Friday, November 22, 2013

Documentary Review: T. rex Exposed 1991

Today is usually a movie day, but I do like to change things up. That’s right, this week I’m doing a documentary. This one I remember a long time ago, catching it as a re-run when I was six years old. I watched it on VHS over and over, and it can only be found today in VHS form or on Youtube from a grainy transfer. This is a Nova Episode called T.rex Exposed. Nova continues to be one of my favorite shows, exploring scientific concerns while most other shows prefer sensationalism or are replaced by reality TV. In the 90s, even before Jurassic Park, dinosaurs were popular enough for their own episodes.

While many programs are completely shameless in their focus on Tyrannosaurus rex, this one begins by noting it. Clips from Planet of the Dinosaurs and One Million BC showing Tyrannosaurs (and allosaurs) attacking humans segue to author Don Lessem walking the badlands of Montana. Lessem will act as narrator and host, and his nonchalance is a nice step from hyperbole and he provides a link to all the talking heads.

The focus of the program is a newly discovered Tyrannosaurus skeleton, found by Kathy Wankel. Wankel is interviewed and the dig site become the focal point. She described her accidental discovery of the first complete forelimb of a Tyrannosaurus rex, and how she contacted the Museum of the Rockies about this fantastic find.  The main character then shifts from Wankel to Pat Leiggi of the Museum, leading a dig on the main Tyrannosaurus body. The more famous director of the museum, Jack Horner, is shown studying the area’s palaeoecology and the surrounding rock.
The basics of Palaeontology are explained as Don Lessem uses a coyote carcass to describe the process of fossilization. It is a basic concept, but not every viewer is going to be paleontologically literate and it is crucial information. This also proves to be a weak point, as I’ll discuss in the conclusion.

Footage from Phil Tippet’s Prehistoric Beast segues into Robert Bakker (one of my heroes) at the Carnegie Museum. Bakker explains the adaptations in the skull of Tyrannosaurus; the powerful jaws, the serrated and sturdy teeth, and the  forward-facing eyes and ears. A counterpoint is present with Jack Horner expressing his doubts that a dinosaur with tiny limbs like a Tyrannosaurus could possibly be an effective predator-“They don’t make very good sense as a predator” Bakker, however, seems to win the argument, as he uses ecological analogues in modern predators to point out that Tyrannosaurus could have both scavenged and predated.

There is a comparison between the dynamic Tyrannosaurus mount in the Denver museum and the Godzilla-esque one that used to be at the Carnegie museum. The history of the specimen is explained; Henry Fairfield Osborn, director of the museum, imagined Tyrannosaurus as a dynamic predator, and wanted to pose his skeleton in combat against another of its own kind. The bones proved too heavy for such a mount, and until the mid 2000s remained in an erect, static pose. Now, Osborn’s vision has been realized as the new mounts are of two Tyrannosaurus in confrontation over a carcass.

The next controversy is that of speed and agility. Bakker argues that the muscular legs of a Tyrannosaurus, with the overbuilt thighs, indicate a fast runner. Jim Farlow disagrees, and goes through the various ways people can infer dinosaur speed and agility. First is by trackways, and he uses an emu track to explain the procedure (in the most memorable moment for me, the emu runs over the cameraman during its flight). Second is through weight estimates, which leads to a big question mark for Farlow, while Bakker insists that the muscles of Tyrannosaurus could have propelled it at dangerous speeds. The coda is given by Horner, who explains that speculation, debate, and disagreement are all healthy parts of science in general and paleontology in particular.

We return to the site, where Leiggi explains more basic paleontology. Fossils are first exposed so that the outline of the fossil matrix is established. Then, shellac, resin and plaster are used to protect the fossils from the elements. He then goes on to explain the position of the fossils and how they got there-the science of taphonomy in other words. For example, the Larson Tyrannosaurus was buried in a running stream, and currents carried away small pieces, dislocated the limbs and mandible, but prevented predators from completely dismembering the fossils. He comes to the conclusion that the Wankel specimen is “The most complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever found”.

There is another digression about the mysteries of Tyrannosaurus and co, this time about the mystery skull in Cleveland. Bakker explains the significance of genera and species, and how those are determined anatomically. The Cleveland skull is taken through a CAT scan and digitally replicated as a 3D model on the computer. Bakker and the other watching scientists note that all the sutures on the top of the skull are fused, marking it as an adult and such a new genus. Still today the scientific community is arguing, with Horner, Thomas Carr, Thomas Holtz, and Michael Henderson coming to the conclusion that this form is a juvenile Tyrannosaurus, while Bakker, Phillip Currie, and Peter Larson arguing strongly for the new species Nanotyrannus.

There is a brief (not brief enough for me) interlude in which a storm takes the dig site and the fossil is protected by tarps.  

The next segment is on dinosaurs in pop culture. Clips from newspapers, the 1925 Lost World, 1915’s Brute Force, 1933’s King Kong, One Million Years BC, the cartoon Dino Riders and a TV commercial for the toys, and the claymation Dinosaurs! A Fun Filled Trip Back in Time are shown to illustrate the popularity of dinosaurs in general and Tyrannosaurus in particular. Author Don Glut (another one of my heroes, by the way) explains why Tyrannosaurus and other dinosaurs are popular-they’re bizarre, they’re scary, they’re big, and they’re absolutely real. They’re frightening enough to get your attention, but dead so we can’t be truly afraid. We know enough about them to get names and ideas and concepts, but not enough to prevent speculation. Dinosaurs are food for the imagination, and Bakker says that this is what makes science so fun.

Jim Farlow and Mary Dawson of the Carnegie Museum express caveats, however. Palaeontology is often simplified or distorted by the media, and people always focus on the exotic or spectacular rather than the well-known. People often belittle paleontology compared to other sciences, and science itself is often marginalized by politics, economic concerns, and just plain entertainment. The nature of palaeontology is distorted so that people only get one part of the picture of what is a complex, very broad, always conflicting and changing, and very slow field of study.  Dawson points out that, for example, we know much more about Miocene rodents than we do Tyrannosaurus, but people would rather hear about Tyrannosaurus because it’s big and scary and popular. Bakker explains the paradigm: paleontology is not that big because it ultimately isn’t going to advance technology, or medicine, or civilization or make money, but people study it because it’s interesting and fun. “The reason we study dinosaurs is because we’re curious”, he says. This marginalization, however, makes it hard; Horner points out that paleontology is not as well funded as physical sciences or medicine, and it does not pay well for all the effort involved.

The next scene back to the find shows the plastering, excavation, and lifting out of the fossil. Heavy machines carefully pull out the fossils placing them in beds, and the beds in turn are put on trucks for transport to the lab.

Another scene from Prehistoric Beast brings us to the last vignette; the inevitable talk about dinosaur extinction. The iridium layers and K-Pg boundary are shown, and there is a primer on the asteroid impact at the end of the Cretaceous. There is a segment with the late Keith Rigby, going through microfossils to prove his own theory. He argues that the dinosaurs were already on their way out when the impact came, and the impact changed nothing, with dinosaurs continuing to exist into the Palaeocene. He points out that among the many tiny bones, there are sharp dinosaurian-looking teeth.  Horner provides another counterpoint with the taphonomical concerns: environmental forces may have placed older material in younger layers, and that teeth are by no place conclusive. “We need a complete specimen”. Rigby says that he will continue to look for a complete specimen, but is confident in his theory.

The final cut to the skeleton brings it to the present (at the time of the show), in the lab of the museum of the Rockies. Labwork is also done on the arms, showing a great deal of strength in the small limbs, and Horner vows to determine their practical use. A brief picture is shown of the discovery of the now famous “Sue” specimen, simply described as a new, complete, and huge Tyrannosaurus. Dixon illustrates geological time with his arm; human history is reduced to a fingernail in comparison. He ends the show with the attitude that palaeontology is a never-ending story, and that there are always more discoveries to be made and mysteries to be solved

Watching this now, I still like it. Dixon is likeable and nonchalant, clearly interested in the subject but not hyperbolic or hijacking the show. The talking heads are the great scientists of the day, and excellent editing illustrates the points of contention and debate. For every statement, there is usually a counterstatement, and this is all part of science. Instead of the CGI re-enactments of today, the dinosaur is illustrated with film clips and simple film of the mounts, letting them speak for themselves and the paleontologists tell the story. It was from documentaries like these that I first learned about Bakker, Horner, Farlow and company, and they became my heroes. 

Of course, this show is not flawless. There are always two pet-peeves of mine in terms of documentaries. One in the obsession with the mystery of dinosaur extinction; there have been so many documentaries made on it that they dwarf any other issue in palaeontology. The second is the dull filming of the dig itself. Fieldwork is essential, but it’s very boring. There’s only so much footage of guys picking away with chisels in the desert and cranes lifting plaster-covered rocks that I can take. Once I’ve seen it, I don’t need to see it again, and I’m sure most paleontologists would like to skip the grueling work in the hot sun. Perhaps it’s filmed for “human interest”, or showing that paleontologists are tough and macho. Either way, I must rather prefer watching the experts talking about the animals rather than kneeling in the dirt.
In all, however, this is a good show, very enjoyable and educational even today. I give it 72/100, Nova documentaries are usually very well made, and this is no exception. The Wankel Rex, by the way, is currently off-exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, where it will be the centerpiece of their dinosaur hall in 2019

We’ll always have Sue, though!


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