Last night the BBC aired its opening episode of Planet Dinosaur, billed as “bringing to life a new and terrifying world of dinosaurs”. It’s classified as ‘factual, science and nature’.
Now, I’m very much in two minds about this program. On the one hand some of the palaeontology involved is really great; some nice finds, and some great interpretations. This first program focused on two very large predators – the carcharodontosaurus and spinosaurus. By looking at tooth shape, skull structure and associated finds (for example bits of other animals found lodged between their teeth), and then making comparisons with known applications of similar structures in species living today, they made some informative conclusions about what these predators ate, and in what kind of environment.
However, beyond this the interpretations seem to have got somewhat carried away. Each of these dinosaurs was then ascribed a set of behaviours for which – as far as I can tell – there is little or no evidence for in any way. Instead, the animals were ascribed similar traits to modern analogues and the whole behavior of those analogue was ported across wholesale. Claims such as ‘with prey plentiful spinosaurus can afford to be wasteful’, or later on ‘fighting over carcasses was common place’ are nothing more than idle speculation.
The problem here is that the programme makers are presenting interpretations of direct evidence alongside and equal to inferences made by drawing parallels with what are assumed to be modern analogues.
Now I’m all for making science interesting, and I can understand that they want to flesh out the programme with more detail, but – while it might not be ‘sexy’ I cannot believe that a program like this was so certain in its presentation with barely a nod to the fact so much of this is inferred. The words ‘might’, ‘may have’, and ‘possibly’ appear to have been struck from the script entirely. That makes this not a science programme, but an entertainment programme with little more scientific credence than Barney The Dinosaur. The implications drawn on these animals are phenomenal, but it is misleading to present it all as fact. What should perhaps have had more focus drawn to it was the paucity of data these conclusions were based on. I present to you the complete fossil record of spinosaurus:
See those white bits? Those represent every spinosaurus fossil ever found. Now, there is no doubting that certain conclusions can be drawn from these bones; vertebrates have a fairly well understood general skeletal structure. I still can’t help but think there’s been a fair amount of hand-waving when drawing together the height and stance of these things. For starters – to my eye at least – it looks like they haven’t paid much attention to centre of gravity. This seems to be supported by the observation that the animators for the programme had real difficulty making these things move in a way which didn’t look ridiculous – let us not forget that dinosaur reconstructions are not famed for their reliability. At the end of the day the producers seem to be unwilling to present any of this as science, giving a false impression of certainty. The problem here is that people are not stupid; they will look at this program and say ‘how could they possibly know that’, and discredit scientists as not knowing what they’re talking about or jumping to conclusions. All for the sake of whoring out dinosaurs as an easy prime-time science programming subject.
Which brings me to my other point.
Someone let the Media Studies work experience kid loose on the visual direction.
For some unknown reason the program takes every possible opportunity to spray blood everywhere. Now I’ve seen a lot of nature documentaries of actual footage of things killing other things, and I don’t remember a whole lot of spraying blood. The whole thing is compounded by a faux-cinematographic effect of fluctuating depth of field; they zoom in on something, it goes out of focus and back in – somehow trying to demonstrate a panicked cameraman not quite catching the action. Which would be fine were it not for the fact we all know it’s CGI, and all it’s doing is obscuring the things they’re trying to show us. If you’re trying to do a scientific factual program about these creatures, then please lay off the stupid unnecessary special effects which serve no purpose other than to make the program look sexy to a mouth-breathing suit in a commissioning office somewhere.