Monday, September 1, 2014
Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Doctor Who Dinosaur Book
It's a very good day for those interested in palaeoart - its history, trends over time, the current consensus on restoring certain animals, and where it might be going. Firstly, there's Mark Witton's article in Palaeontology Online, in addition to one on the 'new' Spinosaurus on his own blog. Secondly, Darren Naish's latest blog post is also a look at the changing appearance of dinosaurs in art (what, again?).
Here at LITC, we like to think we do our bit in aiding public understanding of the history of palaeoart; in particular, how certain trends are adopted by illustrators perhaps less accustomed to drawing dinosaurs, frequently resulting in grievous errors being repeated ad nauseam. The best palaeoartists will often find that their very particular take on an animal will take on a life of its own, appearing all over the bleedin' shop until it becomes the de facto 'genuine' restoration. This week's book is an exemplar of these tendencies in palaeoart. It also has Tom Baker in it. "You have a woman's bottom, my lady!"
The Doctor Who Dinosaur Book (or at least, this incarnation of it) appeared in 1976, and was illustrated in rather accomplished fashion by George Underwood. Accomplished in terms of technique, that is; most of the animals are brazen copies of restorations from other books. If anything, the copies are a bit too good - as Niroot remarked when he had a look, there's a glaring disparity between the highly detailed, hyper-realistic look of the Bernard Robinson copies, and the more stylised appearance of the Rod Ruth copies.
It's all a little bit shameful. On the other hand, it's hard not to smile at a book that features the Doctor grinning while feeding an Apatosaurus.
The book's text (by Terrance Dicks) is written as if by the Time Lord himself, and Tom Baker's Fourth Doc (scarf and all) pops up in almost every scene - and not only as a handy scale bar. Minor perspective issues aside (is the Doctor standing in the swamp, there?), seeing the behatted extraterrestrial interacting with a highly Burianesque, wrinkletastic sauropod is superbly surreal. The whole book has a faintly unreal air about it, like Tom Baker's invaded a gallery of vintage palaeoart. Which is actually rather close to being a literal description.
Occasionally, the Doctor is content to just pose moodily while retro saurians mill about in the background, as if he took a holiday in Neave Parker's sketchbooks. All of the sauropods in TDWDB adhere rigidly to the 'great fossil lizard' stereotypes of old, dragging their tails about, looking grumpy and sporting heads that indicate a lack of decent reference material. I'm enjoying the pastry dish crust on that Diplodocus, though.
Speaking of nondescript heads, this Brachiosaurus begins reasonably well (lengthy forelimbs, upward-sloping back; check and check), but for some reason is topped off with a rubbish, nondescript nubbin. To illustrate the animal's size, the Doctor is reduced to miniature size...not for the last time.
Those hankering for close-ups of Tom Baker's curly mop and rictus grins shouldn't fret, though - there are plenty of glorious close-ups to be had, as the Doctor gets a bit more hands-on with various angry reptiles. Here, the nefarious alien has snatched a Protoceratops egg from the nest, attracting the attention of a very squat, angry parent.
In perhaps the best of all the plates in this book, the Doctor actually grabs a dinosaur by the throat and tail in order to, I'm sure, inspect it more closely (and definitely not to wring its neck, pulp its remains and sell it to a Gallifreyan kebab outlet). It's scarce wonder that the Doctor looks so baffled here - while this creature is ostensibly Compsognathus, it seems to have morphed into some sort of lithe, bipedal lizard with four (count 'em) fingers and splayed limbs. This basically contradicts everything known about Compsognathus anatomy (noted as being highly birdlike even in the 19th century), but hey. There's no arguing with a centuries-old interloper in dashing costume.
Bigger and badder theropods pop up, too - they'd definitely be salivating over a bite-size intergalactic hero, if only their poses weren't strictly limited by the dinosaur books the artist found in the local library. Sexy Rexy (above) is a dead ringer for Rod Ruth's cover illustration for Album of Dinosaurs. You'll have to forgive me for missing the head off - but on the other hand, if you've seen Ruth's work, you already know what it looks like.
Everyone's favourite brontosaur botherer, Allosaurus, makes an appearance too - but this time, the animal's a Bernard Robinson knock-off. As already noted, Robinson's highly detailed style, meticulously detailed down to the last tiny scale, contrasts markedly with Ruth's, which gives this book a disjointed feel.
The Doctor, meanwhile, is meant to be fleeing in terror. However (and as pointed out by Brian Engh on our Facebook page), the eyelines don't match up at all. All the same, I love the pop-eyed Tom Baker look going on here. Classic stuff.
And finally (for now)...not all of the plates in this book feature the Doctor. Occasionally, TDWDB becomes just another 1970s dinosaur book - which is to say, filled with animals of highly questionable anatomy. While the basic shape of the above beast makes it clear that it's supposed to be an ornithomimosaur, the indie kid stick-thin legs, bizarre plantigrade-but-not feet, and tiny, creepy doll hands are strange indeed. It's Struthiomimus as constructed from bargain bin spare parts, and it's too baffling to even begin to point out where it's going wrong. It's just a perfect whole of wrongness that defies your nerdy pedantry. And that's a tyrannosaur clambering down a sandbank on the right, by the way.
Next week: more from this (if there's call for it), otherwise - something else!