‘Prehistoric Planet’ on Apple TV+ brings dinosaurs to life
As simple as the phrase “66 million years ago” is, it is impossible for a human mind to truly understand. A notion of a time so, so long ago is simple enough to conceptualize in books, scholarly journals, and encyclopedias, in writing, and in conversation, but it conjures up a period of time that feels false, like something foreign. The plants were different, the insects were huge, the continents were in the wrong places, the very air was made up of a different combination of fundamental elements. Not to mention the reptilian beasts that populated almost every corner of the globe. prehistoric planetthe five-night event series on Apple TV+, offers a new way to look at an ancient past: not as an alien world, but as a time remarkably similar to our own.
In 1999, Walk with the dinosaurs, a co-production between the Discovery Channel and the BBC, premiered on television and changed the face of dinosaur documentaries forever. The most expensive documentary mini-series ever made, the show used a combination of hands-on puppets and cutting-edge computer-generated imagery and the latest (for the time) scientific knowledge to bring a long-lost world to life. . It was followed by 2011 Dinosaur Planetwhose recreations of prehistoric landscapes and over 50 species were entirely digital. prehistoric planet is the third in the BBC’s dinosaur event series, its five episodes airing over five consecutive nights, superimposing updated versions of its digital dinosaurs over real footage of modern nature.
Fashioned like nature documentaries, these three shows stand out for their treatment of their subjects: not as terrifying movie monsters or brutal walking nightmares, but as the animals they were, using a combination of the fossil record , many decades of history. the evolution of scientific theory and what we know about the wildlife that exists today to give us as close a glimpse as possible of creatures that have been extinct for millions of years. It helps that prehistoric planet is also narrated by David Attenborough, the voice of a whole generation of nature shows and films.
prehistoric planet takes place entirely in the Late Cretaceous period, around 66 million years ago (the most recent era of the dinosaurs). This time around, things look markedly different: most of the creatures we see on screen in this series have the rudimentary beginnings of feathers, even tyrannosaurus rex, the young of which, perhaps, were covered with a bird’s down. Because the show is limited to a single geological period, there’s plenty of room for the more obscure dinosaurs to take center stage. T. rex and Velociraptor and Triceratops are there, but also Barbaridactulysa huge pteranodon with an antler-like head crest half the length of its wingspan; olorotitan, four-legged herbivores that travel in herds in the desert; and Deinocheirus, a feathered, waterlogged giant wandering through fly-infested swamps. Frog lovers will appreciate the surprise appearance of Beelzebufoa huge carnivorous amphibian with a name like a witch’s curse.
prehistoric planet, and docu-series like this, are versatile. They’re fun and entertaining shows for those who just want to dip a toe into another world for a few hours, but they’re also fascinating visualizations of the leaps and bounds that scientific knowledge of fossils has crossed over the years, especially when seen in conjunction with all of the above.
We’ve only been studying dinosaurs as we know them for about 200 years. Something new is discovered several times a year. Theories are constantly being debated and developed. Feathers, a relatively new discovery, allow visual effects artists to play with the colors and patterns that may have existed, fashioning one particular species of raptor after the lunar face of a barn owl, and another with the iridescent blue shine of a peacock. They seem to have more weight, more meat on their bones, much like today’s warm-blooded animals. Compared to the round predators of prehistoric planetthe menacing presence at Nosferatu of jurassic parkis iconic T. rex looks almost skeletal.
Because this is presented as a nature documentary, little effort is made to describe what Earth was like millions of years ago, which causes a bit of time confusion. Attenborough will describe a subject as living in “modern North America”, which is accurate insofar as that is where the fossils were undoubtedly found. found, but ignores the fact that none of our continents actually existed at the time. Closest to any reference to an ancient map is a nod to the “Sea of Tethys”, a body of water separating the supercontinents Laurasia to the north and Gondwana to the south, which eventually became the landmasses on which we live today. (If you are very bothered by this #erasure of continental drift, at the end of each episode viewers are directed to the show websiteupdated with more detailed information.)
Unlike a nature documentary, a large part prehistoric planet cannot simply be taken at face value, despite Attenborough’s benevolent and authoritative voice. We have no idea if any of the interspecies dramas we see on screen – an aquatic Mosasaur swim out T. rexa Carnotaurus using its hilarious tiny arms for a mating display – even “has happened”, beyond what is present in the fossil record. Instead of treating that as a weakness, the almost totally hypothetical nature of this show is a testament to the work that has gone into it, from paleontologists to behind-the-scenes visual effects artists, the unsung heroes of the entertainment industry.
prehistoric planet is built on such contradictions, a documentary made up of fictions, fictions made up of indisputable facts, a vision of a distant past that could only be made from our knowledge of the present. A show like this is a kind of time travel. There’s a reason the only non-digital images are landscapes: jungles and temperate forests, deserts and snowy expanses – which of course were captured here in our time. This world of 66 million years ago looks so much like our planet because it once did. Thinking about it this way, it doesn’t seem far off at all.