Remembering Cadillacs & Dinosaurs

CDtvshow300Dinosaurs were everywhere in 1993. That was the year Jurassic Park hit theaters and smashed box office records. It also was the year two other major dinosaur films were released – Super Mario Bros. and We’re Back – although both would quickly be forgotten. Meanwhile, on television, U.S. broadcaster ABC aired the rebooted Land of the Lost. Fox Kids debuted Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, a live-action show about teenagers who fought giant monsters with robot dinosaurs. And in the same time slot on CBS, a new cartoon called Cadillacs & Dinosaurs hit airwaves. It never had a chance.

Thirteen episodes of Cadillacs & Dinosaurs aired between fall 1993 and early 1994. Based on the cult comic book series Xenozoic Tales by Mark Schultz, the cartoon was the creation of Steven E. de Souza, a screenwriter who gave us the classic action film Die Hard (and would later write and direct the not-so-classic movie adaption of Street Fighter). All kids needed to know about the show’s setting was explained in the opening credits:

“In the 26th century, mankind faces an epic struggle for survival. The forces of nature have spun wildly out of control. Mighty cities have crumbled and the dinosaurs have returned to reclaim the Earth. In this savage land, one man stands alone: Jack Tenrec. Defending humanity in a world gone mad… a world where only the strong survive… a world of Cadillacs & Dinosaurs.”

Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? I certainly thought so. I was a teenager at the time, so I was outside the age range of the target audience. Still, I was a dinosaur-obsessed teen, and here was a cartoon stuffed with dinosaurs. Plus the setting fascinated me: A future post-apocalyptic Earth where dinosaurs had returned? How did the planet get that way? Why are the last humans holed up in crumbling cities? And why are they crossing the landscape in souped-up Cadillacs?

Cadillacs & Dinosaurs follows the adventures of Jack Tenrec and Hannah Dundee. Jack is part mechanic, part Greenpeace activist. His mission is to protect the environment from the same human follies that led to a global cataclysm centuries earlier. The irony is Jack goes about his work traversing the landscape in rebuilt 1950s Cadillacs, although the cars have been modified to run on clean-burning dinosaur poop. Hannah is his partner and potential love interest. She is a scientist and diplomat from a neighboring tribe of survivors. The two don’t get along at first, mostly because Jack is an annoying jerk who insults Hannah every chance he gets. By season’s end the two have developed something approaching romantic feelings for each other, although in the world of early ‘90s cartoons, knowing glances between characters were about as sexual as children’s entertainment got.

Cadillacs & Dinosaurs was much more child friendly than the comic on which it was based. (I didn’t discover the latter until years later.) Xenozoic Tales is punctuated by scenes of gory violence and has nudity and a little sex. The cartoon, on the other hand, was so committed to G-rated violence that even killing dinosaurs was off-limits. Jack was a bit of an ass in the comics, but in the cartoon he is nearly insufferable.  Hannah, sadly, is written for the show as something of a bubblehead. Other secondary characters underwent greater changes, perhaps the most notable being a clan of Mad Max rejects who went from being annoyances in the comics to the main antagonists of the series. Another interesting change is that the human “moles” of Xenozoic Tales have been turned into literal mole men in the cartoon.

Fans of Xenozoic Tales will appreciate that the cartoon loosely adapts some of the comic’s stories. The best was “Departure,” which takes Schultz’s tale about Hannah’s creative solution to a mosasaur problem and expands it by throwing in a crazed warlord and a big-ass tank. The episode is easily the highlight of the series. That said, most stories were original to the cartoon, with the writers pitting Jack and Hannah against Triceratops stampedes, wildfires, and leftover weapons of mass destruction dating from before the cataclysm.

The animation was a bit stiff, being done on a TV budget, but at the same time it was rich in color with well-drawn environments and huge advancements in how dinosaurs were depicted in cartoons. The show’s greatest problem was its writing. Cadillacs & Dinosaurs suffered from bad dialogue, silly characters, and politically correct messaging that left even cranky liberals like myself wishing the writers would tone it down a little. These issues were hardly unique to Cadillacs & Dinosaurs in the world of children’s programming, but transformations were happening in television that made the cartoon something of a dinosaur. Batman: The Animated Series had debuted a year earlier, and it demonstrated that children’s shows could include complex themes and characters and still retain a younger audience, while also attracting older viewers. At the same time, a lot of kids’ entertainment was gravitating toward younger protagonists.  Gone were the days of G.I. Joe and He-Man with their mostly adult lead characters. Instead TV producers gave viewers Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers with its “teenagers with attitude.” Jack and Hannah were practically geezers by comparison.

Still, Cadillacs & Dinosaurs had dinosaurs. It’s right there in the title, and dinosaurs were HUGE in 1993. So why did the show fail?

CBS stuck Cadillacs & Dinosaurs near the end of its Saturday morning programming block, meaning it didn’t air until 11:30 a.m. This in itself wasn’t necessarily a death sentence – Mighty Morphin Power Rangers debuted in the same time slot. But it did mean new episodes of cartoon would often be delayed so the network could instead air sports coverage at that time, particularly on the West Coast of the U.S. It especially didn’t help that CBS carried the Winter Olympics that year. As a result, the thirteen episodes that were supposed to make up the show’s first season never ran continuously. Kids might tune in one week and catch an episode, but when they tuned at the same time next week all they found was sports coverage. Children have short memories, so a consistent schedule is needed to build a young audience. A CBS spokeswoman acknowledged this problem in a Los Angeles Times review of the show: “It’s preempted a lot,” she said.

CBS also didn’t go out of the way to advertise Cadillacs & Dinosaurs. But in fairness to the network, the tie-in toy line apparently wasn’t released until after the show was canceled, so there was little to generate demand among kids for more adventures. Only a single commercial was produced for the toys. (Warning: Poor sound quality.)

Cadillacs & Dinosaurs did get a pretty fun beat ‘em up arcade game, but as far as I know it was never ported to consoles. Instead kids had to content themselves with Cadillacs & Dinosaurs: The Second Cataclysm on the Sega CD. The game had great full-motion video animation but its gameplay was boring and repetitive.

So, a bad time slot, a lack of commitment on part of the network, and series of missteps in releasing tie-in toys and games. Also factor in Cadillacs & Dinosaurs was a show behind its time, airing in an era when you needed to either feature children as your main stars or bring a level of maturity to the writing that most kids’ programming had previously lacked. As I said at the beginning of this essay, the show never had a chance.

Criticisms aside, I still enjoy the hell out of Cadillacs & Dinosaurs. You can watch the entire series on YouTube or purchase it on Amazon’s streaming video service. (At least in the U.S. I’m not sure about the show’s availability in other countries.)  I suggest trying a couple episodes before making a commitment to watching all 13. The show definitely isn’t for everyone. As for myself, I admit nostalgia fuels part of my love for the series. Another factor is that I’m fascinated by the world Schultz created in the comics, and seeing it brought to life through animation—even in kid-friendly form—fills me with joy. Yes, I would love to some day get an adaptation that is closer in tone to the comics, but for now Cadillacs & Dinosaurs is a perfectly acceptable substitute.

Anyway, if you want to know more about the cartoon, YouTube blogger AdvertisingNuts has a video explaining the differences between the show and the comics:

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