Monday, December 23, 2013

Documentary Review: Walking With Beasts 2001

You know, I reviewed Walking With Dinosaurs for two reasons. One was to prepare for the upcoming movie. The other, however, was because of a very happy holiday. I believe it was 2001 that it happened. Every year, usually two weeks before Christmas, I visit my grandfather so we can put up his Christmas tree and celebrate my father’s birthday with a pizza. That year we went out, and enjoyed a pizza together at a nearby restaurant. There were televisions nearby, and they always take up some attention. I had watched Walking With Dinosaurs in the past year thanks to an uncle with cable. Suddenly, when I looked up, I saw a Basilosaurus. Then brontotheres. A giant predatory mammal ate a turtle. Ancestors of elephants swam by. I was transfixed. Throughout the evening I watched the rest of the episode, and then the next happened. A giant piglike animal snarled. A Baluchitherium marched across a dry plain. A Hyenodon savagely killed another strange-looking mammal.  I stopped paying attention to the pizza or my family. It was just me and the fantastic mammals. I had to be dragged off just as a preview was shown featuring a giant prehistoric relative of the elephant chasing human ancestors.

Tell you the truth, I always had dinosaurs as my first love, but always had a fondness for prehistoric mammals. At the Field Museum when I was little, my most vivid memories of the great hall (now split into different exhibits) aren’t the dinosaurs, but the giant sloth, the Irish elk, the mammoth (terrified me), the masotodon, the magnificent murals of Charles Knight above, a Sabertooth tiger looming over its tar-trapped prey, and three dioramas. One had some prehistoric horses running through a forest. A second had a family of giant, majestic rhinolike Brontotheres, and the third have a very unsettling family of Neanderthal people.  In addition to the Album of Dinosaurs as my favorite library book, there was also an Album of Prehistoric animals.  

Recently, since dinosaur science has become less stable and less pleasant, with all sorts of disagreeable theories becoming more prominent and fun speculation has been replaced by a vicious pack mentality (but that’s another story), I’ve become more interested in mammals and the prehistoric animals of the Cenozoic. Perhaps I’m a little bit tired of dinosaurs. Perhaps it’s because of the backlash against my beloved Dinosaur Renaissance. But mostly, I believe, it’s because I don’t see enough of them and don’t think they get enough press attention. Name two prehistoric mammals other than the mammoth and the sabertooth. I rest my case

Anyway, this is Walking With Beasts, aka Walking With Prehistoric Beasts as the alternate title. It’s another BBC documentary series, done the following year. The spectacular success of Walking With Dinosaurs gave the team a thumbs up on their original idea: a 6 part series about life after the extinction of the great dinosaurs.
You get the feeling that things are very different despite the similar format, same narration, and same production.  We get a prelude showing the end of the Cretaceous. The focus was previously just the spectacle, but the narrative clearly states that this time the series will cover mammalian adaptations (of course, featuring the famous Smilodon and Mammuthus), Even the opening is different-instead of a shadowy forest with brief ghosts of dinosaurs dancing over it to mysterious music, we get a clipshow of violence and action as the various animals fight, run, feed, and interact while a loud, fast, pounding chant gives a new feeling of intensity.

The first episode is set 49 million years ago in Germany, based on that great fossil find, the Messel Pit in Hesse.  Humorously, the story begins with a ironic meteor hit that barely phases the early Eocene jungle. It’s early morning, and we are introduced to our protagonist and antagonist-the small, bizarre shrewlike biped Lepictidium and the huge, big-headed flightless predatory bird Gastornis (the American species is called Diatyrama, and this is the more familiar name for Americans).  The Lepictidium escapes the huge predator to her nest. The story is focused around this family of mother and kits, and their adaptations of metabolism, sense of smell, and locomotion are featured. The ending of the episode is foreshadowed when the narration mentions seismic activity and buildup of carbon dioxide beneath the nearby lake.

Propaleotherium is not the only focused species. Gastornis makes her debut chases the mother, but she comes in and out of the narrative as she is a mother herself and fights off an intruder.  She later hunts Propaleotherium (early horse relative), fails, but succeeds in the second try when the little horses are drunk on ripe grapes. Alas, she returns to find her hatchling dead. It hatched while she was away, and a horrifying army of giant Titanomyra ants devoured it alive. 

The other antihero is the misplaced but fascinating Ambulocetus, an amphibious ancestor to the whales from Pakistan. Ambulocetus’ adaptations to aquatic life, such as the ability to listen though its jaw, its streamlined swimming, and ambush predation invite parallels to crocodiles. Ambulocetus attacks first a Propaleotherium and then our Lepictidium, both unsuccessfully.

That night, the cast is rounded out by lemurlike primates, Godinotia as they socialize, hunt termites, and mate. Ambulocetus finally catches a meal of a Lesmesodon (unidentified in the narration and played by the Cynodictis model from a later episode). Suddenly, Chekov’s gun goes off: an earthquake releases the gas in a Limnic eruption, a suffocating fog slaying all in its path. It’s very science fiction, but is based on not only the taphonomy of many Messel fossils as they are perfectly preserved articulated and include many flying animals, but real life incidents in Cameroon’s Lake Nyos and Lake Monun.
The morning reveals Lepictidium as a survivor and Ambulocetus as a victim, but the narration explains the irony: Lepictidium will go extinct shortly after with no living relatives, while Ambulocetus’ descendants will conquer the seas as whales.

It’s this connection between the two species that neatly connects the first and second episodes. The second episode may begin in Pakistan with Embolotherium from the Irdin Manha Formation, but the real story begins in the Tethys sea, the ancestor of the Indian ocean that used to range from Tibet  to Ethiopia but is receding in the late Eocene. The star is Basilosaurus, the archetypical prehistoric whale finally making its screen debut by killing a Physogaleus shark. While many Basilosaurs are seen in their opening sequence (many thanks to stock footage of modern whales) as they congregate and mate, it is one pregnant mother that will star. 

We cut back to Pakistan as the narration warns of the coming extinction, a great drying of what once was lush jungle as the earth cools and traps more water in its caps. Andrewsarchus, one of the biggest carnivorous mammals ever to live, only known from an incomplete skull found in Mongolia, makes its own screen debut. It’s portrayed as wolflike hooved predator and a mesonychid , “a sheep in wolf’s clothing”. Recent studies, by the way, have found that Andrewsarchus is not a Mesonychid, but more similar to another prehistoric mammals called the Artocyonids and closely related to Ambulocetus and the ancestors of whales. Said Andrewsarchus eats a sea turtle, portrayed by a real life sea turtle until its death.

The pregnant Basilosaurus swims south to the mangrove swamps of Egypt, a fauna found in the Fayum group of formations of the Late Eocene. We meet another primate, the monkey Apidium, and another ancestor of modern groups, Moertherium the hippolike ancestor of elephants as both groups eat their way from island to island.  A Physogaleus shark manages to take an Apidium, while the Moeritherium are menaced by Basilosaurus. One escapes to a nearby island. Stock footage of tides and fiddler crabs bring the tide in, but the Basilosaurus attacks too early and the Moeritherium escapes as the whale beaches herself. 

Back in Mongolia, one of the Embolotherium has a stillborn calf (there are a lot of mothers in these series) and she protects it from two Andrewsarchus. One of them grabs the calf, but fights the other predator and the struggling corpse convinces the Embolotherium to charge in and throw one of the Andrewsarchus. 

The Basilosaurus plotline is resolved as our pregnant cow attacks a pod of Dorudon, a smaller whale. She is driven off by their mobs twice, but the third time manages to eat several of their calves. This saves her life, and the story ends with her and her newborn calf swimming off as extinction looms.

The next episode is set in Mongolia 25 million years ago in the Hsanda Gol formation, and the main character is an Indricotherium calf. His night-time birth opens the episode, his building-sized mother having to protect him from a mob of Hyenodon gigas, horse-sized species of the primitive but successful species.  In the morning, the stage is set with the cast establishing themselves. The clawed ungulate Chalicotherium browses, a mother Cynodictis bear dog drinks with her cubs, and two Entelodonts (only referred to as Entelodonts but representing the big entelodont of the fauna called Paraentelodo) duel in a vicious fight.  A few weeks pass, with the Indriotherium calf learning what to eat and how to live, encountering the mother Cynelos and his older brother before the latter is driven off by his mother. A Hyenodon kills a Chalicotherium, but his kill is stolen by a gang of Paraentelodon

4 months later is the struggle in the dry season, the mother and calf saved by following an elder female to a pond. The rains finally come, killing the Cynelos’ cubs and almost stranding the calf on a riverbank.  As mating season comes, so do the male Indricotherium. One tries to mate with the mother, is rebuffed, but after he defeats a rival bull, finally gets to mate.
2 years later, the mother is pregnant and she chases off the calf. Emulating real life’s disappearing individuals in wildlife documentaries, it is a few weeks before the calf is seen again, trying to find his mother. As expected, she is more interested in her new calf and chases him off. 

After another year, the story is concluded-the calf is now the size of a modern rhinoceros.  It chases off first a Paraentelodon and then the cameraman, knocking the camera down in a gag based on real life interactions between animals and their photographers.

As the second episode references modern whales and the third references rhinoceros, the fourth is based on chimp behavior. The featured species is Australopithecus afarensis in Ethiopia’s Middle Awash, 3.5 million years ago. We open with a 3 year old male named Blue standing over the body of his mother, dead from malaria.  Mixed CG and stock footage establish both prehistoric and modern species living in Pliocene Africa.  Australopithecus are characterized as chimplike bipeds, a combination of ape intellect with a new efficient way to walk that gives them great ability to adapt.
Politics is established with the leader, an old man named Grey, being challenged by a young woman named Babble and a younger man named Hercules. He manages to keep them in check. Nearby animals are then established-docile Ancylotherium, relatives of Chalicotherium, menacing bullying Deinotherium, hoe-tusked relatives of elephants. The plot thickens when a new, larger family of Australopithecus arrive and chase off Grey’s group from the forest to the plains.

On the plains, they run into trouble when they find a Deinotherium in musth: a bad combination between a supersized species of hoe-tusker and a hormonal madness that teenage male elephants suffer. Babbles’ baby is nearly killed by its rampage.  Not humbled by the brush with dead,, the baby, along with the other young Australopithecus, ignores Blue entirely. That evening, they rest in trees like modern chimps and gorillas.

In the morning, a female named Blackeye is killed by a Dinofelis, but on the plus side Blue gets to groom Grey in his first social activity, and a new female joins the group.  Hercules mates with her, but Grey interrupts.  Australopithecus ‘ adaptiveness is shown by their digging for roots with sticks and then scavenging. A dead zebra is claimed by Hercules, who charges the vultures while the rest of the troop wait and then helps himself first in defiance of Grey. Grey challenges, but Hercules beats Grey soundly with his stick. 

The climax of the episode comes when Dinofelis attacks again, and Blue is trapped on the ground. The rest of the tribe charges to his rescue, pelting the Dinofelis with rocks in a show of ape intelligence and family unity. “It’s a start”, the narration points out as Blue grooms the new chief Hercules.

The fifth episode is set in the Lujan formation, 1 million years ago in Paraguay.  A Phorusrhachid is stated to be Phorusrhacus but the time would imply Titanis would be the Phorusrhachid featured.  The Titanis makes its debut in pursuit of a Smilodon cub, but is chased off by the protagonist of the episode, a Smilodon populator (the huge South American species) named Halftooth. 

A short sequence introduces the main animals-Halftooth’s pride of Smilodon, based on modern lion prides, the giant spiketailed armadillo relative Doedicurus,  the trunked lipotern Macrauchenia, and the previously seen Titanis. The plot goes in motion when two brother Smilodons challenge Half Tooth, driving him off in exile.  However, the females, still minding their cubs, rebuff their attempts to mate. Half Tooth leaves the plains for the forest, passing by jousting Doedicurus and browsing Megatherium. 

The female Smilodons hunt Macrauchenia and manage to kill one, but while they were gone the brothers have killed their cubs in order to mate with them. Half Tooth, still in exile, tries to hunt a Macrauchenia for himself, but fails. He has to steal the body of a juvenile brought down by a Titanis to survive.  Back in the pride, the brothers finally get to mate with the females.

However, just as it looks like the brothers have it made, one of their Macrauchenia kills is stolen by a scavenging Megatherium who kills the elder brother. Half-Tooth smells the change, and challenges the other brother. In this rematch, Half Tooth wins, his opponent mortally wounded and left to the mercy of the Titanis. The story ends with Half Tooth playing with his new set of cubs.

The last episode is set 30,000 Years ago in Northwest Europe.  The previous episode was all about the infamous sabertooth cat, and so it’s only appropriate the climax of the series is the legendary wooly mammoth. The protagonist is a 6-month old calf and his mother as they migrate over a year. It begins in July in the North Sea, temporarily drained into a steppe where the mammoths coexist with the giant deer Megaloceros, bison, saiga, and humans. Human sophistication is established by their using mammoth tusks and hide scavenged from carcasses to make tents and using ochre to act as protection against biting insects.  The mammoths live peacefully aside from the males (living separately, they only mingle to mate as shown in a montage). 

In the fall, the mammoths move south towards the Alps. During their trek through Belgium, we see vignettes of life of the other animals. Megaloceros joust, but are attacked by humans and one falls to their throwing spears. The featured calf is stalked by a cave lion, but his mother protects him. A frostbitten human is not so lucky-his carcass, scavenged by cave lions, is found by a wandering bull mammoth. 

When the mammoths reach Alscae, we are introduced to two more species. A Neanderthal species of human gathers firewood to bring back to his cave, but he accidentally antagonizes a nearby Coeldonta.  The wooly rhino charges him, but he manages to survive. Finally the mammoths reach the Alps and feed on the tree foliage. The mother and calf catch up, having survived their journey, and they are welcomed by the rest of the herd. 

In May, the spring thaw brings out the grass and the rhinos and mammoths eat their fill. The rhinos of southern France don’t joust like mammoths or Megaloceros, but display using their huge horns. Our little calf is joined by a baby sister, and together they enjoy a mud bath with the rest of the herd.
June comes, and as they return north they are attacked by Neanderthals at night. The humans use fire to drive two mammoths off a cliff, including the matriarch. The narration assures us that the Ice Age is killing the Neanderthals and they will die off soon. Despite the death of the matriarch, the episode ends as the mammoths march back north. A nearby human carves a sculpture of a mammoth. Said sculpture transitions us to its modern location at the Oxford University museum. As the camera pans up through the building until we see Europe from space, the narration warns us that no species lasts forever.

I actually like this series better than the previous one, simply for the novelty. For a century, prehistoric mammals have played second fiddle to the dinosaurs, so it’s nice to see their own documentary. There’s a lot more action and a lot more new animals. I think the music is better, too. By the way, the only location the two series have in common is, naturally enough, England.  It’s just my personal preference, or maybe it’s that special holidays nostalgia, but I just enjoy this series more.
There’s some mistakes in the names and faunas (the giant Hyenodon gigas came right after Andrewsarchus, not 10 million years after), but the science has dated better than Walking With Dinosaurs, and there’s not as many basic mistakes (it’s more forgivable for a Ambulocetus to swim to Germany than for Utahraptor to somehow cross the Atlantic). The speculation isn’t as much since we know a lot more about mammals. Lepictidium are based on small insect-eating animals today. Basilosaurus is a whale with some orca behavior put in. Indricotherium is a rhino, Smilodon is a plains-living big cat, Australopithecus is an ape of chimp intelligence, and mammoths are elephants. It’s pretty straightforward and it’s a lot easier to make stories out of these. 

I was hoping for some classic North American faunas, Europe’s glorious Miocene, or the bizarre fauna of Australia, but they manage to get in both classic and obscure species showing the diversity of mammalian evolution. That’s another advantage it has over the dinosaurs-dinosaur diversity is more implied than a theme, while mammalian diversity and adaptability is front and center. Prehistoric mammals, to me, blend the alien and the familiar in amazing ways.  

Alas, this series was not as influential. Dinosaurs are still in charge-except for the series “Prehistoric Predators”, there has been no series focused on prehistoric mammals between 65 million BC (mammals make cameos in dinosaur shows) and the coming of humans (Prehistoric America, Monsters We Met, and Before we Ruled the Earth are all based on the Pleistocene only). I was hoping that there would be more series inspired by this one the same way there were for Walking With Dinosaurs, but the paradigm hasn’t changed.

Overall, I give it 90 out of 100. A perfect series would have less recycled footage and show every continent, but this is a very good series.  Even if you prefer dinosaurs, you should watch this just to open your mind.


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