Television Review: Prehistoric Planet

Apparently the eye of an Oviraptorid Corythoraptor.

This past week, Apple TV premiered its new dinosaur documentary, Prehistoric Planet. This is a bigger deal than it may sound.

Okay, so, for a long time, the gold standard for dinosaur documentaries was Walking with Dinosaurs, which premiered on BBC One all the way back in 1999. It was an epic piece of work, using CGI on a level that had never been seen before, and kicking off a slew of sequels, plus plenty of similar shows on the Discovery Channel and the like.

It was also very much flawed. Walking with Dinosaurs didn’t showcase the latest science, but instead bowed to the popular conception of what dinosaurs were like (at that time probably driven by the original Jurassic Park more than anything else). Notably, we already knew in 1999 that dinosaurs had feathers, but Walking didn’t use them. (And honestly, for shows that did like Dinosaur Planet, they looked pretty dumb—more like fuzzy chicks than dangerous predators.)

The other thing is that there has been a pretty serious drought in dinosaur documentaries in recent years. I first noticed…probably 4 or 5 years ago that while there had been a lot of them in the 2000s, there were very few after 2011. We hadn’t gotten the opportunity to see the feathered dinosaurs properly updated. And what documentaries there were frequently weren’t up to the same quality of Walking with Dinosaurs. Most of them were shorter, and most of them broke the immersion by cutting away from the dinosaurs for interviews with scientists and video of modern day fossil hunts.

So when I saw the trailer for Prehistoric Planet, I was very excited. Here was the first major dinosaur documentary since (as far as I could tell) 2015, one on the same scale as Walking with Dinosaurs. It looked to be going all-in on the immersion (which later proved right); it had David Attenborough narrating (who turned down Walking With Dinosaurs because he thought it was too speculative at the time), Hans Zimmer on the music, and to cap it all off, feathered dinosaurs that actually look good.

So, yes, this was a big deal. And I have to agree it lived up to expectations. My rating: 4.5 out of 5.

So, Prehistoric Planet was not exactly what I was hoping for. One thing I loved about the old Walking With… series is how it would step forward to a new time period with each new episode. I was hoping for a show that would bring back that format and properly cover the entire dinosaur era. (The Triassic doesn’t get enough attention.) Prehistoric Planet is not that. But instead, it’s something I didn’t realize we were missing. It’s essentially “Planet Earth, but in the Maastrichtian.” (That being the last 6 million years of the Cretaceous period.)

And that’s precisely why they couldn’t cover multiple time periods. They really made it look like a classic David Attenborough documentary like Planet Earth. It’s fully immersive. There are no impossible camera angles or digital cutaways. There are few to no references or comparisons to modern animals. Everything is made to look like it was actually shot on the real-life Maastrichtian Earth, and the result is brilliant.

The one drawback to this format, however, is that it didn’t allow them to say which things they showed were truly speculative. The throat sacks on the Dreadnoughtus became infamous just from the trailers, for example. There’s no evidence whatsoever for those in the fossil record as far as I can tell. It’s very plausible that they could have had them, but it’s not based on anything.

Although I do have to say, seeing a 1.5-ton Carnotaurus do a mating dance like a bird-of-paradise was both weirdly plausible (given how close they are to birds), but also hilariously surreal.

Finally, I feel like it would be pushy to criticize the length of the series. At 200 minutes total, it’s certainly no lightweight. Walking With Dinosaurs was 180 minutes, and few dinosaur documentaries over the past 20 years have been longer. And yet, I confess that I was still disappointed that it wasn’t longer—not the total per se, but mainly in that the episodes were only 40 minutes. To get the real Planet Earth treatment, they should have been 60 minute episodes.

But that’s a minor point. All in all, there are a few points where Prehistoric Planet didn’t do as well as I’d hoped, which is why I didn’t give it full marks, but it is still quite possibly the best dinosaur documentary I’ve ever seen. If you factor in the newer ones having better science, it’s definitely the best, so if you’re interested in dinosaurs at all, you should definitely see it.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
This entry was posted in reviews, Science, TV Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Television Review: Prehistoric Planet

  1. Phteven says:

    I have to say that this series really under delivered for me. It was excellent in many ways and mostly my disappointment is from very high expectations for the CGI advances and rich storytelling that could showcase some of the major discoveries over the more than 20 years since the WWD series. I just finished the Ice World episode and it is my least favorite so far and it was the one I looked forward to the most. I’ve watched WWD trilogy more times that I’ll admit. It was the unique storytelling, the really terrific filming locations like New Caledonia (as an island filled shallow sea of Europe) and southern Chile that really transported me back there (loads of inaccuracies aside). For me Apple’s Ice Worlds does not live up to WWD Spirit of the Ice Forest in the landscapes, music, and particular the storytelling even though Prehistoric Planet always wins out in the accuracy and life-likeness of the creatures (to be expected of course, we are 23 years later). In WWD I felt they did an amazing job re-creating a landscape and climate that has no modern analogy in that episode. Sun setting over a frosty forest of tree ferns in the antarctic as opposed to …. dinos in a blizzard and a landscape that didn’t take me back to the Cretaceous but my trip six years ago to Jasper National Park (for both their high arctic and antarctic – they looked too similar!). The story jerks around a too much and i must say is a bit boring…. a forest fire… a lush mature deciduous forest somewhere that “escaped the fires”… back to coniferous trees and looks like that looks like a trip through the Canadian Rockies with some CGI. I feel a bit like I’m watching Apple’s See – lots of money (lots and LOTS AND LOTS of money) producing magnificent scenes but suffers in the end from poor direction and dialog. I longed for a trip through time and across the planet, not end Cretaceous only in mostly North America with a backdrop of ‘modern’ recognizable landscapes (with several exceptions). Also with all the money they put in to this series… how about a re-creation of the geography by way of maps or zoom-ins from 100 miles up, showing us the amazing inland sea of NA or the islands of Europe? Were those rocky mountains meant as a stand in for the Arctic Cordillera (Ellesmere Island)? Northern Alaska? Like I have said – looks like Jasper. Lot of room here even with the classic David A storytelling to teach us a thing about climate and geography at this pin point in time that the producers tied themselves to for no apparent reason. This episode missed the boat on taking us into the really insane world of arctic areas that were temperate and even sub-tropical that became sub-arctic in darkness. Warm ocean currents even in winter… what kind of storms that must have produced. Plants and amphibians were ignored in this episode as well. There was no showcasing on what kind of plants adaptations must have been required to live through a warm summer to months of cold and darkness. All of it felt like northern Canada and Alaska with some dinos. Such a disappointment.
    Anyways, enough with the criticism. I’m mostly sad that they seem to have missed a number of great opportunities in this episode in particular. I DO give it the same rating you did. OK maybe 4.2 if I’m allowed to split hairs. I’ll listen to David Attenborough read a car manual, and in this series he shines as always. The writing is really good and engaging in most places. And FINALLY those proto-feathers and feathers! Done to perfection. (and maybe in five years the critics will blast the series for some of their WWD-esque liberties – I’m looking at you theropod running around with a burning stick to scare out some dinner!)
    Cheers. 🙂

Comments are closed.