Saturday, September 17, 2011

Planet Dinosaur Review

Since I reviewed Dinosaur Revolution, I might as well tackle the other big dino documentary that came out this month.  As with Dinosaur Revolution, this review only covers the first episode, which in this case was about Cenomanian North Africa.

Planet Dinosaur's special effects range from decent to sad.  While I could go on about the little details like Ouranosaurus chewing like a mammal, having depressions where its laterotemporal fenestrae are, Microraptor lacking primaries attached to its second finger and having wings which are too short, etc., the simple truth is that the dinosaurs are less accurate and less believable as real objects.  The maniraptorans (Troodon, Microraptor, Epidexipteryx) are especially poor.  That's not to say it's all bad.  The Rugops (possibly an Aucasaurus from the Auca Mahuevo episode) and Sarcosuchus look pretty good, the Spinosaurus is decent except for its short tail, and the Ouranosaurus dying had nice motions and rapid breathing.  Seeing this show really made me realize how good the models and animation were in Dinosaur Revolution though.  It's such a shame the talent/money spent on the latter couldn't have been used for a program like Planet Dinosaur.

As far as behavior goes, it was refreshing to see dinosaurs acting like dinosaurs.  There are a few stupid things, like Spinosaurus eating part of a fish, then leaving to catch more ("with prey plentiful, Spinosaurus can afford to be wasteful").  Or Rugops' subsequent portrayal as an obligate scavenger.  Or Spinosaurus slashing the fish with its hands, only to eat tiny bits at a time. But at least nothing they do is human-like.  The behavior is largely defended by reference to actual studies (see below), and the show does a good job of making a story based on these.  The larger narrative of Spinosaurus being the largest and last spinosaurid and dying from climate change was flawed because Late Cretaceous African dinosaurs are poorly known, and Hone et al. (2010) and Candeiro et al. (2004) described Santonian spinosaurids.  But Candeiro et al.'s conclusion was doubted in their 2006 paper and Hone et al.'s study is quite new.  Bearing in mind I don't know how accurate the paleoclimatology was, the larger story felt more plausible than Dinosaur Revolution's apparently tacked-on story of how dinosaur parenting helped their success.

My favorite part of Planet Dinosaur is that it manages to explicitly incorporate numerous journal articles.  These are shown in informational panels with the year of publication, age, country, and figures from the original articles or photos of specimens referenced by them.  They even managed to rotate one of Stromer's Spinosaurus vertebra drawings in 3D, haha.  We have Stromer (1915), Dal Sasso et al. (2005), Amiot et al. (2010), Dal Sasso et al. (2009), Sereno et al. (1996), Tanke and Currie (2000), Sereno et al. (2008), Kellner (2004), Charig and Milner (1986), and a biomechanical strength analysis of Carcharodontosaurus' jaws.  I don't know how much I agree with some of the conclusions (like amphibious spinosaurids), but at least they're actually from the scientific literature and not just random made-up possibilities. 
There are ocassional errors, like overlaying a tyrannosaurid dentary on Sinraptor's skull, or using Stromer's reconstruction as the basis of the Spinosaurus skeletal, resulting in one of the worst reconstructions I've seen.  It's good they knew to tilt it horizontal and give it the right skull, but the anatomy!  Sacral neural spines lateral to the ilium, the femur articulating with the postacetabular process, two sets of pubes... I could insult it all day. 

Please put this travesty out of its misery
And yet other details of their informational panels are accurate, such as Irritator and Siamosaurus being inconspicuously listed as additional spinosaurids on the map.  Overall, it's quite good.  I actually learned what Onchopristis was, and that there's a partial Spinosaurus maxilla with an Onchopristis tooth embedded in it (not just MSNM V4047 with its embedded vertebra).  There's also apparently a Spinosaurus neural spine found in 2008 in Morocco that had been broken in life, which I had never heard of.  Any time a dinosaur show manages to teach ME something, I'm impressed. 

So I quite liked Planet Dinosaur.  It's almost the exact opposite of Dinosaur Revolution- generally inaccurate restorations behaving fairly realistically, packed full of references to specific discoveries in the literature, telling us what we know and why.  I'll be watching the following episodes, and contra my earlier statement I'll probably tune in to the other Dinosaur Revolutions too.  I'll just have to treat the latter like the Transformers 2 of dinosaur programs- pretty to watch, but turn off your brain.  On the other hand, I'll be interested to see if Planet Dinosaur presents any more discoveries I hadn't heard of. 


  1. I agree again.

    We needed the artists and modellers from Dinosaur Revolution to be working on this. That would make for an excellent show. Though Planet Dinosaur is still pretty good overall.

  2. Your "the Transformers 2 of dinosaur programs" is the best description of DR ever!

  3. "Any time a dinosaur show manages to teach ME something, I'm impressed."

    I agree!

  4. As with Dinosaur Revolution, this review only covers the first episode, which ...