September 2, 2011
A few days ago, screener copies of Discovery’s upcoming miniseries Dinosaur Revolution arrived on my doorstep. The anticipated show is already being argued over based on sneak-peek clips and images—some say it’s going to be the best dino-documentary of all time, while others see it as another sensationalist program rife with inaccuracies. After seeing the episodes myself, I have no doubt that the debate will get even more heated once the program airs.
I will write about Dinosaur Revolution later today, but watching the show made me recall the favorite dinosaur shows of my childhood. (Not to tip my hand too much, but if I’m going to point out what I don’t like about a show, I figure that I should have a good idea of what I do like.) The forthcoming show displays dinosaurs in their own habitat with sparse narration and the minimal presence of talking heads—a format that gained a nearly ubiquitous TV presence after the premier of Walking With Dinosaurs in 1999. I can’t remember the last time I saw a dinosaur show presented by a host, but when I was a nascent little dinosaur nerd, my favorite shows were those guided by TV personalities. As luck would have it, a DVD of one of those shows arrived the same day as the Dinosaur Revolution discs.
The 1986 show More Dinosaurs was one of my earliest introductions to the prehistoric world. Hosted by Gary Owens and Eric Boardman, the show is framed as Eric’s quest to find a dinosaur and bring it back to Gary for a showstopping finale. (“A grabber,” as Gary puts it, and boy does he get one….) This is not a serious documentary. Most of the show is downright goofy and, even by the standards of the time, the restored dinosaurs in the show looked just plain awful. To pick one example, if a new dinosaur documentary started off by bringing up the far-fetched possibility that a sauropod is still living in some far-off African swamp, I’d immediately change the channel and angrily register my objection on Twitter.
But I have a soft spot for More Dinosaurs all the same, and I was glad when Tyler Rhodes of Dinosaur Theatre was able to help organize a new DVD release of the program. (The picture quality leaves something to be desired, but that just makes it feel like I’m watching an old VHS tape and adds to the nostalgia.) The show is something of a dinosaur mixtape in which science and dinosaur pop culture are blended together, and, when I was a kid, I didn’t particularly care that many of the show’s dinosaurs looked lumpy and unrealistic. They were still dinosaurs, and that was all that mattered to me. In a way, the show reminds me of the “Crocosaurus” which can still be seen on the Jensen, Utah roadside (and, coincidentally, appears in More Dinosaurs): By scientific standards it’s the pits, but I still recognize it as a dinosaur and adore it for that reason. The scientist in me can’t stand it, but part of me that’s an unabashed dinosaur fan can’t help but like it.
Nostalgia obviously has a lot to do with why I enjoyed More Dinosaurs so much, but I think there’s more to it than that. The show was a celebration of dinosaurs, both in terms of their scientific identity and their pop culture appeal. That’s something that’s missing from most new documentaries. More often than not, recent dinosaur shows have focused entirely on violence and presented endlessly repeated snippets of CGI dinosaurs tearing at each other as the best that new science has to offer us about paleobiology. If we were to take recent cable documentaries as any indication, dinosaurs did little more than try to skewer one another. More Dinosaurs and other old favorites of mine certainly have that aspect, but the important thing is that they often went beyond that to showcase the changing images of dinosaurs. More Dinosaurs and shows of its ilk represent a format that is now nearly extinct in which movie clips, cartoons, interviews with scientists and visits to fossil sites were presented side by side. Maybe it’s time to give dinosaurs a rest—let them stop tearing at each other for a minute and have a little more fun with their enduring legacy.
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