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What Makes ‘Prehistoric Planet’ So Special? Following The Science

5 min read
Prehistoric Planet (2022)

Prehistoric Planet has been in the making for a decade according to Steve Brussate, a palaeontologist and consultant for the five-part series from the BBC Natural History Unit and +. This period of time has felt like an aeon for natural history fans, as it's been twenty years since the last series of this kind, . Aside from the headaches involved for the crew updating the animals constantly with revolutionary new findings over the course of a decade, this series has been well worth the extra wait. Public interest in prehistoric life ( in particular) ebbs and flows over the years — there was even a Dinosaur Renaissance starting in the 1960s. While they are certainly back in fashion (a browse in any homeware store will have a golden stegosaurus lurking somewhere) it wouldn't be a surprise if this series sparks a renewed and revolutionised interest.

Following the amazing animals of the Late Cretaceous in true documentary style, has considered most of the complaints from palaeontologists that have been launched at natural history and palaeontology documentaries over the years. There is even a website where viewers can see the science behind what they choose to depict. Walking with Dinosaurs, beyond the questionable special effects, has many problems, making it incredibly outdated. The dinosaurs are ‘shrink-wrapped', scaly skin seemingly stretched over the bones, and it is very speculative, also exaggerating many things such as the size and teeth of the animals. In contrast, and with the help of mind-blowing discoveries such as feather colours, patterns, and bioluminescent cells in fossils, Prehistoric Planet proves you don't need to exaggerate or invent anything to make these creatures terrifying, beautiful, and awe-inspiring.

Following Walking with Dinosaurs we had more recent spin-offs, such as Walking with Beasts and Sea Monsters, and later from the BBC Natural History Unit Planet Dinosaur in 2011. While the CGI may have improved as the years passed, the science continually took a backseat in favour of spectacle. This is something we hear often with reference to the Jurassic Park and Jurassic World movies, where creating Godzilla-esque monsters for the big screen is a justifiable goal, but in a documentary format, this shouldn't be the priority. These shows have generally focused on making the biggest, scariest, and scaliest T Rex to grace our screens, and to be the best toys, and while realistic CGI assisted in this goal, realistic dinosaurs for some reason didn't. Planet Dinosaur was Walking with Dinosaurs' main descendent, but the show focused on comparing different animals for titles, such as the deadliest or biggest of whatever group the episode focused on. Since then, the budget never materialised for another documentary-style palaeontology series. Until now.

Prehistoric Planet (2022)
Courtesy of Apple TV+

A Jurassic Fight Club

In the interim, unless you devoured palaeontology YouTube content with the ferocity of an Allosaurus in a zoo, ancient life viewing was limited to lower budget, sensationalised History and Discovery Channel content. Perhaps most infamous was Discovery Channels' morally questionable mockumentary, Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives which aired in 2013, and clearly had an impact given the sheer quantity of giant shark movies and conspiracy videos since. Similarly, the mockumentary Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real rewrote history to follow a fake palaeontologist attempting to prove dragons in the fossil record, and History Channel a few years earlier gave us Jurassic Fight Club, which is almost exactly what it sounds like minus the plot twist. Essentially, big fights between monstrous, implausible creatures were all the low budget, late night TV rage.

Prehistoric Planet boldly turns all this on its head. The five episodes are simply named after the five ecosystems we see the cretaceous animals navigate, such as ‘Deserts'. Comparing these to Walking with Dinosaurs titles such as ‘Time of the Titans', ‘Cruel Sea', or ‘New Blood', or shows such as Jurassic Fight Club, the difference is obvious. The team has taken a similar approach to that of Planet Earth, with episode titles such as ‘Mountains' featuring grizzly bears and mountain lions. Also produced by the BBC Natural History Unit, the parallels are clear, and its creators have produced a high budget, scientific, and legitimate documentary — a world first if we discount Walking with Dinosaurs and Planet Dinosaur for their numerous flaws. It is after all narrated by none other than Sir , with a rising and memorable score by Hans Zimmer. No corners were cut, and the minute viewers hear Attenborough's voice, they know exactly what kind of a show you are in for.

Consultants on the show included some of the most influential and respected palaeontologists and paleoartists around such as Dr and Gabriel Ugeto, and this difference shows in the quality and believability of these animals. The word ‘animals' is crucial here. Not titans, giants, or monsters, these dinosaurs are shown to be just what they were; amazing, unique, and surprising animals, but animals nonetheless. This makes the documentary infinitely more compelling and gripping. They are truly brought to life in a way never seen before and are put fully in the context of their respective ecosystems of the late Cretaceous period, not cherry-picking the largest creatures from the distant past and putting them together in a jungle.

Prehistoric Planet (2022)
Courtesy of Apple TV+

Paleoartisty Gone Wild

The documentary isn't given narrative by constant battles between roaring Tyrannosaurus', but by the realistic moments we have come to know from the fossil record and from the life around us today. The feathered juveniles are playful and curious, the hunts are not always successful or spectacular, and the parents protect their young in a risky environment, all while being pestered by insects. Seeing the other animals of the time, including early birds, insects, and small lizards is surprisingly refreshing, solidifying that these were real creatures who roamed the earth, not alien creatures who stalked a radically different planet from earth today.

Of course, none of this would have been possible to this extent without the mind-blowing CGI. The graphics and effects were developed by Moving Picture Company, arguably surpassing their work on The Jungle Book and The Lion King, and are spectacular in comparison to the rushed CGI we have been seeing recently. There are amazing paleoartists out there, and incredible work has been done in reconstructing prehistoric life before, but watching Prehistoric Planet is like seeing a city for the first time after admiring blueprints for decades. Taking a conscious moment to remember each animal isn't real proves to be a continuous shock. It was as close to a real-life Jurassic Park as viewers may want to get.

So, palaeontology fans rejoice, and the days of outdated dinosaur art may pass, for a little while. As new discoveries are made and debate rages in scientific circles, what we see in Prehistoric Planet may not hold up completely another twenty years down the line, but it is hard to see how it could be anything but awe-inspiring even for future audiences. Its predecessors are still enjoyable, but Prehistoric Planet is what none of them were — an animal documentary. Nothing needs to be added beyond what we know to make these animals screen worthy. Hopefully, our TV screens will be blessed with more prehistory content following the epic five-day event this week, but after a long, long wait, fans are set to be overjoyed.