The BBC and AppleTV+ released their 5-part series on dinosaurs called Prehistoric Planet this week, featuring the voice of Sir David Attenborough. It focuses on 5 different general biomes at varying times in the cretaceous. It’s visually stunning for the most part, but it has some rough spots. Before you begin this, please note that this review is NOT spoiler-free, so proceed at your own risk.
Usually Visually and Aurally Stunning
The visuals in the show are, for the most, quite stunning. The animals move as you would expect them, and the sound effects that accompany them generally work well. The vegetation, terrain, and weather features are also quite impressive. As something just to watch, it is very good.
But there are times where the CGI breaks down. In many of the long shots that involve some of the wildlife, the detail of the terrain and things like water is realistic but the animals and how they move sometimes are not. There are the odd close-up shots that also don’t seem to have rendered as cleanly as they probably should. It isn’t frequent, but when you see it, you really can’t un-see it.
The sounds are quite believable, with one exception. There’s a scene where some small dinosaurs are climbing to get at a honeycomb. The vocalization of them doesn’t sound like a dinosaur, to me it sounds like someone got a small child with limited voice experience to do provide the sounds. It was a bit odd, and I found it distracted me from the scene.
The soundtrack is workmanlike. It does its job, communicating emotion and the level of tension or suspense. But it isn’t memorable, although maybe that’s fine because it also means it isn’t usually distracting. But it doesn’t add a new layer or texture to the work.
But About The Science…
For almost all of it, the little vignettes were entirely plausible. Seeing dinosaurs with feathers was certainly different, and something we’re not used to. But, despite the opening’s claim that science has answered all the questions posed, some parts seemed extremely speculative to me, if not outright implausible. And as full disclosure, I do have a friend who is a palaeontologist, and we’ve had some conversations in the past about what is and isn’t known. A lot has been discovered, a lot more is supposition used to guide further research, and far more is entirely unknown.
The most implausible for me was the idea that a small herd of triceratops would navigate a long, narrow, winding cave with zero light to find a “special clay” that they would consume to help offset the poisons in some of the plants they would eat. I’ve taken a tour of cave formation (the Lewis and Clark Caverns), and at one point in the tour, they turn off all the lights. You literally cannot see anything.
I have a hard time believing that an animal of limited intelligence would risk going into the dark like that. Let alone the idea of them spelunking at random to just happen upon the one material they need to combat plant poison. To say it strains credulity is an understatement. They claim the show is based on science. I have a hard time swallowing the idea that there’s evidence triceratops were avid spelunkers, let alone found out that clay helps counteract some poisons by randomly eating dirt, then passed that knowledge down to future generations.
The giant display bubbles on the necks of the male Dreadnoughtus. The crazy “dance” of the male Carnosaur. Sure, they may have actually happened. But the way they were presented just made them seem silly, and detracted from their plausibility, at least in my mind.
The other element that seemed to be missing was, well, the science. The opening talks about science and how it’s made many advances. It makes the claim that science has answered all the questions posed during the opening. But then we get into the thing, and there’s very little, you know, science. The odd mention of the role of feathers on a few animals, and the very infrequence references to “when” we are. But why the headcrests on some of the pterosaurs?
So Many Questions
As much as I enjoyed the series, and I’m confident I will re-watch it many times, I have many questions. First, when the heck is this thing really set? Only rarely do we get some sense of where in the dinosaur timeline things occur. I know it’s mainly set in the early- and mid-cretaceous, but the thing seems to jump around to different parts of the cretaceous without really telling us.
Why does it seem there are so many sequences that involve pterosaurs? Don’t get me wrong, pterosaurs are cool. But they keep showing up over and over, and I don’t recall them being quite that numerous relative to other types of species (like hadrosaurs, ceratopsians, and a host of raptors). And they keep coming back to the same few species repeatedly, even though it mentions there are lots (one scene says there are 7 species on the one beach, but they only mention 2 of them).
The shows focus on a fairly narrow part of dinosaur history. But why is that? What makes this period in the time of the dinosaurs so special? And for something that focuses on such a limited span of time, we don’t get a ton of variety or detail.
Sort of Feels Incomplete
The series, to me, feels incomplete. That all we’ve had is a tiny taste of a modest time period, and that there could be or should be a lot more. Because there is no overall narrative or story arc, what we get are 5 episodes set in a general biome. And one of those, “Fresh Water” frankly seems a to be an overlap of “Forest”, and we get forest fires in two episodes. Not only does it feel like there should be a lot more in terms of episodes, but the ones we get have a certain amount of repetition.
While the visuals are lightyears better than those found in the original Walking With Dinosaurs, I found the older series more engaging. Of course, to be fair, Walking With Dinosaurs was state of the art when it came out. And we’ve learned a lot about dinosaurs since then. This is a topic that is ever-evolving. But what I liked about the various Walking series was that they told a story. The showed how life evolved over a period of time. Certainly, they are now dated, since the science has moved beyond them. But I can watch them, knowing what’s changed about our knowledge, because I’m not just seeing a documentary, I’m watching a story.
In some ways, this felt more like a project to show off the latest CGI than a real attempt at providing something truly informative. Some of the repetitive sequences, the implausible sequences, and the lack of any sort of cohesive story made this feel somewhat slapped together. Much like the “T-Rex in San Diego” sequence in Jurassic Park 2, it seemed more like a vanity project than an attempt at something truly informative and educational.
All that being said, it’s still worth watching, and it is eminently re-watchable, if you are into dinosaurs. I’m not disappointed this was made, and it was nice to see some of the more recent knowledge about dinosaurs. But it could have been better.