Thursday, March 21, 2013

Why Dinosaur Planet is my favorite dinosaur documentary thus far

Dinosaur documentaries are the spice of life. I always make sure I'm on top of any scrap of gossip that turns up about new documentaries, what new behavior or species they will show, and who will be the paleontological masterminds behind it. They're just so enjoyable, even the downright horrible ones. If I'm not thoroughly impressed by a documentary, at the very least I need to keep watching to point out inaccuracies. It goes with the paleonerd territory.

Of course, before I delve into my personal favorite dinodoc, I have to pay a little homage to the father of them all, the series that opened an entirely new world of possibilities for recreating the lost worlds of all manner of prehistoric animals. I'm writing, of course, of none other than BBC's Walking With Dinosaurs. This documentary was a total game-changer: not only did it bring accurate dinosaurs to life, but it brought us right into the middle of their world. WWD brought dinosaurs from a legendary, bygone era and portrayed them as they actually were: living animals, surviving as animals do today, playing, hunting, being hunted, courting, mating, calling, laying eggs, urinating and defecating.

Since WWD was released, a number of documentaries have sought to follow in its wake, some with much more success than others. If you asked a pretty standard group of paleo-fans to list their top five dinodocs, I'm pretty sure my favorite would fall in there somewhere. My personal favorite happens to be a four-part series from the Discovery Channel, creatively enough titled Dinosaur Planet*.

*Not to be confused with the equally creatively-titled 2011 BBC documentary, Planet Dinosaur.

Dinosaur Planet was probably the first dinodoc to go beyond just depicting dinosaurs in a natural setting. Each of DP's (if that's an appropriate abbreviation) four episodes stars not just any old dinosaur, but a character. The stars and their representative locations include White Tip, a Velociraptor from Mongolia; Pod, a Pyroraptor from Romania; Little Das, a Daspletosaurus from the United States; and Alpha, a Saltasaurus from Argentina. All of the episodes take place roughly 80Ma, which is another big selling point for me. Perhaps you'll find out in another post why from about 80-70Ma was my favorite time.

Daspletosaurus from "Little Das' Hunt".
Before we get into why I really like it, I can't neglect the visuals of the series. Dinosaur Planet really sticks out in my mind as being the first documentary to give feathers to all species which were proven to have them. All the maniraptors had very realistic plumage, though there weren't enough wing feathers for my taste. However, this was still very early in pop culture's acceptance of fully-feathered dinosaurs, so I can cut some slack. Apart from this major change in dinodoc tradition, DP also succeeded in portraying dinosaurs as living, breathing, active, intelligent, and surprising animals, more than just reptiles. The series features nest-building, parental care, courtship displays, and, surprisingly, a fair share of nonviolent interspecies interaction. Yes, predators do walk past prey without tearing them to shreds.

When watching any good nature documentary, personification is a no-no. But there are documentaries about a number of different extant animals which focus on a specific group, or a well-documented and observed individual. It is in this light that I view DP. Rather than personifying the dinosaurs, this documentary follows the trials and tribulations of each one as they are forced into completely new situations. In each, a life-changing event happens to the main character, making them to do what dinosaurs have proven to do best: adapt!

Einiosaurus form a protective ring around their young in defense against a pack (yesss!!) of Daspletosaurus. The main character, Little Das, can be seen at the far right of the screen.

That's what makes Dinosaur Planet so great. We're not watching a bunch of scattered scenes from one general area, we are focusing intently and following the struggle of a young Daspletosaurus learning how to cooperatively hunt with its sisters and mother; we experience the hardships of a mother Velociraptor searching for food for her chicks in the parched prehistoric Gobi Desert; we follow the entire life of a female Saltasaurus, from her hatching to the first clutch of eggs she lays herself.

White Tip, a female Velociraptor. The landscapes in Dinosaur Planet are beautiful, even if a few of them have grass.
You may be thinking to yourselves, "Wow! This guy sure is a Dinosaur Planet fanatic. Apparently there is nothing wrong whatsoever with this dinodoc!" Oh-ho-ho, not so fast. No dinosaur documentary yet has made me entirely happy. DP has its fair share of things that bug me.

First of all, humans make an appearance in it. Granted, it is paleontologist Dr. Scott Sampson, currently curator of the Utah Museum of Natural History. Sampson makes his appearances describing little snippets of information revealing new theories or fossils which shed a brand new light on dinosaur ecology and behavior. He's a brilliant man, and has done extensive research on the late Cretaceous in general, making him perfect for this series. He's not the narrator, though; that'd be Christian Slater, strangely enough. I dunno, I just never pegged him for the kind of person who would agree to narrate a dinodoc*.

Scientifically, the series has a couple of problems which aren't immediately obvious. Firstly, there is GRASS. See, I bolded and underlined that word to make sure you caught it. One of the most interesting things about the Mesozoic was that so many herbivores evolved in the complete absence of grass, the basic sustenance for most of Earth's herbivores today. Grass makes its appearance in all but one of the episodes of Dinosaur Planet and, of course, the only episode which lacks it is set in a bone-dry desert. The landscapes are still beautiful, there's no doubt about that. They just didn't limit themselves to filming locations which also lacked grass, as WWD did.

A pair of Oviraptor from the episode "White Tip's Journey." Although a bit drab, the DP Oviraptors are my favorite depictions of these animals on the big screen. And look, they don't even have pronated wrists in this scene!
Secondly, a few of the dinosaurs have bunny hands. Bipedal dinosaurs, as well as an increasingly large number of quadrupedal ones, could not pronate their wrists. Their skeletons just did not operate the same way ours do. When we pretend to be dinosaurs (heh... we all do, right?), our hands should be in a clapping position, not a waving one. I'm willing to group this inaccuracy with the lack of arm feathers on maniraptors; it was an air on the side of caution for those who didn't want to see their precious "raptors" turned into what they truly are: flightless birds (in a sense).

So, there you have it. My favorite dinosaur documentary in a nutshell. Notice I didn't go through episode by episode and describe each one to you: yeah, that's right, 'cause I want all of you to go watch it for yourselves. You owe it to this blog! Go do it!

*My favorite dinodoc narrator, by the way, is John Goodman in When Dinosaurs Roamed America.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting choice for a favourite documentary. I quite enjoyed Dinosaur Planet, but I still find the behaviour of the dinosaurs a little too personified. Nowhere near the extent of Dinosaur Revolution, but it some of the behaviours just felt a little too exaggerated. Funny thing, I wrote an essay a couple months ago about dinosaur documentaries. If you wanna check it out here's the link: