Our review of Prehistoric Earth, published July 9th, 2008, is also available.
A special engagement with the Lizard King, the original one I mean.
I admit it. In addition to being a software geek, I'm also a science geek. I love knowing things in general, but particularly find interesting particle physics, cosmology, planetary exploration, human history, and of course dinosaurs. Who hasn't found themselves fascinated by these bizarre creatures? Their dominance over this earth was so long, over 100 million years, that man's rule is nothing but a microscopic blip on the timeline in comparison.
And their vast diversity is another great source of interest. They have existed in forms so wildly varied that it boggles the mind, filling almost every evolutionary niche possible (though of course they missed one important one). Given 100 million years, perhaps humans will produce as many funky and scary experimental models as the terrible lizards did, but lets hope not. I'm not sure I'm ready for a fifty-ton woman with meter long teeth.
If you share my interest in this area, you will definitely want to see the BBC documentary series Walking with Dinosaurs. Originally presented as six separate 45 minutes episodes on TV, they have all now been collected onto a single DVD. This series is, as far as I know, the most technically advanced "dinomentary" ever made.
Episode one, "New Blood," starts off at the dawn of the rule of the dinosaurs, about 220 millions years ago, the Triassic period. This was just after one of the numerous mass extinction events that have occurred over the history of life on earth. Life is pretty rough, and there's no jetting off to the continent for vacation because there is only one continent. But there is a new kid on the block, represented by small and agile dinosaurs. They are the beginning of the longest running show so far.
Next is "Time of the Titans," which covers the late Jurassic period, about 150 million years ago. This section covers the mondo-dinos, such Brontosaur and Diplodocus, which grew to mind boggling size. It is hard enough to imagine the size of whales, and they live today and in the buoyant water. But think about a 70-ton monster walking by you, causing the ground to shake with each step. You wouldn't even reach his ankles. There is a line in the movie City Slickers, where Curly tells Billy Crystal's character, "I crap bigger'n you." Well, in this case, it's actually true.
The third episode is "Cruel Sea," which I found to be very interesting because it covers an aspect of history that I knew little about. Also based in the late Jurassic, it deals with the life in the sea, which is every bit as scary as on land. The single land mass is splitting up and there are lots of broad, shallow seas. Of particular interest is Liopleurodon, which is basically as whale as designed by Freddy Kruger. It's huge (150 tons and 25 meters long), it's fast, and it's got a really bad attitude. It's the biggest, baddest carnivore that ever lived, and could use a T-Rex to pick its teeth after dinner. This episode also opens with one of the best surprise scenes of the whole series.
Episode four covers the air of the early Cretaceous period, about 127 million years ago. The early pterosaurs have evolved into huge Boeing type animals, with wingspans of up to 36 feet and a body bigger than a modern man. This episode follows the last days of a large male pterosaur, as he is driven back to his birthing grounds to mate, and has some of the most poignant moments of the series.
Episode five covers another aspect of the early Cretaceous period, around 106 million years ago, but from the perspective of dinosaurs living in earth's polar regions. At this time, the poles get cold during the winter, but nothing like modern times. During the summer it is actually covered in lush forests and supports a variety of animals. But they have to be able to deal with months of complete darkness and wide swings in temperature, and its not going to get any better.
The final episode is the "money shot," which covers the required topic of the King of the terrible lizards, Tyrannosaurus Rex. Generally billed as the ultimate killing machine, these guys pretty much kicked butts and took names wherever they wanted to. The ladies will be glad to know that the females were the larger of the sexes; making them the baddest land animals of all time I guess.
I'm happy to say that finally someone has made a documentary series that both teaches well and looks very good. Given the full, wide screen, anamorphic treatment all the way through, this is the kind of stuff I've been hoping to arrive on DVD. I've written numerous times to the Smithsonian, public TV, and others, that if they would do quality DVD versions of some of the extensive documentaries they own, I would buy most of them. I love good educational stuff, but I'm just not going to buy any more VHS tapes in this lifetime.
And not only is the transfer good, the production values of the series are very high. Much of the work is a hybrid of computer animation and puppetry of various sorts (though on a pretty large scale sometimes.) And it looks very, very good. Computer animation of a quality not long ago reserved for Spielberg epics is used throughout the entire series. You really feel like you are seeing the real thing. It's never completely perfect, since our eyes are very sensitive to the way living things move, but it's the best I've seen so far outside of a Hollywood blockbuster.
Increasing the value of this package is that it comes with a second DVD, which contains a pretty extensive "making of" featurette. It goes into (sometimes grisly) detail about how the effects were created and how the scenes were shot. In many cases, actors in the scene would interact with the environment, only to be digitally removed later and replaced by animated creatures.
The narration is top notch and is provided by Mr. Shakespeare himself, Kenneth Branagh. I was expecting him at any moment to say something like, "Neither a lender nor a sauropod be." As I understand it, the very condensed version of this series, which was shown on US television, also replaced Branagh's narration. I didn't see that one, but I can only imagine that it was a pale imitation.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is not much bad to say about this excellent effort. The only real technical shortcoming is that the audio is only Dolby 2.0. Given the extensive ambient sounds used throughout the series, I think that a 5.1 track was warranted. It sounds good as is, but it could have gone that extra mile in my opinion.
Though I agree with the decisions made, there is also the issue that you might not want to show this stuff to children below their early teens. The brutality of life is shown in most of its splendor, and it might be a little much for impressionable youngsters, who still believe that Mr. Fox is only chasing Mr. Rabbit for fun. The dilemma here is that the content is otherwise incredibly enlightening, and provides the kind of eye candy required to get even younger kids interested in this fascinating material. But, I think that turning it into a Disney version of history would have done a disservice to the subject matter.
Bloody excellent stuff in my opinion, top shelf and all that. I would love if there were more material out there like this. Right off the top of my head, I would vote for coverage of the areas of physics, computer science, and even exotic sports cars for that matter. I could have easily watched a couple hundred hours more of this series if it existed. If someone were to do modern versions of the classic series like "Cosmos" and "The Day the Earth Stood Still," and they looked and worked this good, I would buy them in a heartbeat.
DVD offers an opportunity to tremendously advance the art of documentary and educational material, if only the bucks were available to create them. The ability to support ancillary material, supported in Walking with Dinosaurs by the way, makes the medium more interactive as well. Perhaps, if this DVD moves off the shelves in reasonably high numbers, we might see more such material. You should also harass your local blockbuster into providing it for rent, so that they can at least make some useful contribution to society.
Acquitted, because I'm not about to convict someone who can crap bigger'n me.
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Scales of Justice
• Second Disc Dedicated to the Making of the Series
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