While browsing the BBC website for something else just now (OK, OK, I wanted to know when Torchwood was on, I have this thing for stroppy leather-clad Welsh women with guns) I discovered the first episode of Planet Dinosaur lurking ominously on the iPlayer, so, in the interests of
science entertainment science I watched it.
Those of a certain age might recall that I was critical of the BBC’s last major dinosaur series, Walking with Dinosaurs, now (Heavens to Betsy!!) more than a decade old. The main reason was its presentation, as a straight-ahead wildlife documentary. This was good for drama, but the viewer had no way of knowing which elements of the scene were known to be true; which were based on inference; and which were necessarily speculative.
I remember being quizzed by a friend at the time who’d been watching the series with his offspring. “But Dad,” quoth the offspring, “how do they know this?” “I don’t know,” the Dad replied, making a mental note to ask me. I was, after all, a palaeontologist, and a scientist, and therefore Keeper of the Arcane Secrets. I felt sorry to have to disappoint him. “They don’t know this,” I was forced to say, “a lot of it is just guesswork.” Presenting statements of varying degrees of truth on the same level of … er … verisimilitude was, and still is, a disservice to science. The public will be rightly suspicious and will be less inclined to believe anything a scientist says in future, whether the information is reliable or not.
So what of Planet Dinosaur? This series takes advantage of a decade of stunning dinosaur discoveries, and many of the stars of the show will be new to most people. The first episode (of six) concentrates on the Late Cretaceous of North Africa, and the lives of two large predators, Spinosaurus and Carcharodontosaurus. The first has been known since 1912, but the recent discovery of more remains, and the remains of similar dinosaurs in other parts of the world, have painted a picture of currently The Largest Predator Known To Have Walked The Earth(TM). The narration by John Hurt is much better than Kenneth Branagh’s on Walking With Dinosaurs, but these fine actors both have to cope with a script that focuses on a right old attack of the dooms, with lashings of death, killing, death, copious loss of blood, doom, killing, death, nasty long pointy teeth, killing, death, killing and more killing. Where were the dinosaurs that liked to stay home of an evening with their knitting, a mug of Ovaltine and perhaps a nice Catherine Cookson novel from the library? There will perhaps be a respite next week, which promises a rash of small feathered dinosaurs such as Microraptor and Epidexipteryx. We’ll see.
Walking With Dinosaurs used a mixture of CGI and animatronics in real landscapes. Planet Dinosaur is completely computer generated, and this allows for a certain stylistic licence. The animation is fine, as far as one can tell, if not eye-popping, but the completely-CGI presentation allows for some abrupt shifts of camera angle, making quite sure that we are concentrating on the action, and heightening the drama. As such, I ‘read’ the episode less as a straight documentary than as animé, as if it had been adapted from a graphic novel. The experience of watching Planet Dinosaur reminded me of – of all things – the movie 300, about the Battle of Thermopylae. I enjoyed the film, and its stylistic conventions, without knowing – at the time – that it had been an adaptation of a graphic novel.
Does Planet Dinosaur ramp up style at the expense of substance? Happily, the answer is no. Walking With Dinosaurs had a special ‘Making Of’ feature that answered some of the criticisms that people like me (I was not alone) had raised, but Planet Dinosaur has another strategy. Every so often it freezes the action with a kind of animated sidebar presenting actual evidence for some of the action. For example, head-to-head battles between dinosaurs over prey carcasses, or territory, are intercut with quick graphics showing actual fossil evidence for such things. The graphics are rather like animated footnotes. They’re a clean and efficient way of presenting the evidence and don’t interrupt the action unduly, for all that they remind one of the editorial asides in the TV version of The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Mrs Crox (who saw the program when it originally aired, a few days ago) summed it up very well – it looks like an animated Dorling Kindersley book of dinosaurs.
We await the next episodes with interest.