According to a whizzy promotional website, the Greenwich Peninsula is a whole “new London”, incorporating all-new developments of unaffordable homes, office blocks, leisure facilities, the O2 (formerly the Millennium Dome), and a slightly silly cable car. It’s also a place where, until the end of July at least, you can travel instantaneously to Montana and back in time 67 million years. That’s right – having already visited Manchester and Birmingham, Dinosaurs in the Wild has moved to the Big Smoke. Is it really as good as Mark Witton and Dave Hone (among others) have already said it is? Yes. But please allow me to elaborate anyway.
Unlike in Birmingham and Manchester, the London leg of Dinosaurs in the Wild takes place in a building, resembling a big warehouse, that’s been constructed especially for the show. It’s located conveniently close to North Greenwich Underground station and a Fuller’s pub named The Pilot, which is dead handy for a few pints of ESB on exit. The entrance is rather unassuming, enough that one starts to wonder about the production values of what awaits. However, there’s no need.
After a brief explanation of what’s to come (and the extremely amusing and satisfying batting away of questions from smart-alec kids by impressively knowledgeable actors), your group is loaded into one of two time machines, which sadly are not bigger on the inside. Some strobing lights, rumbles and suitably loud sci-fi sound effects later, and you’ve landed in Cretaceous Montana. Donning your 3D glasses (pleasingly explained away as being for ‘UV protection’), you’re treated to an excellent view of saurian fauna as your all-terrain transport makes its way over to TimeBase 67, which is where the real fun begins.
The majority of the experience takes place in the underground levels of the TimeBase, safely separated from the dangerous wildlife above. Here, the audience is taken on a tour of various laboratories and storage rooms, including a dissection theatre, hatchery and more. There’s an extremely impressive level of detail throughout, enough to rival the very best theme park attractions. In the first room you enter in the TimeBase, the walls are covered with minor details such as framed magazine articles, animal sighting reports, CCTV feeds, maps and more, and this high standard of immersion is maintained throughout the tour. Set design and lighting are never less than superb. A particular highlight for me was a laboratory filled with cabinets, which in turn were filled with specimens ranging from teeth, to blood, to dung, to semen, to entire mammals in jars, to a beating alamosaur heart suspended in a giant tank(!) – which reminded me a little too much of Quake 4.
Naturally, there are Easter eggs everywhere, and those guests willing to explore their surroundings will be richly rewarded. There are also amusing hints that the company behind TimeBase 67 – Chronotex – is actively trying to hide the unsavoury side of their endeavours from you. (These become rather more overt as the tour progresses, as one might predict.)
Naturally, animatronic dinosaurs are encountered in the TimeBase, and these are all well and good, but the CG animals are the true stars of the show. Good thing, then, that they are excellently designed. It would have been so easy just to slap in some cheesy, crowd-pleasing, Jurassic World-esque throwbacks and call it a day, but a huge effort has been made to reconstruct every animal in line with current scientific thinking, and it really shows. More than just being up-to-date (fully feathered dromaeosaurs with ‘wings’, hooray!), these are by far the most believable CG dinosaurs I’ve ever seen, full stop. As well as being realistically fleshy, scuffed up and sporting plausible speculative integumentary structures (check out the ankylosaurs in particular), the animation is damn near perfect.
Make no mistake, animating dinosaurs is bloody difficult; you can go out and film an ostrich, sure, but there’s no modern analogue for, say, a bipedal animal weighing as much a bull elephant. Too often, animators seem to give large theropod dinosaurs a very ‘bouncy’ walk that one can’t imagine working very well in life. Whenever a Dinosaurs in the Wild dinosaur takes a step, or jumps, or kicks, or stoops down, it just looks right. There’s a convincing amount of heft, but the animators haven’t felt the need to grossly exaggerate the animal’s movements. Nor do predators roar at their prey before pursuing it; the animals’ behaviour is portrayed in a very naturalistic light, with a few nice surprises that will bring smiles to the faces of dinosaur geeks (watch for how the thescelosaurs repel potential predators). Noteworthy: one Darren ‘TetZoo’ Naish was the scientific adviser. Take a bow there.
So the dinosaurs are very good, but the experience as a whole is a great laugh. All the actors do a wonderful job, no expense has been spared (ha) on the set design or CGI work, and the science is bang up-to-date (or near enough). It also usefully blows the ‘people want retro dinosaurs’ argument clean out of the water. Sadly, there aren’t any plans to take it international yet, but if you’re a dinosaur enthusiast who can make it to a UK venue, it’s well worth the trip!