Monday, December 9, 2013

Documentary Review: Walking With Dinosaurs 1999



Today’s review should be compared with the previous documentary review. Of course, this television program was made 10 years later. In the late 90s, with the dinosaur enthusiasm produced by Jurassic Park still strong, documentary producer Tim Haines wanted to make a cinematic style documentary about prehistoric mammals. Dinosaurs proved to be more popular, however, and Haines was told he could make a mammal program if and only if he could make a dinosaur program first. In 1999, the BBC produced a high concept, highly expensive, ambitious 6-part miniseries: Walking With Dinosaurs. Suffice to say, it was a hit. Its imaginative style of prehistoric drama with overlaying narration, based on nature documentaries, set the paradigm for all paleontology documentaries since.  So today, I’m going to cover all 6 episodes, and see how they compare today. Why? Well,  this winter the BBC’s nature film company will release a dinosaur epic under the same title, continuing the legacy of their megahit 14 years before.


The first episode begins with a brief prologue-Kenneth Brannagh narrates over a time-lapse landscape showing how much earth has changed over hundreds of millions of years. The premise is set: instead of dealing with scientists today, the viewer will be shown images of life in the far past. Brief previews of the following episodes are shown: sea reptiles, flying pterosaurs, and, of course, the great Diplodocus and Tyrannosaurus.

This first episode is set in Arizona, 225 million years ago. In geologic terms, this is the Chinle Formation in the Carnian age of the late Triassic. Placerias, a huge tusked dicynodont, represents the old order of therapsids; the Permian extinction hit them hard, and the Triassic will wipe out all but mammals.  Its requirements of tons of water and forage make it a clear loser in the desert habitat. Coleophysis, the famous slender theropod, represents the new archosaurs- mobile, agile, generalized, adaptable and soon to be masters of the world. However, the protagonists are a pair of cynodonts. They are based on Thrinaxodon from Africa, despite the fact that no cynodonts have been found in the Chinle Formation. They are shown as very doglike, and their mammal connections make them sympathetic to the audience. 

The main antagonist is Postosuchus, the giant armored predator closely related to Teratosaurus. This was Postosuchus’ first role in a documentary, and it would not be the last-there is even a very detailed toy of this genus produced by Safari inc that closely resembles the animal shown here. Postosuchus is introduced dynamically-bursting from seemingly out of nowhere to maim and kill a Placerias.  The German Pterosaur Peteinosaurus makes an appearance hunting dragonflies and rounding out the cast.

Postosuchus and the cynodonts each have their own narrative-the Postosuchus is wounded offscreen, chased off by a rival (palaeontologists everywhere slapped their foreheads in frustration when the archosaur urinated to mark its territory like an amphibian or mammal), and finally dies in a macabre scene where a horde of Coelophysis watch it slowly succumb to infection before they eat it.

The cynodonts have their own story, their mammalian care for their young exemplified by their underground burrow, their mammary glands and their devoted parental care-their eggs hatch, and they care for their young, protecting them from Coelophysis marauders. However, the dinosaurs are persistent, besieging the family, eating one of the hatchlings, and digging up the burrow. The cynodonts are forced to eat their remaining hatchling and flee in the night.

The dry season is the main crisis of the episode. Placerias migrate from the area when the river dries up. Coelophysis soon flood the area as the dry season forces them to congregate around water. This is the excuse for showing Coelophysis cannibalism. However, this behavior turned out to be incorrect and misreading the fossil-the hatchling dinosaur turned out not to be inside the adult, but underneath. 

The story ends with rainstorms restoring the land, the cynodonts finding a new nest and laying new eggs, and instead of Postosuchus and Placerias moving in, a herd of giant Plateosaurus arrive. Plateosaurus are another classic dinosaur, but also European and out of place. I suspect they added the European pterosaur to foreshadow the other pterosaurs in the series, and the Plateosaurs to foreshadow the giant sauropods of the next episode.

The next episode is set in the fern prairies and dense conifer forests of Colorado 150 million years ago. This geologically is the famous Morrison Formation of the Kimmeridgian age, home to all the classic dinosaurs that define both the United States and the Jurassic, and even the entire age of dinosaurs. The episode beings with a march of Diplodocus, the cinematography and music emphasizing their grandeur and dignity. One breaks off, laying eggs in the forest.

This story is focused on the life of a female Diplodocus and the premise that sauropods abandoned their nests and lived in age-segregated crèches until maturity, supported by fossil trackways. The hatching is threatened by a Ornitholestes, given both quills and a nasal horn. Both of these are incorrect now; Ornitholestes was probably covered by a thin coat of feathers and lacked any nasal crest. The hatchlings escape from their predator, fleeing into the dense forest to hide in the undergrowth and eat ferns.

In contrast, we see the open plains with Stegosaurus and Diplodocus. Diplodocus are shown as highly social animals (probably true) and supporting their own moving insect ecosystems. Dung beetles feed on their waste, parasitic blood suckers nest on their skin, and the tiny insectivorous pterosaur Anurognathus eats the parasites in the style of a tickbird. There is no evidence for this, but it’s not an unlikely behavior for a small bug-muncher. The sauropods also change their environment by knocking over trees to get at the ferns below. This is another assumption outdated today-the studies made at the time of the documentary suggested that sauropods were unable to raise their necks above their shoulders, and now new studies suggest that they could easily raise them dozens of feet in the air.

A year later, our heroine’s crèche is threatened by a lone Stegosaurus and a duo of Allosaurus, the main antagonists of the scene. Both Stegosaurus and Allosaurus kill some of the yearlings, but the main Diplodocus escapes when the two threats collide with each other and the Stegosaurus chases off the Allosaurus with an intimidating threat display.

Four years later from the last scene, we see the crèche growing into 30-foot subadults (the growth rate of sauropods, according to recent reports, was actually much slower with the animals taking decades to reach adult size) in the open forests. A forest fire kills some and forces the survivors onto the plain, where they meet first a giant Brachiosaurus and then a herd of adult Diplodocus led by their gigantic queen.

Five years later, we are shown Diplodocus breeding. Two males duel over our lead character, and the winner goes on to court her and mate with her. After the mating, she wanders off and is attacked by Allosaurus. The rest of the herd come to her rescue, with the giant queen swatting away the predator with a swipe of her whip tail. The story ends with both the queen and the still-growing protagonist marching off with the herd in triumph.

The opening for the third episode is by far the best. The narration talks about the top predator of the Jurassic hunting and stalking their prey. We are shown a Eustreptospondylus, a Middle Jurassic Megalosaur, fishing. The twist comes when the dinosaur is snatched off its perch by a giant pliosaur and dragged into the deep. The focus is no longer on the dinosaurs but on the weird and wonderful marine reptiles of the day.


The setting is Oxfordshire, 149 Million years ago. While the Morrison had its own counterpart in Portugal, Spain and France, the rest of Europe was made up of tiny islands. Oddly enough the great German shale is not used-Archaeopteryx and Compsognathus are never seen. Instead the story begins in the sea. The small plesiosaur Cryptocleidus is given a seal-like lifestyle: resting and nesting on the shore (recently, plesiosaurs have been found to give birth to live young) and nimbly dancing in the water among the ammonites and fish.  Another scene shows seabird-like Rhamphorhynchus fishing in its own style.

The main characters, however, are shown to be the Opthalmosaurus, a big eyed Icthyosaur. A huge pod arrives in the English reef, giving birth so that the infants can hide in the coral. One mother has trouble giving birth, however. A shark, Hybodus, arrives to kill her, but is sent fleeing by the other protagonist and breakout character of the series. This is an oversized Liopleurodon (the largest Liopleurodon specimen is of a 30-foot individual, but inspired by remains of Pliosaurus funkei and a Mexican pliosaur, Haines and his team extrapolated their century-old bull as 85 feet long), a giant pliosaur specialized in hunting and killing other marine reptiles. His ambush strategy, senses, and locomotion is demonstrated as the ancient sea monster takes the unfortunate mother (her tail falls to the sea floor in a homage to a similar scene with a human leg in Jaws).

The third main character is then established-a beachcombing Eustreptospondylus swimming from island to island in search of food. It attempts to take a sea turtle from another Eustreptospondylus, but is driven off.  A brief sidetour shows bark beetles in the trees of the ancient British Isles, hunted by Rhamphorhynchus.  However, the pterosaurs get their chance later when the horseshoe crabs arrive to spawn. The Rhamphorhynchus swarm like seagulls to eat the eggs, and the hungry Eustreptospondylus manages to eat a few of them in turn.

In the sea, meanwhile Cryptocleidus and Ophthalmosaurus are contrasted-pleisosaurus hunt fish in the sunlit shallows and swallow stones for ballast., while the Icthyosaurs hunt squid in the depths at night. The juveniles are restricted to the reef- hiding in coves from Hybodus and eating reef fish.  The Liopleurodon, in the meantime, mortally wounds an intruding female

The climax comes with a horrific hurricane, slaughtering many of the pterosaurus and marine animals. The Ophthalmosaurus, now adults, manage to survive and swim off into the open ocean. The Liopleurodon, unfortunately, is beached and slowly dies as he is unable to get back to sea. The end is an ironic reversal of the opening ambush with the Eustreptospondylus finally getting luck and devouring the stranded old pliosaur.

Episode 4 is set 129 million years ago in the Barremian age. We open on the corpse of a pterosaur, and we are told his story will be the focus of the episode. The story flashes back too Brazil, with a fauna based on the later Santana formation. Pterosaurs are introduced by a seaside colony of Tapajera (later separated into its own species, Tupandactylus) during mating season. Males are established as the bigger flashier morph, fighting over rocks and waving their crests to intimidate rivals and attract females. It’s also mating season for the Ornithocheirus (currently reassigned to Tropeognathus and often synonymized with Anhanguera and Coloborhynchus, two closely related pterosaurs. All current specimens indicate a maximum wingspan of 25 feet, but Haines and company extrapolated to a 40 foot wingspan), an old male who will be the tragic hero of the story.

Flying along the American coast, he arrives to what is now Georgia (represented by fauna from the Cedar Mountain Formatnion) and comes across a mixed herd of Iguanodon and Polacanthus. These two genera in North America, by the way, have been reassigned to their distinct genera: Lakotadon and Gastonia.  A storm grounds our pterosaur, and in the meantime we observe the efficient feeding and locomotion of the Lakotadon and the emergence of the first flowers and pollinators.

After grooming off his Saurophthirus fleas, the Tropeognathus flies off, crossing the Atlantic in an epic flight. Recolored footage of Liopleurodon lurks below, portraying Plesioliopleurodon. The pterosaur finds foot by skimming the surface and pirating other pterosaurs. He finally arrives in one of the Spanish islands, where we are introduced to Iguanodon, Polacanthus, and wildly misplaced Utahraptor (native of the Cedar Mountain Formation and completely unknown in Europe) in the Calizas de La Huérgina Formation.  The ecosystem is established as the Iguanodon and Polacanthus live together for mutual support and Utahraptor stalk the herd for Iguanodon they can pick off. One ambush is attempted, but only one of the predators reaches their target and is quickly shaken off. They regroup and attack again, managing to bring down one Iguanodon by double-teaming it and biting it on the neck.  The Utahraptor are shown as social animals with a strict hierarchy; while eating the carcass, the elder dinosaurs eat first and enforce their rule against a pushy youngster.


This bit of pointless but pretty “Raptor” fanservice finished, Tropeognathus moves on to rest again. This time he unfortunately happens to park right next to the nesting colony of Iberomesornis, the only feathered dinosaurs in the program. They mob him in defense of their nests, sending him on his way. Finally, our pterosaur arrives at the breeding grounds-old and exhausted, he’s no match for the younger males that have already arrived and they drive him off again (both pterosaurs in this episode are sexually dimorphic). While the younger pterosaurs proceed to mate, the protagonist limps off to the beach to die.  It’s a tragic ending to an epic story.

Episode 5 changes the focus from spectacle to location, using the South Australian dinosaurs of Dinosaur Cove to illustrate the dinosaurs of the Antarctic Circle, 106 million years ago. The protagonists are, instead of a big or famous dinosaur, a clan of Leaellynasaura, ornithopods the size of terriers with the tail three times the length of the body (shortened in this series). One, still hibernating, is eaten by a giant amphibian. As the clan awakes, the amphibian, Koolasuchus clumsily leaves its winter pond to get to the main river where it hunts during the warm months.

The Leallynasaura are given birdlike behaviors-a cooperative group based around an alpha mated pair, building decoy nests along with the real ones, and having a sentry to look out for predators. As an example, a polar Allosaur (now assigned to Australovenator) stalks the clan, but the sentry gives it away and they escape.  Muttaburrasaurus arrive, complete with speculative but spectacular inflatable noses. The Austalovenator tries his luck at the Muttaburrasaurus as prey, but he’s quickly outmatched and forced to flee.

More birdlike parental care is demonstrated as adults monitor and adjust the temperature of the nests and drive off a marauding Steropodon (portrayed by a coati despite the animal being far more similar to a platypus) by kicking dirt at it.   We cut to the summer and see a variety of scene of each animal. A Tuatara eats a Weta (stock footage), biting flies torment Muttaburrasaurus, and the Australovenator confronts a rival over a Muttaburrasaurus carcass.  The hatchlings are shown growing up-first cared for in their nests, but quickly growing into sprightly little kids playing around sleeping adults and even managing to avoid death at the hands of the hungry Koolasuchus. In the Autumn, our clan fights its neighbors and eats fallen vegetation left by the Muttaburrasaurus before they begin to return to their Australian home for the season. One gets lost, distracting the clan’s sentry long enough for the Austalovenator to attack the clan and inadvertently kill and eat the lead female.


Winter sets in with the Koolasuchus returning to his pond, the Muttaburrasaurus returning to Australia, but the Leallynasaura staying. They eat fungus when the leaves freeze, and use their huge eyes to see in the days of darkness. At the worst of the winter, they huddle in a pile and hibernate. Spring is announced with the thawing of a dormant weta. With the winter over, the dinosaurs revive and the segment concludes with mating season as new leaders fight their rivals and mate.

The last episode is, of course, centered on Tyrannosaurus. Said dinosaur makes a dynamic entrance by suddenly killing an egg-raiding mammal. This episode is set in Montana, 65 million years ago in the famous Hell Creek formation. Oddly, the environment chosen was the barren lava fields of Chile. The narration explains that dinosaurs are endangered and the world is dying slowly from volcanic eruptions, a view that’s disputable to say the least. This is made especially clear when one Tyrannosaurus’ attempt to scavenge victims of volcanic gas nearly leads to its own demise.

Fortunately, we quickly return to the forests and plains, with angiosperms and flowers establishing the plant fauna. Other animals are seen-Ankylosaurus (this reconstruction is now obsolete thanks to a reassessment of Ankylosaurus material) browses while a Dromeosaurus (the Hell Creek material is now its own genus Acheroraptor) pursues a Thescelosaurus (being portrayed by the Leallynasaura model when Thescelosaurus had a very unique look), and two Didelphodon fight over an abandoned Tyrannosaurus nest. It’s mating season; the male Tyrannosaurus begins calling out for a mate and kills a Triceratops offscreen to court her while Torosaurus display and joust (one male losing a horn). The male succeeds in courting and mating, but it’s short lived and the next scene shows the female driving him off.

Short vignettes introduce Anatotitan (now reassigned to Edmontosaurus) feeding and Quetzalcoatlus stopping to fish (Quetzalcoatlus is too far north, and was probably a hunter of small terrestrial prey, not a fisher) before having to escape a Deinosuchus (portrayed by a floating head).  The next time we see the Tyrannosaurus, she is guarding her nest from Didelphodon and Acheroraptor. Four weeks pass-the Torosaurus are attacked at night by Acheroraptor and they take a baby, while the Tyrannosaurus kills an Edmontosaurus to feed the hatchlings.

After their snack, the hatchlings get into real trouble. They tease a Dinilysia (played by a red-tailed boa. The genus is not only South American, but from an earlier period) and wander too close to an Ankylosaurus. The mother comes to their protection, challenging the Anklyosaurus. The armored dinosaur strikes her with his tail club, breaking her ribs, leg, and rupturing internal organs.  In a tragic scene, she slowly dies of her injury while the hatchlings cling to her side. To add further tragedy, the asteroid hits. 
Yes, like, all documentaries set in Hell Creek at 65 Million years ago, this one ends with the extinction of the dinosaurs. The shockwave devastates the continent, wiping out the dinosaurs. Molten debris is kicked up by the impact and rains down. Spectacle and tragedy seem to be a staple of prehistoric documentaries, and this one sets the standard.  However, to make sure the series ends on a positive note, we fast forward 65 million years to the modern African Savanna.  The last narration explains that not only did the dinosaur extinction allow for mammals to rise from the shadow of their towering rivals but dinosaurs are still as dynamic as ever as modern birds. The credits roll over footage of the savanna birds.

I wouldn’t call this a perfect show-a lot of the science is bad or outdated. Animals appear in the wrong places and periods. The Tyrannosaurus model, among others, is anatomically incorrect.  The final segment, despite the fascinating setting and cast, is very predictable in the focus on Tyrannosaurus and the extinction, but to be fair this is more of a sin of the following documentaries than the original. Yeah, we have some stock fauna like Tyrannosaurus, Stegosaurus, Iguanodon, Ankylosaurus, Allosaurus, Diplodocus and Utahraptor, but we are introduced to obscure animals like Eustreptospondylus, Leallynasaura, Placerias, Liopleurodon, Opthalmosaurus and Postosuchus, I would argue that Postosuchus and Liopleurodon became famous due to this special.

More than just the animals, what this special did was introduce a new way of making dinosaur shows. Before, it was focused entirely on talking heads and interviews. Dinosaur behavior was described instead of shown, dinosaurs themselves being usually depicted by static pictures or their skeletal mounts. It had more to do with history specials than with wildlife specials. Stop Motion animation was too expensive and two-dimensional animation not considered convincing enough for extended periods. Tim Haines and the BBC special effects parties were ambitious-the animals still look good despite over a decade of effects development, and it took years for its imitators to surpass it.

This is clearly based on conventional wildlife documentaries; there is a narration explaining the events and scientific facts on the animals. The animals are not anthropomorphized nor are simply monsters-even the Tyrannosaurus is given a social life and familial side. Like nature documentaries, the show follows an animal or a community over a lifetime or a period of time.  A great example of the similarity is that some important incidents in the storyline are never seen, much like that of a usual documentary.  Of course, there are still imaginative camera angles and tricks that would be difficult to do in real life, but those only show to spice up scenes in the story.

A common complaint with this documentary is the speculation. I would argue that while there are things that were blatantly wrong such as any of the notes I made in the summary, but the beauty of palaeontology is that speculation is part of the entire process. Yes, it should be acknowledged as speculation (this is a problem inherent in this style of documentary), but using your imagination is required, and it’s fun. It’s this speculation and imagination that keeps me interested in the topic. I hope this documentary got a lot of people into paleontology, no matter what its flaws.

Overall, I give it an 87 out of 100. Not flawless, but deserving of all the awards and the standard of all dinosaur shows. If you’re interested in dinosaurs, definitely give this a watch.


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