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;