September 19, 2011
With dinosaur documentaries, quantity isn’t the problem. Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus and friends have a near-constant screen presence, and this year we’ve seen plenty of new prehistoric shows of varying quality. In fact, the dinosaur media market has been so saturated lately that sometimes I get a little sick of seeing bellowing theropods go tearing after hapless hadrosaurs. I was impressed, against the background of sub-par dinosaur dramas, by the first episode of BBC One’s new miniseries Planet Dinosaur.
I’ll admit that I was initially skeptical of Planet Dinosaur. The first promotional clip made it look like yet another CGI-fest focused entirely on dinosaur carnage with not a shred of science in sight. YAWN. More than a decade since Walking With Dinosaurs, the “day in the life of a dinosaur” schtick has been done to death and probably should be buried, at least for a little while. Plus, I wasn’t particularly taken with the show’s title. We’ve already had Dinosaur Planet and, near the bottom of the bad-dinosaur-movie chum bucket, Planet of Dinosaurs, but I’m glad I didn’t let my fanboy nitpicks dissuade me from actually sitting down to see what the show as all about.
Like many other recent programs of its kind, Planet Dinosaur doesn’t skimp on the dinosaur dramatizations. Episode one—”Lost World”—primarily focuses on the feeding habits of the great, sail-backed theropod Spinosaurus. Naturally, the critter gets into plenty of scuffs with giant sawfish, the enormous crocodylomorph Sarcosuchus and the gargantuan Carcharodontosaurus. There is some uncertainty as to how many of the show’s big predators actually lived alongside one another—a problem that stems from the way in which the Late Cretaceous fossil deposits of northern Africa have been sampled—but, admittedly, creating a compelling television storyline requires a bit of flexibility in reconstruction. That said, I do appreciate that the creators of the show have intentionally picked prehistoric settings outside the Late Jurassic and Late Cretaceous of North America (which can be said of Dinosaur Revolution, as well). Everybody knows Allosaurus and Apatosaurus from the Morrison Formation and Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus from the Hell Creek Formation, but there is a whole world of dinosaurs out there that most people know little or nothing about.
What sets Planet Dinosaur apart, and what I enjoyed most, is the fact that a modicum of science is woven into each episode to back up the different vignettes being presented. When a pair of Carcharodontosaurus duke it out over territory, for example, narrator John Hurt explains how theropod skulls with punctures and tooth slashes support the idea that big predatory dinosaurs often fought by biting each other on the face, as graphic illustrations of such fossils pop up on screen. At another point, the show briefly delves into the diet of spinosaurs by citing different gut contents found inside disparate members of the group found across the globe, and the show even mentions a relatively recent geochemical study which hinted that spinosaurs were primarily living and hunting along the water’s edge. There are a few hiccups—such as the notion that the theropod Rugops was a devoted scavenger and the suggestion the Spinosaurus sliced up its prey with its formidable arms when the forelimbs of this dinosaur are entirely unknown—but despite these nitpicks, it was quite refreshing to see the show fit recent discoveries into the narrative. Documentary creators, if you’re reading, we need more of this kind of mix of narrative and science.
Marc Vincent of Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs recently posted his own review of the show, as well. While I agree that Planet Dinosaur is not that perfect dinosaur documentary that we have all been hoping for, it is still far better than just about anything that I have seen lately. We’re always going to have bloodthirsty theropods roaring and slashing at everything that moves—nature documentaries of all kinds are dominated by violence—but accepting that doesn’t mean that we have to give up on trying to educate while we entertain. Planet Dinosaur shows one way that it can be done, and I look forward to seeing the remainder of the series.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.