May 11, 2012
Until now, I have assiduously avoided Ancient Aliens. I had a feeling that if I watched the show—which popularizes far-fetched, evidence-free idiocy about how human history has been molded by extra-terrestrial visitors—my brain would jostle its way out of my skull and stalk the earth in search of a kinder host. Or, at the very least, watching the show would kill about as many brain cells as a weekend bender in Las Vegas. But then I heard the History Channel’s slurry of pseudoscience had taken on dinosaurs. I steeled myself for the pain and watched the mind-melting madness unfold.
I’m actually glad that my editors don’t allow me to cuss a blue streak on this blog. If they did, my entire review would be little more than a string of expletives. Given my restrictions, I have little choice but to try to encapsulate the shiny, documentary-format rubbish in a more coherent and reader-sensitive way.
The episode is what you would get if you dropped some creationist propaganda, Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods and stock footage from Jurassic Fight Club into a blender. What results is a slimy and incomprehensible mixture of idle speculation and outright fabrications which pit the enthusiastic “ancient alien theorists,” as the narrator generously calls them, against “mainstream science.” I would say “You can’t make this stuff up,” but I have a feeling that that is exactly what most of the show’s personalities were doing.
There was so much wrong with the Ancient Aliens episode that I could spend all week trying to counteract every incorrect assertion. This is a common technique among cranks and self-appointed challengers of science; it is called Gish Gallop after young earth creationist Duane Gish. When giving public presentations about evolution and creationism, Gish rapidly spouted off a series of misinterpretations and falsehoods to bury his opponent under an avalanche of fictions and distortions. If Gish’s opponent tried to dig themselves out, they would never be able to make enough progress to free themselves to take on Gish directly. Ancient Aliens uses the same tactic—the fictions come fast and furious.
While the main point of the episode is that aliens exterminated dinosaurs to make way for our species—a sci-fi scenario accompanied by some hilarious, mashed-together footage of dinosaurs fleeing from strafing alien craft, perhaps a preview of Dinosaurs vs. Aliens the movie—the various ancient alien experts do little more than assert that such an event must have happened. Surprise, surprise, they provide no actual evidence for their claims. Instead, they borrow evidence for fundamentalist Christians, who are never actually identified as such. Creationist Michael Cremo is identified only as the author of Forbidden Archeology, and Willie E. Dye is credited as a biblical archaeologist without any mention of his young earth creationist views. Ancient Aliens producers clearly did not care about the credentials or expertise of the talking heads they employed—just so long as someone said the right things in front of the camera.
And the creationists didn’t disappoint. About halfway through the program, Cremo says, “Some researchers found human footprints alongside the footprints of dinosaurs.” The quote is a line out of context from Cremo’s interview, but is played in a section claiming that American Museum of Natural History paleontologist Roland T. Bird found human footprints associated with dinosaur trackways in the vicinity of Glen Rose, Texas.
Bird didn’t find any such thing. He found many dinosaur footprints and trackways—one of which he and his crew partially excavated and anachronistically placed behind the AMNH’s “Brontosaurus“—but no human tracks. Strangely, though, hoaxed human tracks did have a role to play in Bird’s decision to initially visit the tracksites.
Bird wasn’t the first person to notice the dinosaur tracks, and selling the sauropod and theropod tracks was a cottage industry in the vicinity of Glen Rose. And a few local people carved fake human tracks in the same stone. Bird actually saw a pair of such forgeries at a trading post in Gallup, New Mexico, along with dinosaur tracks removed from the Glen Rose area, shortly before he left to investigate the site himself.
Bird wasn’t fooled by the fakes. He saw them for what they were, and was much more interested in the real dinosaur tracks imprinted in the same stone. But some creationists, blinded by dogma, have put their faith behind fakes and even dinosaur tracks that they have misinterpreted as being human footprints. When theropod dinosaurs squatted down, for example, the backs of their lower legs, the metatarsals, left slightly curved depressions in the Cretaceous sediment, and creationists have misconstrued these markings to be the footsteps of ancient people.
Dye takes up the standard creationist line that humans and dinosaurs coexisted and reappears a little later in the episode to throw his support to a different icon of creationist nonsense—the Ica stones from Peru. These famous fakes are stones engraved with images of dinosaurs and humans interacting. They were created by farmer Basilio Uschuya and his wife, using pop culture depictions of dinosaurs in books as their guides. Despite this, both Dye and the Ancient Aliens program present the stones as if they were authentic ancient artifacts that record the survival of dinosaurs such as Triceratops to almost the present day. Dye says that ancient people must have known a lot about dinosaurs because the stones are engraved so precisely, even though we know that precision came from Uschuya copying mid-20th century dinosaur art so carefully. Our narrator says that scientists are skeptical about the origin of the stones, but nothing more.
The show offers a few other awful gems. Our narrator goes on at length about how carbon-14 dating is unreliable for telling the age of dinosaurs, but paleontologists do not use carbon-14 to estimate the age of non-avian dinosaurs. Radiocarbon dating only works for carbon-bearing materials up to about 60,000 years old. Instead, paleontologists use different radiometric dating techniques to constrain the history of non-avian dinosaurs. In uranium-lead dating, for example, geologists investigate the relative abundance of uranium and lead, the element uranium decays into, to determine the age of the rock the materials were sampled from.
Different dating systems are used for rocks of different ages, and these techniques have put time estimates on when dinosaurs lived. The key is finding layers such as ash beds that contain radioactive materials and are above or below layers containing dinosaurs. Since dinosaur bones themselves can’t be reliably dated, geochronologists determine the age of the under- or overlying rock to constrain the timeframe for when the dinosaur lived. Ancient Aliens, reliant on tired creationist talking points, casts aspersions over a process that the show’s creators clearly don’t understand.
But my favorite bit of babble involves the ultimate fate of the dinosaurs. The show can’t even keep its own story straight. Fringe television personality Franklin Ruehl makes a case for the modern or recent existence of non-avian dinosaurs by way of the coelacanth. These archaic lobe-finned fish, which Ruehl rightly points out were around long before the first dinosaurs evolved, were thought to be extinct before a live one was hauled up off South Africa in 1938. Since then, a handful of fossil coelacanth finds has bridged the gap between their modern representatives and those that lived at the end of the Cretaceous 66 million years ago. Their unexpected reappearance has often been used by cryptozoologists and true-believers of various stripes to claim that some other prehistoric lineage may really still be out there, even if there’s no actual evidence to suggest this is so.
As paleontologist Darren Naish has pointed out multiple times, though, the coelacanth is a red herring. In strata from the past 66 million years or so, at least, coelacanth fossils are rare and hard to identify. It’s not really surprising that their fossil record appears to have petered out. Non-avian dinosaurs, however, had bones that were far more diagnostic. In fact, the resolution of prehistoric eras gets better as we investigate slices of time approaching the present. If creatures as large and distinctive as Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Apatosaurus and Tyrannosaurus really did thrive for millions of years after the end-Cretaceous asteroid impact, they would have turned up in the fossil record by now. The evidence is clear—with the exception of avian dinosaurs, all other dinosaur lineages went extinct about 66 million years ago.
Shortly after Ruehl makes his proclamation, however, the program entirely forgets what he said. Near the show’s conclusion, the narrator speculates that aliens manipulated dinosaur DNA to turn the imposing creatures into smaller, less-dangerous animals like the coelacanth. Never mind that coelacanths were already present in the world’s oceans more than 360 million years ago—more than 130 million years before the very first dinosaurs evolved. The suggestion is unadulterated bunk (as is they whole show, really). And then crazy-haired alien fanatic Giorgio Tsoukalos throws out another idea. The coelacanth really did go extinct, he suggests, but was revived by a “direct guarantee from extraterrestrials” millions of years later. Why? Tsoukalos doesn’t seem to care. And his talking head peers generally mutter about aliens clearing the way for our species somehow.
The show can’t seem to decide whether aliens exterminated dinosaurs 66 million years ago or whether dinosaurs somehow survived to the modern era. Which is it? Did aliens clear away dinosaurs so that we might live? Or did some dinosaurs escape extinction somehow? Competing ideas bounce around like ping-pong balls during the whole episode. Grandpa Simpson tells more coherent stories.
There were a few real scientists on the program. Paleontologists Luis Chiappe and Mark Wilson, for example, make appearances throughout the show. I can’t help but feel bad for them, and wonder whether scientists should simply boycott appearing on such programs. While I think it’s worthwhile and essential to call out false claims made in the name of science—such as intelligent design and myths of living dinosaurs—programs like Ancient Aliens only abuse scientists. Responsible researchers are typically taken out of context to help set up unsupported fictions spewed by the alien fan club. Shows like Ancient Aliens, MonsterQuest and Finding Bigfoot apparently have little or no interest in actually talking about science. The most sensationalist speculation will always triumph. On these shows, scientists just can’t win.
Ancient Aliens is some of the most noxious sludge in television’s bottomless chum bucket. Actual experts are brought in to deliver sound bites that are twisted and taken out of context while fanatics are given free reign. Fiction is presented as fact, and real scientific research is so grossly misrepresented that I can only conclude that the program is actively lying to viewers. To present the show as a documentary, on a non-fiction network, is a loathsome move by the History Channel spinoff. (Technically, Ancient Aliens airs on an offshoot of the History Channel called H2.) If the network and the show’s creators want to present Ancient Aliens as a light survey of fringe ideas and make it clear that the ideas aren’t meant to be taken seriously, I can’t quarrel with that. But Ancient Aliens and shows like it winnow away at actual scientific understanding by promoting absolute dreck. Ancient Aliens is worse than bad television. The program shows a sheer contempt for science and what we really know about nature.
September 29, 2011
Dinosaurs have been on-screen quite a bit lately. Dinosaur Revolution, Terra Nova and Planet Dinosaur have all brought a number of the prehistoric creatures—mostly carnivorous ones, of course—to television screens. We’re certainly not in want of scenes featuring sharp-toothed theropods chasing down hapless victims, human or otherwise, and Planet Dinosaur continued in the grand tradition of paleo-violence with the second and third installments of the documentary miniseries.
Episode two of Planet Dinosaur focuses on creatures vastly different from the stars of the first show. Instead of huge, carnivorous bruisers such as Spinosaurus and Carcharodontosaurus, we meet the small and feathered dinosaurs that once inhabited prehistoric China. Given the reluctance or inability of many dinosaur shows to depict fully feathered theropods, I was elated to see so many dinosaurs with plumage. And once again, the show did an admirable job of pausing the action now and again to inject some science.
Nevertheless, there were a few things about episode two that made me cringe. First was the flying Sinornithosaurus—as far as I am aware, there has not been a study suggesting this ability for the dinosaur. It appeared to be entirely a plot invention to put little Microraptor in peril (notice there was no “We know Sinornithosaurus was a glider because…” moment). What really made me facepalm, though, was the assertion that Sinornithosaurus was probably venomous. This idea was based on research that has been debunked—the structures thought to indicate a venomous bite were misinterpreted by the researchers who forwarded the hypothesis. I can understand why the show’s creators thought a venomous dinosaur would make an excellent clincher to episode two, but the science just isn’t there.
On to episode three. Whereas the first two episodes focus on a particular region, the third is wider-ranging and includes several different impressive theropods under the heading “Last Killers.” First up was Daspletosaurus, one of the lesser-known tyrannosaurs from North America. The predatory dinosaur is presented as part of a long-running evolutionary arms race with horned dinosaurs, but the only evidence is that both lineages became larger over time. The connection is tenuous. Furthermore, the frills and horns of the ceratopsian dinosaurs were so varied that their evolution was probably influenced by selective pressures such as the need to distinguish between species occupying the same landscape and, perhaps, competition between members of the same species for mates, rather than defense against tyrannosaurs or other predators. What we see as weapons that evolved for defense may actually be ornaments that primarily served in communication and competition among the horned dinosaurs themselves.
Planet Dinosaur also falls into the “dino gangs” trap. Just because multiple individuals of Daspletosaurus were found together does not necessarily mean that the dinosaurs lived in groups or hunted together. There are many ways to make a bonebed, and detailed study is required to figure out how all those bones came to rest in the same place. The idea of pack-hunting theropods is so strong, though, that it’s apparently difficult to dissuade documentary makers from going that route. In the show’s second vignette, a pack of the small, sickle-clawed predator Troodon was shown working together to take down a much larger hadrosaur, despite there being no evidence that these dinosaurs acted this way. (And, as pointed out in the recent description of the dinosaur Talos, many of the so-called “Troodon” fossils found across North America may truly belong to yet-undescribed genera and species, including those found in the Arctic.)
The show fares better with its Majungasaurus storyline. This was a different sort of predatory dinosaur—one of the stubby-armed abelisaurids—and Planet Dinosaur did a fair job fleshing out the fossil evidence suggesting that these dinosaurs sometimes cannibalized each other. (Paleontologists also proposed that Tyrannosaurus was an opportunistic cannibal on the basis of bite-damaged bones.) Our time with Majungasaurus is short, though. Planet Dinosaur quickly races back to meet Daspletosaurus during a migration of Centrosaurus at the finale.
Sadly, the second and third episodes of Planet Dinosaur sometimes fall prey to sensationalism rather than science. The show is at its weakest when science is either glossed over or ignored. While still better than many other recent documentaries, I still found myself being disappointed by these two installments in the series. And, on that note, we could use a documentary that doesn’t simply treat sauropods, hadrosaurs and horned dinosaurs as prey. Since the 19th century, restorations of dinosaurs have been so focused on prehistoric predators that it’s easy to believe that herbivores never did anything interesting outside of becoming a meal. There is far more to dinosaur science than figuring out just how vicious the tyrannosaurs were. Perhaps the next three installments of Planet Dinosaur will fare better than these two. At least, I hope so.
September 28, 2011
Old dinosaurs have a way of hanging on. New discoveries are announced every week, and our understanding of how dinosaurs actually lived is constantly changing, but the public image of dinosaurs doesn’t always keep up with the pace of scientific discovery and debate. I was reminded of this tension after stumbling upon a short, 1970 documentary called Dinosaurs: The Terrible Lizards.
Dinosaurs regularly popped up during my early elementary school education. From preschool through third grade, at least, dinosaurs made a cameo or more during the school year, and I remember at least one field trip to see the animatronic dinosaurs at the Monmouth Museum in central New Jersey. The dinosaurs jerked and bellowed, as the robotic creatures are wont to do, but what really stuck with me was seeing Dinosaurs: The Terrible Lizards in one of the museum’s little alcoves. Animatronic dinosaurs were nice and all, but in the era before computer-generated dinosaurs were the rule, the stop-motion dinosaurs in the film were the closest thing to seeing the real animals come alive.
Created by special effects artist Wah Chang, the dinosaurs of the short film were as I had always known them. They dragged their tails, moved slowly and were generally covered in a drab palette of muted greens, browns, greys and reds. All the standard behavioral tropes were there, too: “Brontosaurus” lived near the side of the swamp, hadrosaurs escaped danger by fleeing into the water and Tyrannosaurus was such a force of destruction that not even the armor of ankylosaurs could stop it. In some cases, the film looked like the paintings of 20th century paleo artist Zdeněk Burian come to life, and since Burian’s art filled many of my dinosaur books I had no reason to think that scientists had already eviscerated this older image of slow, stupid dinosaurs.
I can’t blame the creators of the original film for portraying the 20th century image of dinosaurs as plodding, dim-witted animals. That was the general view at the time the movie was made. But the film was still playing in the museum I visited in 1990. By this time the scientific “Dinosaur Renaissance” had already been in full swing for well over a decade, but the big-time dinosaur image shift hadn’t happened yet. The dinosaurs in the 1970 video fit in perfectly with the ones I saw in museum displays, books and in the classroom. I had little understanding of just how much had changed since the time the stop-motion film was made.
Even though we’re not due for another wholesale shift in our understanding of dinosaurs, I think that we’re still suffering from the same science communication problems. Science continues, but library books and museum displays continue to present outdated information. That’s just the way things go, yet this fact is especially frustrating during a time when discovery and discussion are accelerating. How many students are initially meeting outdated dinosaurs, rather than the dinosaurs we know now?
September 8, 2011
I have already said plenty about Discovery’s new prehistoric tribute, Dinosaur Revolution, but my paleo-blogging colleague David Orr recently brought up one aspect of the new program that has been nagging at me since I finished watching the screeners for the miniseries. Like many other programs, the show claims to overthrow the old, outdated image of Apatosaurus and company, but how far behind is the public’s understanding of dinosaurs? As David puts it:
If asked to picture the world of the Mesozoic, does the average person on the street see the vision of Zallinger or Spielberg? We’re now almost twenty years into the Jurassic Park era, and the idea of the “raptor” has ascended to a level of popularity arguably equal to Tyrannosaurus rex. … Are we beating a dead horse when we boldly claim to be killing obsolete ideas about dinosaur life?
In a way, it almost feels as if we sometimes resurrect the drab, lumpy and grossly outdated images of dinosaurs only to have them quickly dispatched by the swift, hot-blooded dinosaurs of the modern era. (Lest I be called a hypocrite, I have been guilty of this, too.) As David points out, Jurassic Park popularized an updated vision of dinosaurs almost twenty years ago, and to pick another benchmark, the acrobatic and active dinosaurs in Robert Bakker’s 1986 book The Dinosaur Heresies no longer look as scientifically sacrilegious as they did when the book initially came out. Not all of Bakker’s ideas are accepted today, but the overall vision he helped promote has become entrenched. Images of slow and stupid dinosaurs were tossed out a long time ago—the last time I can remember seeing a vintage dinosaur on screen was when Peter Jackson effectively brought the “Brontosaurus” back to life for his 2005 remake of King Kong, and even that dinosaur was pretty agile and light on its feet compared to the swamp-dwelling sauropods of old.
But the trouble with dinosaurs is that they are not entirely objects of scientific scrutiny that are constantly being updated according to new research. Dinosaurs are everywhere, and there are so many reconstructions and restorations that we sometimes create conflicting images. Let’s say that a young dinosaur fan watches Dinosaur Revolution and starts incessantly bugging her parents to take her to the museum. When she arrives, she may encounter dinosaurs in their outdated, early 20th century garb. The majority of the dinosaurs in Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History are still static tail-draggers, and a number of the famous mounts in the American Museum of Natural History are sorely out of date because they could not be safely re-posed (just to pick two examples). Even in some of the greatest dinosaur showcases in the world, modern dinosaurs stand right alongside more archaic visions of dinosauriana.
Depictions of dinosaurs in movies, documentaries, books and even museum displays are going to lag behind that latest science. That may say more about the rapid progress of paleontology in recent years more than anything else. Add that to the fact that the dinosaurs we adore during our childhood tend to stick with us. Though I pride myself on trying to keep up with the latest science now, for a time I just could not accept that many dinosaurs were covered in feathers. They looked silly and I had no idea what the state of the evidence was. Given the choice between the mean, scaly Deinonychus I knew and the more bird-like version paleontologists were talking about, I preferred the version I grew up with. (At least until I understood the actual science of the reconstructions that made me initially uneasy.) Even if dinosaurs are not changing as dramatically as they did during the heyday of the “Dinosaur Renaissance” of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, ongoing research continues to alter our perspective on our favorite monsters—the dinosaurs we know from childhood may look unfamiliar to us when we re-encounter them later, be it in a museum or movie theater.
Nevertheless, perhaps we are putting the wrong emphasis on the actual “dinosaur revolution” now underway. The idea that dinosaurs were active, complex creatures and not just big lizards has been established for more than 30 years now. That isn’t new. What is novel about this period in science is that we are gaining a more refined picture of dinosaur lives thanks to numerous fossil discoveries and a variety of new techniques for studying those remnants of the Mesozoic world. The real dinosaur revolution isn’t so much about an image change—it is our ability to begin to answer, or at least approach, long-running questions about how dinosaurs actually lived. Perhaps, rather than beating a dead Camarasaurus, we should focus on how science is refining our picture of dinosaur lives.
September 2, 2011
Dinosaur Revolution is Looney Tunes. I mean that literally. At the last Comic-Con International, Erik Nelson – the executive producer of Discovery’s new 4-part series – explained that at least one of the show’s vignettes was created as a reimagining of a 1942 Bugs Bunny cartoon, only this time with pterosaurs from the Early Cretaceous of Brazil. The animals themselves were real, but, true to the intent of the segment, they act like Mesozoic cartoon characters. Rather than being a silly one-off, the slapstick scene embodies the tone of the prehistoric miniseries.
I am not entirely sure what to call Dinosaur Revolution. “Documentary” doesn’t feel quite right. “Dinosaur tribute” might be a better fit. Whatever you choose to call it, though, it’s a program that employs the well-worn dinosaur playbook that has been in use for over a decade. Walking With Dinosaurs – the BBC’s 1999 docudrama – brought the idea of following the day-to-day lives of dinosaurs (with little to no human presence) into vogue, and Dinosaur Revolution continues in that tradition while adding a few unique quirks.
Discovery’s new dinosaur extravaganza is played out in four chapters. The first episode sets the stage with an over-the-top scene meant to represent the mass extinction at the end of the Permian period about 250 million years ago. This was the most devastating global extinction event in our planet’s history, and the one that, in time, opened up evolutionary possibilities that resulted in the evolution of dinosaurs (among other Mesozoic creatures). From there, the series sets up a number of vignettes that flow in more-or-less chronological order from the Late Triassic through the very Latest Cretaceous. Episode one features a family of the early dinosaur Eoraptor; episode two focuses on an injured Allosaurus living by a Late Jurassic watering hole; episode three tells the stories of pterosaurs, mosasaurs, feathered dinosaurs and other Cretaceous creatures; and the finale tracks a clan of Tyrannosaurus, as well as a pair of Troodon. The cast of dinosaurs is more extensive than what I have just mentioned here, though, and I was glad to see the inclusion of some recently-discovered taxa, such as the long-necked stegosaur Miragaia and the giant frog Beelzebufo.
From the rumors and buzz leading up to the release of the show, I thought Dinosaur Revolution was largely going to be a silent program that let the dinosaurs act out their stories without narration. In essence, I had thought the show was going to be a movie version of the type of stories one of the show’s creators, Ricardo Delgado, had drawn up for the Age of Reptiles comic series. Apparently this idea was scrapped, or at least altered – the dinosaur storylines make up the bulk of each episode, but there are brief segments in which familiar talking heads are brought in to talk about different aspects of dinosaur lives. Sparse narration is also sprinkled over each episode, though the show’s narrator has the annoying habit of speaking in sentence fragments and often states the obvious. The show’s dinosaurs are certainly expressive enough to tell their own stories, but it would seem that Discovery got nervous about a lack of human presence in the show.
I have mixed feelings about Dinosaur Revolution. For one thing, the quality of the show’s animation is uneven. On the positive side, the level of detail each dinosaur has received is excellent, and some of the dinosaurs – such as an Allosaurus with a broken jaw that stars in episode 2 – have never looked better. (I never liked the dopey, thick-headed Allosaurus of the Walking With Dinosaurs series.) The trouble is that the dinosaurs are not always blended very well with the background environment. In the first and third episodes, especially, the dinosaurs appear to be living on a separate plane of existence than their surrounding habitats. Likewise, the way some of the dinosaurs moved could use a little more refinement. Small theropods, especially, run with a stiff, herky-jerky motion that looks exaggerated and silly. The dinosaurs look great when standing still, but it’s hard not to chuckle when they go bobbing off in their awkward gait. The creators of the show certainly deserve a lot of credit for giving their coelurosaurs feathers and not giving their theropod dinosaurs “bunny hands”, but some of the basic aspects of the dinosaur models make the show’s stars look out of place in the prehistoric world.
But the dinosaur models and animation aren’t what really bothers me about Dinosaur Revolution. There have been far worse dinosaur models, and, given that the show is meant for popular audiences, it’s practically useless to worry about how much Triceratops really flexed its elbows, how tightly the skin on some dinosaur heads appears to adhere to the skull, or whether prehistoric mammals really could spray noxious liquid in the faces of predatory dinosaurs. At least the artists put feathers on Troodon, Velociraptor and other theropod dinosaurs, and I am thrilled the show does not shy away from making their dinosaurs bird-like. No, what gets me is that Dinosaur Revolution is being presented as a program about the latest dinosaur science when the actual scientific content is minimal.
One of the principal problems of communicating the science of paleontology to the public is that we have not done a very good job of explaining how our science actually works to the person on the street. People are constantly being bombarded with the end-products of fossil research – from skeletons in museum halls to restored dinosaurs on television – but how often do members of the public get to see the dinosaurian sausage being made, so to speak? Dinosaur Revolution claims to be based upon the latest dinosaur science, and the show makes infrequent references to “new techniques”, yet the series does not offer much insight into how we know what we say we know. Sound bites from professional paleontologists are used to back up certain claims, but this is merely using scientific authority to back up a premise – very little is actually explained this way.
This brings me back to my earlier comment that Dinosaur Revolution is more of a dinosaur tribute than a scientific documentary. Even though I have grown tired of the emphasis on violence in dinosaur documentaries, I understand that show creators need to get people to watch. Featuring dinosaurs just standing around isn’t going to do that. If eyeballs aren’t on the screen, educational opportunities are lost. Nevertheless, the animals in Dinosaur Revolution do not act like real animals. They are constantly fighting in an exaggerated, cartoonish style that often just looks plain silly. In episode two, for example, the large predatory dinosaur Torvosaurus tries to snag a juvenile sauropod and ends up setting off a dinosaur free-for-all in which the stegosaur Miragaia, an Allosaurus and an adult sauropod all end up taking turns beating on the predator. The scene has more in common with a WWE cage match than anything in nature. In another vignette, the sauropod Shunosaurus gets high on some funky mushrooms and is attacked by a pair of Sinraptor who are about as coordinated as The Three Stooges. Like the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park III, as well, the creatures of Dinosaur Revolution are adept martial artists capable of tossing their victims or enemies around. The dinosaurs are more monsters than animals, and their behavior reminds me of what I imagined for them when I was a five-year-old dinosaur nut playing in the sandbox.
Don’t misunderstand me – I don’t automatically have a problem with a program like Dinosaur Revolution depicting prehistoric creatures as monsters. From the time dinosaurs were first recognized by science in the early 19th century, they have often been restored as rapacious and bloodthirsty beasts, and violence has a deep, deep tradition in restorations of prehistoric life. What I object to is such scenes being presented as the best reconstructions of dinosaurs science can offer us. If Dinosaur Revolution was presented as a fun anthology of imaginary dinosaur stories, this review would be very different, but instead the show is meant to showcase the latest in paleontology. Fossil evidence is mentioned from time to time – what fossil site the animals in the show came from, or a specimen that inspired a particular story – but the methods by which paleontologists actually reconstruct prehistoric life are left undiscussed. There is a wide gap between the fossil as an object of interest and the restoration that is the end-product of a scientific process. Again, the products of paleontology are presented in full color, but how that knowledge is generated in the first place is obscured. Audiences are left to rely on the say-so of the scientists in the show, which, I believe, shortchanges viewers who want to know how we know what we say we know about dinosaurs.
And, as is too often the case, the gallery of scientific experts are entirely male and pale. (Paleontologist Victoria Arbour recently pointed out this persistent problem – which is sadly not unique to Dinosaur Revolution – in a review of the sensationalist program Dino Gangs.) For a program that is supposed to be about the “revolution” in dinosaur science, I would expect to see experts such as Karen Chin, Mary Schweitzer, Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, Victoria Arbour, and others give their perspectives on how new discoveries and techniques are providing us with an unprecedented view of dinosaur lives. When there is such a diverse array of paleontologists doing interesting work, why does Dinosaur Revolution perpetuate the image of a paleontologist as a white male? Granted, not everyone who is asked to participate in a documentary is going say “Yes”, but I refuse to believe that, if they really tried, the creators of Dinosaur Revolution would have been unable to find scientists who differed from the stereotyped image of who a paleontologist is.
Many of my qualms about Dinosaur Revolution stem from problems that are not unique to this new show. For a decade, we’ve been seeing the same kind of dinosaur-driven, CGI storytelling that has become the new standard. Perhaps, if Dinosaur Revolution was the first show of its kind, I would have felt differently about it. And, in fact, I would actually love to see a show that didn’t take itself too seriously and paired top animators with excellent storytellers. (Can you imagine an animated dinosaur story written by David Sedaris or Sarah Vowell?) If Dinosaur Revolution had fully committed to that and presented itself as a fun restoration of prehistoric life in the vein of, say, “The Rite of Spring” sequence in Fantasia, I would have spent a lot less time quibbling over the program. There is certainly room for fun and imagination in dinosaur programs, but I get a bit prickly when science is used to back up fantasies without much explanation of where the science stops and the fiction begins.
As paleontologist Thomas Holtz says in the show, we need imagination in paleontology. If we restricted ourselves only to the actual evidence we have acquired, we wouldn’t get very far – at some point you have to hypothesize, speculate and infer to bring prehistoric animals to life. The creators of Dinosaur Revolution certainly had the technological know-how to do this in a new way, but the fact that the show is presented as a scientific program creates a tension between the feel of the program and its stated aim. Dinosaur Revolution is a fun – and often silly – fantasy that is informed by scientific discovery but is not itself overly concerned with communicating the nuts and bolts of science. The real story of the dinosaur revolution – how our understanding of dinosaur lives is growing deeper and more detailed by the day – has yet to be told.
The first two episodes of Dinosaur Revolution premiere on Discovery on September 4 at 9 p.m. eastern time, and the second two will air on September 11 at 9 p.m.