Dinosaur documentaries have come a long way since the box set of the Walter-Cronkite-hosted series that I grew up watching. Extinct fauna, especially dinosaurs, hold an interesting place in the public imagination. They are among the most entertainment-friendly scientific/historical subjects, and since paleontologists learn new things about them all the time, our understanding and imaging of these creatures can continually change as well. They’re old yet malleable. Because of this, documentaries about dinosaurs are often on the cutting edge of special effects, having to keep up not just with new data but also raised expectations for capturing the public’s imagination. The visuals of the new show Prehistoric Planet throw into sharp relief how such possibilities have evolved since the stop-motion Brontosaurus I watched as a child.
Teaming up with the storied BBC Studios Natural History Unit (responsible for hit nature docuseries like Planet Earth), Apple TV+ pulled out all the prestigious stops here, enlisting Hans Zimmer to compose the score and the CGI services of Moving Picture Company (the visual effects house responsible for Disney’s recent Jungle Book and Lion King remakes). And of course, David Attenborough, the world’s favorite narrator, is on hand to host. Over the course of the five episodes, each centered around a different biome (coasts, deserts, forests, etc.), Prehistoric Planet strives to depict a fuller and more scientifically accurate portrait of life on Earth near the end of the Cretaceous period (around 66 million years ago) than ever before. Like a lot of other Attenborough productions, each installment is itself highly episodic, based around visually ambitious setpieces like a young Pterosaur’s first flight or a Tuarangisaurus giving birth.
There is an obvious distinction between this series and much of Attenborough and the Natural History Unit’s other work. Planet Earth, Blue Planet, and other traditional nature documentaries entail a great deal of observation. A dinosaur documentary — at least, one trying to be like a contemporary Attenborough work and not simply focusing on the work of paleontology — instead requires imagination. And that’s a curious conceit when you think about it. Though Prehistoric Planet is better-informed than any previous show of its kind, a great deal of what it depicts is presented in the style of reality but in fact is a representation of well-educated guesswork. What we’ve learned since the Cronkite Dinosaur! series now makes a good deal of it look hokey. At that time, we didn’t even know some dinosaurs had feathers, and now Prehistoric Planet dutifully renders them with these qualities. It will be interesting to watch the dinosaur docs of the future (presumably some kind of AR/VR/metaverse affairs, complete with a deepfaked Attenborough narrator) and learn whatever about this show and its contemporaries will eventually turn out to be misinformed.
And, barring some remarkable developments with time travel, this will always be the case. The gulf between what we know about the dinosaurs and their actual reality remains vast. But “We don’t know” isn’t a satisfying answer to any questions a kid may ask about dinosaurs, and “We don’t know, but here are some possibilities” is fun but ours is not a culture hospitable to ambiguities. So instead, Prehistoric Planet puts on the familiar clothing of a typical documentary, allowing us to take the immediacy of cinema’s magic trick for granted. The result is often very pretty to look at, and will surely spur a new generation of young dinosaur lovers, but anyone with a deeper scientific or historical curiosity will frequently come away frustrated.
Watching Prehistoric Planet again and again, I wondered, “Cool, but what evidence is this based on?” When Attenborough provides the answers to such questions, it’s very neat. After a vicious underwater dominance fight between two mosasaurs, he explains that we know such events took place because paleontologists have found the teeth of rivals embedded in their fossilized skulls. But such exposition is frustratingly rare. It’s easy to understand the rationale for this choice. The show is committed to a transportive experience, and one can imagine the producers and writers feared that too much explanation and context would spoil that effect. At the end of each episode, Attenborough appears in person to urge anyone interested in the underlying science to check out the series’ companion website, which has all those facts on hand. But leaving that element to supplementary materials dodges the real challenge of making educational materials compelling.
It doesn’t help that the visual world Prehistoric Planet conjures often comes up short. While TV visual effects can effectively be on par with those in theatrical film now, nearly four hours of CGI is still a lot to work with, and the quality of the renderings varies wildly. One sequence featuring a feathered Mononykus is astonishing, nearly photorealistic, while a shot of various animals clustered around a desert oasis looks like it could have come from the BBC’s last series on this topic, Planet Dinosaur, which was released over a decade ago. But the issue of realism often comes down less to the quality of the CGI work than it does to choices in framing. While the show imitates the style of a “real-world” nature documentary, it frequently employs impossible images. This can be as subtle as an aerial sequence of flyers that are seen from a vantage closer than any camera could get, or as blatant as a shot of scavengers picking at a corpse framed from inside said corpse. A viewer will pick up on this, if only subconsciously, undermining the verisimilitude. New dinosaur documentaries can take advantage of the dynamic quality of paleontology and its many advances. But I would argue that without a deeper integration of how we’ve learned the things we know, these shows can’t do much more than the average Jurassic Park/World sequel.
Prehistoric Planet will be available to stream on Apple TV+ beginning May 23.