Prehistoric Planet: I Bless The Rains Down In Mongolia

TV review

Our second trip to the Prehistoric Planet takes us to a series of desert landscapes, including the Gobi, North Africa and South America (twice). And in contrast with the first episode, it’s rather heavy on dinosaurs – as one might expect, given that a marine reptile flopping around in the sands wouldn’t look very dignified. Other creatures do significantly feature – pterosaurs, of course, and a little anonymous lizard chasing flies around the faces of sleeping Tarbosaurus. However, the dinosaurs are the real stars this time around. I’m biased, of course, but it’s absolutely true – especially when some of the animals featured are so utterly huge in every sense.

This is the first episode to feature sauropods, and what sauropods. The first that we encounter is Dreadnoughtus, no less, suitably equipped with speculative inflatable throat sacs. They’re truly awe-inspiring – I defy anyone not to feel exactly as they did when the brachiosaurs strode on screen in Jurassic Park or Walking With Dinosaurs, although this time there’s an enormous herd of the things, gathering together in their desert breeding ground. The occasion leads to some truly brutal Brontosmash action, with males weighing tens of tonnes apiece rearing up, wrestling and smashing their necks into one another. Again, Prehistoric Planet lends its creatures a totally convincing sense of mass, making the stakes seem almost frighteningly real. You’ll be worried about the surrounding animals being squished. Gentle giants, they aren’t, and it’s fantastic that the sound designers opted for reptilian hisses and closed-mouth vocalisations over the more mammalian sounds we’ve heard before.

From there, it’s on to Mongolia, which features the aforementioned lizard and Tarbosaurus, as well as, curiously, Velociraptor. Isn’t the latter a little too old to be hanging around with Tarbosaurus? Whatever the case, it hardly matters when the creature design is this utterly gorgeous. Easily the best Velociraptor seen on screen yet, and it notably uses its ‘wings’ to stabilise itself while pursuing small prey (the lizard). Tarbosaurus, meanwhile, is shown doing nothing more ferocious than snapping at nearby irritants and wandering down to a watering hole, where a spectacular assembly of different dinosaurs gather, including a tease of a glorious-looking therizinosaur.

While the Tarbo and Velociraptor are quite light on speculative touches, the show’s Mononykus sports two notable ones – an owl-like facial disc of feathers (although not taken to the extreme seen in owls), and a super-long tongue like an anteater or, perhaps more pertinently, a woodpecker. These, along with its claws, are all explained as adaptations for finding and hunting insects out in the desert. The cute little chirping fellow maybe is a bit too ‘Long Barn Owl’ in appearance, but very endearing nevertheless, and I do enjoy a bit of plausible speculative soft tissue.

Skipping around the world, we’re shown a Barbaridactylus breeding colony in North Africa. Here, giant, showy males are undermined in their efforts by ‘sneaky’, smaller, crestless males that resemble females. It’s a speculative behaviour that I recalled seeing in a documentary about cuttlefish, and I’m sure a great many people will be incredulous about. It’s no coincidence that this is the focus of the supplementary Exposed show, in which it’s explained that similar behaviour actually occurs in various species across the animal kingdom, making it not completely unlikely that pterosaurs would engage in such practices – particularly if one notes the extreme sexual dimorphism apparent in some species.

The pterosaur colony itself looks typically spectacular, with seemingly hundreds of individuals on screen at once. What a sight. Oh, and we see one individual lose an airborne fight and fall hundreds of feet to its doom, where it tumbles down a hillside and crumples up into a heap. Nice.

The show closes with a herd of Secernosaurus crossing gypsum dunes in South America, drawn to the coast by wave-generated infrasound (which their hearing is attuned to – another lovely nod to recent dinosaur science). The hadrosaurs shown so far have been relatively free of hypothetical flourishes, although they have all looked marvelous and very, very scaly as they should. Here’s hoping for some weirdo crested hadrosaurs in future episodes, along with at least some giant dinosaurs hunting other giant dinosaurs. I know, it’s a cliché, but it’s simply too cool not to happen. But we’ll see. I’m certainly more than happy with what we’ve been given so far – for those interested in dinosaur science and the behaviour of living animals, spotting all the little references is like gorging on a huge box of delicious chocolates. Anyone would think they hired Darren Naish as the lead consultant…

Today’s All Yesterdays moment

The sleeping Tarbosaurus, especially the individual on its side, reminiscent of John Conway’s ‘sleeping Stan’.

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  • Reply
    Niels Hazeborg
    May 24, 2022 at 4:01 pm

    It’s very telling that I have no idea if the lizard was live-acted or CG. I imagine it was the former (it could be some sort of modern agamid) but I was wrong on that account about some of the fishes in the first episode. That tells you all about the level of realism that’s being achieved here.

    The only thing that slightly took me out of it what that the pterosaur scene clearly took place on a famous rock in Arizona. I half expected Clint Eastwood to turn up.

    • Reply
      Mike Keesey (@tmkeesey)
      May 25, 2022 at 8:57 pm

      I feel fairly certain it was a real lizard in some shots (mostly close-ups) and quite certain it was CG in others (action shots). But it’s genuinely hard to tell — really excellent job.

      (Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns were shot in Spain, anyway!)

  • Reply
    May 26, 2022 at 9:50 am

    It should maybe be noted that all of the speculative features on Mononykus are based on actual discoveries. For example, alvarezsaurs had an ear structure extremely similar to that of the modern barn owl, making facial discs quite probable (though the coloration wouldn’t necessarily have been the same). There is also cranial evidence from alvarezsaurs displaying a well-developed hyoid, which would be explained by a long tongue. The toothless end of the lower jaw also suggests the ability to protrude the tongue. Furthermore, the fact that these plausibly combine with the creature’s overall anatomy as adaptations for hunting termites justifies, I think, their inclusion in the show. Anyway, I’m not disagreeing with anything here, but I thought it would worth mentioning where those speculations are coming from.

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