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THE 2010s

I share the doubt many do that Walking With Dinosaurs will be dethroned as king of dinosaur dramas for at least another twenty years. I predict some company will try though to create another miniseries event like that one. Even with updated theories and effects, those footprints will be a challenge to fit and they may be just walking in its tall shadow.

Dino sex lives are not a revolutionary television subject as the Discovery Channel producers of Tyrannosaurus Sex  had led the press to believe days before its Valentines Day 2010 airdate. There was enough speculation in PaleoWorld in the 1990s, Walking With Dinosaurs and When Dinosaur Roamed America. The sex lives of T. rex, titanosaurs and Stegosaurus are mostly explained by Gregory Erickson (who still calls rex a "tranasaur"), Kristina Curry-Rogers and Ken Carpenter. The cons are of course the slooooow-moving digital dinosaurs which are - as in so many programs on the channel during the 2000s - utterly worthless once again: a Stegosaurus with a mammalian eye, too low of a tail, overly large, low-lying head and thick, short neck among other problems. A Jurassic Park  T rex clone that can't close its jaws and excessive feather insulation. Bulky titanosaurs with incorrect, over-muscular "thunder thighs".  There really aren't any pros to the program unless you are curious about genitalia size estimates or whether dino penises were more crocodilian or bird-like.

Since its May 28, 2010 release in IMAX theaters, Sea Rex: Journey to the Prehistoric World 3D has grossed back its budget making a total of $9 million or so in profit overseas. As of Nov. 11, 2011 its profit has only come from Blu-Ray sales for the most part. Most people will probably wonder how does this one differ from NatGeo’s Sea Monsters which also runs 40 minutes? To me, NatGeo put out a better product. Varying in realism and quality, the cast of marine reptiles include Nothosaurus, Mixosaurus, Tanystrophaeus, placodont, ichthyosaurs like Shonisaurus, Elasmosaurus, as well as some poorly done dinosaurs. Shark-killing Liopleurodon is completely ripped off from Walking With Dinosaurs. Alone in a quiet museum after hours (I know, déjà vu), a young woman meets a tall dark stranger who doesn’t seem to find his 1800s attire worth asking about. He proceeds to tell her the story of life on earth for oh, around ten minutes, while viewers gaze transfixed on amazing timeline spirals, grids and graphs. She has few lines except to speak for the part of the uninformed audience (“that one there looks like a dolphin”,”are these dinosaurs?”, etc.) There are very few 3D thrills but they apparently will work on any player out there if you have the glasses.   Actors portraying real life paleontologists interact with skeletons magically swimming away from their fossil slabs, like phantoms. Speaking of, at the end we find that indeed the ghostly stranger was none other than Georges Cuvier, the French father of paleontology. (I suppose he mastered English in the netherworld.) At one point, the narrator informs us that the name Megalosaurus is Latin but is actually from Greek roots. The facts in the program could have benefitted from some double or triple checking.

First run in November 2010, Prehistoric Assassins: Blood in the Water is available on Discovery’s Prehistoric: Predators From the Past DVD. This is the second of the “Assassins” specials, on sea monsters and their specializations. First up the scissors-like jaws of the 25 ft. Dunkleosteus, the man-sized sea scorp Megaloraptus, and perhaps less spectacularly 34 ft. cephalopod Cameroceras.  Once again, the Polish CG designers of Liopleurodon copy the coloration of the one in WWD.  More sophisticated swimming robot research will be required before any final declarations on pliosaur motion can be made. Mike Everhart emphasizes the 72 vertebrae of Elasmosaurus and both he and Mike Triebold talk about the fatal appetites of 20 ft. killer fish Xiphactinus.

I really hoped to be picked up and whisked away by David Attenborough’s Flying Monsters, his first venture back to the prehistoric world in over 20 years, broadcast on the BBC Dec. 25, 2010 and released worldwide in a 3D-option DVD/BluRay combo pack on June 19, 2012. In between that time, National Geographic first ran it in 3D in IMAX theaters on October 7, 2011. Naturalist David naturally appears on-screen as he guides us through the appearance of small genera Dimorphodon, Darwinopterus, Pterodactylus. For larger Pteranodon it’s a too-brief flight across the ocean at sunset. the sailing then courting Tapejara. Most memorable is a surreal scene of a glider plane flying with Quetzalcoatlus against a dramatic sweep of orchestral strings. These are the only pterosaurs profiled in the 40 minute program.  There’s the clichéd jungle music soundtrack and for the kids there’s the cute, Disney-like moments where the skeletons reanimate and fly around a museum or cause mischief in David Unwin’s study room. How pterosaurs walked is amply revealed  or how some flew without the use of a tail but how their ‘wing-fingers’ became adaptations is insufficiently explained. How we know the legs were held apart in flight or if they were tucked under is also not addressed.

The three decade long Cope/Marsh rivalry was the subject of Dinosaur Wars, once again from WGBH and producer Mark Davis, part of the American Experience, aired Jan. 17, 2011. Commenters include historians Steven Conn and Mark Jaffe, with Peter Dodson, Bob Bakker and even Jacque Gauthier. With an hour devoted to the details, this is recommended for those interested in the human drama behind the 'bone rush' omitted except for a cursory overview in most documentaries. One caveat: many important 'facts' are not verified by Cope/Marsh biographers. Cope's relationship with artist Charles Knight is briefly covered near the end. The artwork in the program is surprisingly not even from the period; the pieces by Zdenek Burian are from the 1930s. Sleepier and slower than the '90s' Secrets of Dinosaur Hunters program from History Channel.

Accidental discovery of ancient squid ink pigments led to the decoding and identification of feather pigment in Anchiornis in Dinomorphosis, aired Jan. 27, 2011 on National Geographic Channel and currently available on DVDR. Like T Rex: New Science, New Beast, the seemingly rushed program spends too much time speculating whether T rex was more bird than reptile. Neither their Oviraptor with pronated hands and the raven-colored Anchiornis are as effective as the Tianyulong but who let the CGI artists get carried away with that fluffy T rex and those even more ridiculous fuzzy ceratopsians? The first program documenting the decoding of dinosaur colors proves disappointing.

Polar dinosaur migration remains purely speculative of which there is no fossil evidence of such behavior and may never be.  Still it is this kind of dramatic behavior that excites documentary producers, especially those hoping to have a prehistoric variation on the successful March of the Penguins.  The 1000 mile, three month long March of the Dinosaurs here is condensed to an overlong 85 minutes narrated by Stephen Fry.  It was originally broadcast in six parts (naturally in March) of 2011. Impossible Pictures' direction and cinematography are exceptional – exactly the visual elements dinosaur recreations need. This UK-Canadian production may be too ‘G rated’ for adults, and maybe too dull to hold American youth’s short attention spans. However the confrontations in the climax are a bit bloody. Animation quality by Modus FX is better than most American productions with lifelike shadow and lighting but the nitpicks are many, making one wonder how involved the noted paleontologists (Holtz, Currie, Witmer, etc.) really were: the nearly batwinged Quetzalcoatlus, Edmontonia, missing its bony headplates, is called an ankylosaur, troodontid limbs are too far apart; a fluffy gorgosaur is plausible but it’s bulked up too much like a Hollywoodized Stan Winston T. rex;  edmontosaurs rear up inaccurately, have too wide of skulls and limbs (same with pachyrhinosaurs.) All of the quadraped dinosaurs suffer from inaccurate motion due to restoring the limbs too far under the body. Released stateside by National Geographic as The Great Dinosaur Escape.

Death of a Sea Monster ( in this case an ichthyosaur) is a National Geographic Channel special that aired April 9, 2011. As typical with sensationalist claims sometimes made by NatGeo we have a nonstory. Paleontologist Yurn Hurum is puzzled by Norway’s black shale of what was once a Jurassic Arctic sea that was  home to large marine predators. Ok, interesting so far.  But the shale’s seemingly devoid of any prey fossils, no trace of fish scales or even an ammonite. Not one of the better NatGeo specials unless you are lover of marine reps especially in lieu of the matter left unresolved.

Jurassic C.S.I. produced by the BBC in 2010 and first aired stateside April 2011 on National Geographic is nearly six hours carried by goodnatured Phil Manning’s sense of humor and some very thoughtful, punny narration. Though I highly recommend the program, the usual poor CGI sours an otherwise excellent program. Each part is dedicated to a different aspect of paleoforensics. “In the Flesh” finds Phil on a hunt for traces of dinosaur skin for a lifesize titanosaurus model he is working on with sculptor Hall Train. At one point walking literally on eggshells left by titanosaurs in Argentina, some of them with patches of fossilized skin. A claim is made that no one has replicated dino skin on a model before; haven’t they heard of Steve Czerkas? Charlie McGrady? “Walk Like a Dinosaur” promotes GaitSim, a motion simulating program that should be very cautiously used when applied to dinosaurs.  The highlight is a visit with Pete Dodson to an amazing lab built on a Chinese mountainside covered in  dino trackways. Seasoned paleos have seen all the motion simulations of rhinos, elephants and ostriches before. McNeill Alexander makes a cameo. “Inside T rex” presents another look inside the he theropod’s braincase. The quest to discover dinosaur color is the subject of “In Living Color”. Most notable for the first cameras from the West being allowed into China’s Dinosaur City boneyard, Phil obtains an Archaeopteryx to analyze (dropped off by Pete Larson). The episode title “Megasaurus” refers to the hypothetical maximum sized sauropod Phil imagines may exist undiscovered. A great deal is spent on reconstructing a new Chinese sauropod but the highlight may be Phil’s experiments with pressurizing a giant PVC pipe (acting as a mock sauropod femur). Computational models suggest that sauropods may have reached max size at 150 tons (exceeded that of Argentinosaurus by at least 30-60 tons.) What genetic specializations allowed “Sue” to survive her “T rex Trauma” is covered with a lesson in endothermic cellular regrowth which is most likely the reason dinosaurs could carry on with nasty compound rib and leg fractures. Greg Erickson shows us alligator bite force for the 10000th time and alligator blood proves to have the plasmic ingredients to fight off infections. The DVD has been released by Nat Geo in poor DVDROM quality, a few typos on the back case, with a few episodes retaining the original British narrator.

Dino Gangs premiered first in the U.K. and in the U.S. July 9, 2011 on Discovery networks. Starring Phil Currie, the program co-promotes his book of the same title, following the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology's president's research on skeletons in mass graves which seem to support a plausible (and not new) theory of tyrannosaurs as organized pack hunters. Royal Tyrrell's Donald Henderson and Paul Barrett from the Natural History Museum in London are on hand to oppose the view, claiming their reptilian brains would have prevented the very notion, countered later by Currie's findings in Larry Witmer's lab where we see the umpteenth computer CT scan of a T rex's braincase. The animation is culled from a few sources such as 2010's Clash of the Dinosaurs (the best of which is still the now ten year old When Dinosaurs Roamed America footage). When the narrator reveals "For the first time Currie can picture what a tyrannosaur feeding frenzy looked like" as we watch komodo dragons tear apart a carcass, or when a Triceratops is misidentified as Protoceratops, audience has to realize that Currie could not have possibly have seen the program's final cut. The lead T rex footage has a dozen individuals charging the viewer in their Komodo dragon skin, running identically in the usual strange Discovery Channel CG dinosaur walk. The dimly lit, new CG with Parasaurolophus in particular looks phony, and you didn't think they'd forget their annoying habit of T rex roaring at the viewer, didya?
 

Billed as “unlike any dinosaur show you’ve ever seen”, “jawdropping” but you can remove all doubt: 3 hour Planet Dinosaur, the first all-dino series from the BBC, is no threat to the Walking With Dinosaurs (WWD) dynasty. It was aired as weekly installments from Sep. 14, 2011 to Oct. 19, 2011. Despite it being recent, the effects are not nearly as good. Some of the CG look like overgrown PVC toys with wildly sunken eyes. Credit should go to Nigel Paterson for a well-written script and creative direction, it’s just as a whole, the effects and some of the factoids (“stegosaur spikes are known as thagomizers”) hint at poor research. So the show IS like many we’ve seen before; the confrontations have all been done by other studios in the last five years in fact. Narrated by the legendary John Hurt who mispronounces more than a few of the dino names (i.e. “Dasplatosaurus”). The “Lost World” of Cretaceous Africa leads the program with beautifully colored Ouranosaurus having an unlikely encounter with Spinosaurus. Oviraptorosaurs steal eggs and Epidexipteryx hides from Sinraptor in the decent “Feathered Dragons”. The gliding Sinornithosaurus and Microraptor particularly stand out in this segment. Weaker is “Last Killers” with an all-Cretaceous cast. A gang of Daspletosaurus, all looking too lean with improvised teeth. The anatomy of Troodon and Edmontosaurus in Alaska came out acceptably though the scene is unremarkable eventwise. Repeating what Jurassic Fight Club did first slightly more dramatically, centrosaurines drown in a stream crossing and Majungasaurus cannibalizes another. “Fight for Life” is set in the Jurassic, alternating between Kimmerosaurus being ripped apart by a Predator X (a Kronosaurus with heavy eyelids) in an Arctic sea to the predictable Stegosaurus vs. Allosaurus scene; we’ve seen similar to better effect in WWD.  South American titanosaurids are the “New Giants” and the hatchlings are cute and realistic enough but the menacing abelisaurids (Skorpiovenator) and Mapusaurus are poorly done with exaggeratedly wide jawlines. The CG for African supercroc Sarcosuchus hasn’t looked better. “Great Survivors” visits the dwarf dinosaurs of Eastern Europe being terrorized by Hatzegopteryx, a decent segment, then American therizinosaur Nothronychus fending off Zunityrannus (we saw the former in When Dinosaurs Roamed America). Alectrosaurus threatening Gigantoraptor in the desert is followed by the requisite asteroid impact enactment. The program got its own companion book, and was repackaged as  the hour-long 3D Ultimate Killers. How to Build a Dinosaur is a bonus feature and makes the DVD purchase worthwhile. Anatomist Alice Roberts hosts, alternating between U.S. and England.  Michael Benton shows us magnified feather melasomes, Darren Naish on-screen briefly explains the discoveries languishing in existing museum collections. Stateside Luis Chiappe directs a giant dinosaur exhibit at Los Angeles NHM highlighted by a talk with sculptor Doyle Trankina.  The upside is the program is full of decent information and is fairly entertaining considering its heavy on talk rather than visuals. The downside is dealing with some rapper’s version of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” (the 1998 Godzilla track?) and not so crisp Walking With Dinosaurs footage.

On the Fossil Hunters episode of Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe, aired Dec. 20, 2011 on Discovery, Jim Kirkland’s team including Selena Suarez take host Mike Rowe up a Utah Cliffside. Probably the first program to not show a single picture of a dinosaur. Not even a skeleton.
 

Mill Creek Entertainment’s The Amazing World of Dinosaurs is a cheap 6-part program aimed at children, hosted by two very annoying amateur teenagers (or young adults that look young?). The producers visited at least four museums for this direct to DVD program released April 3, 2012. The first part is “Rise of the Dinosaurs” which covers general topics like continental separation and trackways. Bakker breaks down dinosaurs into three groups. There is some uncredited usage of John Gurche and Charles Knight art yet the producers went out of their way to list the relatively unknown artists whose art looks like it was found on the internet. Much of the same imagery from this first part shows up again and again in the second and third parts “T rex and the Meat Eaters” and “Sauropods and the Plant Eaters”. The fourth  and fifth parts “Dinosaur Eggs and Babies” and “Digging Dinosaurs” may bore the younger viewers but the final part “A Day At the Museum” – Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center – proves to be the liveliest part of the entire 2 hrs. 18 minute running time due to a well-informed hostess.

 
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