitely isn’t common, and WAS very surprising. In addition, the surprise goes far beyond the unexplained mega-anachronism that dinosaurs from throughout the Age of Reptiles are really wandering around a modern small town.
The main problem is that in this town brimming with monsters missed by the meteor…Dan is the only one who sees them. He’ll talk about his experiments and observations for the whole episode. The dinosaurs interact with Dan and his surroundings. Yet when he tries to show them to another person, they’ve left without a provable trace.
Back in 1985 the Sesame Street folks (who know more than a thing or two about children) decided it was very bad for kids to see another child (Big Bird is six, just like Grover is four, and Elmo is three.) constantly have adults not believe him when he is telling the truth. Therefore, they made a big deal of having Big Bird introduce everyone to Snuffleupagus. Apparently, a mere twenty five years later, it is peachy keen to have Dan live in Snuffyville without anyone complaining. There is, however, a completely different and more chilling explanation than continuous gross examples of bad timing and missed opportunities.
After watching a couple of episodes, the true nature of the series started to add up. Observe the following evidence:
Dan’s overwhelming obsession with meticulous experiments and record keeping.
His secret stashes of cobbled together equipment.
The lack of damage from whole herds and families of creatures.
The way the dinosaurs seem to respond to, and almost communicate with Dan.
How no one gets angry with his constant crying wolf (asaurus).
Dinosaur species that appear in line with whatever is on Dan’s mind.
This is not the tale of a budding paleontologist fortunate enough to live in the Suburb that Time Forgot. This is an Oliver Sacks level case study of a deeply disturbed individual living within a grand, all encompassing delusion.
I thought the show would be Sid the Science Kid meets Walking with Dinosaurs. It turns out that it’s Jurassic Park meets A Beautiful Mind.
No one but Dan sees the hordes of dinosaurs in town. No one’s ever had to detour around a carcass in the street. No one’s called an angry town meeting about giant foot shaped pot holes, missing pets, or flattened work sheds. No one has seen any concrete evidence that can’t be explained by something mundane… or Dan being left alone, once again, when the dinosaur damages something.
His relationships with both people and dinosaurs show what’s really going on.
Dan’s largely absent father, the paleontologist, is seen contacting his son through letters and souvenirs from his dig sites. Dan has obviously created his fantasy world to fill a gap in his life. The dinosaurs are not only friends that he can interact with, but also subjects that he can study and record, making him feel closer to his Dad.
A town full of friendly dinosaurs is a fairly significant delusion on its own. However, if we examine how Dan is treated by the other characters around him, we can see to what depth he is truly lost within himself.
For his interactions with other children, I have detailed experiences. As a former “dinosaur kid” I read every paleontology book in the school library within the first couple of years there. The town library didn’t take much longer. While never claiming to have seen any (outside of a game my cousins and I played in their yard, where we all PRETENDED we saw them) they were a big part of my life. Therefore, I can speak with authority when I say that a kid yammering on endlessly about extinct ecosystems is not going to become the center of excited attention. He is not going to have the whole gang hang on every word of his stories. He is not going to inspire them all to help him on his crazy projects, especially after they have repeatedly been unable to confirm his sightings. I was a pretty large lad, and my displaying anything close to this level of enthusiasm was met by the majority of classmates with derisive laughter, insults, and the occasional stolen hat. Little Dan would be spending most of his days hanging in the coat closet by his underwear. I believe either the other kids are as imaginary as the dinosaurs, or more likely, they are fellow patients (also explaining their constant over emoting) in the asylum that Dan sees as his Prehistoric Playground.
Still unconvinced? Look at the teachers. Again, they are always supportive, attentive and cheerful toward Dan and his unbridled, un-provable class disrupting obsession. More importantly, listen to their tone. They talk to Dan and his ward mates using the careful, overly friendly, clear and focused speech patterns that social workers and therapists use when dealing with difficult to reach, deeply regressed, or unpredictable and disturbed patients. Although they may appear to be bad actors at first glance, they are really attentive caregivers working hard to reach Dan deep within his delusion.
Dan’s “mother” behaves in a similar manner toward him, however with more discipline, and also more of a personal touch. She’s often shown in her police uniform. I think Dan is very lucky that one of the security guards has taken a liking to him, and looks out for his best interests. She makes sure he follows the rules and takes his medications, but the emotional tie and her focus on him is a great help to his therapy.
My prediction for the series finale is a shot of “Mom” opening the door to Dan’s bedroom. The scene then dissolves to reveal the austere hospital room of the adult Dan. The floor is strewn with childlike drawings of dinosaurs and random junk assembled into “scientific equipment”. He’s deeply focused on what he’s holding, and it takes a determined, yet gentle effort to get his attention. She tells him it’s time for his next session, and guides him out the door. As they leave, the camera zooms in to what he was holding…a dinosaur filled snow globe given to him as a child by his father.
On the other hand I could be totally wrong. (He said, trying desperately to avoid more glares, thrown pillows, and angry phone calls from his mother about the depressing ending.)
The final episode could just as easily be Dan’s triumphant vindication as everyone in town wakes up one morning to realize that the “odd smell” they’ve all noticed recently is, in fact, myriad mountains of Mesozoic manure.