December 4, 2009
Ever since the time of their discovery, dinosaurs have fascinated scientists with their arsenals of teeth, claws, spikes and armor. Clearly the extinct creatures often fought each other to the death, and for the past century and a half artists have been envisioning what such epic battles must have looked like. This tradition is carried on in the new Discovery Channel documentary miniseries Clash of the Dinosaurs.
Though herbivorous dinosaurs were not constantly under attack and predatory dinosaurs were not insatiable killers, the series focuses upon the parts of dinosaur lives that have traditionally drawn the most attention: methods of attack and defense. A handful of Cretaceous dinosaurs from North America are the actors by which these dramatic scenes are played out, with a few newcomers (such as Sauroposeidon) featured alongside old favorites (Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, Deinonychus, etc.).
The first half of the series will premiere on December 6. In the first episode, “Extreme Survivors,” the show explains how even the largest of dinosaurs started out small. Adult dinosaurs did not simply pop out of the ground fully formed but had to go through a long period of growth, a time when they would be very vulnerable. Most would never make it to adulthood.
The second episode, “Perfect Predators,” concerns itself with how Tyrannosaurus, Deinonychus, and the huge pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus hunted and killed dinosaurs. Each predator had unique adaptations that allowed it to tackle different kinds of prey, from juvenile sauropod dinosaurs to full-grown Triceratops.
Both episodes intersperse commentary from paleontologists with computer-generated restorations of the dinosaurs. This is both good and bad. On the positive side, the dinosaurs look pretty good (especially when viewed in x-ray mode to see their bones and muscles) and I was glad to see professional paleontologists given some space to talk about the creatures they study. I always prefer shows that involve scientists over those that only present restorations of prehistoric life.
On the other hand, the episodes become frustratingly repetitive very quickly. Only a handful of scenes were created for each hour-long show and I grew tired of seeing the same dinosaurs do the same thing over and over and over again. Likewise, the show does not make much of an effort to explain the science behind what we know about dinosaurs. Snippets of interviews with paleontologists are presented to make certain dinosaurs seem like the biggest, meanest, or toughest, but almost no time is given to explain how we know what we say we know about dinosaurs. While watching the first two episodes with my family I was constantly asked “But how do they know that?” Unfortunately, the show does a relatively poor job at explaining how scientists gather information used to understand dinosaur biology and behavior. The shows were also narrowly focused on a small group of dinosaurs (and one pterosaur). Die-hard dino fans will find something to enjoy in each installment, but for me there was a bit too much hyperbole and not enough science.
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