Friday, September 9, 2011

Review: Dinosaur Revolution, Part One

It's all about expectations. When we see The Lord of the Rings, we're not expecting nuanced political intrigue. When we see Elizabeth, we don't expect magical shenanigans. Expectations need to be set carefully. It's the same for science programming. I've expressed here how badly I'd love to see an certain kind of animated film based in the Mesozoic. No dialogue, no explanation, just pure visual story telling. When Dinosaur Revolution was first announced, with the working title Reign of the Dinosaurs, it seemed that it might be approaching that vision and my interest was stoked more than the average paleo series might stoke it.

That's not what we have, in the end.

My favorite pieces of science storytelling are Sagan's Cosmos series, Adam Rutherford's The Cell, and that beacon of hope for current science programming, Inside Nature's Giants. All three are able to zoom in and out, exploring discrete mechanisms and grand theories. They all engage their audiences with the enthusiasm of their presenters, the artistry with which they're shot and edited, and their celebration of the pure joy of exploration, wonder, and discovery.

That's also not quite what we have with Dinosaur Revolution.

What we do have is a bit of an awkward marriage between the pipe dream in my first paragraph and contemporary American cable documentaries. I've read in comments on Facebook that what you need to do to enjoy Dinosaur Revolution is to not think of it as a science documentary, but rather as a series of fictional narratives based on science. It's a nice thought, but unreasonable. It's packaged like any of the recent paleo series, Clash of the Dinosaurs with higher production values and smarter writing. It's impossible to get wrapped up in the stories. One of the creative talents behind the series is Richard Delgado; imagine reading his Age of Reptiles graphic novels with informational panels crammed into it. The narrator barges in too often. The cutaways to holographic researchers are too frequent.

About those holograms: familiar faces like Tom Holtz and Scott Sampson are represented as holographic projections in a meticulously set-designed paleontology lab. It's too pristine. It's lit like a Klingon Bird of Prey (well, not as red). I've been in only a few working prep labs, but they sure as hell don't look like this. Maybe this is a minor point to quibble over, but I think it matters. No decision is made lightly, after all. The tactile qualities of paleontology, the fortune of finding treasure on the last hour of the last day of a field season, the challenges presented by the elements, none of it is here. in the second episode, "The Watering Hole," we at least get to visit a mass fossil site in the Lourinha Formation of Portugal, but we don't know the stories of these people. When we see fossils coming out of the ground, it's the old stock image of a brush quickly clearing away loose overburden to reveal an easily recognized bone.

I mention all of this because it matters how a story is framed, and the excess baggage slows down what could have been an absolutely engaging set of stories. It's impossible to discuss Dinosaur Revolution without bringing in the might-have-beens. In a recent comment on a post at Archosaur Musings, Holtz lays out a distressing series of decisions that successively muddied what seems to have started as a clear vision. Watching the show, you can almost see the hands of the tinkerers at work.

On to the specifics of the first two episodes. There is a lot to like. It's a reassuring fantasy to imagine that had "the suits" not jimmied around with it so much, Dinosaur Revolution would have been the most awesome dinosaur program imaginable. The artistry on display is exceptional, and the team has worked in allusions from the history of paleoart to satisfy lovers of the form. I loved seeing a bit of Leaping Laelaps in the fight between rival Cryolophosaurus males in episode one, "Evolution's Winners." I loved the sly reference to one of my favorite memes, the bird-chasing Ornitholestes, in "The Watering Hole." You've probably read about the producers' Looney Tunes inspirations, and the Ornitholestes and Rhamphorynchus in "The Watering Hole" conjure memories of Sylvester and Tweety. Those with more finely honed eyes for anatomy and animation might find flaws, but I was happy with all of the animals' designs, even if some of the more acrobatic or fleet-footed action is unrealistic. One of the most fortunate things to happen to dinosaurs from a PR perspective is the discovery of their relationship to birds, and the avian nature so many of us find endearing is present in Dinosaur Revolution's cast of theropods, especially the baby allosaurs.

Tweety and Sylvester in the shadow of the bulldog Torvosaurus.

"Evolution's Winners" isn't the strongest foot to put forward; I found "The Watering Hole" to be more coherent, more engaging, and just plain more fun. The Eoraptors of the first episode are adorable. living as they do in a world of giant dicynodonts and rauisuchians. They're the underdogs. We root for them to get together, to raise some kids up, and to survive. Later in the show, we get a thoroughly unnecessary bit in which a mosasaur mama kicks much shark ass, a strangely underwhelming Gigantoraptor mating dance, and a visit to Antarctica, where Cryolophosaurus andGlacialisaurus could use a few mosquito nets. The highlight for me? Seeing the massospondylid Glacialisaurus in action. Though not the star of the show by any means - that goes to a red-faced bully of a Cryolophosaurus - it's nice to see some early Jurassic sauropodomorphs doing their thing.

"The Watering Hole" better delivers on the narrative distinction we've been told to expect: we get a lovable dork of an allosaur whose youthful foolishness gets him a badly broken mandible, thanks to the whip-tail of a Dinheirosaurus juvenile. The question of how the allosaur survives the immediate consequences of such a brutal injury is frustratingly unanswered, as we zip forward a few years to see the struggles of his life as the titular watering hole's resident predator. The jaw is wincingly askew, and when he shifts it from side to side, I find it hard to resist grabbing my face in empathy. This is a self-contained, expertly told story, needing none of the narrator's obvious interjections: "a familiar sight. predator and prey." Yeah. We get it.

I'm rambling on too long, and there are two more episodes yet to air! It's hard to sort out my feelings about this show: there is so much to like, and even love. There is so much potential. But it's too easy to see the shackles on the artist's hands. To all of you talented folks who brought these dinosaurs to life, who made bold storytelling decisions and dressed these animals in outrageous colors and plumage: bravo. I could watch that Ornitholestes chase that Rhamphorynchus for a whole feature-length movie. The Rube-Goldberg set pieces, the economical way personality is conveyed, the wild camera angles you could never get in a standard-issue nature film (under a stomping Gigantoraptor's feet, anyone?): all wonderful stuff.

I just wish people with more power had the same trust in you that I do.

Much more to come.


  1. Unfortunately, not to my knowledge. But there are ways.

  2. This just in: episodes 3 and 4 are delayed (to an as-yet unannounced date - I'll post back here when I know), as Discovery felt it wasn't the right kind of show for the anniversary of Sept. 11.

  3. "About those holograms: familiar faces like Tom Holtz and Scott Sampson are represented as holographic projections in a meticulously set-designed paleontology lab."

    Look at what you have done, Will I. Am! LOOK A WHAT YOU HAVE DOOOOONNNE!!!!!

    (For those of you who haven't had the pleasure:

    So... I missed the first two episodes due to In Real Life drama. (I hate sharing personal stuff online, so I hope "family from Florida came to visit for a week and a half" and "their one wish was to go to a seafood restaurant and eat a lobster; we hit *every* seafood restaurant it seems over their stay" and "I am personally done with eating non-tetrapod animals for the rest of the year at least" and "the downstairs toilet decided to troll us all" is enough for everyone.)

    Given what most of the reviews I have read have said abut the narration, this may end up being a wait for DVD for me. And that's only if the DVD offers a "music only" soundtrack or something. Nothing -but NOTHING- kills a nature documentary for me faster than the dreaded Lull Distruction. (I get bad flashbacks of "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmaron".)

  4. Follow up: rescheduled date is Tuesday Sept. 13, 9-11 pm.

  5. Correction to the correction: it will be on The Science Channel, not Discovery.

  6. I thought the show, despite it's frustrating bits, is well worth watching. I'd try and catch this on tv when it airs if I had cable. It has some of the coolest looking dinosaurs i've seen on screen.

  7. Seconded. Certainly, worth seeing. Holding out hope that Werner Herzog can bring it to the big screen, perhaps recut.

  8. Total dumbed down rubbish more like a kids programme.


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