Guest blogger Jontosaurus takes us for a walk through his favourite prehistoric wildlife show…
The one problem I had with Jurassic Park and the army of sequels it spawned was simply the factual inaccuracy of it all. Sure, it is decent cinematic value for money to see a Tyrannosaurus Rex lay the smack-down on a car, especially when that car contains two screaming children- who, you know, would really have improved their chances of survival if they weren’t making all of that damn noise and drawing attention to themselves– but my main issue is that you didn’t learn anything. As a child, I was fascinated by dinosaurs, so much so that my idea of a fun day out was not to visit a theme park, but to go to a dinosaur museum or to visit the beach along our infamous ‘Jurassic Coast’ for fossil walks and fossil hunts. Yeah…I was THAT kind of kid. For me, the age of the dinosaurs was a fascinating part of natural history that I felt needed more attention and a whole lot more respect paid to it than an overblown (although undeniably enjoyable) Hollywood blockbuster could muster. In my opinion, we don’t need to plant a dinosaur in the centre of Manhattan in order to make people’s jaws drop- dinosaurs were awesome enough in their own right.
So imagine my joy when Walking With Dinosaurs arrived on our screens. It was the closest we would ever come to being there alongside those ancient reptiles, and short of having David Attenborough crouch in the undergrowth and comment on a clutch of Sauropod eggs, it was also the nearest we ever to a legitimate nature show on an extinct race of animals. It had a monumental budget which allowed for some brilliantly rendered CGI dinosaurs- done so well that that mostly hold up against scrutiny today- although it still came from an era where practical effects were considered important. Some fantastic animatronics and some good old fashioned puppetry also played a part in helping bring these ancient reptilian giants to life. Narrated by Kenneth Branagh, enunciating each word as if he was reciting Shakespeare at the National Theatre, it was given a real legitimacy, and this was helped in no small part by the huge team of palaeontologists, scientists, fossil experts and well-versed experts who all gave their valuable time and knowledge to make the show as accurate as possible. Obviously, with the dinosaurs extinct, and only bones remaining as their legacy, there was a certain amount of guesswork. The colours of the dinosaurs, for one thing, were largely created by considering current day animals who played the same role in their eco-system. These were educated guesses on most occasions although they were still far more informed guesses that you or I could have made in the same circumstances. Their behavioural traits, too, were all guesses- the agile predators through to the bulky herbivores were all motion captured with real animals in mind (for example, when considering how the Diplodocus would move, the experts decided to study the elephant- the heaviest present day land animal- for inspiration).
Starting in the Triassic period, when the giant reptiles that would later be known as dinosaurs first started emerging, we were plunged into some brilliantly researched landscapes that were all real. We later progressed through the Jurassic period, where dinosaurs grew truly massive, and into the Cretaceous period, the time of the dreaded Tyrannosaurus and the dinosaur’s fateful end.
There was no CGI involved in the scenery. The amount of research that it must have taken to find a modern day wilderness that could effectively be re-created into an ancient world beyond imagination is enough to make you feel tired. Much like an actual nature documentary, we followed the exploits of various prehistoric creatures in their day to day battle to evolve or die. Interestingly, in order to add an emotional side to the story, we also found ourselves invested in the stories of one particular creature’s journey. In episode one, we became obsessed with the Cynodont family and their battle to bring their young into the world. Episode two saw us follow a baby Diplodocus as it tried to dodge predators, eat twice its own bodyweight and grow to adulthood…something that was easier said than done. Throughout the other episodes we also followed an epic mating journey of a Pterosaur and the surprisingly sad demise of a Tyrannosaur as she tries to provide for her young babies. It had real heart, but you learned things about a world that we could otherwise never comprehend.
As you can tell, I have watched this series at least two or three times, and that’s being generous. I was somewhat obsessed with the series when I was younger, and I remember observing with wonder the world that unfolded before me. Accompanying the amazing visuals was a soundtrack that both fitted the mood and also created the same sense of majesty and wonder that the dinosaurs themselves did. For me, some scene from the series will forever be classics in my mind. The moment when a Liopleurodon- an underwater reptile and the biggest predatory marine creature to have ever existed- bursts out of the water to snatch an unsuspecting dinosaur standing on the shore. The amazing camera work as a monstrous Ornithocheirus- a winged Pterosaur- soars through the air and settles amongst thousands more of its own kind for the annual mating ritual. The slow motion, gargantuan struggle as an adult Allosaur tries- but fails- to bring down a Juvenile Diplodocus, although still leaving a hideously realistic gouge in its victim’s side. And let us not forget the way that, in the last episode, we watch as the infamous meteor disappears over the horizon to strike the Earth. And then the way the shockwave wipes out every dinosaur that, throughout that episode, we had followed and even grown attached to. That was the power this series had.
That the dinosaurs became extinct isn’t a shock to anyone- even a young child with a box full of toy rubber T-Rexes could tell you that. What was a shock, though, was that a series could take you back to that world and make it seem alive and breathing. Even more shocking was the acknowledgement that we actually felt sorry for the creatures who, even more so than the human race, had deserved a continued existence. After all, they were merely surviving- they weren’t inflicting the damage to the planet that we do.
Walking with Dinosaurs will likely never be bettered. Never again will there be a show that will take the time and care that this show did to tell the story correctly, whilst still offering viewers the entertainment they require. If the series were to be remade now, it would simply be pumped out with heavy CGI, computer generated environments and constant scenes of dinosaurs hunting each other. For me, as a self-confessed dino-geek, it will never be bettered. I only hope that more of us will pick up the box set of the original series and go for another walk with those ancient titans that paved the way for the future of life on Earth.