SF Worldbuilding: Dinosaur Train

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Dinosaur Train
Image: PBSKids.org

Like so many toddlers, our 3-year-old has completely imprinted on PBS’s series Dinosaur Train. As a scientist-colleague of mine pointed out: “It’s like crack for toddlers. It combines two of their favorite things, dinosaurs and trains.” As it made a refreshing change from another PBS show, Daniel Tiger, for the last few months Dinosaur Train has been our go-to entertainment while we need to cook or clean or look after the new infant. (So far our toddler’s TV entertainment universe has been: Mythbusters, Daniel Tiger, Dinosaur Train, and Lindsey Sterling music videos–go figure.)

So my husband and I have spent more hours than I care to count listening to (but not really watching) Dinosaur Train. And thus, as dyed-in-the-wool science fiction fans, our dinner conversation has been tending more and more to trying to fill in the world building gaps of this series–like you do.

It’s made clear that the troodons (the “smartest dinosaur” by brain weight to body mass, apparently) operate and maintain the train–the Conductor mentions that he knows how to repair the train if it breaks down, and they’re the ones having tea in the caboose. But who built it in the first place? And why? There doesn’t seem to be any comparable technological development near the train stations that Buddy and Tiny visit, so it seems unlikely to be a native innovation. Usually if there are train stations nearby you’d expect to have local telegraphs or other circa 19th century inventions. My husband and I have been coming to the conclusion that the Dinosaur Train troodons are actually Time Lords, and the Conductor may be an early incarnation of the Doctor. Sure, in the TV show Doctor Who the Doctor always appears human, but I have it on authority from Paul Cornell that the show has no official canon (since otherwise in forty years of being on air, it would violate its own canon more times than it could count) so it’s easy to imagine the Doctor manifesting as a dinosaur.

Then I start thinking about the stations. For one, Mrs. Pteranodon always buys train tickets, but what would the economy be in this situation? What would she use for payment? Maybe it’s more of a first-come, first-served free reservation system. Also, there are obviously a limited number of stations, and I imagine each one being a center of culture and technology in an otherwise natural landscape, like an ocean port on a desert island.

After all, all the dinosaurs that the kids visit speak the same language, even when they’re separated by millions of years (the train visits stops in the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous time periods, all part of the Mesozoic Era). So I suspect that the troodons or the train builders (if they’re not the same) have standardized the language in the areas in which the trains operate. I remember once being utterly annoyed by a C. J. Cherryh story where an individual goes back to his species’ home planet after 40,000 years of no contact, and there was no linguistic drift at all–all the characters could understand each other perfectly. Could you understand Old English easily, much less Neanderthal language? So obviously there’s some external standardization at work in the Dinosaur Train universe, where the characters are separated by tens of millions of years.

Of course the show never really tackles the implications of time travel. The Pteranodon family lives in the Cretaceous period, the later of those visited by the train. So theoretically, they could dig up the skeletons of folks like Morris Stegosaurus (late Jurassic) or Petey Peteinosaurus (Triassic). That’s got to be weird. And what does it mean to say “We’ve got to catch the train because we don’t want to be late for dinner” when it’s a time traveling train? Perhaps all the stations are part of some managed parallel time network such that they all advance through their local time at the same rate? We do know that you can visit the same stations and see the same individuals (as in multiple visits to Rexville for Buddy to learn about T. Rexes) repeatedly, so the stations definitely aren’t perfectly  fixed in time.

Now, so far we’ve only downloaded the first season of Dinosaur Train; we’re holding off on the later seasons for our next big trip. So maybe we learn more about the train’s infrastructure later. And of course, if this were any normal grown-up science fiction show then halfway through Season One there’d be an episode where the train broke down while in one of the Time Tunnels and the kids would have to help the Conductor repair the train (possibly with an added lesson about how everyone has different skills and we can all work together to solve problems). Then we’d get more technobabble that would fill in some of these world building gaps. But in the meantime, we parents can entertain ourselves with thoughts of a Doctor Who/Dinosaur Train crossover, and try not to think too hard about the colonialist implications of the troodon-run stations being potential “islands of civilization” in otherwise “backwater” or “close to nature” landscapes. And also not think to hard about what or who went into the carrion that Delores Tyrannosaurus and her daughter Annie were eating. After all, as Morris Stegosaurus points out: “The plates do seem to scare the big meat eaters away… Most of the time.”

Don’t get me wrong–we love Dinosaur Train, and really appreciate the way the show’s concept allows the writers to have the dinosaurs interact while still pointing out that they didn’t all coexist in the same time period. We love the way they have the kids form hypotheses, and our son has been pointing out different animals that are carnivores, omnivores, and herbivores. So all our science fictional speculation is all in fun–just what our SF brains turn to during the 3rd or 4th dozen time we hear each episode.

So what kids shows do you fantasize about making fully science fictional? Next up: the implications of benign feudalism in Daniel Tiger… (or maybe not).

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7 thoughts on “SF Worldbuilding: Dinosaur Train

  1. It’s the sign of a good show when the parents are as intrigued as the children, even if for different reasons. I imagine the dinosaurs must pay killer taxes to be able to fund the infrastructure for a time-traveling commuter system.

    The physics in the Bubble Guppie universe is what my family muddles over. They are swimming underwater, but are worried about falling off cliffs, need a ladder to get down from a tree branch, and experience wind gusts (which must be water currents?)

  2. Good point! I wouldn’t spend that much mental energy on the world building of a show I didn’t respect. I’ll definitely check out Bubble Guppies as well!

  3. See this is why train loving kids should watch Thomas. There is never a concern that one of the trains would EAT another train. Because Percy would be the first to die.

  4. Yeah, there’s part of me that keeps expecting the Stegosaurus or Argintinosaurus to stomp on Buddy as soon as they see him to keep him from growing up into an apex predator. But that’s probably a little too “nature red in tooth and claw” for a PBS Kids’ show.

  5. Thomas is weird. You’ve got these various sentient pieces of equipment toiling for humans, but apparently they’ve got a built-in slave mentality that compels them to want to be “really useful engines.” I have a theory that in fact, Thomas is set in the same universe as Cars (which is all a sequel to WALL-E, but never mind that now); but while in America, the sentient machines have rejected and forgotten their extinct creators, in England, they’ve become obsessed with re-creating the Ancien Régime, to the extent of populating the landscape with unconvincing-looking models of humans and pretending to take orders from them.

    As far as Dinosaur Train goes (note I’ve only seen the first two seasons): I always assumed that the Troodons invented Time Travel specifically to escape the Cretaceous–Tertiary (K–T) extinction event. We do eventually see what’s claimed to be both ends of the train line, and the most recent end (Troodon Town) is obviously still before the K-T boundary; but as (local) time moves on, it makes sense that the Troodons will migrate back along the timeline (and train line), using their train stations as the nucleus of new Troodon Towns.
    This does raise the question of whether they’ve ever attempted to lay track into their “future”, bypassing the asteroid unpleasantness entirely. Perhaps they did, but the track ended up in the NYC subway system in 1977 and they decided it wasn’t hospitable.

    Alternate Theory: The Troodons are actually a metaphor for Lovecraft’s Great Race of Yith. The time period and the time-travel support this. Lose 1d8 sanity.

  6. I love that Dinosaur Train theory Allen! (And the post-apocalyptic Thomas/Cars theory too!) Now I’m thinking that if the Troodons wanted to play it safe and put a station 70 million years past the extinction event, they’ll be mighty surprised. “Mammals? Who thought mammals would be ruling the planet? I totally bet on roaches.”

  7. I have no idea if you’re still notified of comments on this post, but I found it through a Google search for “dinosaur train doctor who” because it dawned on me just today that the best explanation for Dinosaur Train is that Mrs. “The Conductor” is a Time Lord who, for whatever reason, somehow regenerated into a troodon and decided that the ideal form for her TARDIS to blend into the Cretaceous Period would be a big honkin’ train.

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