Dinosaur documentaries on TV don’t always enjoy the best of reputations. The BBC’s latest effort, The Real T. rex (deciding how to italicise that is giving me a headache), received some unfortunate early notoriety in online-palaeo-nerd circles when an image of a CG model from the programme did the rounds, depicting a rather goofy-looking, Jeremy Clarkson-haired, Simpsons-overbite weirdo. This prompted a ‘remodel’ by Fred Wierum aka ‘Fred the Dinosaurman’, as shown below, which received its own share of criticism (dangly teeth!) but was certainly easier on the eye. (Although what was wrong with the gular pouch?) Thankfully, the CG beast that appears in the programme doesn’t look as bad as this artwork would suggest, and more importantly, the programme as a whole is actually very good.
The Real T. rex (first broadcast on January 2) stars a dirty great big coelurosaur from the Maastrichtian, but also British naturalist Chris Packham, best known as the presenter of any number of natural history programmes on the BBC. For my money, Packham’s one of the most likeable presenters ont’ telly, and his very genuine enthusiasm for the subject matter is evident throughout the programme. For a dinosaur enthusiast, the way that Packham is by turns awed and enthralled at getting to touch a real T. rex fossil in the field, handle a 3D-printed model of a T. rex brain, and even just get a good look at ‘Tristan’ in Berlin, makes him instantly relatable and empathetic. He managed to bring a smile to my face on a few occasions, bless ‘im.
The programme is framed as Packham’s journey to discover the current scientific consensus on the palaeobiology of what was his favourite dinosaur as a child. He rapidly learns that the T. rex of his childhood, along with the majority of pop culture depictions, has been left far behind by the science. It can be a little cheesy at times, although it’s never unbearably cringeworthy. Efforts are naturally made to keep the casual viewer engaged, but Packham doesn’t talk down to his audience, and CG is mainly used to help visualise things like musculature, rather than to create Hollywood-style bombast.
Packham speaks to various scientists throughout the programme, including John Hutchinson, who explains the importance of the caudofemoralis muscle in dinosaur locomotion (somewhere, Heinrich Mallison is cheering). An early wince-inducing remark that ‘alligators are the closest we’ll get to living dinosaurs’ is thankfully quashed later on with numerous comparisons to birds as tyrannosaurs’ closest living relatives, and the assertion that birds evolved directly from dinosaurs. Larry Witmer shows Packham the aforementioned model brain, and explains that not only is it actually larger than expected for a reptile of Tyrannosaurus‘ size, recent research into the neuronal density of bird brains hints that we may be underestimating the cognitive capabilities of extinct dinosaurs.
One of my favourite sections involves Julia Clarke and an investigation of what sort of sounds tyrannosaurs might have made. This takes what had previously been the usual eye-rolling use of stock Walking With Dinosaurs footage and subverts it; a clip of the WWD T. rex roaring into the camera is used as an example of what both Packham and Clarke discredit as a pop-culture trope. We expect big predators to roar like the large mammals we have around today, but large birds and crocodilians use deep, reverberating ‘mouth closed vocalisations’. Given Witmer’s earlier look at T. rex‘s hearing apparatus – seemingly attuned to low-frequency sounds – it seems probable that T. rex could have produced some seriously deep, booming sounds, even in the infrasound range given its size. Packham notes how awesome and spooky it would be to feel the animal’s calls long before seeing it.
There’s a lot more in the programme besides (including integument and colouration), and although very little will be new to readers of this blog, a show that can balance the needs of every section of the audience, while remaining accurate and current, is very welcome. A look at gender wouldn’t have gone amiss – Packham refers to ‘Tristan’ as a ‘he’, but of course this is unknown. Other than that, it was pretty comprehensive for an hour-long show aimed at a BBC 2 audience. I guess the show’s consultant, one David Hone (for it is he), deserves some credit. I guess. The fully fleshed-out, ambulatory CG T. rex only appears briefly at the end, and while it doesn’t look anything like as goofy as that stock image would suggest, it does notably sport mobile lips, all the better to sneeringly curl them at Packham as if it were sizing up King Kong. Oh well, can’t have ’em all. I’m still glad to have caught this programme (only a couple of days late) – it’s definitely worth a look. British readers can catch it on the BBC iPlayer, while others may or may not be able to find it on YouTube.