When I was a very small child, my parents taped a four part documentary on dinosaurs that was airing on PBS, simply titled The Dinosaurs! (and yes, the exclamation point is part of the title). For whatever reason, they would often let me watch it. Although I was too young at the time to understand the science being discussed, I was nonetheless enthralled. While the program was not my first exposure to dinosaurs, it is what I believe truly sent me down the path to paleontology, a path I remain on to this day. Occasionally I rewatch it to revisit some of that childhood nostalgia, but in doing so I have come to the realization that it is a quality documentary in its own right. In fact, I consider it the best dinosaur documentary ever made. Why do I think this? Let’s find out.
To really understand what makes The Dinosaurs! so great, we need to take a quick look at the current state of dino docs. These days, a great deal of emphasis is placed on CGI depictions of dinosaurs, with paleontologists merely serving as “talking heads” in front of a green screen to affirm what the narrator says (unfortunately, sometimes through deceptive means). Then there are programs like Walking With Dinosaurs, which focus entirely on telling stories using the aforementioned CGI creations. While these shows do incorporated scientific research, they also contain heavy doses of speculation, and it can sometimes be hard to distinguish the two. I don’t wish to bash WWD, which was fine for what it was, but it did start a lot of the irritating trends we see now.
The Dinosaurs! greatly avoided these pitfalls. Throughout the entire program, the main emphasis was the science of dinosaur studies. The interviews with the paleontologists were usually conducted in either the field or the lab, so you got to see them in their natural habitat, so to speak. In addition, there was a good deal of attention given to the actual work that was going on. One standout example was at the dig site of a Tyrannosaurus rex, with one of the excavators pointing out and describing some of the bones being unearthed. The lab work got a similar treatment, such as when it showed the preparation of a block of Coelophysis bones.
Like many dinosaur documentaries, The Dinosaurs! made use of animations to show these prehistoric creatures in action. However, the way these animations were handled was very different than today. For starters, they were hand drawn instead of CGI. While this was almost certainly because CGI was still in its infancy at the time, I still think the show benefited from using this older medium. Nowadays, the software used to make 3D animation is so ubiquitous that the animators often get lazy how they depict the dinosaurs. With these older 2D restorations, I get the impression that real effort was put into getting it right. Looking back, I’m quite impressed with how accurate for the time the dinosaurs looked. I also like the fact that the animated segments were used sparingly and were very short, allowing them to illustrate the points being made without overshadowing the science. And I think that’s a key word there, “illustrate”. They functioned very much like illustrations in a book. Yes, you can just look at the pictures, but to really appreciate them in context you need to read the text, or in this case, watch the rest of the program.
Another aspect I want to mention is the narration. These days, dinosaur documentaries are often given rather over the top narrators who really sensationalize the subject matter. The Dinosaurs!, on the other hand, was narrated by Barbara Feldon of Get Smart fame, and I have to say I like her performance here. She was rather subdued, but at the same time didn’t sound boring. There was a dignified quality to her voiceover, and she never talked town to the audience.
I really wish they still made documentaries like this one. Unfortunately, it is clear that times have changed, and excitement and sensationalism now seems to be considered more important to audiences than the actual science. I suspect some modern viewers would consider The Dinosaurs! “boring” by today’s standards, although I certainly would not agree. I still think The Dinosaurs! is a fine example of how paleontology communication can be done well. With current paleontology programming the way it is, I think it’s now all the more important that paleontologists get out and educate the public and show them how it’s really done.