The BBC's new series, Walking With Judge Victor Valdivia, premieres next week and follows a guy sheepishly apologizing for all the crazy stuff he did the night before.
Our review of Walking With Dinosaurs, published May 17th, 2000, is also available.
A Natural History.
In 1999, BBC aired the original Walking With Dinosaurs and launched one of the most sensational documentary series in TV history. Four sequels, covering different time periods before and after the original followed, each almost as successful as the first. Prehistoric Earth compiles all of the titles in the Walking With… series, in what is finally the most complete collection of this set available.
Facts of the Case
Here are the shows compiled on this set:
Disc One: Walking With Monsters: Before the Dinosaurs
• "Program 2"
• "Program 3"
Disc Two: Walking With Dinosaurs
• "Time of Titans"
• "The Cruel Sea"
• "Giant of the Skies"
• "Spirits of the Ice Forest"
• "Death of a Dynasty"
Disc Three: Allosaurus
Disc Four: Walking With Prehistoric Beasts
• "Whale Killer"
"Land of Giants"
"Next of Kin"
• "Sabre Tooth"
• "Mammoth Journey"
Disc Five: Making of Walking With Prehistoric Beasts
Disc Six: Walking With Cavemen
• "Episode 2"
Walking With Dinosaurs was a television event because there had simply never been anything like it before. Up until that point, most dinosaur specials on TV had consisted of endless shots of paleontologists digging up bones and discussing them alongside speculative paintings and shots of skeletons in museums. Walking With Dinosaurs, by contrast, brought drama and energy to these previously static creatures. The show's central conceit is that it's essentially a National Geographic-type nature special that was shot millions of years ago. While that sometimes came off as a bit gimmicky or contrived, and also required far more speculation than some were comfortable with, it made for undeniably enthralling television. The four sequels that followed used similar techniques to cover periods before and after the dinosaurs, and while some were more consistent than others, most were worthy successors.
Though Dinosaurs was the first show made, this set compiles the shows in the order their events occurred chronologically. As a result, Before the Dinosaurs comes first, even though it's actually the most recent series in the collection. It's an excellent companion to the original series, with the same mixture of drama and science. Even if none of the creatures profiled here are as iconic as dinosaurs, they get by on sheer bizarreness: aquatic scorpions the size of a motorcycle, the tiny but venomous reptile Therocephalia, the sail-backed Dimetrodon, and so forth, all presented in as much detail as in the original series. Admittedly some of the CG looks a little fake (the giant centipede, for instance, looks as if it was taken from an antediluvian version of Grand Theft Auto), but nonetheless, the show is a worthy companion to the original Dinosaurs.
Dinosaurs, of course, was the show that started it all. Even today, it still remains one of the most compelling pieces of science-based television ever made. Even if some of the CGI has dated and some of what it depicts has since been contradicted, it's still a thrill to watch these creatures come to life in a way that wasn't really seen on TV before, or anywhere outside of films like Jurassic Park. Walking With Dinosaurs made paleontology exciting by reminding people that first and foremost it's about extraordinary creatures living extraordinary lives, ones all the more fascinating because they really existed. Allosaurus, made a year after the original, isn't so much a sequel as a new chapter, with the same level of detail and energy. Like the original series, it's a reminder that these animals lived in ways that were frequently far more remarkable than anything many fiction writers could dream up.
The eagerly anticipated sequel to Dinosaurs was Walking With Prehistoric Beasts. In many ways, it's even more ambitious than Dinosaurs, since it deals with creatures that are far more difficult to animate than dinosaurs and that have far more resemblance to animals today. Unfortunately, that also makes it more uneven as well. The best episodes, such as "Whale Killer" and "Sabre Tooth" are easily the equal of the best moments of Dinosaurs, but too often the animation is not as believable and the storylines are sometimes repetitive. The weakest episode, "Next of Kin," suffers the most from these flaws. As hard as it tries to argue that Australopithecus are displaying human characteristics, the writing is sloppy and the CGI simply isn't convincing. There are still plenty of great moments in this series, but it's not quite as consistently enthralling as Dinosaurs.
Which leads to Walking With Cavemen, the last program. It was put together by a different production team than the other Walking With… shows, and consequently the format is different as well. Instead of following a story, it jumps around chronologically and geographically within each episode. It also focuses on humans rather than animals, so there are actual actors rather than CGI and animatronic creatures. It's even got a different narrator; this is the only series in this set not narrated by Kenneth Branagh (Wild Wild West). All those differences shouldn't necessarily add up to a weaker show, but unfortunately they do. The looser format is much harder to follow. The connections and transitions between topics are so tenuous that just as a story is building steam, it gets interrupted and moves on to something else that seems unrelated. The narration isn't nearly as dramatic. Worst of all, the creatures are not at all convincing. We're never seeing societies of Australopithecus or Neanderthals, we're seeing actors in suits and makeup. Despite some fascinating scientific revelations, this is something of a disappointment. Still, it's not enough to ruin the set as a whole.
All of the shows in this set are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with a Dolby Digital stereo mix, and all look and sound impressive. Some of the archive footage looks murky, and stands out compared to the more modern CGI shots, but nothing sticks out horrendously.
The set is loaded with several special features, almost all of which are ported over from previous DVD releases. There are four making-of specials: "Trilogy of Life" (28:29) on Disc One, "The Making of Walking With Dinosaurs" (51:09) and "Big Al Uncovered" (29:01) on Disc Two, and "The Making of Walking With Prehistoric Beasts" on Disc Five. The latter is split up into two specials, "Triumph of the Beasts" (49:03) and "The Beasts Within" (49:02). They're detailed explanations of how paleontologists and researchers aided the producers and animators in bringing the creatures to life, and how the process of animating and building the creatures even helped the paleontologists in learning new information. They also address the thorny issue of how much of these shows are based on fact and how much on speculation. The Prehistoric Beasts and Cavemen discs also have storyboards, text files, photo galleries, and various "Production Interviews" with producers, animators, technicians and actors. They're a nice bonus, but none are essential, although during the interviews it's amusing to see actors in full makeup and suits trying to eat lunch. Cavemen also includes animatics of some of the action sequences, an audio-only sample of the show's original score, and "On Location Specials" with some brief snippets of behind-the-scenes footage.
There are only two new features added to this release, both on the Allosaurus disc, and neither is significant. "Living with Dinosaurs" (48:01) examines scientific reasons why reptiles who co-existed with dinosaurs survived to today while dinosaurs themselves did not. It's tedious and repeats much of what is said in the main shows. "Extreme Dinosaurs: The Science of Giants" (48:51) focuses on the discoveries of two new colossal dinosaurs in Argentina, the plant-eating Argentinasaurus and the predator Giganotosaurus, but despite promising a battle of the two titans, instead only delivers endless shots of paleontologists digging up bones.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's no escaping it: a considerable amount of what these shows depict is speculation. Some of it is based on science, but there are still plenty of scenes that were inserted more for visual and dramatic purposes than educational ones. It's not just the color of the skins, or how the creatures sounded. Did dinosaurs really spray urine to mark their territory? Did Indricothere really abandon their young after only a few years? While some of these storylines make for arresting television, their scientific basis is less certain, as even some scientists on the "making-of" specials admit. While these shows are genuinely instructive, take some of the more sensational aspects with a rather large grain of salt.
The shows also do tend to fall into a formula, one that becomes evident after seeing several at a time. "Allosaurus," "Next of Kin," and "Land of Giants," for instance, all follow a specific creature from childhood to adulthood. While that's a legitimate way to tell the story, too many of the episodes include several moments of manufactured crisis where the narrator intones breathlessly "It's possible (insert creature here) may not survive!" This, of course, is ludicrous, since usually the episode isn't even half over yet, so we know the creature must obviously survive to the end. Similarly, in episodes that depict societies built around dominant males and females, it's almost a given that either the dominant male or female will die, causing a crisis when they have to be replaced. This is another instance where the needs of TV drama are given too much weight.
One final note: there is a particularly infuriating bit of editing done, apparently to salvage our precious American sensibilities. During "Next of Kin," shots of the Australopithecus mating are digitally blurred out, presumably because they resemble human intercourse too closely (which could just as easily be said of the mating scenes of, say, Diplodocus). Fans who pay good money to see these shows on DVD deserve the unedited version or even a notice on the packaging to indicate that editing has been done. It's especially nonsensical as Walking With Cavemen has several shots of full-frontal male and female nudity that were left intact.
Fans who already own these sets individually needn't bother with this collection, as the meager new content isn't worth the extra expense. In fact, some minor features from earlier releases, specifically the picture-in-picture footage from Dinosaurs and the storyboards from Allosaurus, have been excised. But others who don't should definitely spring for this set. Walking With Dinosaurs, Allosaurus, and Walking With Monsters are must-haves for fans of science television, and Walking With Prehistoric Beasts is only a step behind those. For less than the cost of buying the individual sets, you can get them all at once and receive Walking With Cavemen as a freebie, which is just about right.
The good stuff here easily outweighs the bad. Not guilty.
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