Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Planet Dinosaur, episode six - review

Planet Dinosaur drew to a close tonight with an episode entitled 'DINOGEDDON'. Well no, not really - it was 'The Great Survivors'. Nevertheless, the series ended, inevitably, with the extinction of the nonavian dinosaurs, but we were allowed a little therizinosaur and terrifying pterosaur fun along the way.



Above: "What the hell just happened?" © BBC


The episode began with a look at the dwarf dinosaurs of Hațeg Island, including the titanosaur Magyarosaurus and some unnamed deinonychosaur, but sadly not Balaur (now THAT would've been a cool animal to feature). While the terrifyingly authoritative voice of John Hurt explained island dwarfism, the main stars of this segment were not dinosaurs, but pterosaurs - specifically, the honkin' great Hatzegopteryx, which is the disputed holder of the title of 'biggest pterosaur'. The show might not have been absolutely accurate in its depiction of the animal (not that I would know - there have been mutterings from the experts), but it did a wonderful job making them look like something from your worst nightmare.

I mean, can you imagine? "Hey kids, look at that magnificent soaring beast! I think it's coming in to land...HOLY SHIT RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!" Once again, the giant pterosaurs were depicted picking off juvenile titanosaurs, this time in increasingly grizzly fashions that even topped the previous episode. Low camera angles helped emphasise the intimidating height of the pterosaurs as their creepy, triangular heads came snapping in, gulping down little sauropods whole. To make them extra disturbing, the animators gave their necks marionette-style, herky-jerky movements as they stalked forward. Put these in the next Jurassic Park movie, please - they'd be exactly one hundred times scarier than ridiculous cartoon Pteranodon with teeth.

Returning to the world of, you know, dinosaurs, the episode had a look at the therizinosaurs and Nothronychus in particular. In keeping with the theme of dinosaurs' often extraordinary evolutionary adaptations, much was made of how the therizinosaurs represented an offshoot of a quintessentially carnivorous dinosaur clade turned herbivorous. The therizinosaurs looked good for the most part (fear not - there was protofuzz), as did their primitive tyrannosaur antagonists. There was even time for an enjoyable sojurn into the merry world of mass death by botulism, as once more commendably supported by fossil evidence.

Just as Carcharodontosaurus was recycled in the previous episode, so Gigantoraptor made a comeback here, flapping its arms about and looking ridiculous while battling Alectrosaurus (which was actually one of the better of the usually poorly animated dino-on-dino scraps). The main point of this section was to present the extraordinary brooding oviraptorosaur fossils, and every good dinosaur nerd will have recognised the Citipati specimen 'Big Mama' in the lineup. The programme introduced a little schmaltz (if you'll pardon the Americanism) with a pair of beak-nuzzling lovey-dovey Gigantoraptor, but made up for it by duly burying the male alive under an enormous collapsing sand dune. The repeated use of the term 'oviraptorid' and the incorrect feather placement did niggle, but it was entertaining overall, and did introduce the audience to some of the most amazing fossils to come out of Mongolia.

Finally, then, we came to DINOGEDDON. Sixty-five million years ago, blah blah, asteroid, dust cloud, starvation. The end of the Cretaceous as depicted in Planet Dinosaur didn't quite have the same gravitas as in Walking With Dinosaurs (although maybe I'm a sucker for baby T. rex puppets), and if anything just felt a bit...unnecessary. Unlike Walking With Dinosaurs, the show was not at all in chronological order and did not need wrapping up in the same way - and did we really need to be told all about how the nonavian dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid yet again? Some of the graphics shown were helpful - especially when it came to demonstrating how clades besides the Dinosauria were hugely impacted by the extinction event - but there was an odd separation of 'dinosaurs' and 'birds'. Dinosaurs - 100% gone. Birds - 95% gone. Hey, wait a minute...

Ultimately, what bothered me about the end of the show was that it was not made clear that the pterosaurs and plesiosaurs shown during a montage of footage while John Hurt spoke of the evolutionary success of the 'dinosaurs' weren't dinosaurs. Granted, the show never referred to them as 'dinosaurs', but this sequence certainly implied that they were, and the last thing anyone needs is for that confusion to be perpetuated - never mind the idea that birds are so special that they transcend being dinosaurs. I like birds, I really do, but look at them - they're dinosaurs, one and all.

At the very end of the show, Hurt spoke of the 'end of Planet Dinosaur'. Of course, the truth is it didn't end. Today dinosaurs are represented by over 9,000 species of birds, outnumbering mammal species two to one. Walking With Dinosaurs, to its credit, pointed this out, so it's a shame that Planet Dinosaur, given its excellent adherence to scientific evidence, didn't do the same.

Still, that won't impact too greatly on what was otherwise an excellent series. The animation could be ropey at times, but the makers of this series tried really hard - moreso than anyone before them - to present a show that was both educational and a spectacle. It was a real breath of fresh air to see the fossils, and an absolute joy to think that many people were being introduced to them all for the first time. Bravo Planet Dinosaur.

12 comments:

  1. Bravo indeed. I'm sad the series has finished.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Nothronychus alone would have drawn me, but the dwarf dinos of Romania plus Hatzegopterus... must see, ASAP.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I think that a distinction between dinosaurs and birds is OK, if only society was knowledgeable about the nature of the family tree. In this day and age, you could refer to a sparrow as an avian dinosaur - but everyone would think you were a jerk..

    ReplyDelete
  4. @Dani Boy: So that's where I've been going wrong at parties.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I thought the last episode was somewhat mediocre. I actually had quite high expectations for Hatzegopteryx and that compared to the other main non-dinosaur character, Predator X, was pretty dull. The same can be said about the asteroid collision both visual and informative.

    The Nothronychus segment (and Gigantoraptor clowning) saved the episode in my own opinion. The distinction at the end of the episode between birds and dinosaurs also made me exclaim "what?!" for a moment.

    If I had to rank the six episodes from worst to best it would be as follow:

    6- Last Killers
    5- The Great Survivors
    4- Fight for Life
    2- Lost World/ New Giants
    1- Feathered Dragons

    Overall an excellent series above pretty much everything else done in a similar fashion. A sequel more focused in ornithischians would be welcomed, specially if they do an episode on omnivore ceratopsians.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I liked Hatzegopteryx being depicted as the stork from hell, although it was a bit hokey when two started scrapping over the baby sauropod (be thankful they weren't called 'sauropodlets') which then did a runner and got away.

    Great series in my opinion.

    ReplyDelete
  7. @Henrique Niza: I agree that an episode that had a greater focus on ceratopsians would be a good candidate for a future series. Ankylosaurs would be good, too.

    ReplyDelete
  8. @Henrique: Your top two correspond exactly with my own (my second is New Giants). I haven't quite decided about the others. Also agree about more ornithischian focus.

    @Stu, I hope you will forgive me for being fond of the term 'sauropodlet'. I shall go away now...

    ReplyDelete
  9. I was honestly expecting the end of the episode to end on a big "surprise," where John Hurt tells us that "with 9,000 species of avian dinosaur still going strong, we are still living on... PLANET DINOSAUR!" Or some such.

    It was good that they pointed out that not just non-avian dinos, but anything above the size of a small dog was wiped out, though.

    ReplyDelete
  10. @Taranaich: now that would have been an ending to applaud, certainly.

    ReplyDelete
  11. @Marc Vincent

    Would you say that PD is the overall best dino doc series ever?

    "The episode began with a look at the dwarf dinosaurs of Hațeg Island, including the titanosaur Magyarosaurus and some unnamed deinonychosaur,"

    Actually, it's said to be Bradycneme (See 3:12: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jL_tDNaf02c ).

    "The repeated use of the term 'oviraptorid' and the incorrect feather placement did niggle,"

    Out of curiosity, what's wrong w/the usage of said term?

    "Finally, then, we came to DINOGEDDON."

    On the 1 hand, I do agree w/you in that it wasn't really necessary to show how dino domination ended (I usually prefer dino docs that do so to also show how it began). On the other hand, I do like it for being the 1st & most realistic portrayal of post-impact life for non-avian dinos since "Dinosaur!" ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gYe3r-wH_1s&feature=channel_video_title ) AFAIK: Almost every other dino doc has either skipped ahead to the present (E.g. WWD), skipped ahead to when all the non-avain dinos are dead & the mammals emerge from their burrows (E.g. When Dinosaurs Roamed America), or come off as a cheap disaster movie (E.g. Last Day of the Dinosaurs).

    "At the very end of the show, Hurt spoke of the 'end of Planet Dinosaur'. Of course, the truth is it didn't end. Today dinosaurs are represented by over 9,000 species of birds, outnumbering mammal species two to one. Walking With Dinosaurs, to its credit, pointed this out, so it's a shame that Planet Dinosaur, given its excellent adherence to scientific evidence, didn't do the same."

    To be fair, PD did refer to birds as dinos at the end of Episode 2 (See 13:49: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8JEvC9ZG-U&feature=channel_video_title ). Also, what Hurt said isn't necessarily inaccurate: Based on what I've read, when a source says that dinos dominanted life on Earth for however long, it usually means that dinos monopolized the large terrestrial vertebrate niches for however long; That seems to be how PD defined dino domination.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Quiet, Hadiaz... ;) such are the perils of writing reviews with the aim of getting them out ahead of everyone else...

    ReplyDelete

Trolls get baleted.