Why do I bother?

5 10 2007

When I was a kid, one of my most-favorite videos was the Christopher Reeve hosted documentary Dinosaur!, a program filled with shots of fossils, interviews with experts, awesome stop-motion animation sequences, and host segments shot in the dim halls of the AMNH. I haven’t seen it in years, but I remember it so fondly that it makes me want to go out and buy a VHS player just so I can watch it again. There have been more recent documentaries that have take a similar strategy, like the Jeff Goldblum-narrated When Dinosaurs Ruled series, but Dinosaur! remains my favorite, and it’s a far cry from modern programming.

“Ooo… At 8 something called ‘The Land of Lost Monsters‘ is on. Do you want to watch it?” my wife asked. I should have said “No” and saved myself the pain. The recent trend in paleo-documentaries has been to use CGI and storytelling as much as possible, pushing the actual science further and further into the background. This trend started with Walking With Dinosaurs, which was alright for what it was, but it has spawned so many clones that I wonder when we’ll be able to actually have dinosaur documentaries be about science and not just CGI critters that don’t look half as good as their big-screen equivalents (i.e. the work of Weta in King Kong [albeit speculative] and Stan Winston’s work on the Jurassic Park series). For those who haven’t had the displeasure of seeing the program, the Land of Lost Monsters is a two-hour program about man vs. beast from the time of Australopithecus africanus to the Pleistocene. Rather than containing any educational content, the show is all about sensationalism, hominids being beset by ravenous monsters throughout history. The treatment of Neanderthals as only cold-loving super-hunters that craved mammoth flesh was enough to make me roll my eyes, and the analogy “Neanderthals were to humans what the saber-tooth tiger was to a housecat” was enough to make me change stations.

What is strange about the current trend in pseudo-scientific television programming is that there are some people who still realize how to make a good documentary, even if it’s not prominently shown on the air. For instance, I didn’t particularly care for Walking With Prehistoric Beasts, but a companion documentary about the science behind the show (featuring interviews with many paleontologists) was fantastic. Likewise, the series Dinosaur Planet featured little “science breaks” here and there giving the audience some clue as what evidence the reconstructions were based upon. The interruptions were far from comprehensive, but there was at least the recognition that scientific reality should be addressed. I won’t go into the Nigel Marvin Chased by… and Prehistoric Park nonsense as I don’t want to go sailing off on a more vicious rant than necessary here.

At this point I should probably mention why I torture myself with shows I know are just going to be repackaged sensationalism with little scientific content. While I am trying to educate myself more and more about the scientific points of paleontology, I also am very much interested in the public perception of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures in paintings, drawings, sculpture, television, movies, amusement park rides, etc. All contribute (not always helpfully) to the public understanding of creatures that are no longer around to be viewed, at least not with flesh on. When someone creates a 3-D model of a Tyrannosaurus I am curious as to what it will look like, how it will move, what behavior the producers will make it perform, etc., and I am very concerned with the move towards “edutainment” on many of the “science” networks like TLC, the Discovery Channel, and the National Geographic Channel. Good programming is seemingly few and far between or generally less-promoted than the expensive rubbish that is constantly generated, a good documentary on the juvenile Tyrannosaurus “Jane” and a stunning documentary about lions & buffalo in Botswana (Relentless Enemies, to which there’s a beautiful companion book) receiving much less attention than pure B.S. about Bigfoot and “Hogzilla.”

To sum things up a bit, I feel that current paleo-programming all-too-often cheats the audience by hiding the science (or even distorting it), making it appear that all the problems have been solved and we now know everything about these animals. Documentaries that are supposed to be educational are more like B-grade monster movies, only they’re not nearly as fun to watch. As discussed in the comments of The Ethical Palaeontologist as well, many spectacular paleontological finds that are being published in Nature or Science seem to be little more than brief announcements, and it can only be hoped that the specimens will be more fully studied and described (as is the case with the strange theropod Majungatholus from a few years back). Perhaps I could use these problems as a way to launch into the whole “framing” issue, but I think I’ll leave that sleeping canid lie for the moment, although misrepresentation or oversimplification of paleontology to the public is nothing new.

This post shouldn’t be taken as a cranky call to return to some of the methods of paleo-documentaries of the 80’s and 90’s, however, even though I wonder what a modern day equivalent of “Mesozoic Mind” would look like (hat-tip to Neil for unearthing the video);

And while we’re at it, here’s another video that’ll probably bring back memories for some readers, and see this previous post for even more;

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20 responses

5 10 2007
Zach Miller

God, the Christopher Reeve doc is MY favorite, too! I liked MOST of Dinosaur Planet, but not all. The velociraptor and Saltasaur bits were okay, but the Daspletosaurus episode was beyond boring (just eat the darn baby! EAT IT!) and the Pyroraptor thing was…wierd and anthropomorphic.

But I agree with you. Paleo docs are becoming crappier and crappier. Nigel Barker’s stuff being at the “beyond crap” end the spectrum.

5 10 2007
David Godfrey

Did you get to see Wild New World? 50 minutes or so of details about the animals and fossils, followed by a 5 minute cgi short about the animals they’d been discussing.

5 10 2007
laelaps

Zach; Yeah, I thought Dinosaur Planet was alright, but nothing too grand (I was surprised to actually look up Pyroraptor and see how little of it there was. It must have been chosen just because it was “new”). I just find it irritating how the Discovery Channel (and the BBC, since they make many of these shows) are making money of the same thing constantly. They even use many of the same models and it’s the same sensationalist junk over and over again. The “Big Al” documentary that was companion to the Walking With Dinosaurs series was pretty good, but overall I’m tired of seeing speculation when the actual science is so much more exciting. Some people are more fascinated with fleshed-out models, but I’ll take the old bones over a computer-generated special effect any day (except if Stan Winston or Weta is behind the effect, then it’s pretty close).

5 10 2007
laelaps

Thanks for the tip, Dave. I actually haven’t seen it (believe it or not, I don’t have TV at home so I only get to watch it when I’m away at a house that does), but I’ll definitely look into it. Sounds like it’s right up my alley.

5 10 2007
Ed Yong

The “Walking with…” series really took a downturn sometime in the middle of the Beasts series, when they started focusing on ‘named’ animals as protagonists. It seemed all but inevitable then that the Nigel Marven nonsense would soon follow.

And, for the life of me, I really don’t understand why they feel it’s necessary. This is, after all, the BBC, whose esteemed natural history unit has produced all of David Attenborough’s peerless documentaries. And despite the fact that none of these feature lead individual animals, a goofy narrator or cheesy scripted sequences, they are the nation’s best-loved and most highly-regarded nature films. Why should shows about prehistoric life be any different?

5 10 2007
dogemperor

As I understand, Gregory Paul recently posted on DINOSAUR-L on how apparently the newer documentaries are starting to drop scientific stuff altogether because they are aiming them at a third-grade level (he was recently asked to be on a documentary–largely based on his works–on some deinonychosaurs likely being secondarily flightless–and the company cut the entire thing because they could not “dumb down” discussions of deinonychosaur “holdovers” from flying/gliding ancestors (like, oh, feather knobs on bones where the ligaments hook on) enough for the producer’s liking).

He is *extraordinarily* pissed about the whole dumbing-down trend, and it’s started quite the interesting thread on DINOSAUR-L on how documentaries are increasingly dispensing with actual SCIENCE to avoid having to dumb things down to an “Idiocracy” level… :(

5 10 2007
Jason

The Nat Geo Sea Monsters IMAX movie premieres today.

5 10 2007
Jason

The Nat Geo Sea Monsters IMAX movie premieres today. There aren’t any locations near me showing it. But there are in NC. Thought I’d check it out if I go to the Sci Blog Con. Hope it isn’t like the pap you mentioned.

5 10 2007
Raymond

Relax and pop the corn good man.

C’mon, you have to admit watching the chase scenes with the Arctodus and Harpagornis sent a chill down your spine.

Otherwise I agree, too much edumatainment crap.

6 10 2007
ChrisR

You can’t help thinking it’s all a missed opportunity too… something which worked from the fossils back to the reconstructions would provide the window into what scientists actually do, which is so sadly lacking in most modern “science” programmes, and results in the stereotype of us all sitting in armchairs dreaming up random theories.

7 10 2007
johannes

I saw the triassic/Jurassic part of “When Dinosaurs Roamed America” last Tuesday. I have mixed feelings about it.

It was nice to see some crurotarsans and a traversodont, but there were lots of blunders. Traversodonts were megaherbivores that grew about as large as a small cow, not badger-like things that hid in burrows. And they were not the ancestors of mammals. Cynodonts like mammals, yes, closely related, yes, but not the direct ancestors.

And they had a ceratosaur – I think it was Dilophosaurus – that killed its prey, a prosauropod, with a cat-like precision bit in the neck. Ouch.

7 10 2007
johannes

I saw the triassic/Jurassic part of “When Dinosaurs Roamed America” last Tuesday. I have mixed feelings about it.

It was nice to see some crurotarsans and a traversodont, but there were lots of blunders. Traversodonts were megaherbivores that grew about as large as a small cow, not badger-like things that hid in burrows. And they were not the ancestors of mammals. Cynodonts like mammals, yes, closely related, yes, but not the direct ancestors.

And they had a ceratosaur – I think it was Dilophosaurus – that killed its prey, a prosauropod, with a cat-like precision bite in the neck. Ouch.

7 10 2007
DoubleW

Actually, I always enjoyed that PBS series Dinosaur! with its cartoon sequence (at least that’s what I think the title was.) There also was a series called Paleoworld that I enjoyed.

You’re right about the current trend of paleo-documentaries (to use the term loosely) starting with the “Walking with…” series, which I enjoyed. These pseudo-wildlife documentaries quickly went downhill after that. Probably the moment they jumped the shark, in my mind, was a Discovery Channel documentary that showed a “raptor” suddenly getting launched into the air by an erupting geyser! I remember laughing so hard at the stupidity of the moment — after all, how many real-life wildlife documentaries do you see where lions are catapulted into orbit by geysers?

You pretty much hit it right on the mark with what is wrong with these “documentaries.” The sad thing is real documentaries about paleontologists doing real science are almost extinct. Very rare is the show about a scientist trying to piece together the prehistoric past through fossils, so a lot of young people are not getting a very good picture about how paleontology works.

BTW, it is not just paleontology that is being sensationalized. Look at some of the other documentaries on the BBC and Discovery Channel, such as Supervolcano and Superstorm, both of which were really just movies passed off as documentaries and both of which contained numerous scientific errors.

8 10 2007
Amanda

Right on! I took my boyfriend to see an IMAX dino movie in Miami and it was the first one in a while to contain any actual science. When we left we had more to talk about than “ooh, that dinosaur looked big and scary.” I’d love to see some documentaries that are geared toward education, not just making a buck.

Thanks!

8 10 2007
laelaps

Thanks for the comments, everyone! So much to discuss, I think I’ll start from the bottom up;

Amanda; Glad you enjoyed the post. I saw a recent IMAX film called Dinosaurs ALIVE! which was pretty good, but it still was a little too CGI-oriented for my taste. Definitely better than the Land of Lost Monsters show, though.

WW; I liked the PBS Dinosaur! series too (I loved it as a kid), I just thought that there was an odd mix of old Charles R. Knight-esque reconstruction being matched to new ideas (i.e. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but the Stegosaurus standing up to eat from the top of a plant is a classic pose from the early 20th century). There are good parts and bad parts as far as all of them go, but like we’ve all said I think the bad outweighs the good at this point.

Johannes; I like it when Triassic and Permian faunas get attention too, although there are often a lot of mistakes made. Walking With Monsters wasn’t too bad, but it still was more speculation than science. You definitely bring up a good point, though, especially that too many documentaries say that a certain cynodont was the ancestor of all later mammals instead of putting things in proper perspective.

Jason; I saw an advert for that IMAX film and I’m looking forward to seeing it. I don’t know how good it will be, but in my experience IMAX films have generally been of a higher quality than made-for-tv affairs. We’ll have to see, of course, but if it’s based upon their “sea monters” article from about 2 years ago it should look good, at least.

Chris; Absolutely; the more time spent trying to draw people in with pretty pictures but offering no substance, the more time we waste. Oddly enough, the Walking With Dinosaurs live show did a fair job mixing science with speculation, and I’ll cover that over at SB soon.

Raymond; Some of the sequences looked pretty good, yes, but it just doesn’t go anywhere. I like seeing reconstructions, but I also like seeing bones and hearing about new research. I think the science behind the reconstructions is far more exciting, but CGI models have their place, too.

Dog; I guess that’s a bit of convergence, and I’d be pissed if someone wanted me to just provide illustrations/reconstructions and offer little substance myself. That reminds me that I need to get signed up for Dinosaur-L…

Ed; I’m a bit baffled by it all too. The BBC could really do a much better job if it really wanted to, but it doesn’t seem like the desire is there. I think of Walking With Dinosaurs as more of a TV landmark and a shift in the way we educate, but even though I can see its significance (and that it was a decent program) I think it was so successful that paleo documentaries have now become stuck in a rut. Time will tell if such shows will continue or go extinct.

16 11 2007
Acinonyx J. Jubatus

I’ve got to say; what a nice find this is! I’ll admit, I’ve never been through the ScienceBlogs site (due in part to never having heard about it….) but I can now thank random surfing for bringing me here. Some very nice points made, all around, on many topics. I choose to comment on this one because, well, I have a (somewhat!) informed opinion on something related to it.

Namely, I agree with the realization that there has been a major downward slump in the quality of prehistory-related programming. Over the past few years, things have been getting out of hand; although, honestly, I have never seen the piece where the raptor has the unfortunate run-in with the geyser. I’m keeping my eye open for it, now. That sounds too funny to pass up!

In any case, BBC still holds respect, in my eyes. The ‘Walking With’ series was well-done, overall, despite a few missteps in the later films….never name a specific creature in a documentary in which you’re trying to cover a broad spectrum. (This means you, Half-Tooth!)

Regardless, any possible doubt cast from those mistakes was easily remedied by the release of the ‘Planet Earth’ series. I’m not quite sure if you folks have looked into it, seen it, or been involved with it at all, but it is an amazing triumph of documentation. While not on the topic of prehistoric life, it does a spectacular job of showcasing the wildernesses we still have on this increasingly urban planet of ours. I highly recommend it to anyone here at all interested in zoological/biological topics.

Anyway, I’ll likely be keeping tabs on this place, now that I’ve found (stumbled across) it. Looking forward to chatting with you all!

26 01 2008
Mollie Bryant

I found this quite interesting, because I feel like programming on the History Channel gives off a similar vibe of oversimplification that can be frustrating. Sometimes fact isn’t as sexy as CGI.

20 08 2008
historian

It’s so refreshing to read that somebody else is bothered by all the crappy, highly speculative, CG-driven dino-docs coming out of late. The thing that sucks the most about them, (artistic/aesthetic complaints aside) is that the whole time you’re watching them you’re constantly having to separate, in your mind, the kernels of actual science from all the speculative chaff they now come with. I think the real reason so many of us love the older style docs so much is because the older docs left way more up to the imagination. They got you thinking and imagining prehistoric worlds rather than just showing you a whole lot of cheaply produced animation. …And when they did show you animation, it generally appears to have had more thought put into it, probably because stop-motion is a very tedious process which naturally requires a higher level of planning prior to producing.

http://dontmesswithdinosaurs.com/

21 08 2008
carola001

To the OP on ‘Why Do I Bother’….. don’t! Don’t bother! You are missing the point, tough guy. These shows, Walking With Dinosaurs and Dinosaur Planet, and their ilk, are meant to introduce this material to the average IQ90 type out there. It is meant to insert a bit of science in something that will attract the average Jane and Joe out there and get them started on something other than bar hopping. I think you have a point in the complaint about sensationalism. The Jurassic Fight Club loses the science in the sensationalism….. even past the point where I can deal. I like Nigel’s stuff, but I took it for what it was….. imaginative material done with a little science thrown in. It was amazingly entertaining, but it was not a hard core science documentary. I like the CGI and the story line stuff, and that gives me directions to research in other venues.
I get tired of the same old crime dramas and sci-fi, and God save us from the endless drivel that is “reality” shows. These fluffy documentaries are just the thing for me when I am grading papers or doing some tedious rote project.
I am nattering. Sorry.
I guess I have to agree with you somewhat. History Channel has become the Tech Channel and the Channel of Speculation 101. At least Jurassic Fight Club (inaccurate sensationalism) and Evolve (more a Science Channel thing, but tres good), isn’t that garbage like Ice Road Truckers and the axe guys (and they are adding some other piece of crap called Sandhogs….. or something like that). I would like to see some actual history on the History Channel.
Now I’m ranting. Again….. Sorry.
Getting back to topic….. I loved Walking With Dinosaurs and Walking With Prehistoric Beasts, and while I enjoyed the other ones, Cavemen and Monsters, I think, I feel they were rushed a bit.
I believe the CGI and stop motion stuff is a great way to introduce kids and young adults to the wonderful world of Natural Science and Paleontology by drawing them in with special effects. It also shows that these creatures were animals….. not monsters.
In a world replete with over crowding and a depressing amount of frustration, watching things of a far off time can help you realize that nothing lasts forever, with the good and bad this entails.
Thanks for reading this ramble….. and stay happy and safe out there.

18 01 2011
Andrew

The animation on these is still incredible, and better than most of what’s cranked out in CGI now.

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