Wednesday 28 September 2011

Watching Dinosaurs

I've been indulging my not-so-inner dino-nerd over the past few weeks. Firstly, I was able to do something I last did eighteen - EIGHTEEN!! - years ago, and see "Jurassic Park" again at the cinema, courtesy of Cineworld's re-release. Paul and I went on Saturday. I'm delighted (and a little bit embarrassed) to say I still welled up when they first saw the Brachiosaurus. And the kitchen scene is one of the few scenes that, no matter how many times I see it, makes my palms sweat:

Despite its age (and some pretty dodgy science), it is still one of those magical movies that I can watch over and over again.

In contrast, the BBC's "Planet Dinosaur" is not so great. Having seen "Jurassic Park" at the age of 13, and "Walking With Dinosaurs" at 19, my formative years were shaped by some truly superb CGI animation, not to mention the robotics. So I hold all dinosaur television up to those rather high standards. "Planet Dinosaur" falls quite short of these.

There is a great deal of merit in the use of infographics, a cut away to a Greg Paul-esque skeleton (did they get permission or will we endure another long rant on the Dinosaur Mailing List?) and reference to fossil evidence for many of the statements being made. I am particularly delighted to see, via the trailer, that John Hurt is able to pronounce Diplodocus properly (DIP-lo-DOE-cus as opposed to di-PLOD-o-cus).

But there is much to be annoyed about. In the first episode, Spinosaurus was dribbling the basketball rather than holding it - the orientation of the wrists such that the "palms" face each other is pretty established anatomy now, and really should not have slipped by. The Ouranosaurus looked so rubbery that it was almost as if the entire budget had been blown on the carnivores, and the landscape seemed more appropriate to the example footage from a computer game advert - we were truly spoilt by WWD's use of real footage from modern areas. I shall step aside on much of the science though, in favour of Dave Hone's more detailed discussion of the first two episodes.

For me, I'm looking at the BBC as a prospective teaching resource. I was able to use some of the superb Channel 4 show "Inside Nature's Giants" for my AS Biology class, and it's nice to be able to do that with other documentaries. Sadly, "Planet Dinosaur" only has merit for me as an example of what is wrong with the reconstruction. While they are undoubtedly limited by budget and specimens available, the first episode has something like four apex predators (Carcharodontosaurus, Spinosaurus, Rugops and Sarcosuchus) and a single herbivore (Ouranosaurus). GCSE students would know that is an unsustainable ecosystem with too many predators and not enough prey. At A2 the students should know that one could not have two species occupying the same niche (with the exception of Sarcosuchus the others are pretty much in the same terrestrial top carnivore niche) without competitive exclusion or resource partitioning. There is no suggestion of this presented, though I am sure there will be a loyal reader who can tell me whether this is the sort of thing that is being thought about with such assemblages (I'm ridiculously out of touch with the literature).

Some will no doubt say I am over-thinking this. It is after all a popular science show. However, the BBC has, within its public service remit, an obligation to educate and inform. And a documentary, even based mainly on CGI animation, should educate and inform. I am unable to use it except as an example of a failure to do both, and I don't think that's what the BBC intended with the series. I am, even nearly two decades later, very forgiving of Jurassic Park - it was never meant to teach its audience about dinosaurs, but was to entertain, delight and terrify in equal measure.

The BBC, however, gets no such leniency from this particular dino-nerd teacher...

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