In the opening moments of Prehistoric Planet, the BBC’s splashy, heavily computer-generated nature documentary narrated by David Attenborough, we’re shown a tyrannosaurus rex swimming in open water with young offspring in tow. It’s an uncharacteristically vulnerable look for one of popular culture’s most enduring symbols of brute, primordial strength, and functions as a mission statement for the miniseries at large: the filmmakers are bent on showing us dinosaurs as we haven’t seen before.
This is no small task, in part because there have been numerous prior attempts at much the same thing. Applying the conventions of the nature documentary to extinct animals dates back to the 1985 CBS special Dinosaur! (narrated by Christopher Reeve!), which used stop motion animation to provide a more accurate depiction than prior, action-oriented features like King Kong and One Million Years B.C. The effects were done by Phil Tippet, who went on to supervise the computer effects seen in Jurassic Park, the movie that popularized the notion (one that Prehistoric Planet almost gleefully furthers) that dinosaurs were warm-blooded and had more in common with modern-day birds than reptiles (Robert Bakker, paleontologist, and author of The Dinosaur Heresies, also worked as a technical advisor on Spielberg’s dino epic). But for all its research and innovation, Jurassic Park was guilty of perpetuating a number of misconceptions of its own, such as that tyrannosaur vision was based on movement and velociraptors were six-foot-tall serial killers.
In 1999 the BBC tried its hand at dinosaur verisimilitude with the six-part Walking with Dinosaurs, which used a combination of computer animation, lifelike animatronics, and location shooting. It was an immense success, spawning an entire “Walking with…” franchise (Beasts, Cavemen, Sea Monsters, etc.), as well as the 2011 follow-up Planet Dinosaur. Prehistoric Planet is an impressively seamless spiritual sequel to these earlier works, its smartest innovation found not in its photo-realistic dinosaur animation, stunning as it all is, but in its deployment of Attenborough and the Planet Earth nature-as-bludgeoning-device aesthetic.
Set during the late Cretaceous (perhaps not coincidentally, the period with the most recognizable dinosaurs—triceratops, tyrannosaurus, velociraptor—all making appearances), Prehistoric Planet consists of five episodes, each focusing on a different, visually distinct habitat (episode titles include “Coasts,” Deserts,” and most intriguing, “Ice Worlds”). Throughout, Attenborough helpfully guides us through the vignettes, describing the dazzling behavior, interactions, and dramas rendered through computer wizardry. Because the dinosaurs have left only fragmentary, fossilized remains, paleontologists have been tasked with interpreting and re-interpreting the functions of dinosaur physiology, as well as their very appearance.
The velociraptor, Jurassic Park’s most feared villain, appears in Prehistoric Planet’s second episode, here reimagined as the turkey-sized, feather-clad bird of prey experts have been pedantically describing ever since the Hollywoodized, door opening terrors made their cinematic debut. For the most part, Prehistoric Planet treats its phantom subjects with the same juxtaposition of overwhelming landscape photography and matter-of-fact narration found in its Planet Earth counterpart, which makes its occasional moments of whimsy all the more surprising and delightful. Consider the carnotaurus, which resembles a horned t-rex and looks like a demonic boss fight from Doom, whose forelimbs are somehow proportionately smaller than that of the tyrannosaur. The list of hypotheses hoping to explain such tiny arms is ever expanding. No spoiling which theory Prehistoric Planet sides with, but it’s easily the most entertaining to watch. A true descendant of Spielberg, for all its scientific pretense, Prehistoric Planet can’t help but put on a good show.
Prehistoric Planet (2022)
Runtime: Five episodes, 39-42 minutes
Streaming: Apple TV+