Friday, January 17, 2014

Documentary Review: Clash of the Dinosaurs

Paleontologists usually don’t get furious, at least not at their job. Yeah, there are arguments and disagreements and the natural reaction to creationists and other forms of pseudoscience and anti-science, but personal offense isn’t usually part of the day. This makes such incidents very notable and significant. You see, the media is both the ally and nemesis of scientists; most of the time they help each other out, but when the deals go bad, things can be very messy. Today I’m going to talk about Matt Wedel and Clash of the Dinosaurs.

Discovery Channel, before it gave up on showing anything in the way of science programming beyond Mythbusters, had a four-part series in 2009 titled Clash of the Dinosaurs. This series explored dinosaur biomechanics, albeit haphazardly. It consisted of four episodes; the first a comparison of Tyrannosaurus and Sauroposeidon life narratives and their physical adaptations, a second an overview of the predators Tyrannosaurus, Deinonychus, and Quetzalcoatlus and their adaptations for hunting, the third a similar look at Triceratops, Ankylosaurus, Sauroposeidon and Parasaurolophus and their defenses, and finally an episode on dinosaur courtship and reproduction.

The good news is that the dinosaurs look great. The CG graphics are excellent, and we get real spectacle and gorgeous models in atmospheric landscapes. The palaeontologists are a great choice of both scientists and personalities who are able to get across their findings in entertaining and informative ways. The cast consists of Sauropod authority Matt Wedel, the master of Western theropods and ankylosaurs Ken Carpenter, Tyrannosaurophile and theropod guru Tom Holtz,, the colorful veteran paleontologist Bob Bakker, Black Hills expert and Tyrannosaurus authority Pete Larson, the first and final word of dinosaur biomechanics Larry Witmer, and paleobiology expert Michael Habib.

The graphics, as well as their explanation of dinosaur biology is entertaining and informative. I recall my two favorite parts of the show are from the experts. Bakker describes how formidable a Triceratops is by saying that "The best way to attack Triceratops is with a long-barreled 75 mm anti-tank gun". The other is Tom Holtz describing encounters between adult Sauroposeidon and Deinonychus with a playlet using his hands-“Hi, I’m a Deinonychus!” in a high pitched voice, “I’m a Sauroposeidon” with a lower voice, and ending with a squashing motion.

The bad news is that while the experts act like the viewer is a dinosaur fan with a sense of humor and imagination, the directors and editors act like the viewer is the kind of person who like Discovery’s new reality TV shows and with a very low attention span. Footage and narration is repeated ad nauseum. We only get to see seven animals in all four episodes, and the same footage of each over and over again. If you missed something, they’ll undoubtably come back to it. The editing is horrific-shots are very short and cut very quickly, and the focus of the show in the first episode is all over the place. One minute we’re talking about Sauroposeidon’s r-selection strategy, the next we’re examining Tyrannosaur brain proportions. There’s very little focus, and this is very frustrating. Thankfully, the other three episodes are a bit more focus, although they too suffer from repetition, fast editing, and a limited taxonomical pool. The common documentary traits of unexplained assertions and hyperbole are sadly in evidence here as well; like history, prehistory is interesting enough without all the hyperbolic narration confusing and distorting the actual facts.

 The worse news is outright lies. I will let the victim, Matt Wedel (called Matthew Weddell by the program) speak for himself. In the Youtube and DVD copies, along with all the rebroadcasts, the edited footage he refers to has been thankfully cut out, but it’s still a stain and completely disrespectful of the authority they hired. Suffice to say, this is a cautionary tale for paleontologists, especially those who have not yet involved themselves in mass visual media.

 An example of the style of this program is Wedel’s description of Sauroposeidon vulnerability. He explains that while adult sauropods were almost impregnable to attack, hatchlings and juveniles were vulnerable. He describes “pony-sized” child sauropods being easy prey for the predator Deinonychus, which is about the size of a large dog. As the blog posting reveals, he fully expected to see tiny hatchlings eaten up like popcorn by a single “raptor”, or a small juvenile being overpowered by a pack. Instead, we are shown a subadult Sauroposeidon, about the size of an elephant, being easily taken down in a messy fashion by only two dromeosaurs. This footage is repeated at least twice in every episode. In order to re-use animation, there are digressions and the subject goes back and forth with no transition.

The sad thing is that while a sorry documentary compared to most of the others, it is still far above and beyond the worthless reality television shown on Discovery today. In this light, it’s hard to judge. Again, the experts and animation are excellent but the editing and repetition is enough to make me feel physically ill. As a documentary on Discovery, it’s informative and a great deal of fun. Compared to other documentaries, even the much-maligned Jurassic Fight Club (I’ll get to that one later), it’s painful. Dinosaur anatomy and biomechanics is fascinating and deserves an entire series (Witmer needs a better agent), but the presentation is underwhelming at best and insulting at worst. The quote mining in particular is a serious blow against the production and shows a complete late of scruples on the editors and directors part. All in all, I give it a 35. Worth a watch and you'll have fun sometimes, but you’ll leave with aneurysm and a deep sense of shame.

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