Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Prehistoric Planet review

Back in 2011 I reviewed the big dinosaur documentaries of the time, Dinosaur Revolution and Planet Dinosaur. While both had the same basic concept to educate and entertain viewers about prehistoric life, they diverged wildly in style. Dinosaur Revolution was "largely accurate-looking dinosaurs acting like humans in zany situations and learning valuable life lessons", while Planet Dinosaur was "generally inaccurate restorations behaving fairly realistically, packed full of references to specific discoveries in the literature, telling us what we know and why." Today I watched the first episode of the newest dinosaur documentary attempt, Prehistoric Planet, and figured I would continue the review tradition over a decade later.

It's extremely good, a near perfect execution of the concept.

I don't know if I've just gotten soft in my old age, but this was exactly what I wanted from a Walking With Dinosaurs type of show.  The graphics are amazing, extremely close to the point where if I didn't know these animals were extinct I'd believe this was live footage.  In fact, I'd believe the ammonites and pycnodonts were alive.  My literal biggest complaint of the entire episode is that the Tyrannosaurus' skin didn't look like it was wet after emerging from the water, which was just several seconds of animation out of 42 minutes.  While everything but the Tyrannosaurus was outside my area of expertise, I didn't see anything inaccurate or unrealistic as far as I could tell. 

As for the style of the show, all the animals acted like animals, which again is exactly what I want.  On the one hand, behavior is ascribed to them that we have no direct evidence of in the fossil record, especially since most featured taxa (besides Tyrannosaurus and Mosasaurus) are poorly known.  The Niobrara-esque pterosaur scenes are actually Couche III from the Maastrichtian of Morocco for instance, so use Alcione, Tethydraco, Barbaridactylus, etc..  But this works because the taxa themselves are never emphasized, and each behavior is plausible and only featured briefly until we move on to something else.  'Tuarangisaurus' is treated just as the word 'rhinoceros' would be in a nature documentary without telling us what material it's known from or what country it was found in or anything geological at all.  And we see them give live birth, display with upright necks out of water, swallow gastroliths, etc., but none of it is presented as essential to what Tuarangisaurus is or given a moral meaning to learn.  It's just animal behaviors being done by animals, which is just what you get in nature documentaries that cover a wide array of species.

Which combined with the inimitable David Attenborough (96 years old!) narrating makes this the best nature documentary-style dinosaur show.  I don't want to see talking heads being edited to dumb down what I already know- if I want to learn about Phosphatodraco, I'll pull out Pereda-Suberbiola et al. 2003.  But if I want the Maastrichtian to be filmed as if it still existed, Prehistoric Planet provides what the literature cannot.