Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Planet Dinosaur, episode three - review

This week's Planet Dinosaur looked at the killer theropods of the Late Cretaceous. (I'm sure they're getting to non-theropods in time.) In the North, Daspletosaurus was the tyrannosaurs' representative while in the South, Majungasaurus held up the abelisaur end. There was also a brief sojurn into the Land of the Giant Troodon, but we'll come to that in a minute.



Daspletosaurus and Centrosaurus. Copyright the BBC.

Firstly, though, we must address the most important issue here: was Daspletosaurus spelled consistently in John Hurt's script? The poor guy seemed to be pronouncing it in two different ways; much of the time it was correct, but then equally as often he seemed to be saying "Desplatosaurus". Or do my ears deceive me?

We were informed from the off that Daspletosaurus co-existed with Gorgosaurus although, sadly, we never got to see the latter. (Also, the skeletal diagram for Gorgosaurus depicted, strangely, a juvenile animal.) Daspletosaurus was portrayed as gregarious, but not a pack hunter a la Currie - rather, it displayed the more reptilian behaviour of attacking in a mob without any tactics or co-ordination. Which was a Good Thing. Once again, the programme pointed to healed bite marks and puncture wounds on tyrannosaur skulls as evidence for intraspecific competition, which was welcome, but did feel like a bit of a retread.

For the most part, the creatures in this episode looked rather good, and the animation was decent with a few moments of stiffness (including a tyrannosaur that looked like it was skating). There were a few nice touches, such as a Chasmosaurus scratching itself against a tree, that lent the action a more naturalistic feel. Nevertheless, the animals still look completely rubbish when they fight - while no scrap was quite as slapdash-looking as the herky-jerky carcharodontosaur battle in the first episode, there is still something quite...wrong about the way Planet Dinosaur's beasts do battle. This is particularly true of larger animals, as they appear to lack the necessary mass.

The series was also guilty of presenting speculation as fact this week, notably when it portrayed an Alaskan giant Troodon population ganging up on juvenile Edmontosaurus. While it was pointed out that there is evidence of Troodon (or at the very least, troodont) bite marks on Edmontosaurus remains, we were presented with no evidence for Troodon being a co-ordinated pack hunter. It's plausible, perhaps, but still speculative - and it's a little disappointing that the show didn't point this out, given how good it has been on that front so far. Equally disappointing was the rather under-feathered appearance of the Troodon. It seems extremely unlikely, given the advanced feathers seen on other troodonts, that Troodon itself would have reverted to only having an extremely short, hairlike covering of protofeathers. This seems especially baffling given that, disregarding a few cock-ups with feather attachment points and the like, the show's dromaeosaurs all have wings.

The segment featuring Majungasaurus was enjoyable, if only for the adorable baby Majungasaurus that fed alongside their attentative mother (again, speculative, but in this case, I'm going to let it go. It's cute). Naturally, in addition to looking at the biomechanics of its bite, the show took delight in presenting the animal's cannibalistic side - following a (rubbish) fight with a burly male over a carcass, the mother Majungasaurus promptly devoured her opponent. It would've been better if the fight sequence itself was better animated - and the behaviour of the animals during the fight a little more convincing - but said cannibalism was still a cool fact to introduce to the public. Especially kids. I bet they loved it.

The final section in this episode was pretty cool, too, as a herd of Centrosaurus met a watery death in a flooded river while migrating en masse. Granted, some of the animals' behaviour was again a little odd (why weren't they resisting the Daspletosaurus more?), but this moody, stormy scene made for a good finale.

Overall, Planet Dinosaur continues to be a mixture of virtuous science, better-than-average CG restorations and slightly clunky animation. It's difficult to decide how pedantic one should be when writing these reviews. For me, the most important aspect of this series is the science that it's introducing to the general public. Most of this stuff won't be new to dinosaur enthusiasts, but episodes like last week's are likely to astound the public at large (who are also less likely to notice that the feathers are incorrect, or particularly remember how the feathers were arranged anyway). Hopefully, next week will see a break away from theropods - much as I like them - and John Hurt correctly pronouncing those tricksy dinosaur names.

18 comments:

  1. I thought it was quite good overall. As you said, a lot of the evidence may be old hat to us but it is almost certainly not so well known amongst a general audience.

    I applaud the fact that tyrannosaurs were depicted as animals that may have demonstrated opportunistic group hunting as opposed to the usual mammalian-like pack hunting - it's about time and rather refreshing.

    And yes, John Hurt and "Des-splat-osaurus" was a black mark!

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  2. @Mark: You're right about the opportunistic 'mob' hunting - I probably should've been more enthusiastic about it in the review. It makes a lot more sense to me than pack hunting.

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  3. John Hurts joins Walter Cronkite in "Dinosaur!" in the embarrassing mispronunciation fold. "Tee-rhinoceros rex," while speaking to Ken Carpenter.

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  4. I liked this episode very much too. I also thought there was some very noteworthy dramatic (but still perfectly naturalistic) tension in the Centrosaurus sequence in particular. I felt quite invested in their fortunes.

    The Edmontosaurus were beautiful.

    The Troodon were puzzling. I can only surmise that they were aiming to make them look distinguishably different from their other dromaeosaurs.

    I think the varying pronunciation of Daspletosaurus may have been Mr. Hurt's own slip-ups. Last week, Epidexipteryx was at one point pronounced as 'Epidexipterysk'

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  6. @Niroot: Troodon wasn't a dromaeosaur, but was still a deinonychosaur, all of which were highly birdlike. Jinfengopteryx, for example, was originally believed to be a bird before being classified as a troodont.

    (Original comment removed due to spelling mistake. Damnit.)

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  7. Perdonami, Marc; I actually meant to say 'maniraptoran', honest. It was late. ¬_¬

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  8. Of all the places to under-feather a dinosaur, you'd think they would've given their Troodonts an arctic coat.

    There was some improvement over the initial episode, but the awkward jerky camera moves are a constant annoyance. It's quite baffling, just when you're almost getting a satisfying look at the dinosaurs, there'll be an annoying crash zoom or jump cut.

    The animation is quite decent most of the time, but doesn't quite deliver where you want it most. The river stampede and various fights and battles just aren't as dynamic as they could've been. They just sorta futz their way through it. What should've been their most impressive scenes end up disappointments. The loser always seems to give up a bit too readily without much of a struggle, like they're trying to get through the work with as little additional animation as possible.

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  9. Odd, I registered Hurt's pronunciation as "Duh-splehto-saurus," though I can see why some might think otherwise. Then again, because John Hurt can do no wrong in my eyes, perhaps I was mentally compensating.

    The baby Manjungosauruses were absolutely delightful, and managed to be so without being puppies, kittens or human babies in mannerisms.

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  10. @Marc Vincent

    Would you say that episode 3 was better than episode 1, but not as good as episode 2?

    "The series was also guilty of presenting speculation as fact this week, notably when it portrayed an Alaskan giant Troodon population ganging up on juvenile Edmontosaurus. While it was pointed out that there is evidence of Troodon (or at the very least, troodont) bite marks on Edmontosaurus remains, we were presented with no evidence for Troodon being a co-ordinated pack hunter. It's plausible, perhaps, but still speculative - and it's a little disappointing that the show didn't point this out, given how good it has been on that front so far."

    While I do agree w/you in that the relevant evidence should've been presented, I probably wouldn't call PD's presentation speculative. Given the evidence for gregariousness in Troodon (E.g. See the Horner quote), pack-hunting isn't a big stretch (especially not for the big game-hunting Alaskan Troodon). At the very least, it's much more likely than pack-hunting in tyrannosaurs: W/all due respect to Currie, 1 thing that never made sense to me about his hypothesis is that, unlike eudromaeosaurs (which probably were pack-hunters), tyrannosaurs didn't have the brains for pack-hunting (which made the communal-hunting Daspletosaurus all the more satisfying).

    "The segment featuring Majungasaurus was enjoyable, if only for the adorable baby Majungasaurus that fed alongside their attentative mother (again, speculative, but in this case, I'm going to let it go. It's cute)."

    While I do agree w/you in that the relevant evidence should've been presented, I definitely wouldn't call PD's presentation speculative. Based on Bakker & Bir 2004, hypercarnivorous dinos in general fed their chicks (See the Bakker & Bir quote for ceratosaurs in particular).

    Quoting Horner ( http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Dinosaurs-Philip-J-Currie/dp/0122268105/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1317362118&sr=1-3 ): "Additionally, a group of four associated specimens of Troodon from Montana, representing two juveniles, a subadult, and an adult, may represent a family unit that perished together on the shores of a freshwater lake (Varricchio, 1995)."

    Quoting Bakker & Bir ( http://www.amazon.com/Feathered-Dragons-Studies-Transition-Dinosaurs/dp/0253343739/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1317362118&sr=1-5 ): "Most ceratosaurid shed teeth are from Surf sites. The abundance of small juvenile teeth, with a few full-grown teeth, suggests that ceratosaurid parents fed near the youngsters; perhaps the adults hunted the biggest lungfish and crocodiles and dragged the carcasses back to a shoreline lair. One adult shed tooth is from a Dry Turf sauropod site; two Wet Turf sites have juvenile and adult teeth mixed with sauropod carcasses. These data indicate that Ceratosaurus at Como had potential for feeding on large dinosaurs but was specializing in aquatic prey."

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  11. @Marc Vincent

    I only just realized how long my 1st comment was. My bad.

    BTW, I noticed that the Alaskan Troodon definitely had forward-facing eyes, so either I missed something when watching episode 2 (in reference to the Saurornithoides) or different ppl worked on different troodonts.

    @Niroot

    "The Troodon were puzzling. I can only surmise that they were aiming to make them look distinguishably different from their other dromaeosaurs."

    That's the best explanation I've heard for the lack of pennaceous feathers in PD's troodonts. However, despite that, I really liked the Alaskan Troodon (especially its coloration).

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  12. @Hadiaz: pack hunting is indeed not a big stretch for deinonychosaurs (certainly not as much as for reptilian-brained tyrannosaurs). That's why I didn't say "WTF IS THIS!!?1!!" However, it is *still* speculative even if it is perfectly plausible. It's a very nitpicky thing - I only pointed to it as the show's been very good at pointing out what's decent speculation based on evidence so far.

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  13. @Marc Vincent

    "That's why I didn't say "WTF IS THIS!!?1!!""

    Many thanks for that! It made me LOL!

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  14. I believe this third episode had a little bit more sensationalism than the previous two. My least favorite episode so far. I also thought it jumped too much between stories. Still good though.

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  15. Hurt clearly mispronounced Daspletosaurus, obviously quite thrown by the length of the name. Not just that, but he pronounced Troodon as a pure vowel (oo) instead of the diphthong it ought to be (o-o). A trained actor who just couldn't be bothered with the science. Cringe!

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  16. Oh, haven't you noticed the glorious "Epidexipterysk" on Feathered Dragons?

    "Epidexipterysk is a perfect sized snack". I know it from heart. Makes me want to fondle John's wrinkles. His mispellings are so damn cute.

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  17. @Chromatic Faun: I mentioned that a few comments above! :D

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  18. Oh, sorry. Hadn't checked the comments before, my bad. But hey, we agree on the spelling of Hurt's gorgeous mispronunciation.

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