Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Planet Dinosaur, episode two - review

Entitled 'Feathered Dragons', this week's episode of Planet Dinosaur focussed on the glut of feathered nonavian dinosaurs discovered in China since 1996. And it was, I must say, a treat, in spite of a few minor niggles.



(Above: Microraptor and lizard prey. Copyright the BBC.)

Cheekily mentioning a 'dinosaur revolution' in China, smooth-talkin' narrator John Hurt introduced us first to Epidexipteryx, hunting for insect larvae and being hunted in turn by Sinraptor (which is probably fine if the former lived in the Late Jurassic). Nothing really to complain about here - there might have been a few impossible forearm rotations, but it was very difficult to tell, so I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt. Besides, it was a marvellous idea to introduce this animal to a wide audience in a CG dinosaur show - after all, who when thinking of a 'dinosaur' ever pictures a tiny creature with primitive feathers and a bizarre, aye-aye-esque elongated finger? If there was ever a perfect dinosaur to destroy people's preconceptions, it was Epidexipteryx.

Moving on, we were introduced to a perhaps under-feathered Saurornithoides having its nest raided by what was, in this case, a commendably non-specific "oviraptorid". The animal depicted resembled "Ingenia", the oviraptorosaur with a preoccupied name. Once again, the show played to its main strengths, presenting ample fossil evidence for oviraptorosaurs enjoying an omnivorous diet and displaying photographs of fossils, a few of which I hadn't seen before. This is really what sets Planet Dinosaur apart from every other CG dinosaur show out there, and is why the likes of Brian Switek and Darren Naish (for it is he) have been singing its praises. Over at Brian's Dinosaur Tracking blog, Heinrich Mallison has claimed that there was "no filter" between palaeontologists and those working on the show. For once, I can really believe that.

The next animal on the list was Gigantoraptor. Again, we were both told and shown exactly which bones from this beast have been discovered, which was fantastic. We were also told that, in spite of its size, it "seems certain that Gigantoraptor had feathers" based on phylogenetic bracketing. Hallelujah for that. Granted, things weren't perfect here - for example, the feathers on both Gigantoraptor and the unspecified oviraptorosaur were attached in the wrong places, and referring to Gigantoraptor as 'the largest feathered animal of all time' was dubious given the existence of Therizinosaurus. But I enjoyed the scenes featuring an animal that was akin, in the words of whoever wrote Hurt's script, to "a mouse the size of a cow".

It should probably also be noted that the Gigantoraptor scene drew direct comparison with Dinosaur Revolution, in that it featured the animals displaying to each other. David's already defended Dinosaur Revolution on the grounds that it was never originally intended to be a serious documentary show, whereas Planet Dinosaur always was conceived as such. As such, it is perhaps understandable that Planet Dinosaur should adopt a more plausible birdlike approach when portraying giant oviraptorosaurs displaying to one another. But it's still worth noting.

Unfortunately, the most dubious moments occurred in the final section of the show, featuring Microraptor and Sinornithosaurus. That's not to say that these weren't some of the best feathered dromaeosaurs yet shown on television, because they almost certainly were. Hopefully, following this, any show that dares depict a ridiculous 'gorilla suit' feathered theropod will become a laughing stock.

However - and I'll admit this is pedantry to an extent - it often appeared that the Microraptor was a little more...supple than it should have been. That is to say, it splayed its legs out to such an extent that they probably should have been a-poppin' out of their sockets. Sinornithosaurus was generally fine - in fact, it was one of the best looking CG dromaeosaurs I've ever seen - but the highly contentious 'venomous fangs' idea reared its head. And was presented as pretty much certified fact. (I'll leave any commenters to fight over that one.)

All controversies aside, I'll have words with any dinosaur geek who was unimpressed with this episode. Yes, the feathers weren't always perfect, and perhaps one or two controversial ideas were presented as fact, although not without fossil evidence. This is still the way forward for CG dinosaurs ont' telly. The animation was better this week too, as while it was occasionally still a little stiff and unnatural, the involvement of (mostly) small animals meant that the unconvincing portrayal of elephantine heft was not an issue. Here's hoping this is a series that will get better and better!

Any suggestions that I've been overly nice due to a guilt complex/alcohol will be mostly ignored.

25 comments:

  1. My favourite episode so far. Loved it. I urge you to view Mcroraptor again. On my second viewing, I don't think the legs were splayed too far beyound possibility; at any rate they weren't parallel to the ground to the extent the wings were.

    I agree about the animation too. Huge thumbs up for the beautiful animation of the feather movements. That must have been a devil of a task.

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  2. "aye-aye-esque elongated finger"

    I see this mistake repeated a lot -- aye-ayes do not have an elongated finger. What they have is a very skinny finger which is about the same length as its neighbors.

    Scansoriopterygids, OTOH, do have an elongated finger (which is not skinnier than the others!). So I'm pretty skeptical of any aye-aye comparisons.

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  3. @Mike Keesey - but the other fingers are quite elongated themselves, right? And the point here is the bug-hunting with a pointy finger, right?

    Ah, nuts.

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  4. Dear Discovery Channel, please do not replace John Hurt with Oprah or something when this show gets ported to Anmerica. Thank you. XXOO, Trish

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  5. Animation seemed much better in this episode. Less annoying camerawork also(the shifts and zooms make more sense when following fast moving birds).

    I thought some of the dinos were perhaps a bit under-feathered, but that's more a quibble than a complaint. And I don't think Microraptor and Sinornithosaurus are from the same fossil beds. Sinornith is a bit older. But I can live with that.

    My only real disappointment with the episode was that they didn't do more. There's so much to choose from in the Yixian.

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  6. One thing that always irritates somewhat is the use of the term 'raptor'.

    Wouldn't it be easier to just use the term dromaeosaur? They were already showing a pic of Velociraptor next to Microraptor, so I think people would get the idea.

    When you have an episode that features Sinraptor, Gigantoraptor, and the 'unnamed oviraptorid', I don't really think the raptor term is helpful any more.

    It's a bit of a Jurassic Park-ism. It was fun back in the day, but let's move on.

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  7. @David: Heaven forfend.

    @Anteater: I was surprised by their use of 'raptor' too.

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  8. I might add that it's hard to decide how pedantic to get when reviewing these shows. On the one hand, various details of the feathers are wrong, a dubious idea is presented as absolute fact, etc., and yet on the other hand it's obvious that they're really trying with it. I think the inclusion of the Actual Science is really what elevates it, and makes some of its other sins more forgiveable.

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  9. Minor feathers integument technicalities aside I too also liked much of the episode. However my only complain regarding episode 1 was more emphasized in this - too little running time to flesh out the characters.

    About the venomous Sinornithosaurus well it's backed up by evidence, even if such evidence is somewhat dubious. It's far steps above everything presented as fact without evidence for in other shows.

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  10. Having finally watched both series, I have a lot of problems with Planet Dinosaur's dinosaurs. The science is commendable, but geez, the dinosaur motion feels so wooden and puppet-like. The digital scenes also lack the right kind of atmospheric perspective. And that's just the animation-- the models themselves just don't look right either.

    I had mixed feelings about the success of Dinosaur Revolution as well, and the fluidity of the animation is certainly a mixed bag (especially in the first episode), but damned if those weren't EXACTLY the way I wanted CGI dinosaurs to look.

    I've come to the conclusion that doing CGI specials is kind of pointless if the dinosaurs aren't right. The hard science is available if you care to look for it, so even if it's not always present in the TV program, one can still find it.

    But if what you want to see is anatomically correct, pitch-perfect CGI dinosaurs, you can ONLY get them in a CGI program. And if the program screws them up, you've got nowhere to go for the right thing.

    And I think that's why we all tune in, right? We want to see Wild Kingdom with dinosaurs!

    I do have a perfect dino doc format in mind, one that has many episodes with long, occasionally technical discussions with the experts, that demonstrates how little we really know about anything, and how cleverly we've figured out what we do know, and tries to lend context to the whole of prehistory instead of depicting dinosaurs in isolation as gee-whiz artifacts. Scott Sampson's book would make a great jumping-off point for such a series. But it won't happen. So the least I can ask for is non-pronated hands, fluffy raptors, and giant animals that really move like giant animals should move.

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  11. @Paul Heaston: Yeah, the animation has its problems; one of the biggest issues I had with the first episode was that the giant animals (5+ tonnes apiece) didn't shift their weight around as they should.

    However, I've got to wonder - is sketchy animation and occasional misfeathering such a problem when the wider public is being introduced to animals and discoveries previously only known to scientists and us enthusiast clingers-on? After all, when it comes to dromaeosaurs, the fact that they even ARE feathered is surely much more important than them being feathered absolutely correctly. Or are my expectations too low?

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  12. @Marc-- I have to agree that the science getting out to the masses is paramount and for that reason Planet Dinosaur's content is vastly superior to that of Revolution, but I fear a CGI-savvy viewing audience might be more easily turned off by "Planet" dinosaurs than by "Revolution" thus detracting from one show's credibility while artificially enhancing another's.

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  13. @Paul Heaston: You do have a point there. The reviewer for the Independent (not a dinosaur geek) said that they were more excited by the science than by the CG dinosaurs.

    The trouble is that both CG and true artistic talent (like Krentz) can be expensive. I think Planet Dinosaur should have perhaps focussed more on the science, and reduced the CG to window dressing. However, it might not then be 'commercial' enough which is, unfortunately, even a concern for the BBC (although it shouldn't be).

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  14. @marc Re: level of appropriate pedantry, I think you have to judge any program by its objective. That's my problem with Dino Revo: it was meddled with to the point that the original objective was altered, and therefore it's doomed to fail. It's presented as a straight doc, so that's why I cut people a bit of slack for pedantic bitching.

    For Planet Dino, they're *clearly* aiming to be an authoritative source of info for viewers, and want to be taken seriously. To me, that means "fair game." While I personally consider it a victory, and a HUGE step forward that they make reference to the fossil record and site actual studies, I like reading pointed criticisms. Mainly because I learn some new things reading those, too.

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  15. @Marc Vincent

    I'm surprised you didn't criticize the scratch-digging oviraptorid, given Senter 2006 (See "TABLE 1": http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1671/0272-4634%282006%2926%5B897:COFFBD%5D2.0.CO%3B2 ). Other than that & what Niroot said, good review.

    @Niroot

    "I urge you to view Mcroraptor again. On my second viewing, I don't think the legs were splayed too far beyound possibility; at any rate they weren't parallel to the ground to the extent the wings were."

    I concur. I especially liked PD's Microraptor b/c it reminded me of Nova's Microraptor flight-wise (See the 2nd 1/2 of this vid: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABLDhn3TqXI&feature=channel_video_title ).

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  16. @Hadiaz I must admit that I only watch the programme once before reviewing, basically in order to scoop other sites. :P Therefore there are some things I forget (that, and I'm only human). You make a good point.

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  17. @Hadiaz: That clip of the Nova Microraptor is incredible.

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  18. @Marc Vincent

    "You make a good point."

    Thanks.

    "and referring to Gigantoraptor as 'the largest feathered animal of all time' was dubious given the existence of Therizinosaurus."

    Maybe they meant Gigantoraptor was the largest animal w/true feathers (as opposed to protofeathers), which (AFAIK) is true.

    "All controversies aside, I'll have words with any dinosaur geek who was unimpressed with this episode."

    Does that include Hone ( http://archosaurmusings.wordpress.com/2011/09/22/on-planet-dinosaur/ )? IMO, he was too harsh on PD in general & FD in particular.

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  19. "Does that include Hone"

    No, because I'm not a geek. This is my job. i love it, but it's not a thing I think I *could* be geeky about.

    So there's an obvious get out clause right there...

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  20. Oh yeah, and i was quite impressed. Doens't mean I don't think it could have been considerably better though.

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  21. @Hadiaz & archosaurmusings: I don't consider Dave Hone to be a geek per se because, as he said, it's his job. And since he helped me out so much with my undergraduate thesis, I dare not say anything about him that might be considered an insult. Ever. ;)

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  23. @Marc Vincent & archosaurmusings

    Fair enough. I originally figured, given how hard it is, you have to be a dino geek to want to be a dino paleontologist.

    BTW, after having watched PD episode 2 twice, I noticed what may be another inaccuracy: When I pause it at 12:27 ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2QqzffLpKoc&feature=related ), Saurornithoides' eyes don't seem to face forward as much as they should ( http://www.flickr.com/photos/10072627@N04/2588849492/ ). Am I right or am I missing something? Many thanks in advance.

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  24. @Hadiaz Sure, a lot of them start that way. But they graduate. ;)

    The eyes seem basically fine but then I wouldn't like to say. Certainly the animal in the show has stereo vision.

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