Prehistoric Planet – Azhdarchids Stride Again

TV review

And so Prehistoric Planet comes to an end, although thankfully not with the extinction of the (non-avian) dinosaurs as some had feared. Instead, we’re treated to glimpses of Late Cretaceous life in woodland environments, and although the show remains dominated by dinosaurs, plants do get their due this time. Starting with a herd of Austroposeidon clearing trees in the South American forest (and a look at how plants aggressively colonise the space created), the episode then shifts north, following a herd of typically impressive-looking Triceratops as they navigate a cave system to find a clay lick that will provide an antidote for the toxins they’ve consumed. As you might have already heard, a very young animal is separated from the herd in the darkness, but manages to find its mother again by following the deep, resonant calls she makes. This is Prehistoric Planet at its best – finding imaginative new ways to present even the most familiar prehistoric animals to us while keeping speculative behaviours (inevitably based on living animals) quite plausible. (Admittedly, Triceratops is another of my favourites.)

Returning to South America, we finally get to see the bizarre Carnotaurus courtship sequence that featured in the trailer. It’s wonderful to see this sinister-looking abelisaur (and, yes, it’s at least somewhat red-coloured once again) performing a ritual dance and flailing its hilariously puny arms around, the better to display the bright blue scales on their undersides. It’s another reminder that dinosaurs weren’t monsters, and even (what we regard as) the coolest-looking ones probably did things that were very, very silly, just as plenty of animals do today. I enjoyed the added touch of the Carnotaurus male meticulously preparing and maintaining a ‘dancefloor’ clearing in the forest for itself; the rumbling, closed-mouth, infrasound call out to potential mates was also excellent. It’s possibly obligatory to mention that this reconstruction is already obsolete in one respect – the bony nodules on the animals’ flanks were recently found to have been distributed unevenly, rather than in neat rows. Not that it really detracts from the sequence in any way at all.

Hello handsome…

The sequence that had me most enraptured came next – a group of Corythoraptor (an oviraptorosaur) being stalked by the tyrannosaur Qianzhousaurus, the name of which I’ve already forgotten how to pronounce, in what is now China. One can perhaps doubt the likelihood of Corythoraptor, a ground-living forest animal, being such a vibrant shade of blue (it just seems to scream “EAT ME!”), but their plumage does look fantastic nonetheless. The Qianzhousaurus, on the other hand, is completely convincing, and it’s quite thrilling to watch it ever-so-slowly and carefully inch towards its prey, remaining as quiet as possible. You know, like a real predatory animal and not a fictitious movie monster. Even better, we do eventually get to see this beautiful predator make a kill, toppling to the ground as it does so. Brilliant.

Following another North American forest fire sequence (in which – oh yes – Atrociraptor makes an appearance, covered in plumage with fluffy feet and all), the action moves once again to Asia, and three baby Therizinosaurus that are staying out of harm’s way by roaming around at night. Seems sensible. The sequence is mostly shot from a baby-therizinosaur’s-eye-view, emphasising how small and vulnerable these juveniles are, even as they blithely scramble up a fallen tree to get to a bee’s nest. Such low angles are also highly effective in conveying the sheer size of an adult Therizinosaurus that looms into view, a quite terrifying-looking feathery mountain that effortlessly knocks down the bee’s nest with a single swipe of its claws. It’s an excellent way of conveying the animal’s sheer power without being over-dramatic about it.

“Puny bees”

Andrea Cau has noted that it’s a little odd that multi-tonne tyrannosaurs are shown with sparse feathering, but equally large therizinosaurs and ornithomimosaurs, living in the same environments, have shaggy pelts. He probably does have a point (I mentioned much the same about Deinocheirus in my previous post) – it seems to be more of palaeoart trope than anything.

The show’s final sequence brings us to Europe, where Telmatosaurus and Zalmoxes try and avoid the attentions of Hatzegopteryx. The reconstruction of Zalmoxes as a chunky, but quite fleet-footed little animal is excellent, although it does without any speculative quills. Hatzegopteryx is every bit as frightening as the azhdarchids featured in earlier episodes – if not moreso, given its robust build and the way that it easily slips between the trees, its spear-like beak ever ready, its glassy-eyed face a picture of utter, blank indifference. Slenderdactyl, indeed. It’s worth pointing out, though, that this is all without the creature being exaggerated or monsterised in any way.

“Not directed by Steven Spielberg”

As Hatzegopteryx stalks out onto a beach and quad-launches itself into the sunset, Prehistoric Planet draws to a close (while the Jurassic Park theme plays in your head). And what a journey it’s been. Second series set in the Late Jurassic, anyone? Do you think Apple would let me have a second free trial, if that happens…?

Today’s All Yesterdays moment

The displaying Carnotaurus, of course, which harks back to John Conway’s illustration in the book (along with another illustration by Memo Kosemen of Majungasaurus doing much the same thing).

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