May 2, 2011
The Discovery Channel’s “March of the Dinosaurs” is the kind of dinosaur documentary that could not have been made until this point in time. When I was first becoming acquainted with dinosaurs in the mid-1980s, the thought of dinosaurs braving the cold temperatures and long nights of Arctic winters seemed absurd. Dinosaurs dwelt in warm, lush environments – not within the reaches of the Arctic Circle.
But we now know dinosaurs truly did live that far north. Hard-won fossil discoveries have turned up traces of Late Cretaceous Arctic habitats that, while a bit warmer than they are today, are still unlike the typical setting we imagine dinosaurs in. Drawing on these finds, “March of the Dinosaurs” offers some imaginative reconstructions of snowbound dinosaurs.
Narrated by Stephen Fry, the docudrama carries on in the tradition of shows like “Walking With Dinosaurs” in telling stories about individual animals rather than explaining the science behind the reconstructions. Scar – a young Edmontosaurus who narrowly escaped a hungry tyrannosaur – and a fluffy Troodon named Patch are the stars of this new program. While Scar travels south with the hadrosaur herds, Patch stays put and tries to make a living in the snowy Arctic forest.
The dinosaurs themselves look pretty good. Their creators adorned the Troodon and tyrannosaurs with feathers, and they were well-detailed for TV-special creatures. The dinosaurs were a bit drab – they were almost uniformly gray, with a few splashes of orange here and there – and there were a few anatomical mistakes, but the dinosaurs still looked better than some of the CGI monstrosities that have stomped across cable channels in the past few years.
Frustratingly, there are plenty of silly story elements that mar the program. Although the tyrannosaurs Gorgosaurus and Albertosaurus are the story’s principal villains, for example, they are not very good at hunting. They miss juvenile hadrosaurs that are standing still, repeatedly roar to announce their presence, and – in one shot that made me laugh out loud – pursue prey by doing aerobatic ninja leaps that would have been impossible for the living animals. The documentary also tells us that Albertosaurus – unlike Gorgosaurus – hunted in packs, but, since the actual science behind the dinosaurs is not included in the story, we are left to take the Stephen Fry’s word for it. The same goes for the show’s assertion that Troodon could see in slow-motion, and that their mating season began at the height of winter. After the first twenty minutes, especially, speculation replaces science as the basis for the show.
Paleontologist Dave Hone had similar feelings about the documentary. “[I]t [would] be nice to have just a few token words towards the science a little more often, not least on something billed as a ‘documentary’”, he wrote. I agree. Arctic dinosaurs are so unfamiliar that I feel the show could have benefited from the inclusion of more science – perhaps interspersing dramatizations with scientists explaining how they know what they know about these habitats. Not only would this have provided viewers with a little more context, but it might have resulted in a better overall show. Towards the end, Scar and Patch have faced so many over-the-top perils that what are meant to be dramatic sequences of live-and-death struggle feel rather flat. (And dinosaur comic fans will no doubt see some pretty obvious similarities to Ricardo Delgado’s story Age of Reptiles: The Journey.)
Not every dinosaur documentary needs to include talking heads or focus on the search for dinosaurs in the field. There is a place for strong narratives about the lives of dinosaurs. Like many other dinosaur documentaries, though, “March of the Dinosaurs” takes a unique premise and tries to stretch it a bit too far. Explanations of how scientists reconstruct prehistoric environments can enrich stories if sewn into the narrative the right way, and, in this case, I think the show’s creators missed an important opportunity to do so. Watch “March of the Dinosaurs” for the feather-covered Arctic dinosaurs, but, if you want to know more about them and their world, you will have to turn to other programs like NOVA’s “Arctic Dinosaurs.”
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