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Prehistoric Earth: A Natural History

(BBC; US DVD: 3 Jun 2008)

This documentary series, by most measures, is nothing short of a revolutionary accomplishment.  Though the inception of the first installment, Walking with Dinosaurs is less-than inspired, and the entire series’ digital effects are less-than perfect, BBC’s six-disc monstrosity, Prehistoric Earth: A Natural History is a landmark for educational documentaries.  Not only is it dramatic, gorgeous, and informative, but all those qualities are transferable through different age groups and demographics. 


This series can be shown in second-grade classrooms to nurture an interest in paleontology (and archeology), a college classroom to literalize the eons-old material being studied, and also in primetime television, to people who haven’t thought about classrooms for years.  Such universality is a monumental feat by any media’s standards, and simply astounding for a televised educational documentary.


But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.  Even though Walking with Dinosaurs has been watched by 400 million viewers worldwide (a number the BBC touts in one of the many accompanying documentaries), I was uninitiated, so perhaps you are, too.  The story of Prehistoric Earth started after BBC producer Tim Haines saw Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and said [paraphrased]: “I want that on the small screen!” 


After making a convincing six-minute pilot (included in the collection), Haines, along with Framestore Animation, Crawley Creatures Animatronics, BBC TV, and a team of over 400 paleontologists, put together the six-episode series Walking with Dinosaurs, airing over a half-decade later in 1999.  Spanning from the Triassic to the Late Cretaceous, through the miracle of late-90s computer generation, we follow the lives and evolutions of innumerable beasts that lived over 200 million years ago.


From the relatively small Coelophysis, up through numerous pterosaurs (like the Ornithocheirus with its 40-foot wingspan) and of course the Tyrannosaurus Rex himself, all the giants of our childhood fantasies are beautifully rendered and move within the live-action environments as realistically as can be hoped (at least, the giants of boys’ fantasies; though I assume girls fantasized about dinosaurs too; at least, I fantasized that they fantasized).  While Kenneth Branagh dramatically narrates the landscape, we get to watch the action, the struggle for survival, and the changing face of our environment unfold thanks to endless animators and animatronic sculptors and puppeteers.  Worthy of purchase on its own, Walking with Dinosaurs comprises merely one-sixth of the discs in this collection. 


After the unparalleled popularity of first installment, sequels were inevitable.  First, the more modestly successful follow-up Walking with Beasts showed the rise of mammalian life in the post-Cretaceous period (like the Indricother—a 15-ton giraffe-like rhinoceros ancestor).  Then in 2006 came the prequel Walking with Monsters, starring the crazy invertebrates and giant insects of the Cambrian and Devonian eras (like eagle-sized dragonflies and Volkswagen-sized scorpions).  This series struck gold by highlighting a segment of life barely known to the general populace – even though the validity of some facts in the show are contested. 


These three Walking with… series still only accounts for 50 percent of the box set.  The uneven fourth installment, Walking with Cavemen a thorough “Making Of” disc, and multiple hour-long special specials – including a few behind-the-scenes shows, additional BBC specials about dinosaurs, and a documentary following “Big Al”, the most complete Allosaurus skeleton ever found – round out the set.  And the best part about Prehistoric Earth as a collection is that it’s the relationship between those behind-the-scenes documentaries and specials, and the series itself that gives the box set its power. 


Coherent as the Walking with…  series is, sometimes its dramatic interpretations of species’ lives supercedes the historical information contained.  Though watching an Allosaurus mother defend her nest illustrates behaviors and movements of a 140-million-year-old species, watching the entire three-minute-long fight sequence is a bit unnecessary.  While very watchable, it hedges more towards the entertaining than the enlightening. And this is exactly where the behind-the-scenes specials pick up. 


Instead of highlighting the meticulous creation of the models and animations, the filmmakers focus on the fossils – interviewing the paleontologists about the evidence supporting the behaviors we see on-screen.  How we know the Diplodocus didn’t feed off the tops of trees, how the 60-ton Basilosaurus interlocked their small hind legs during mating, and how they extrapolated the movements and postures of all these creatures using nothing but bones, science, and speculation.  While the behind-the-scenes offers a more traditional style of dino-documentary, coupled with the stylized Walking with… episodes, the combined 16 hours of footage is just as enthralling as it is educational.


I’ve discussed before the merits (and lack thereof) of the documentary as education ( In Search of Cézanne, Gang of Souls, and American Cannibal), and it seems I’ve been generally disparaging to the idea of wheeling art on a rickety TV stand from classroom to classroom.  Clearly, I’d just been watching the wrong documentaries. 


As paleontology is an abstract profession, based on imagining the lives of long-dead organisms, bringing those imaginations to life has the ability to vitalize the future of an industry. It’s not out-of-line to call Prehistoric Earth: A Natural History a Jurassic Park that can be shown in class. And when we look back at the series’ inception, that seems to be exactly the point: adding the drama of a big-screen success to the research of an entire profession.


It’s not all praise for the series, however.  Prehistoric Earth has been criticized numerous times for presenting a few paleontological inaccuracies and for purporting speculation as fact (especially in the case of Walking with Monsters where there is very little evidence to argue what is presented as historical fact).  However, in my eyes, these critiques are perfectionist, as it’s understood that much of the information is speculative, and the impact of the series is much grander than the idea that “current size estimates suggest the Spinosaurus might have been larger than the Giganotosaurus.” 


As American Cannibal director Perry Grebin so aptly put it: “Anybody who wants the documentary to tell them the whole story will be severely disappointed.  Anyone who wants to be entertained will hopefully be entertained.”  Prehistoric Earth: A Natural History accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, with very few hiccups, and wow, was I entertained.

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