Prehistoric Planet – A Modern Vision of the Past

TV review Uncategorized

I was only a year old when BBC’s landmark series Walking with Dinosaurs first aired, but I have to imagine watching it in 1999 must have felt similar to the way I felt watching Prehistoric Planet this week. Not since then has the age of dinosaurs ever been portrayed so believably. For the first time in a big-budget media project we’re getting depictions of Mesozoic life that isn’t plagued by concessions and strange design choices. Feathers are commonplace. Multi-ton behemoths like Dreadnoughtus move with power and purpose, with the weight befitting such massive animals. Pterosaurs stride across the ground and soar through the skies with all the grace and poise of the birds we see today, but with all their fundamental “otherness” in tact. The animals in this show don’t feel like a product of artistic decisions being weighed against desires of a network. They’re just REAL. We are living in an era where photorealistic CGI is commonplace and nowhere has that been put to better use than in Prehistoric Planet. The illusion of seeing real prehistoric life is stronger here than ever before, and yet, there’s still some glaring omissions that keep me from viewing it as perfect. Prehistoric Planet has floored me but, just as much, it left me wondering what could have been.

Before digging into my personal quibbles with the show, I have to spend a little while gushing about everything it gets right. The Planet Earth format is in full force here withlingering shots of landscapes lending to the spectacle just as much as the dinosaurs themselves. This is something Prehistoric Planet does that very few other dinosaur documentaries bother to do; we’re experiencing the world of the dinosaurs with emphasis on the world. Dinosaurs (andotherprehistoriccreatures) are parts of their environment, not actors on a stage designed for them to strut around on. The Mononykus sequence, for instance, is arguably more about the impact of rain in deserts than it is about the titular dinosaur itself. This gives us a grander picture that contextualizes the Mesozoic beyond the common characterization of an age of monsters in which dinosaurs kept everything else in check. Every episode of the series hammers home that dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and marine reptiles are adapted to the ecosystems of their world, but this isn’t explored quite as deeply as I’d hoped. Still, you’ll be hard pressed to find a dinosaur documentary besides Walking with Dinosaurs that spends so much time on the world itself.

Without question, Prehistoric Planet’s strongest aspect is the way its animals look and act. This is a cutting-edge series that showcases things as strange and spectacular as dueling titanosaurs with inflatable sacs on their necks and fatty deposits on their tails, Carnotaurus mating dances complete with twirling blue arms, pterosaurs exhibiting a spectrum of parental care strategies, and oviraptorosaurs so perfectly feathered that they wouldn’t look out of place in a line-up of modern birds. Virtually every last decision is sensible and justified on the basis of recent studies, often-times being the first and only time such knowledge has been incorporated into a work of popular media. The things I counted that could be called errors could be counted on one hand and that level of accuracy has NEVER happened before. One of those errors, the scale pattern of the Carnotaurus, is only there because the study contradicting it is less than a year old! This is as good as it gets, but I won’t say more. It needs to be experienced to really appreciate just how well done this aspect of the show is. Go watch it now if you haven’t already!

As you’d come to expect from any BBC nature program, the music and cinematography are excellent. The angles chosen and the detail given (or lack thereof) makes it feel as though every scene was filmed by a team trying their best to capture something that unfolded organically. Animals are shot in an out of focus, with the action in full view as often as it is obscured by plant life, other animals, or some other obstacle. That being said, there are a few shots that seem slightly TOO perfect. Taken as a whole, though, this furthers the illusion that everything we’re seeing is real. The quality of the CGI is similarly stunning, particularly when it comes to close-up shots of the scaly dinosaurs. Light plays across the surface of animals as they move, shadows feel natural and consistent, and interaction between animals and the real world parts of the shot are essentially seamless. One sequence in the first episode is so brilliantly done that I still struggle to see how it was even accomplished. There are a handful of moments that aren’t quite as convincing as the rest, but I’m also someone who analyzes CGI shots far more than the average viewer! The weakest shots all involve water, which is notoriously difficult to animate convincingly so this can easily be forgiven. Even the worst of Prehistoric Planet’s CGI is still far more lifelike than anything we’ve yet seen in a documentary of this sort. One can only wonder how much Apple must have paid for such incredible work, and can only be furious that the VFX artists weren’t individually credited so we can all thank them personally.

With the praise out of the way, let’s move on to what I think Prehistoric Planet didn’t do so well. The biggest issue of all was the runtime. Each episode is around 40 minutes which is quite a bit shorter than similar programs like Planet Earth or Blue Planet. This abbreviated runtime means we never spend very long in any one place and barely get to know the animals featured. This isn’t always a big problem, but it results in a lot of sequences where animals feel one-note and ecosystems feel incomplete. This is a necessary concession of the format but it is worsened when you also have to spend time establishing what the animals are and basic fundamentals about their biology. You end up with very little time to explore a given species in any meaningful depth. A handful of animals appear more than once and this lends a lot to their credibility and characterization. Most are one-scene wonders which only get to exhibit one behaviour, so are left feeling a bit hollow. The narration, while head and shoulders above what we usually get, frequently left me a little confused. Certain comments came across as out of place, or without enough context to explain anything to a viewer that isn’t entrenched in the world of contemporary palaeontology. This is, again, a concession of the format and I don’t have a lot of specific suggestions on what could fix it beyond more time. That being said, David Attenborough’s narration is every bit as lively and authoritative as you might expect.

Another issue that was rather pervasive was a lack of narrative unity. Scenes and locations come and go without much to link them. Concepts are introduced but never deeply explored, and I have to imagine that someone without a background in natural history might scome away without much understanding of what they were seeing. This makes the show feel more like “Maastrichtian’s Greatest Hits” and less like a comprehensive look at the world of the late Cretaceous. This is less a problem when you’re reading scientific papers for fun like I do, but realistically people like me can only be a tiny minority of the audience. Ultimately, I think the show suffers from being half-way between a crash course on our modern vision of the Mesozoic and a hyper-focused, somewhat esoteric look into the grandeur of prehistory for those already familiar with the basics. Thankfully the show seems to be hitting it off with general audiences as well as die-hard dino nerds so perhaps my concerns are unfounded!

I could honestly keep this article going indefinitely so it might be best that I wrap up before it gets too long! Prehistoric Planet, above all else, offers something truly unique. It is a thoroughly, vividly realistic depiction of those final few million years when reptilian megafauna characterized nearly every environment on the planet. It is a snapshot in time, showcasing just one little blip in the mind-bogglingly vast history of life on Earth. It showcases the splendour and majesty of nature at the time where it as at its most superlative, and it does so with a sort of realism that nothing has come close to achieving. A few narrative shortcomings and a pervasive feeling of wanting more isn’t enough to bring down what really is a landmark event in the world of dinosaur media and sci-com. If you haven’t watched it yet, I highly suggest you sign up for an AppleTV+ free trial and experience it for yourself. You won’t regret it.



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  • Reply
    Tyler Greenfield
    June 5, 2022 at 8:05 pm

    “One of those errors, the scale pattern of the Carnotaurus, is only there because the study contradicting it is less than a year old!”

    That one was a genuine mistake, not the result of “science marches on”. Czerkas & Czerkas (1997) already described the pattern of feature scales as being irregular and extending down onto the flanks, not arranged in even rows restricted to the back like shown in Prehistoric Planet. However, their paper lacked the excellent figures and thorough descriptions of Hendrickx and Bell (2021), so the mistake is somewhat understandable.

    • Reply
      June 5, 2022 at 8:27 pm

      I think the Czerkas paper was almost universally misunderstood too since many people cited it as the source for the “rows of scutes/feature scales” claims that abounded online and in print. Regardless, still a very minor error in the grand scheme of things!

      • Reply
        Tyler Greenfield
        June 5, 2022 at 8:50 pm

        It was published in a fairly obscure and difficult to access book (proceedings of a conference), so I’m sure many who cited it had never actually read it!

  • Reply
    Andrea Cau
    June 5, 2022 at 11:50 pm

    The author wrote “I was only a year old when BBC’s landmark series Walking with Dinosaurs first aired, but I have to imagine watching it in 1999 must have felt similar to the way I felt watching Prehistoric Planet this week.”.
    In 1999, I was 21, so more or less the age of the author of this post now, and remember the impression of that series, in particular in young paleontology nerds like I was at that time. I feel clearly that it was quite different, because in 1999, it was the very first time something “like Jurassic Park” (both in terms of novelty and quality) was developed for educational purposes. I felt the very idea alone as something so clever! A Jurassic Park-like tv series, aiming to be like a naturalistic documentary: so cool! Now, such idea has become quite canonical. Prehistoric Planet is less “innovative” because it is “just another” son of the WWD family but at the same time, PP is way more bold and “audacious” than WWD in how the scientific elements have been developed and implemented. Yet, such boldness is probably unnoticed by the lay person who is not that much into the paleontological community and watches this as another WWD-like product, but is really compelling even to the dry eyes of a paleontologist already saturated by dino CGI like I am now.

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