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The Dinosaur Revolution Will Be Televised

A new miniseries is more dinosaur tribute than scientific documentary

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Dinosaur Revolution is Looney Tunes. I mean that literally. At the last Comic-Con International, Erik Nelson – the executive producer of Discovery’s new 4-part series – explained that at least one of the show’s vignettes was created as a reimagining of a 1942 Bugs Bunny cartoon, only this time with pterosaurs from the Early Cretaceous of Brazil. The animals themselves were real, but, true to the intent of the segment, they act like Mesozoic cartoon characters. Rather than being a silly one-off, the slapstick scene embodies the tone of the prehistoric miniseries.

I am not entirely sure what to call Dinosaur Revolution. “Documentary” doesn’t feel quite right. “Dinosaur tribute” might be a better fit. Whatever you choose to call it, though, it’s a program that employs the well-worn dinosaur playbook that has been in use for over a decade. Walking With Dinosaurs – the BBC’s 1999 docudrama – brought the idea of following the day-to-day lives of dinosaurs (with little to no human presence) into vogue, and Dinosaur Revolution continues in that tradition while adding a few unique quirks.

Discovery’s new dinosaur extravaganza is played out in four chapters. The first episode sets the stage with an over-the-top scene meant to represent the mass extinction at the end of the Permian period about 250 million years ago. This was the most devastating global extinction event in our planet’s history, and the one that, in time, opened up evolutionary possibilities that resulted in the evolution of dinosaurs (among other Mesozoic creatures). From there, the series sets up a number of vignettes that flow in more-or-less chronological order from the Late Triassic through the very Latest Cretaceous. Episode one features a family of the early dinosaur Eoraptor; episode two focuses on an injured Allosaurus living by a Late Jurassic watering hole; episode three tells the stories of pterosaurs, mosasaurs, feathered dinosaurs and other Cretaceous creatures; and the finale tracks a clan of Tyrannosaurus, as well as a pair of Troodon. The cast of dinosaurs is more extensive than what I have just mentioned here, though, and I was glad to see the inclusion of some recently-discovered taxa, such as the long-necked stegosaur Miragaia and the giant frog Beelzebufo.

From the rumors and buzz leading up to the release of the show, I thought Dinosaur Revolution was largely going to be a silent program that let the dinosaurs act out their stories without narration.  In essence, I had thought the show was going to be a movie version of the type of stories one of the show’s creators, Ricardo Delgado, had drawn up for the Age of Reptiles comic series. Apparently this idea was scrapped, or at least altered – the dinosaur storylines make up the bulk of each episode, but there are brief segments in which familiar talking heads are brought in to talk about different aspects of dinosaur lives. Sparse narration is also sprinkled over each episode, though the show’s narrator has the annoying habit of speaking in sentence fragments and often states the obvious. The show’s dinosaurs are certainly expressive enough to tell their own stories, but it would seem that Discovery got nervous about a lack of human presence in the show.

I have mixed feelings about Dinosaur Revolution. For one thing, the quality of the show’s animation is uneven. On the positive side, the level of detail each dinosaur has received is excellent, and some of the dinosaurs – such as an Allosaurus with a broken jaw that stars in episode 2 – have never looked better. (I never liked the dopey, thick-headed Allosaurus of the Walking With Dinosaurs series.) The trouble is that the dinosaurs are not always blended very well with the background environment. In the first and third episodes, especially, the dinosaurs appear to be living on a separate plane of existence than their surrounding habitats. Likewise, the way some of the dinosaurs moved could use a little more refinement. Small theropods, especially, run with a stiff, herky-jerky motion that looks exaggerated and silly. The dinosaurs look great when standing still, but it’s hard not to chuckle when they go bobbing off in their awkward gait. The creators of the show certainly deserve a lot of credit for giving their coelurosaurs feathers and not giving their theropod dinosaurs “bunny hands”, but some of the basic aspects of the dinosaur models make the show’s stars look out of place in the prehistoric world.

But the dinosaur models and animation aren’t what really bothers me about Dinosaur Revolution. There have been far worse dinosaur models, and, given that the show is meant for popular audiences, it’s practically useless to worry about how much Triceratops really flexed its elbows, how tightly the skin on some dinosaur heads appears to adhere to the skull, or whether prehistoric mammals really could spray noxious liquid in the faces of predatory dinosaurs. At least the artists put feathers on Troodon, Velociraptor and other theropod dinosaurs, and I am thrilled the show does not shy away from making their dinosaurs bird-like. No, what gets me is that Dinosaur Revolution is being presented as a program about the latest dinosaur science when the actual scientific content is minimal.

One of the principal problems of communicating the science of paleontology to the public is that we have not done a very good job of explaining how our science actually works to the person on the street. People are constantly being bombarded with the end-products of fossil research – from skeletons in museum halls to restored dinosaurs on television – but how often do members of the public get to see the dinosaurian sausage being made, so to speak? Dinosaur Revolution claims to be based upon the latest dinosaur science, and the show makes infrequent references to “new techniques”, yet the series does not offer much insight into how we know what we say we know. Sound bites from professional paleontologists are used to back up certain claims, but this is merely using scientific authority to back up a premise – very little is actually explained this way.

This brings me back to my earlier comment that Dinosaur Revolution is more of a dinosaur tribute than a scientific documentary. Even though I have grown tired of the emphasis on violence in dinosaur documentaries, I understand that show creators need to get people to watch. Featuring dinosaurs just standing around isn’t going to do that. If eyeballs aren’t on the screen, educational opportunities are lost. Nevertheless, the animals in Dinosaur Revolution do not act like real animals. They are constantly fighting in an exaggerated, cartoonish style that often just looks plain silly. In episode two, for example, the large predatory dinosaur Torvosaurus tries to snag a juvenile sauropod and ends up setting off a dinosaur free-for-all in which the stegosaur Miragaia, an Allosaurus and an adult sauropod all end up taking turns beating on the predator. The scene has more in common with a WWE cage match than anything in nature. In another vignette, the sauropod Shunosaurus gets high on some funky mushrooms and is attacked by a pair of Sinraptor who are about as coordinated as The Three Stooges. Like the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park III, as well, the creatures of Dinosaur Revolution are adept martial artists capable of tossing their victims or enemies around. The dinosaurs are more monsters than animals, and their behavior reminds me of what I imagined for them when I was a five-year-old dinosaur nut playing in the sandbox.

Don’t misunderstand me – I don’t automatically have a problem with a program like Dinosaur Revolution depicting prehistoric creatures as monsters. From the time dinosaurs were first recognized by science in the early 19th century, they have often been restored as rapacious and bloodthirsty beasts, and violence has a deep, deep tradition in restorations of prehistoric life. What I object to is such scenes being presented as the best reconstructions of dinosaurs science can offer us. If Dinosaur Revolution was presented as a fun anthology of imaginary dinosaur stories, this review would be very different, but instead the show is meant to showcase the latest in paleontology. Fossil evidence is mentioned from time to time – what fossil site the animals in the show came from, or a specimen that inspired a particular story – but the methods by which paleontologists actually reconstruct prehistoric life are left undiscussed. There is a wide gap between the fossil as an object of interest and the restoration that is the end-product of a scientific process. Again, the products of paleontology are presented in full color, but how that knowledge is generated in the first place is obscured. Audiences are left to rely on the say-so of the scientists in the show, which, I believe, shortchanges viewers who want to know how we know what we say we know about dinosaurs.

And, as is too often the case, the gallery of scientific experts are entirely male and pale. (Paleontologist Victoria Arbour recently pointed out this persistent problem – which is sadly not unique to Dinosaur Revolution – in a review of the sensationalist program Dino Gangs.) For a program that is supposed to be about the “revolution” in dinosaur science, I would expect to see experts such as Karen Chin, Mary Schweitzer, Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, Victoria Arbour, and others give their perspectives on how new discoveries and techniques are providing us with an unprecedented view of dinosaur lives. When there is such a diverse array of paleontologists doing interesting work, why does Dinosaur Revolution perpetuate the image of a paleontologist as a white male? Granted, not everyone who is asked to participate in a documentary is going say “Yes”, but I refuse to believe that, if they really tried, the creators of Dinosaur Revolution would have been unable to find scientists who differed from the stereotyped image of who a paleontologist is.

Many of my qualms about Dinosaur Revolution stem from problems that are not unique to this new show. For a decade, we’ve been seeing the same kind of dinosaur-driven, CGI storytelling that has become the new standard. Perhaps, if Dinosaur Revolution was the first show of its kind, I would have felt differently about it. And, in fact, I would actually love to see a show that didn’t take itself too seriously and paired top animators with excellent storytellers. (Can you imagine an animated dinosaur story written by David Sedaris or Sarah Vowell?) If Dinosaur Revolution had fully committed to that and presented itself as a fun restoration of prehistoric life in the vein of, say, “The Rite of Spring” sequence in Fantasia, I would have spent a lot less time quibbling over the program. There is certainly room for fun and imagination in dinosaur programs, but I get a bit prickly when science is used to back up fantasies without much explanation of where the science stops and the fiction begins.

As paleontologist Thomas Holtz says in the show, we need imagination in paleontology. If we restricted ourselves only to the actual evidence we have acquired, we wouldn’t get very far – at some point you have to hypothesize, speculate and infer to bring prehistoric animals to life. The creators of Dinosaur Revolution certainly had the technological know-how to do this in a new way, but the fact that the show is presented as a scientific program creates a tension between the feel of the program and its stated aim. Dinosaur Revolution is a fun – and often silly – fantasy that is informed by scientific discovery but is not itself overly concerned with communicating the nuts and bolts of science. The real story of the dinosaur revolution – how our understanding of dinosaur lives is growing deeper and more detailed by the day – has yet to be told.

The first two episodes of Dinosaur Revolution premiere on Discovery on September 4 at 9 p.m. eastern time, and the second two will air on September 11 at 9 p.m.

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About Brian Switek
Brian Switek

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history. He writes regularly for National Geographic's Phenomena blog as Laelaps.

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