Saturday, May 10, 2014

Documentary Review: Walking With Dinosaurs-the Ballad of Big Al



In December I reviewed the sequel to the BBC’s smash hit Walking With Dinosaurs, Walking With Beasts. However, this wasn’t the only 2001 followup. It’s a sign of the original series’ success that they not only made a sequel, but also made a spinoff around the same time. This was not a complete series, however, but a single episode explicitly based on a specific fossil. It has the same opening sequence as the rest of the series, and follows the same format. The name of this special, however, is much less dramatic, despite the story being as grim and violent as the other stories in the series: The Ballad of Big Al. 



In 1991, a joint expedition to Big Horn county, Wyoming by the Museum of the Rockies and the University of Wyoming discovered a spectacular specimen-a near-complete, subadult, partially articulated Allosaurus. This one, nicknamed Big Al, exhibits almost 20 injuries and pathologies; a dramatic example of the violent, difficult life of an apex predator.  The 2001 special uses behavior of living relatives-crocodiles and birds, and the healed and unhealed skeletal injuries to reconstruct the brief, action-packed like of Big Al.

Appropriately enough, this special begins with narration over the fossil hall of the University of Wyoming. The lights are off, with only the bones illuminated and with flashes of lightning creating a haunting atmosphere. A CGI “ghost” of the Allosaurus inspects the skeletal mount as the premise is explained. A close-up of a dinosaur nest of eggs at the museum provides a transition to Big Al and his siblings hatching.

While Al and his five siblings establish a short-lived bond with their mother, a short montage establishes the late Jurassic. While Stegosaurus and Brachiosaurus, like Allosaurus, return from the Walking With Dinosaurs episode covering the same fauna, new animals like Othnelia (now an invalid species), Dryosaurus, and Apatosaurus make their debut.  Ornitholestes returns again as a baby-eater, with two of them threatening Al and his siblings. Live action animals are seen interacting with the baby Allosaurs-mud puppies, damselflies and scorpion are a nice touch as most paleontology documentaries tend to ignore the smaller animals in the ecosystem.

The next segment is Al’s second year, and he’s now 3 meters long. The story for this segment is based on foods. Othnelia browses next to Stegosaurus, who provide protection for the smaller dinosaur. A nest of Ornitholestes eggs is vigorously defended by their mother. Dryosaurus simple outrun Al. He comes across a mud pit, where a Stegosaurus lays dying, trapped in the mire. Two Allosaurs attempt to scavenge but each in their turn are trapped themselves, based on the Allosaur-rich Cleveland Lloyd Colorado fossil find interpreted as a predator trap.


The next three years are skipped over, and Al is said to reach 10 meters as a subadult, something quite impossible as Al’s fossil body is “only” 8 meters.  The setting is a salt plain formed of an ancient sea. Al and several other Allosaurs team up (Theropod social behavior is still heavily debated) to isolate an ill Diplodocus from its herd as they travel across the plain. This segment is the highlight of the show, with creative camera angles and dramatic music pumping up this spectacular action scene. No sooner does the Diplodocus fall than the kill is stolen by a giant 14-meter female Allosaur. The specimens assigned to the dubious species Epanterias and the more established species Saurophagnax are interpreted in this special as belonging to adult females, being the largest Allosaurs. This is not surprising-this series also interpreted the gigantic Diplodocus hallorum as merely very old Diplodocus carnegiei.


The final segment is Al’s sixth year, where he enters sexual maturity. Dinosaur growth rates, like their social behavior are controversial at best, speculative at worst. His lacrimal horns turning bright red and dazed with hormones, he makes advances on a mature female. She rebuffs him violently, causing some of the injuries found on the fossil. Things get worse when an unsuccessful hunt for Dryosaurus ends with a fall and a broken toe.  The next scene shows him suffering from a foot infection, slowly starving as the dry season drags on. Finally, we see him dead, crippled and gaunt in a dried-up watercourse. The special ends where it began; Al’s mount at the University of Wyoming, telling paleontologists of his violent life.

The approach of this special is both very much in line with the rest of the Walking With Dinosaurs series and significantly different. Like the others, it’s focused on one individual, but this time his entire life is looked at. Like any storytelling style, this has both strengths and weaknesses. The strength is we see a little bit of a dinosaur life cycle-birth, adolescence, maturity, and death. The weakness is that it’s only 20 or so minutes like the other episodes, far too short to be a biography as many years are skipped over or vaguely alluded.

Another mixed blessing is the use of the Morrison Formation and Allosaurus. Not only is it a familiar and well-known site, but Allosaurus is an iconic dinosaur with many specimens. They don’t have to introduce an entire fauna, just a few new species, saving on narrative time and on budget. The weakness is that it’s an animal we’ve seen before in a setting well-explored by documentaries and books. A Sinraptor, for example, or Neovenator would be fresh and new, but they’re not as well-represented in the fossil record or as famous as Allosaurus.

A departure from the main series is the focus on a known individual. All the other episodes, by contrast, are based not on individual fossils telling stories and incidents, but on general faunas or a species reconstructed by a composite of specimens.  The bookends at the museum add a very nice touch, creating a direct connection between the bones in our museums and the prehistoric past. 

Only a few other episodes of the series, however, end this tragically, but the tragic death of the protagonist is based on his fossil remains. It’s said in the companion documentary to this special that Big Al lived fast and died young, giving him a mystique and making him a symbol of the violent, unpredictable world of prehistory. This series has never shied away from violence and death, so it’s fairly typical here and it fits naturally with the sheer number of injuries found on Big Al’s bones. By reconstructing Al’s life story, viewers can grow empathy for the long-dead animal and connect to the fossils the same way paleontologists do.  Again, it’s a smart way to involve people-there’s enough fossils and paleontologists to connect the distant past with today, but there’s not so much that the viewer gets bored.

It’s a real shame that this approach was only tried once, and that the other spinoffs of the Walking With… series eschewed this form of narrative for their own. Those will get their own reviews in time, but I must say of the one-shot spinoffs from the main Walking With Dinosaurs series, this is by far the best. I give it a 78/100.

I know this is a short review compared to the others, but it’s less than half an hour.

5 comments:

  1. Just making sure my comment went through b/c something weird happened when I tried to publish it.

    "The next three years are skipped over, and Al is said to reach 10 meters as a subadult, something quite impossible as Al’s fossil body is “only” 8 meters."

    Just a slight correction: In the Ballad, Al is said to reach 9 meters. Likewise, the giant female is 13 meters ("4 meters longer" than Al). Your point still stands, though.

    "Those will get their own reviews in time, but I must say of the one-shot spinoffs from the main Walking With Dinosaurs series, this is by far the best."

    Next to "Time of the Titans", the Ballad is my favorite WWD episode. However, there's 1 thing that always annoyed me about the Ballad: The depicted parental behavior of Allosaurus (The young fed themselves w/adult supervision) is based on evidence of said behavior in a theropod of uncertain relations (Lourinhanosaurus) despite the facts that 1) said evidence is iffy at best (Mateus claimed that the young must've fed themselves from birth b/c they were born w/teeth; By that logic, most baby mammals must feed themselves from birth), & 2) evidence of parental feeding in Allosaurus was not only known then (See Bakker 1997), but was discussed in ""Walking with Dinosaurs": The Evidence - How Did They Know That?".

    -Hadiaz

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    1. Excellent point! Good catch with the parental care error; I certainly notice it now. Infant care is still hotly debated, even though evidence seems to suggest it was more common than not for dinosaurs. Like everything in paleontology, it's easy for one paleontologist to approve a detail that would enrage another.

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