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DINOSAURS ON TV OVER XMAS



Happy 2003 to everyone.

Like most fat, lazy people I spent most of christmas eating 
and watching TV (err, and _Lord of the Rings_). Luckily 
this year's christmas-new year TV season was a veritable 
dino-fest with dinosaur-based programmes on just about 
every night. If not it seemed that way. 

SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER

As Steve White has mentioned, the BBC screened two 
Walking With Dinosaurs specials.. the first on 
_Therizinosaurus_ and titled something like 'The Giant 
Claw' and the second titled something like 'Land of the 
Giants'. Both leave me wondering where the WWD-format 
stuff will go next as they have now gone one step further 
and depict an investigator (Nigel Marven) physically 
interacting with Mesozoic animals, a la Steve Irwin. WWD 
has thus entered the realm of so-called 'extreme natural 
history'. Marven was convincingly enthusiastic and acted 
well enough for you to think that he really was seeing real 
live dinosaurs. His previous stuff has involved him creeping 
up on Komodo dragons, crocodiles and so on. 

Thoughts on _Therizinosaurus_ episode: Marven 
investigates Late Cretaceous Mongolia and encounters 
_Saurolophus_, _Tarbosaurus_, _Velociraptor_, 
_Mononykus_ and _Therizinosaurus_. The _Saurolophus_ 
was pretty awful and just a recycled _Anatotitan_ from 
WWD the series (but with a crest) and, unforgiveably in this 
day and age, the _Velociraptors_ were featherless. The 
_Tarbosaurus_ OTOH was about 200 times better than the 
_Tyrannosaurus_ from WWD. The _Mononykus_ were 
depicted as rather ugly insectivorous emu-like animals. 
They were also way too big, being about 2m long.

The main premise of the programme was that 
_Therizinosaurus_ was an elusive, poorly known enigmatic 
animal and, seeing as it was a theropod with big claws, 
Marven assumed that it would be a formidable predator 
(presumably he had not read any of the modern literature... 
his notebook included diagrams from Norman's c. 1985 
_Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs_). When he actually 
encountered a herd of them at the end, they of course turned 
out to be lovely docile herbivores [read on]. The 
therizinosaurs were also featherless.. gack. 

As you may have guessed from what I've said about this 
new format, there were quite a few opportunities for 
Marven to interact physically with the dinosaurs. I suppose 
these moments were actually quite effective and well 
depicted but some of them seemed either extraordinarily 
unlikely or (if the dinosaurs were real) absurdly stupid. On 
the latter point, at the very end he walked up to a 
therizinosaur and stroked its leg. Ok, maybe it is a herbivore 
but I was hoping at this moment that it would spin around 
and fatally stab/kick/trample him (nothing personal). In TV-
land I suppose any animal that eats plants must be docile 
and not a danger to humans. Marven's successful hand-
capture of a _Mononykus_ also seemed silly - about as 
likely as running after and grabbing an emu (ok, just about 
possible I suppose but hardly easy, especially in a forest 
during the night). He was also slobbered on by a 
_Saurolophus_ and had his tent destroyed by one. Dave 
Martill informs me that even he had switched over to 
another channel before the programme was finished.

Thoughts on 'Land of Giants' episode: Albian/Cenomanian 
Argentina, with _Argentinosaurus_ and _Giganotosaurus_ 
as the main characters. Marven also observed an 
unspecified iguanodontian, _Sarcosuchus_ and 
pteranodontid and ornithocheirid pterosaurs. Chris Brochu 
might be pleased as _Sarcosuchus_ was described as 'not a 
crocodile, but a close relative' (viz, a crocodyliform and not 
a crocodylian). The _Sarcosuchus_ was pretty good but 
Marven's reckless behaviour seemed careless (he was 
virtually begging to be pulled screaming into a watery 
grave). 

The giganotosaurs weren't bad but I think their hands were 
too big, also they seemed to be in the 'bunny rabbit' pose. 
The argentinosaurs also looked pretty good apart from their 
hand and toe claws.. not only were there too many of these, 
they flopped down every time a hand or foot was lifted. The 
ornithocheirid pterosaur was recycled from WWD the 
series.. I didn't catch a generic name (my house was filled 
with children and other family members so I only heard 
about 10% of what Marven said) but it was described as the 
biggest pterosaur ever.. hmm. And are there really definitive 
pteranodontids from Argentina? I don't think so (Bennett 
1989 described a Peruvian pteranodontid but IIRC the 
identity of this has been contested).

BTW, Dale Russell was the technical advisor for the 
therizinosaur episode and Adam Britton, Tom Holtz and Per 
Christiansen were advisors for the 'Land of Giants' one. Not 
that they were to blame you understand:)

Also over the so-called festive period, Channel 4 screened 
'The Dinosaur Hunters', a direct book-to-TV adaptation of 
Cadbury's book. This was pretty well done as a historical 
docu-drama but its main failing was that the pendulum now 
appears to have swung far too much in one direction: while 
Owen is the evil git out to further his own reputation at the 
expense of others, Mantell is the most wonderful man in the 
world ever and was a thoroughly nice chap. Mary Ann 
Mantell was played by the actress best known for the Brita 
water filter commercials. The most hilarious scene was the 
'Mantell falls from carriage' bit: this was rather dramatic to 
say the least. 

The main problem was that segments from Cadbury's book 
were depicted as real historical events: in reality (if you 
check Cadbury carefully) these are based on what Mantell 
wrote long after the event, often in contradiction to his own 
earlier writings. They are thus her interpretations of his 
interpretations. Overall though it was good fun. 

Anyway, here's wishing a happy, prosperous and peaceful 
2003.

-- 
Darren Naish
School of Earth & Environmental Sciences
University of Portsmouth UK, PO1 3QL

email: darren.naish@port.ac.uk
tel: 023 92846045