So. A couple of weeks ago, I blogged a few words on Dinosaur!, a book written by David Norman in 1991 to tie in with a TV show of the same name (in which he made several appearances). At the time, I mentioned that I hadn’t seen the show and hadn’t been able to find it online. Chasmo-commenters both here and on Facebook immediately sprang into action, directing me to multiple YouTube uploads of the entire series. (Perhaps I shouldn’t have included ‘David Norman’ in my search terms – but then, why wouldn’t you?) I watched it on the channel of someone calling themselves “megaprimatus“, who presumably is a bit of a Kong enthusiast, but has only ever uploaded old documentaries. It was most enjoyable – and also made me reflect on where dinosaurs were in popular culture in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Dinosaur! was notably made just a couple of years before that movie, and serves as a reminder that dinosaurs were actually having a bit of a pop culture moment even before the big-screen adventures of a black-clad mathematician with a deplorably excessive personality and a tendency to end up in unlikely hijinks involving genetically engineered abominations with a taste for human flesh. It’s telling that this mere documentary series, broadcast on A&E, was fronted by none other than Walter Cronkite, an American broadcaster and news reader so famous, even I’d heard of him. Cronkite is the perfect host – serious without being overly so, utterly credible, charming and avuncular. He also pronounces ‘dinosaur’ in a way that I, as an English person (sips pint, adjusts tie), find irresistible. It’s a word that sounds better when spoken by (any) American in any case – somehow, the way we Limies say it seems so flat and dreary, like our weather. But when Cronkite says it – “DINOSARRR.” Love it.
There’s also a fantastic scene in which he performs a dinosaur dance with some schoolchildren.
Beyond the involvement of Cronkite, there’s a palpable excitement about the state of dinosaur research following the Dino Renaissance. This is helped in no small measure by the inevitable involvement of Robert T Bakker, who is so unabashedly up-to-the-minute that he has absolutely no qualms in stating outright that “birds are dinosaurs” in the last episode. (Many other scientists at the time were rather more hesitant in saying so, even if they were on board with the bird-dinosaur link.) Bakker was so often portrayed as a raving, exaggerated caricature in the books of my childhood that I often forget that he’s actually quite the opposite; his careful, deliberate speech and quick wit make him remarkably convincing, not to mention highly entertaining. It’s enough to make me want to finally read The Dinosaur Heresies. (Yes, that’s right, I’ve never read one of the most important popular dinosaur books of all time! I’m a fraud! An utter fraud!)
Numerous other big-name scientists appear, of course, including noted T. rex hater Jack Horner, 1980s gigahype maestro Jim Jenson, and none other than John Ostrom himself. Watching Ostrom travel to Germany to pay a visit to Peter Wellnhofer and admire various Lagerstätten fossils is simply wonderful. This leads to yet another superb moment, in which Ostrom can be seen enjoying a suitably Germanic glass of lager in a traditional beer hall. Prost.
Quite apart from the heavyweight scientific expertise employed here, and the consistent depiction of dinosaurs as exciting, active, very probably colourful and highly successful creatures, the importance of palaeoart and ‘putting flesh on the bones’ is also a recurring theme. Life-size dinosaur robots are a popular subject, and Dinamation creations naturally feature on a number of occasions. Gawping at Dinosaurs Alive! in Brighton in 1996 is one of my most vivid childhood memories, so you can quite imagine how happy I was to see them here. Steven Czerkas and his (in progress!) life-size Carnotaurus model also put in a welcome appearance, but the real stars are animated creations made by a team including Peter Minister. Utilising a mix of puppetry and animation, they look a little ropy 30 years on, but for the time they aren’t all that bad.
On the other hand, they are rather let down by the sound design – the same bland “raawwggllarggleblarg” noises are deployed for everything from a Coelophysis to Brachiosaurus to T. rex. It’s a shame, as the distractingly rubbish soundtrack does detract from what are otherwise interesting little scenes. Notably, a Brachiosaurus is shown rearing up on its hind legs – multiple times! – two years before that film hit cinemas. And a T. rex is shown gorily chomping on some other poor beast, which is always good fun.
Artists in the more traditional realm that get a mention include John Sibbick (obviously) and Ely Kish, who actually makes an appearance. What a treat – the legendary Ely Kish herself! John Sibbick doesn’t make an appearance, but then he is notoriously camera-shy; rumour is that ‘John Sibbick’ is actually a pseudonym employed by David Norman in order to separate his artistic and scientific careers.* David Norman is, after all, immensely talented, charismatic and possessed of a certain, undeniable, smouldering handsomeness that only balding scientists in geography teacher jackets can ever hope to attain.
I’m sure I had a point here, if only I could remember it. Ah, yes – there was plenty to be excited about in the world of dinosaur science 30 years ago, and many of us have forgotten that that film didn’t emerge in a vacuum. It was the apotheosis of a newfound excitement and interest in the animals and their world, spurred on by Ostrom, Bakker, Horner and the rest, that was already inspiring an explosion of popular books, artwork, animated films, toys, and Walter Cronkite-fronted documentary series on TV. Richard Attenborough’s twinkly eyes can’t take sole credit for inspiring the current generation of youngish palaeontologists (and weirdo bloggers, can’t forget those) – the dino pop culture of the late ’80s and early ’90s, charged by the passionate work of a really quite small number of remarkable scientists, had already established dinosaurs as enthralling in a way that they simply weren’t 30 years prior.
Dinosaur! is the perfect encapsulation of that particular moment in the history of dinosaur science and art, and for that, it really is worth a watch. Or another watch, if you caught it back in the day. Just don’t get too distracted by Dr Norman.
*This is obviously not true. OR IS IT?