Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Documentary Review: Walking With Monsters 2005

Well, it’s been a long time coming, but it’s finally time we finish the “Walking With” trilogy. True, there’s the three Chased by Dinosaurs specials and Allosaurus and Walking With Cavemen, but this one is the closest to the original in terms of structure.  It’s very different, however, in many ways, from running time to presentation. It’s certainly ambitious and explores much-neglected times and places in prehistory. People often forget that these periods existed, and only the trilobite, Dimetrodon, and possibly Meganuera as familiar to most of the public. They’ve always played second fiddle to dinosaurs, so much that Dimetrodon is more often placed with dinosaurs than with fellow Pelycosaurs. It’s telling that in the former exhibit Life Over Time, there was a corridor visitors could take to bypass the entire Palaeozoic and go straight to the dinosaurs (thankfully, Evolving Planet does not). It’s certainly the longest in terms of time periods covered, while it’s much shorter in running time: at 90 minutes, it’s half the length of the first two.  So without further ado, let’s look at the prehistoric clip show to see how they can deal with 280 million years of evolution in one and a half hours.


The prelude doesn’t address the first two series. Instead, we are taken to 4.4 billion years ago, where we witness the protoplanet Theia crashing into Earth and the Moon being created by the expelled debris. This theory is still contested and has little to do with the proceedings of the program, but viewers love their natural disasters, especially those on the cosmic scale.

After the opening montage similar to the rest of the trilogy, we are introduced to the first segment. Sadly, it’s a little underwhelming. You see, this is one of the most diverse, bizarre faunas ever to exist in an evolutionary flourish called the Cambrian Explosion. The Burgess Shale of British Columbia gives a beautifully detailed look at this first bloom of animal diversity. Alas, only three or four organisms are shown here, in the Chengjiang biota 530 million years ago. Jellyfish represent earlier life, being played by their extant counterparts. The star of the Shale and the apex predator, Anomalocaris is likewise the centerpiece here. It’s become a sort of Cambrian T.rex, even getting its own toys and Pokemon expy.  We are then are treated to the first of a new feature of the program-insets zooming into an organism and showing a unique adaptation that would lead to later evolutionary success. In this case, it is the compound eyes of Anomalocaris and its trilobite prey-an arthropod adaptation that gave them incredible success.  One eats a  Redlichid trilobite (these arthropods, a massive success story in their own right to the point on monotony, are only shown here), before being randomly attacked by another. I suspect this sequence was put in just to have a battle. The wounded animal is preyed on by a shoal of early chordates, Haikouicthys, portrayed with the natatory and social abilities of a herring and the voracity of a piranha. case you’re wondering, these two genera never interacted, although Haikouicthys shared its biota with a close relative Amplectobelua and Anomalocaris shared its biota with the chordate Pikaia.  

Transitions between faunas in this series are handled better than in the previous series-we are shown a timer counting forwards in time while one of the previous animals is seen evolving into one from the next fauna. They could have easily shown a morph of Plateosaurus to Diplodocus or Ambulocetus to Basilosaurus for example. In this case, it’s the chordate Haikouicthys to the armored jawless fish Cephalaspis. We cut to 478 million years ago in Welsh Silurian, just after the first great extinction (never seen or mentioned).  After an zoom in on Cephalaspis’ external nerve cells, Cephalaspis swims over a bed of real life urchins before it meets the main antagonist of the feature; the sea scorpion Brontoscorpio. You see, before they were land predators, scorpions were shallow-water predators that scuttled across the sea floor. The producers probably chose the poorly preserved Brontoscorpio for its massive size-up to a meter in length based on the limb fragment found.  Brontoscorpio “breaks” the camera with its stinger before pursuing the Cephalaspis, but there’s Always A Bigger Fish and is in turn eaten by the giant Eurypterid (scorpion relatives adapted for active swimming) Pterygotus. 

The setting travels to the barren wastelands where the plant Cooksonia is colonizing the terrain and starting to pump oxygen into the air as waste. We return to the ocean, where the Cephalaspis migrate upriver like modern salmon. This is wild speculation, but it provides for an interesting sequence, especially when the Brontoscorpio follow their smaller scorpions out onto the land. Another zoom in shows book lungs, another arthropod adaptation that allowed them to reach the land before vertebrates did.  The scorpions pursue the fish, one lucklessly molting in the baking heat.  The Cephalaspis succeed in their molting, and Cephalaspis evolves to the star of the next segment, Hynerpeton. This, unfortunately skips two critical parts of evolution-the development of jaws and advanced fins in true fish, and the evolution of lobefinned fish from denizens of the open ocean to masters of the shallows as they developed the precursors of limbs.

The main character in this last segment is Hynerpeton, the last and largest of the Devonian amphibians, in its setting of Pennsylvania 360 million years ago. While the Hynerpeton had a stronger shoulder girdle than other early amphibians, I have my doubts it was as terrestrial as the show presents it. More time is spent on the beach than on the water. This segment’s featured physiological adaptation are the complex lungs of the Hynerpeton, allowing for vetebrates to conquer the land. The shark Stethacanthus appears to menace the amphibians, but is in turn devoured by the giant lobefinned fish Hyneria. Hyneria steals the show in my opinion, and got me interested in lobefinned fishes. 

This being mating season, the Hynerpeton are incredibly noisy. One fends off a rival in a lizardlike pushing contest but fails to find a mate as first, but manages to do so the following day. However, as soon as the eggs and sperm are released, Hyneria appears. The shark leitmotif from Jaws amusingly makes an appearance as, like a slasher villain, Hyneria attacks the postcoital amphibians, beaches itself like an orca, and uses its powerful front fins to crawl onto land and snatch the male.
The eggs provide the transition, evolving from the jellylike amphibian eggs to the shelled amniotic egg of the reptile Petrolacosaurus. For the first time, hatchlings are portrayed with excellent CGI rather than with animatronics, which only rarely are used. Said hatchlings are menaced by a giant spider, which laughs maniacally (no, seriously) as the opening stinger (pardon the pun). 

This episode is by both the best and the worst. The best is that it takes the classic “Coal Age” forest and brings it to splendid life. The worst is the embarrassing fact that one of the main characters never existed. You see, Megarachne, a cephalothorax from the Carboniferous, has been reconstructed as a giant spider both here and in previous literature. However, during production, another specimen was discovered showing the complete animal-instead it being the body of a spider, Megarachne turned out to be just the front half of a eurypterid. Shelob just turned out to be a declawed sea scorpion.  It was too late to change the animation and story, so it was renamed as Mesothelae in narration. Mesothelae is an extant order of spiders, with Carboniferous species resembling tarantulas and wolf spiders in form and probably habit.  However, to my knowledge, none have been found quite as big as the spider in the program. This is unfortunate, as the producers also chose the derived reptile Petrolacosaurus instead of much smaller reptile Hylonomus or transitional species Westlothiana or Casineria, any of which would probably be prey to a tarantula analogue. Petrolacosaurus, by the way, gets the inserts this segment-both its protective scales and powerful heart are featured as ancestors to all other amniotes. 

Megarachne chases down and kills the Petrolacosaurus, but the kill is spectacularly stolen by the classic giant griffinfly Meganuera.  Megrachne searches for a new burrow as its current one is flooded, but encounters the giant near-millipede Arthropleura and the reptiliomorph Proterogyrinus  In the Carboniferous, it was these early landlubber amphibians that probably led to the decline and fall of the arthropleurids. The Arthropleura and Proterogyrinus fight in the most memorable scene of the series, the Arthropleura rearing up like a cobra to threaten the anthracosaur. The fight ends with Arthropleura falling onto a random bush stump that pierces its armor and impales it, the Proterogyrinus eating the corpse.  A storm brews, forcing the animals to duck for cover. The descending Meganuera are spectacularly preyed on by the leaping Proterogyrinus while the Petrolacosaurus and Megarachne hide for cover. A lightning bolt hits, the same oxygen that allowed for arthropods to reach such huge sizes ignites in explosion. As the smoke rises, Petrolacosaurus casually leaves its burrow, goes into Megarachne’s and enjoys “a spider barbecue”.

Petrolacosaurus evolves into Edaphosaurus to transfer the scene from late Carboniferous Kansas to early Permian Bromacker. However, Petrolacosaurus was already a diapsid, and thus an ancestor of archosaurs like crocodiles and dinosaurs (and thus birds) while Edaphosaurus was a synapsid, an ancestor of mammals. Again, their choice of Petrolacosaurus backfires.
The settings of these middle episodes are strange-Kansas is poor in Carboniferous content while Germany has only Dimetrodon in terms of Permian animals. Both the American and British North are teeming with excellent Carboniferous sites from Chicago to Edinburgh. Meanwhile, the iconic fauna for the early Permian is the Red Beds of Texas, host to all sorts of amphibians, reptilomorphs, and pelycosaurs.  

While the vast herds of Edaphosaurus introduce the setting and provide the inset of the Edaphosaurus’ dorsal fins, the star of any early Permian program is, of course, Dimetrodon. The main character in this segment is a pregnant Dimetrodon dealing with pelycosaur motherhood. We are introduced to her as she attacks the herd and kills an Edaphosaur (and gives the insert featuring Dimetrodon’s incredible dental array of incisors, huge fangs, and ). This episode’s narrative is based on the lifestyles of Komodo Dragons and other monitors. We see this with a mob of Dimetrodon devouring the Edaphosaurus carcass and shaking out the fecal material from the intestines (while dung beetles had their own segment in Walking With Dinosaurs, the poop here is just here to splatter onto the camera. So in other words, this series has gone to crap). 
The female builds a nest, tending it through the winter and into next spring. She is challenged by another mother, wanting to take over her nest so she can lay her own eggs. The moms fight through the entire day, the morning seeing the resident victorious at the cost of her eye. Both a male Dimetrodon and Seymouria raid the nest but find each other instead; the male instead enjoys fresh Seymouria.  The Dimetrodon crèche hatches, the hatchlings looking basically like miniature adults rather than the distinct infants we saw in the previous series.  They are set on by the adults, including their mother. One dives in a pile of dung to deter the pursuit, while others are devoured. The survivors flee up trees, narrowly being eaten by their own mother. 

owHowever, to my knowledge, nopne have been found Mass extinctions are an unfortunate fetish in documentaries, especially when you see the depressing event itself. So it was inevitable that they show the Permian extinction in full swing.  This catastrophe, like the K-Pg extinction in Walking With Dinosaurs, is blamed on volcanism, which is only one theory among many plausible explanations.  Oddly enough in both cases they don’t show the volcanoes, just the arid wastelands, which is just depressing rather than spectacular.  The setting for this segment is Siberia, 250 million years ago in the central desert of Pangaea. 

The first creature is the big reptilian herbivore Scutosaurus, but it is quickly brought down by the star of the program, the giant Gorgonopsian Inostrancevia (never named by genus but explained to be the biggest animal until the dinosaurs, which is incorrect when rauisuchids are taken into account.  The setting is a waterhole, while the third main species, Diictodon have a variety of burrows nearby. The tiny dicynodonts are reconstructed as gopher-like burrowers, fighting over food (with a zoom in on their sophisticated inner ear) and living in mated pairs.  The lead gorgonopsid threatens them, but only results in an amusing but brief attempt at Whack A Mole.  She returns to the water, but is attacked by a “Labyrinthodont” (modeled after the African species Rhinesuchus), an animal which was part of the fauna, the niche taken by the armored reptiliomorph Chroniosuchus.
A catastrophic drought hits the watering hole, and things worsen when a herd of Scutosaurus (and a zoom in on their gastroliths) drink up the water. In the aftermath, the gorgon eats the hibernating metoposaur, but succumbs to lack of food and water. We see her mummy as the area is smothered in a sandstorm. This entire episode is basically the therapsid version of the Rite of Spring segment of Fantasia. Fortunately, there is hope left over as the Diictodon pair survive the storm and evolve into a new, diverse group. This evolution transitions sees tiny, burrowing Diictodon evolve into the massive hippolike Lystrosaurus. 

This last segment is set in Antarctica 248 million years ago, but only Lystrosaurus is from the continent, the rest being South African. A big missed opportunity for this program is showing the Permian and Triassic periods in South Africa with faunas from the amazing Karoo Beds.  This is the closest we get, with the Lystrosaurus being correctly described as one of the most successful genera of all time, roaming the land in vast herds. 

The other star of the episode, however, is tiny Euparkeria, shown jumping around for insects. The zoom in, the last of the series, is on the hips of Euparkeria. The rest of the episode follows the travails of the Lystrosaurus as they migrate. In a defile that they inexplicably choose to pass at night, they are ambushed by “Therocephalian”. These small animals are clearly re-used CGI models of the Thrinaxodon “Cynodonts” from Walking With Dinosaurs and depicted with bites “more venomous than a black mamba”.  Quick research showed that the only mammal-like reptile with a poisonous bite was Euchambersia, a South African like Proterosuchus and Euparkeria. The poison is only a speculation, a conclusion drawn by a groove and pit in the canines of the lower jaw. This, if truly a feature instead of a taphonomic scar, is analogous to mandibular adaptations for venom in snakes and lizards. Of course, their hyperbole on the venom is pure imagination; the size of the animal suggests small prey rather than anything like a Lystrosaurus, and so the venom could be anything in potency from a European adder to a Taipan.  

The last scene is an obvious take off of ungulate crossings in conventional African nature documentaries. Instead of zebra or wildebeest, we have a huge herd of Lystrosaurus trying to cross a flooded river. Instead of Nile crocodiles, we have the hook-snouted archosaur Proterosuchus (identified as Chasmatosaurus before it was lumped into the other species). They are stated as not having eaten since the last year, which is a rather ridiculous statement considering how often their crocodilian counterparts, even as cold blooded as they are, eat more than their fair share of fish. Judging by their jaws, it seems far more likely that Proterosuchus ate more fish in a week as Lystrosaurus in an entire year.  So we have the standard crossing montage and standard killing montage. On the bank Euparkeria is menaced by a Proterosuchus but, in the last transition of the series, evolves into an Allosaurus. Said Allosaurus strides into footage from Walking With Dinosaurs, bringing the series full circle.

The series should get credit for tackling this type of material in the first place.  They could have easily skipped the entire Palaeozoic without anyone complaining or nothing the absence. The effects are better-while the physical animatronics are missed and definitely would have improved the species, the computer graphics have definitely improved over the 6 years after the first season. It’s wonderful to see these exotic, weird animals and new environments, and that novelty is played up.  Ben Bartlett’s score is as wonderful as ever. This is Kenneth Branaugh’s best outing as narrator; inherently inappropriate as a narrator, the hyperbole in the narration this time around allows him to add some drama. Finally, the best addition to the program is the use of evolution as a transition. As mentioned, a species from one episode “evolves” into one from the next episode as a timer counts forwards.

The bad part is the hyperbole does make it harder to take it seriously. As mentioned, there is a scene where a sea scorpion is imagined as a spider which laughs maliciously before killing prey.  There’s a lot of dubious dramatic and scientific decisions made, and it’s more obvious in this series than the previous two. The worst part, however, is the running time. The first two series each had a 6 episodes of 30 minute segments.  This series has 7 segments-the first three in one 30 minute episode, and the other four in two more 30 minute episodes.  That means 4 segments are half as long as an equivalent segment from the other series, and three of them are only 10 minutes long.  This kills the series-there’s not enough time spent in each segment, so both the drama and the education is cut badly in terms of pacing. In some cases, like the Lystrosaurus, Megarachne and Inostrancevia segments, it’s difficult to identify if the species I mentioned are actually the main character
The worst part is that there’s not much more in the way of pre-dinosaur documentaries. The special Sea Monsters featured segments in the Ordovician and Triassic, and the Attenborough classic Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives did great justice to the Cambrian Explosion (I would also recommend Steven Jay Gould’s amazing book Wonderful Life.  

I ultimately give this 73/100. It’s worth a watch, but certainly inferior to the other parts of the “Trilogy of Life” (as it has come to be called). It’s a wasted opportunity to be sure, but not a complete failure.


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