No matter how much we learn about the lives of dinosaurs, much of the public's attention is focused on issues of attack and defense. How powerful was a Tyrannosaurus bite? How did Deinonychus hunt? Why did ankylosaurs have such impressive armor? Did Triceratops form herds to defend themselves? Again and again these questions pop up, and they are the focus on the program Clash of the Dinosaurs, just released on DVD.
Divided into four episodes—Extreme Survivors, Perfect Predators, The Defenders and Generations— Clash of the Dinosaurs breaks from the recent trend of all-cgi dinosaur docudramas to give paleontologists a prominent role in explaining the biology of several dinosaurs (and one pterosaur) that lived in North America during the Cretaceous. The standards Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus are present, as well as several other predators and herbivores such as Deinonychus and the large sauropod Sauroposeidon. Compared to other recent shows, the special effects used to bring these dinosaurs to life look pretty good, and I was happy to see some feathers on Deinonychus for once. Even so, the impressiveness of the reconstructions quickly fades as the same footage is used over and over and over again. The near-constant reuse of the same scenes makes one episode feel much the same as all the others, with the comments of the paleontologists representing the majority of the new content in each episode.
The educational content of each episode varies significantly, from accessible explanations of dinosaur anatomy to some unsupported speculations about dinosaur behavior (such as Bob Bakker's suggestion that a herd of Parasaurolophus could use low-register sounds to "scramble the brains" of an attacking predator). The trouble with this approach is that the documentary never really explains how we know what we say we know about dinosaurs. Watching the first two episodes with my in-laws during a visit, they were nearly constantly turning to me and asking, "how do they know that?" It would have been far better to get the talking heads of the program to discuss particular studies and dig a little deeper into the science on which the show was based. As is, the show paints a series of vignettes featuring dinosaurs but never really explains how we have come to understand these things about dinosaurs. Documentary filmmakers should stop being afraid of digging into science; people want to know the details of how we have come to understand the lives of dinosaurs. (And, speaking for myself, programs that showed the process of science were what inspired my interest in paleontology.)
What I was most curious to see, however, was whether the creators of the show made good on their promise to amend the program. As I wrote last December, paleontologist Matt Wedel was shocked to see the original run of the program twist his words to make it sound like he was saying something he did not actually say. Wedel had explicitly attempted to debunk the idea that dinosaurs had a "second brain" in their rumps, yet Clash of the Dinosaurs presented a bit of film suggesting that Wedel endorsed such a view. After hearing Wedel's complaints the filmmakers agreed to edit the DVD release, and, to their credit, they appear to have removed it. Hopefully such incidents will not repeat themselves.
The DVD also includes a "preview" of the documentary When Dinosaurs Roamed America, but it is not much of an extra. Cobbled together out of clips from another show called When Dinosaurs Roamed North America and a few scenes shot at Utah's Dinosaur National Monument, this extra show is a throwaway which is not worth watching if you have any familiarity at all with dinosaurs.
In the end, Clash of the Dinosaurs feels like a wasted opportunity. The filmmakers assembled an all-star cast of paleontologists and had some great computer graphics, yet the sensationalistic and repetitive presentation of the show began to feel grating after the first 15 minutes. Instead of a detailed look at the physiology and biomechanics of dinosaurs, Clash of the Dinosaurs samples just enough paleontology to restore scenes of prehistoric violence replayed more times than I care to count.