Last week, the BBC debuted a somewhat delayed sequel to Walking With Dinosaurs, Planet Dinosaur (1), and lo! Thumbs up! (3).
Dinosaurs were always a big thing for me – starting at the age that kids normally start liking dinosaurs and never really going away. There was probably a crisis point somewhere along the way which might have seen the world of the dinosaur-kinden. Don’t know if that would have been a harder or an easier sell, to be honest (4).
With this in mind, I took immediately to Walking with Dinosaurs, which had the very simple premise of a nature documentary about dinosaurs, using some extremely good CG against real landscapes(5), and exploring a number of old favourites (Tyrannosaurus, Diplodocus etc.) together with some genuinely new stuff, such as the Antarctic dinosaurs. As well as the dinosaurs themselves, there was an added metatextual element as the serials progressed, as the producers played with different documentary formats, updating from the style I remember from my childhood, with Ken Branagh’s disembodied voice narrating, to having Robert Winston sitting in trees with cavemen (the sort of documentary-making I recall Sir David Attenborough pioneering) all the way through to Nigel Marven doing a Steve Irwin-a-like taunting Cretaceous crocodillians (6).
There was a problem with Walking with Dinosaurs, though, that was based in that format. Tim Haines & Co did their best with the science, but palaeontology is a speculative subject, and you just can’t be sure. They had to make assumptions, especially in the more speculative sections like Spirits of the Ice Forest, but their best guesses were presented as fact, because they were following the pattern of a documentary on modern-day animals where there just isn’t the same element of doubt.
There is a lot of fuss about the dumbing-down of science, and not explaining when there are doubts is one way this can creep in. Saying that we don’t know is infinitely preferable to presenting something as flat fact without admitting that it isn’t necessarily so (7). So: Planet Dinosaur.
The animation is extremely good, although because I believe it’s using CG backgrounds as well as dinosaurs, sometimes it doesn’t look quite as real as its predecessor. However, the true joy is that they show their working. In brief, succinct segments supported with graphics, each assertion gets backed up, and you get shown the evidence from which the producers are drawing their conclusions. This simple step in the direction of undumbing science, and engaging audience intelligence, is vastly welcome (8).
If you have the same hangups about science, dinosaurs and the like as I do, you might also want to check out the US series Prehistoric which delves into the fossil history of various American cities, and which also does a good job of showing its working.
(1) OK, there were actually some prompter sequels, Walking with Beasts, Cavemen and Monsters, but this one has dinosaurs in it. And yes, there were also sequels with dinosaurs, like the one-off with the Allosaurus, and the specials that Nigel Marven did, but bear with me. (2)
(2) I liked Beasts, and I really wanted to like Monsters more than I did. However, as I put in at the time here, for some reason they decided to politicise Monsters into some bizarre ideological struggle between vertebrates and invertebrates/arthropods. I mean, OK, that’s impinging on my peculiar focus, but also, it’s simply not appropriate. Evolution is not a class struggle or an underdog story, it just is, and twisting the story so that the very elements and, it almost seems, God, are against the poor doomed arthropods (such as the spider that is ground zero for a lightning strike, or the Arthropleura that manages to get itself impaled on a stake, like Dracula from a Hammer Horror film) is just not acceptable science.
(3) Which either means that it’s a good thing, or that the gladiator gets eaten by dinosaurs.
(4) Insects were a tough sell. My agent, Simon Kavanagh, worked damn hard to get past the basic wall of prejudice most people have concerning anything with more than four legs. When they said that nobody ever wanted to have anything to do with a fantasy based on creepy crawlies, he apparently said, “Spiderman.” Strange bedfellows.
(5) As a sign of the technology of the times, the CG tended to run into issues mostly when the dinosaurs and the landscape or physical effects had to interact in any complex way.
(6) Or, to give him his due, doing a Nigel Marven-a-like. Also, the Walking With Dinosaur specials have resulted in my three-year-0ld son now adopting Nigel Marven as his great hero, occupying the same pedestal that I put Attenborough on.
(7) Everyone surely knows one of those guys whose positivity vastly outweighs their competence, and knows just how much damage that kind of mindset can do. Studies on eye-witness testimony have confirmed that the certainty of a witness does not correlate at all with the accuracy of the evidence.
(8) Planet Dinosaur is also dealing with relatively “new” palaeontology. However, this just goes to show how quickly knowledge trickles down. Because of my aforementioned son I get to see a lot of kinds dinosaur stuff, and the Spinosaurus fishing (9) shown in Planet Dinosaur can also be seen in Jim Henson’s Dinosaur Train (10), whilst the opposing Carcharodontosaurus turns up in the bewildering Dinosaur King anime (11).
(9) The fact that Spinosaurus was predominantly a fish-eater, and probably scavenger (rather than something that would go kick a T-rex just because it had an inferiority complex about the previous films) does put an additional boot into the groin of Jurassic Park III, a film that dearly needs it.
(10) In an episode called “The Old Spinosaurus and the Sea” which suggests that somebody in that writing team didn’t necessarily expect to be writing for a cartoon about dinosaurs on a train at his/her time of life.
(11) This series is a prime example of the sort of crazy ingenuity that goes on in kids anime. From a standing start of “what if it were like Pokemon only, instead of dayglo My-Little-Pony-spawn monsters, they got dinosaurs to fight each other” it springs full speed into a phenomenally convoluted plot including time-travelling robots and alien pirates. Also, whilst the backgrounds and human characters are rendered with a characteristically simple Pokemon-style, the dinosaurs themselves are presented as far more detailed CG constructs, this demonstrating the very secure grasp the animators have of what kids actually care about.