When The Jim Henson Company first offered Dr. Scott Sampson work with its childrens TV series Dinosaur Train, Sampson was skeptical.
I said, you cant call it Dinosaur Train, the paleontologist recalls with a laugh: naturally, humans and dinosaurs didnt live at the same time. But when he heard the trains passengers would be dinosaurs of various species, he was on board.
Thats brilliant, Sampson says. Its like chocolate and peanut butter for kids.
Dinosaur Train Live! Buddys Big Adventure opens in Raleighs Memorial Auditorium Friday and runs through Sunday. The musical features puppet versions of some of the shows prominent characters (including a flashy though introverted Elvis Presley dinosaur named King) and some larger props, including a replica of the titular train.
The television show its based on is from the same Henson Company responsible for the Muppets and Sesame Street franchises, but its also a cult sci-fi and fantasy like Farscape and Labyrinth. And while those are titles with remarkable reputations, Dinosaur Train is a phenomenon in its own right as much for its genius merger of trains and sauropods as its championing of scientific curiosity.
And without the latter, Sampson wouldnt be involved.
I was worried about creating a product that would addict kids to screens even more than they already are, Sampson says over the phone from his office at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, where he is vice president. One of his most important professional goals and a major reason he accepted his current position is getting kids back outside, so he hesitated in accepting the shows host role. Then he and his wife came up with a tagline: Get outside, get into nature, and make your own discoveries.
Admittedly, theres the paradox of the TV show that tells its viewers to turn off their sets, but Sampson has heard from hundreds of parents and kids who are now digging for bones in their backyards or watching birds which are actually living dinosaurs, he notes.
Sampson can relate his own passion for the extinct animals began at an early age. He recalls a dinosaur picture he drew as a kid; he misspelled his own name, but he got paleontologist right. And hes grateful to have had parents who, seeing his passion and curiosity, drove him great distances to see fossils.
Like him, many modern kids are fascinated by dinosaurs. Part of the draw, he says, is that these were real-world monsters big, scary things that are no longer around, meaning theres no danger of, say, an Allosaurus hiding under the bed. Plus, theres always the potential for discovery.
Its one of the first opportunities that many children have to learn something that grownups dont know, Sampson says.
Accordingly, hes careful to keep real science in the fictional Dinosaur Train world. The episodes, which star a CGI Pteranodon family and their adopted T. Rex son (the Buddy in the live shows title), are followed by live action segments in which Sampson explains the real-world theories surrounding whatever new species was introduced. And the creatures in the show, while big-eyed and cuddly, are honest about their respective places on the food chain.
And if the chocolate-and-peanut butter mix of trains and cute dinosaurs is what it takes to pique kids interest in science and the outdoors, so be it even if the show has to draw a line between realism and kid-friendliness.
The world of Dinosaur Train is of course a more happy and peaceful world than the real Mesozoic world of dinosaurs, Sampson admits. In the real word, Buddy might very well eat his family, so we cant have that.