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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Allure of the Dinosaurs

I recently watched a TV show about a group of people who wished to relocate not to another part of the world, but back in time.  Freed from such current problems as political corruption, false ideologies, inner-city violence, and pollution, they would found fairer institutions, pursue social equality, and place less stress upon the environment.  In the time of the dinosaurs, they would reinvent the human condition.  Theirs would be an enlightened culture.  Man would strive to perfect himself in every way, while preserving the planet upon which he depended.  No, I’m not talking about last year’s series “Terra Nova,” but a program broadcast nearly forty years ago.

In the 1974 “Doctor Who” story “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” the Tardis materializes in present day London.  As in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” the city seems largely deserted.  Places usually crowded with people, such as Trafalgar Square and the Victoria Embankment, are empty.  At least the forces patrolling the city are not Daleks and Robomen, but UNIT (the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce) and the British Army.  Using their Timescoop, this group of would-be settlers has brought a few dinosaurs forward in time.  Now, with the streets cleared and the military distracted by the dinosaurs, they can finish assembling what they need.  Then they will transport themselves, and everything they wish to take with them, back in time to found their new world.  

One can certainly understand the allure of starting over.  This is a common theme in the social, cultural, religious, and political arenas.  Robert Heinlein envisioned an entire generation’s yearning to reboot society in Stranger in a Strange Land.  Yet long before the 1960s, groups such as the Puritans, the Quakers, the Shakers, and the Amish developed their own unique ways of dealing with the world.  In many cases they got their start in the “New World,” where ordinary citizens fought a revolutionary war against the seemingly undefeatable British military to create the new government they desired: a representative democracy.  

The dream of rebooting society never fades, whether in the 1776, 1974 or today.  Politicians often win their way into office promising sweeping change and bold reform.  Scientists and engineers regularly invent items such as television, cellphones, and computers that profoundly change how we interact with others.  As a species, we keep embracing the “new way of doing things,” the “better idea,” the “superior” religion or philosophy or worldview.  In doing so we bring down the dinosaurs—once so strong and indomitable—that our sweeping change and bold reforms replace.  

The conspirators in “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” and the pilgrims in “Terra Nova” face the ultimate challenge.  If they can master such dangerous beasts, then perhaps they can sweep humanity’s former mistakes aside and begin anew.  But those of us in the present face no lesser task.  A former generation’s inventions, ideologies or structures may not address today's needs.  Working together, we can accomplish sweeping change and bold reform.  Looking inward, we can question what habits or viewpoints threaten to shipwreck our dreams, destroy our relationships with others, or cut short our lives.  

Perhaps that is why we seem endlessly fascinated by dinosaurs.  They remind us of the greatness of yesterday, while spurring us to meet the demands of today, and thus build our dreams for tomorrow.

Or maybe we just think they’re cool.

“Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” written by Malcolm Hulke, is available as a book, an audiobook, or on DVD from the BBC.  Hopefully, Fox will renew “Terra Nova” for a second season.  Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is available in its traditional version as a Mass Market Paperback, or in a “complete, uncut” length as a Trade Paperback.  

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