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.