Judge Mina Rhodes finds the image of Nigel Marven in his boxers, caressing a mononykus, to be strangely erotic.
Four award-winning, massively popular Walking with… programs now in one monster set!
Stupid asteroids. Our beloved little planet works up hundreds of millions of years of evolution, creating bizarre, beautiful organisms, and then some damn space rock decides to bitch slap the globe, effectively wiping most of them out. Thankfully, the process of evolution itself continued on, and a strange and fascinating new race emerged: the British. They birthed the English language, at one time dominated most of the world, and along the way consumed massive amounts of tea, and, starting with a little six-part series in 1999, began to dominate the field of nature documentaries. Among the most notable of their recent big successes are The Blue Planet and Planet Earth, as well as a myriad other BBC-produced, spectacle-rich slices of edutainment, which The Discovery Channel dumps into a time slot a year after they air in the U.K., often needlessly retitled with an extra word or two. That aforementioned six-part series which arguably started it all, Walking with Dinosaurs, spawned a legion of follow-up specials and series about prehistoric life, all of which have found their way to DVD.
Facts of the Case
Dubbed the Ultimate Dinosaur Collection, this new three-disc set from BBC Video collects all the dinosaur-related entries in the Walking with… series: Walking with Monsters (Disc 1); the original, groundbreaking Walking with Dinosaurs (Disc 2); its accompanying special Allosaurus: A Walking with Dinosaurs Special; and Chased by Dinosaurs, which is actually two Walking with Dinosaurs specials, The Giant Claw and Land of Giants, as well as a three-part miniseries called Sea Monsters: A Walking with Dinosaurs Trilogy, all lumped together on Disc 3.
I warned you about that whole Discovery Channel retitling thing, didn't I? Here is a more manageable summation of the discs' contents:
Disc One: Walking with Monsters
"Episode Two": Giant bugs. Lots of them. Due to the higher oxygen content in the atmosphere of the Carboniferous period, arthropods could grow to bigger sizes than possible in this day and age. And so the audience is introduced to giant spiders, giant centipedes, and giant dragonflies, all of whom set their compound sights on a teeny little reptile called petrolacosaurus. Millions of years later, in the Permian period, a female dimetrodon gets preggers. Drama ensues.
"Episode Three": It is the late Permian, and the land is mostly an arid desert. A large female gorgonopsid menaces smaller members of her species, hunts scutosaurs, and gets made a fool of by pesky, burrowing, prairie dog-like reptiles called diictodon. Later, in the Triassic, a herd of cow-like lystrosaurus migrate in search of leafy greens, and are constantly set upon by vicious predators. Meanwhile, a little green lizard-like reptile called euparkaria hunts flies, using its unique hip structure to chase them over short distances on two legs. This little adaptation will, as the series shows, lead to the evolution of the first dinosaurs. In effect, this means that there were no dinosaurs in any of the three episodes (aside from a throwaway shot at the end), therefore making this series' inclusion in a set called the Ultimate Dinosaur Collection a bit dubious, but I digress…
"Trilogy of Life: The Making of Walking with Dinosaurs, Beasts, and Monsters" A 30-minute "making of" that explores the production and cultural impact of the Walking with… trilogy.
Disc Two: Walking with Dinosaurs
"Time of the Titans": The second episode of the series follows the life of a group of infant diplodocus, from when they hatch from their eggs to their eventual maturation, and, in some cases, early death.
"Cruel Sea": The oceans of the late Jurassic swim with all kinds of strange reptiles, from the fish-like ophthalmosaurus to the gigantic, toothy predator liopleurodon. Meanwhile on land, eustreptospondylus scavenges for food, eventually stumbling upon a bountiful feast—a gigantic, toothy, predatory one.
"Giant of the Skies": A huge male pterosaur, ornithocheirus, flies by instinct to his ritual mating grounds to breed. Along his journey, he encounters a herd of iguanadon, who are being hunted by a pack of utahraptor.
"Spirits of the Ice Forest": Near the Arctic circle, a group of leaellynasaura struggle to survive in the chilly climate, along with other polar residents like koolasuchus, a giant amphibian, and muttaburrasaurus, a large herbivorous summer visitor. All are hunted by another summer visitor: allosaurus.
"Death of a Dynasty": The requisite T. rex episode. A female Tyrannosaurus rex struggles to raise her chicks in an increasingly unstable and hostile environment, and unbeknownst to her or any of the other inhabitants of Planet Earth, something is approaching from the depths of space that will "spell their doom."
Disc Three: Chased by Dinosaurs and Allosaurus
"The Giant Claw": Nigel Marven travels back in time to Mongolia to "solve" the "mystery" of therizinosaurus, a large dinosaur with huge claws on its forelimbs. Along the way, he has run-ins with a curiously unfeathered pack of velociraptor, a large relative of T. rex called tarbosaurus, and even catches his first dinosaur, a mononykus.
"Sea Monsters": Nigel Marven yet again travels back in time, but this time he visits the "seven most dangerous seas" in history. Expect lots of giant toothy prehistoric fish.
"Allosaurus: A Walking with Dinosaurs Special" This extra episode of Walking with Dinosaurs recreates the life of Big Al, a fossilized allosaurus, as he hatches out of his egg, hunts small insects, grows up to hunt bigger game, and in one of the most spectacular scenes in the entire Walking with… saga, attacks a herd of diplodocus using a bit of teamwork, before meeting his untimely end.
When the original Walking with Dinosaurs first aired stateside in 2000, I was a wee little eleven-year-old thing. As all children did, and still do, I loved dinosaurs with an obsessive passion, so missing the program was not an option. I remember being transfixed to the television screen, amazed by what I saw. I re-watched the series so many times over the subsequent few weeks, on a recorded VHS tape, that entire passages of Ben Bartlett's fantastic musical score are forever burned into my memory. Alas, as I grew up, I outgrew my fascination, and hadn't revisited the series until now. Does it still hold up? We'll get to that a bit later.
The Ultimate Dinosaur Collection starts with Walking with Monsters, which aired six years after Walking with Dinosaurs. Monsters covers a lot of ground in 90 minutes, rushing through time periods and extinct animals at a swift pace. The last part of the Walking with… trilogy proper, it has only three episodes, whereas Dinosaurs and Beasts each boasted six. Such time constraints restrict the series to a more limited view of its subject, reducing the overall impact of Monsters, especially in comparison to its more celebrated predecessors. On the plus side, Monsters features truly impressive CGI, some of the best ever produced for television. While the creatures presented throughout the series are rather uninteresting in comparison to what is found in the others, all of them are rendered with great detail and are, at times, even convincing—as far as CGI animals go, anyway. The technical wizardry is undercut, unfortunately, by the insubstantial running time and general lack of real interest. The first episode (its numerous scientific inaccuracies aside) is actually rather engrossing, due to its alien-looking life forms and giant scorpions, but it all goes downhill from there, and the series simply feels like a retread of what has come before it. The included documentary, "Trilogy of Life," only heightens this fact as it parades clips from Walking with Dinosaurs and Walking with Beasts, all of which give glimpses of things far more interesting than Monsters. The documentary itself is well worth a viewing, as it is very in-depth, despite its short runtime. The creators of all three series detail the exhaustive work that went into creating the visual effects, respond to the numerous criticisms of the shows' speculative nature, and even manage to slip in jokes about gimps, bondage, and KY jelly.
Walking with Dinosaurs, on Disc Two, is the centerpiece of this set.
Unparalleled at the time in its scope, ambition, and cost, Dinosaurs
still holds up today as one of the greatest examples of what television can
achieve. Watching it again with a more mature eye, it's easier to notice flaws
in the special effects and science, but these do not compromise the overall
series, which is still as stately and grandiose as it was in 1999.
Case in point: "Time of the Titans," the second episode. Opening with a dramatic image of adult diplodocus and other towering herbivores grazing the landscape, the episode doesn't let up throughout the entire 28 minutes. A clutch of baby diplodocus hatches, in one of the cuter moments in the series. At birth, they are beset by small, egg-robbing dinosaurs and as they grow they are descended upon by forest fires, allosaurs, and an angry stegosaurus. The CGI used to create the dinosaurs was impressive for its time, and still works today, despite not reaching Hollywood levels of sophistication. The adult diplodocus are particularly well rendered, with their coiling and swishing tail tips and convincing, weighty movement.
"Cruel Sea" continues the trend of quality with a great opener involving a surprise attack by liopleurodon, before submerging us in the prehistoric sea. The underwater imagery is breathtaking, and the blue gloom allows for more realistic integration of the computer generated sea life. This episode also features one of the more brutal bits of violence in the series—a very bloody attack on a pregnant ophthalmosaurus by liopleurodon. Such instances of graphic violence were cut out of the American broadcast version, but are thankfully preserved on DVD.
"Giant of the Skies" is perhaps the best episode; following the plight of an aging ornithocheirus who is driven by instinct to mate one last time, its conclusion is surprisingly touching and sad—all the more impressive, considering it manages to make the viewer feel something for a combination of CGI and foam rubber. Supporting players in the form of iguanadon and utahraptor also provide added interest. The first appearance of a herd of iguanadon on a beach is one of the highlights of the series, approaching a level of photorealism that is stunning. Bartlett's score for the episode is also the best of the series; his theme for the ornithocheirus is sweepingly powerful, and when performed by a solo violin, tragic. Why Bartlett didn't immediately get picked up for more high-profile scoring assignments after Dinosaurs is puzzling, as his work on the series is superb.
"Spirits of the Ice Forest" is drenched in atmosphere, provided by its hazy, low-lighting cinematography and the chilly environment. The "stars" of the episode, the leaellynasaura, are little, huge-eyed dinosaurs that utter high-pitched squeaks and chatters. Naturally, this means "cute moments" aplenty, and when one is brutally killed by an allosaurus (another moment cut from the U.S. broadcast), it comes as a genuine shock. The cute factor of the leaellynasaura makes their plight more fascinating, adding some extra suspense as they are stalked by allosaurs or graze at the big, dangerous feet of a larger muttaburrasaurus.
The final episode, "Death of a Dynasty," has a fatalist tone throughout, as the environment is portrayed as hazardous and increasingly saturated with volcanic pollutants. The "king of the dinosaurs" has trouble laying fertile eggs, and when she eventually does, only three chicks emerge -and that number is soon cut down to two. "Death of a Dynasty" makes for a good finale, but its presentation of Tyrannosaurus rex is curiously dull.
Walking with Dinosaurs features a "Picture in Picture" feature, where series produce Tim Haines provides commentary on certain scenes while alternate views or additional videos are displayed. It's interesting and informative, but the video portion often tends to obscure much of the action onscreen. It's worth a viewing, but only after you've viewed the series on its own.
Disc Three introduces a human element into all this prehysteria: Nigel Marven. Known for his nature documentaries, Marven has a childlike enthuisiasm and a permanent smile stuck on his face. If he frowned, I'm sure it would be a sign of the apocalypse. Chased by Dinosaurs, which is really just a few of Marven's post-Dinosaurs and Beasts specials lumped together, essentially finds Marven traveling back to dinosaur times. Imagine a goofy, giddy little man snorkeling with a giant killer liopleurodon, and you wouldn't be too far off from what you actually get here. It's a silly idea, but the creators know it, and comedic elements are introduced, such as a running joke involving Marven's cameramen, who are clearly annoyed by his disregard for caution in the face of danger. At one point in "The Giant Claw," a cameraman fends off a protoceritops with a boom mike, and later, Marven scares away a pack of velociraptor with a bike horn. It's cute stuff, and the dinosaurs are even more convincing than before, but it feels like fluff compared to Walking with Dinosaurs. Sea Monsters gets off to a very good start, with Marven visiting an ancient sea filled with giant scorpions and other large, predatory invertebrates. There is a unique sense of realism in the segment, as Marven has to breathe through an oxygen tank due to low levels of the gas in the early Earth atmosphere, and when he first pulls a sea scorpion out of the sea, the creature is completely convincing and rather creepy. Much like Walking with Monsters, however, the series starts to decline to over-familiar elements and a heavier reliance on "impressive" giant CGI fish.
Finally, tacked onto the end of Disc Three is Allosaurus: A Walking with Dinosaurs Special. Essentially an extra episode of Dinosaurs, it retains all the strengths of that series, and is a stellar episode in its own right, providing a more fittingly engrossing conclusion to the series than "Death of a Dynasty." The excitingly cinematic attack on a herd of diplodocus by several allosaurs is certainly one of the highlights of the entire series.
Monsters, Dinosaurs, Chased by Dinosaurs, and Allosaurus are all anamorphically enhanced in their original 1.78:1 aspect ratios. The Monsters and Dinosaurs discs are dupes of the original DVD releases, although Dinosaurs does not feature the additional making-of feature that was included on a bonus disc in its original DVD release. Having the oldest transfer, Dinosaurs also has the weakest picture, as there is quite a bit of noticeable artifacing in many scenes. Picture detail is sharp throughout, though, and is certainly very watchable. Monsters, being newer, fares better. There is still some slight artifacing in some scenes, but it's not distracting, and Chased by Dinosaurs and Allosaurus follow this same format. Audio is Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo on all episodes, and is serviceable, but given the nature of the programs, a 5.1 mix would have greatly improved the viewing experience. Chased by Dinosaurs and Allosaurus have no accompanying extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is simply no getting around it: nearly every detail of extinct animal behavior presented in all the programs is completely speculatory. This is forgivable, considering a program focusing on dinosaurs, only to have them lay there with the narration informing us, "We don't really know what the dinosaurs did. So we won't show them doing anything. But don't they look cool?" would be a complete failure. However, there are countless scientific inaccuracies presented in the series as fact: utahraptor, so named for its location…in Europe? The dinosaurs are wiped out by…a comet? Not to mention the wildly inaccurate evolutionary connections portrayed in Monsters, and those are just the tip of the iceberg of the erroneous details that plague all the series and specials found here. The fallacies are forgivable in Dinosaurs and Allosaurus, which compensate with sheer filmmaking skill and stunning imagery, but no such excuses can be made for Monsters and Chased by Dinosaurs, both of which pale greatly in comparison. Chased by Dinosaurs in particular is the weakest link of this set. What made Dinosaurs (and, to a lesser extent, Monsters) so interesting was the complete lack of humans onscreen, as it presented dinosaurs with straight-faced conviction. Chased introduces a human element, which immediately robs the proceedings of most of their potential seriousness, as well as highlighting the fact that the dinosaurs are just computer animated constructs. In both Monsters and Chased by Dinosaurs, there is also far too much interaction with the camera by the animals. This approaches levels of self-parody in Monsters, where at one point, a dimetrodon digs into a carcass, pulls out some intestines, shakes them around, and the camera lens becomes covered in feces.
Another example of the declining quality of subsequent Walking
with… programs is Ben Bartlett's scores: In Dinosaurs,
Allosaurus, and Beasts, his musical scores were performed by the
BBC Concert Orchestra, adding considerable dramatic heft to the events onscreen.
In Monsters and Chased by Dinosaurs, he no longer has an orchestra
to use, and the scores are based around synthesizers. It sounds cheap, and does
the programs no favors when compared to the classier productions of the
Walking with… programs before them.
If you already own Walking with Beasts, but none of the other installments in the Walking with… series, this set provides a good buy for completists. Otherwise, Walking with Dinosaurs and Allosaurus are both well worth owning, but are available seperately, with bonus "making of" specials not found in this set. Still, the Ultimate Dinosaur Collection is well-priced, and kids will go likely crazy over the set at any rate—that is, if they aren't traumatized by the frank depictions of bloody carnage and frequent dinosaur sex.
Walking with Dinosaurs and Allosaurus are found not guilty. Walking with Monsters and Chased by Dinosaurs, however, are found guilty of being too much of a good thing.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Trilogy of Life: The Making of Walking with Dinosaurs, Beasts, and Monsters
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