The computer-generated imaging (CGI) technology that brought T. rex and Velociraptors to life on the big screen in Jurassic Park ushered in a new era for TV science documentaries. It began nine years ago, when the Discovery Channel premiered the BBC-produced documentary Walking With Dinosaurs — which earned three Emmy awards and spawned a series of spin-offs, including Walking with Prehistoric Beasts (2001) and Walking with Cavemen (2003).
Walking with Dinosaurs patterned itself after classic Wild Kingdom-type documentary series, with a narrator commenting upon CGI-created vignettes as if they were actual film footage. But whereas Walking with Dinosaurs relied on CGI special effects to “illustrate scientists’ best understanding of prehistory, the use of CGI has quickly escalated to the animation of purely fantastical life forms,” notes Anneke Metz, an assistant professor at Montana State University specializing in science pedagogy.
In her article, “A Fantasy Made Real,” published in the journal Television & New Media, Metz argues that the recent proliferation of documentary programming (Science Channel, Animal Planet, The Learning Channel, the National Geographic Channel, etc.) has created an increasingly competitive marketplace desperate to lure in viewers. And why settle for documentaries on dinosaurs when networks can use CGI to create sci-fi critters that are more entertaining and not burdened by the need for scientific accuracy?
Metz classifies these programs as “subjunctive documentaries,” which focus on “that which could be or might have been.” Among the worst offenders was the 2004 “documentary” Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real, which investigated what the fire-breathing behemoths would be like if they had roamed the Earth. In addition to CGI animations, the program featured “footage” of “scientists” analyzing the gas content of a dragon’s organ and studying a printout of its DNA. And then there’s the 2005 program Alien Planet, which documents (mockuments?) the biology of a distant world named Darwin IV.
Further blurring the distinction between fantasy and reality is the tendency of TV producers to enlist genuine scientists, who role-play as expert commentators. Thus, in Alien Planet, paleontologist James Kirkland—who co-discovered the Utahraptor in 1993—offers detailed commentary on the physiology of an imaginary species, the gyrosprinter. (“It appears that this animal may have evolved from a four-legged animal. It appears we have a fusion of the forelimbs and a fusion of the hind limbs.”)
Metz warns that, in a media-saturated society, subjunctive documentaries add to the challenge of separating science fact from science fiction. To drive home the point, she cites a recent classroom study, “where 70 percent of college earth science students incorrectly identified microwaves from the sun as posing a threat to the Earth after watching the science fiction film The Core.”
As special effects continue to become more sophisticated, the phrase “seeing is believing” promises to take on new meaning.