It’s 3am in a Jurassic forest that will one day be a part of the Iberian Peninsula. An Allosaurus mother hovers watchfully over her brood, kept awake by the nocturnal guttural chirping of a particularly irritating Ornitholestes. Driven at last to her breaking point, the mother gets up and moves through the clearing towards the source of the call. A moment later, the call is abruptly cut off. The Allosaurus returns to her offspring, followed by the theropod. It passes our view once, twice, and then collapses, blood spurting from the now severed neck upon which its chirping head once sat.
There’s no laugh track, but at moments like this, Dinosaur Revolution seems to demand one. More than any of the previous CGI prehistoric wildlife documentaries from the Discovery Channel, the most notable being the BBC coproduction Walking with Dinosaurs, this program prefers to get overly cute. In its awkward efforts to entertain while informing, Dinosaur Revolution indulges in many such silly gags: hunter and hunted become (exceedingly) unlikely friends, apex predators tease each other like schoolboys, males either dance elaborately to attract females or behave like the prehistoric equivalent of henpecked nebbishes.
This tendency towards the jokey flourish appears to run contrary to the central thesis of the four-hour miniseries, which airs on Discovery in two-hour primetime blocks over the first two Sundays of September. The “revolution” of the title refers to the fundamental shift in the scientific consensus on and public perception of dinosaurs over the past few decades. As elucidated by several of the series’ paleontological talking heads (or talking holograms, as the effects-heavy production renders them), this revolution has moved the general perspective away from the lumbering, blandly hued reptilian dim bulbs of classic dinosaur myth to intelligent, mercurial creatures with bright colors, complex social behaviors, and ecological interrelations.
Dinosaur Revolution illustrates this sea change in paleoscience in lovingly computer-rendered vignettes of engaging action, suspense, and humor. Much as the narrative execution leaves something to be desired, the visualization of this scientific “revolution” does too. Although the CGI dinosaurs are keenly detailed in their appearance and movements, their actions—mapped out by the co-directors (established dino-illustrator Dave Krentz and comic artist Ricardo Delgado) and executed by the effects team (overseen by Douglas Martin)—are more dramatic cinematic situations than well researched behavioral science. On the usual life-and-death-struggle foundations of the nature documentary narrative are erected petty rivalries, unrealistic predator-prey pursuits, more child-in-peril scenarios than a decade’s worth of Spielberg movies, and at least a few beats stolen directly from Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time. These make unprecedented discoveries in the fossil record seem cheap and inane.
Indeed, Dinosaur Revolution’s very title indicates its inclination to sensationalize. The term “revolution,” visualized in the title sequence in a peculiarly Soviet-style font, is used throughout the series to describe the shift in paleontological thinking, to preface this central change in consensus as a radical overturning of the past order of dinosaurid knowledge. “Revolution” is certainly the type of sexy and forceful word that television marketing demands, suggestive of furious, desperate, and brave action, of bodies pressed against barricades and sacrifices for tragic ideals. But it’s a poor fit for scientific inquiry, in which empirical, methodical rigor informs an incremental adjustment of rational judgment.
A far better description of this process is “evolution,” which is applied liberally in Dinosaur Revolution as it is in so many biological science documentaries. Evolutionary change accrues progressively over time, while revolutionary change gains terminal velocity suddenly, like a falling chandelier. The former is a more appropriate descriptor of scientific method than the latter, even on television.
And yet, Dinosaur Revolution remains entirely watchable and even info-taining in its Discovery Channeled, simplified-science way. The prehistoric CGI scenes are often are fairly funny (however unintentionally). The exploits of less well known creatures, like the wacky-dancing Gigantoraptor or the massive sauropod Lusotitan, do prove to be revelations to the layman viewer. In the second episode, “The Watering Hole,” there’s a fun little experiment investigating the speed and force of a whipping sauropod tail striking the cast model of an Allosaur jaw, conducted by co-director Krentz. Both the destruction captured by high-speed camera and Krentz’s geeky glee as he observes it, recall the appeal of one of Discovery’s beloved flagship shows, Mythbusters.
Additionally, the negligible amount of narration is welcome, especially when the voice-over disgorges bizarre clunkers like “Welcome to the Eoraptor version of a singles bar.” At the same time, Dinosaur Revolution’s delights include the evident nerdly passion of the holo-academics, chief among them University of Maryland paleontologist Dr. Thomas R. Holtz, Jr., who also consulted on Walking With Dinosaurs. The researchers’ communicative enthusiasm emerges in even the most head-scratching of their chosen analogies: if a fossil field really is like a “pile of Christmas presents,” as Holtz puts it, wouldn’t you occasionally get the paleontological equivalent of a pair of socks from your aunt?
When one cuts through its mix of slight pleasures and leaden annoyances, it’s apparent that Dinosaur Revolution is not revolutionary in form or content, and moreover, that its melding of entertainment with science ends up disfiguring both. Tighter control over the tone may have prevented that, but maybe there really isn’t a way around it. Dinosaurs may not be the dull, inflexible creatures they were once thought to be, but cable television is another prehistoric beast entirely.