|The life-size T. rex model. Photo from Nat Geo's official site, copyright Nat Geo Channels/Christopher Albert, and used on the assumption that they'll probably be cool with it...|
Most dinosaur documentaries concern themselves with sensationalist, noisy battles between computer-generated beasties with a bloodlust only matched by one of George W Bush and Tony Blair's quiet meetings at Camp David. Very occasionally, something good does break through, as it did with the well-researched, John Hurt-narrated Planet Dinosaur from four years ago (Christ, where did the time go?). The best dino-docus are able to thrill the viewers with science; you've seen an incredible event happen, now see how scientists know it happened. T. rex Autopsy did just that.
The premise of the show was that a T. rex carcass had been found...somewhere (Costa Rica was not mentioned), and the government (seemingly the British government) and spirited it away to a hangar on a military base somewhere, never to be seen again by anyone except a select band of ne'er-do-wells. These included 'all-action vet' Luke Gamble; palaeontologists Steve Brusatte and the amazingly named Matthew T. Mossbrucker; and palaeo-biologist Tori Herridge. Together, they would literally delve into the belly of the beast (and the leg, and the face) to figure out how it lived and why it died.
This show is catnip for dinosaur enthusiasts, and especially those who are still thrilled at the sight of a T. rex skeleton in a museum, who will well know that a dinosaur doesn't have to be alive to take your breath away. Each section of the creature was created in astonishing detail; one of the consultants for the show, Dave Hone (for it is he), has interviewed visual effects maestro Jez Gibson-Harris on the creature's creation, and it's well worth a read. The realisation of this model can be regarded as an enormous (in every sense) achievement for everyone involved - 13 metres long, and filled with blood, guts, muscle, bone, partly-digested food, eggs and even eyeballs.
|The team. L to R: Matthew Mossbrucker, Steve Brusatte, Luke Gamble, and Toni Herridge. Photo by Nat Geo Channels/Stuart Freedman.|
There was also a delight in having a lot of very neat, but often overlooked, dinosaurian features explained to a lay audience. At one point, Mossbrucker pointed Gamble to the animal's caudofemoralis muscle, a secret behind the dinosaurs' locomotory success. There was talk of Tyrannosaurus' keen sense of smell, but also of its superb eyesight. Indeed, the dissection of the eyeball was a wonderfully unexpected highlight of the show. Much was made of the fact that the animal was a sophisticated predator that was highly adapted to the ecosystem in which it lived. It wasn't a monster, or some sort of laughable reptilian throwback - it was real, and made to seem all the more tangibly real thanks to this programme.
Any downsides? Well, some of the CG life reconstructions felt like they were tacked on from a less worthy show, featuring as they did an awkward-looking tyrannosaur with eyes like the Cookie Monster (or '60s Godzilla) that took on a flock of incredibly foolish dromaeosaurs (nice plumage, though). But these hardly detracted from the main event.
If you haven't seen this yet, then please seek it out as soon as you can. It definitely doesn't keep popping up on YouTube in flagrant violation of copyright, ahem ahem. Upon watching it, you'll grin as widely as Steve Brusatte when he explores the tyrannosaur's intestines, or Tori Berridge when she rams her hand up the animal's cloaca, only to find that the theropd was fertile. First class, immensely enjoyable stuff, and a credit to everyone involved.