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Documentary reviews

Dino Docs: Walking With Dinosaurs (1999)

In 1999, the BBC released one of the most commercially and critically successful dinosaur documentaries of all time. But has it stood the test of time? A review of the BBC classic Walking With Dinosaurs.

Welcome back to Dino Docs! In my first instalment I chose to highlight the legendary BBC series Prehistoric Park, which is far and away my favorite documentary of all time. For today’s edition, I will be discussing another BBC project, the original Walking with Dinosaurs television series.

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What’s it About?

Walking with Dinosaurs (WWD) is a hypothetical glimpse into the life of prehistoric creatures set in the format of your typical nature documentary. For six episodes, the series transports the audience into the past to experience the harsh lives of the dinosaurs, giving us a taste of what life was like for these magnificent animals. Every episode has its own unique locations, species and storylines. The show is appealing in that it truly immerses you in the lives of extinct animals, taking you through their trials and tribulations.

Commercial and Critical Success

The initial debut of WWD was a resounding success for the BBC. The series had an average of 17.18 million viewers per episode in the UK (1), a resounding amount for any documentary. WWD’s premise of a nature documentary set in prehistory not only resonated positively with the public, but with critics as well. The series won two BAFTA awards for its soundtrack and innovation in addition to three Emmy’s, and three additional, miscellaneous nominations. In terms of commercial and critical success, you could call WWD the most beloved dinosaur documentary of all time.

Brilliant Timing?

WWD was released at the apex of a dinosaur frenzy in popular culture. Six years prior to its 1999 release, the first Jurassic Park film came out, ushering in a massive revolution in the field of paleontology. This revolution ushered in new science on how dinosaurs lived and evolved, giving us a clearer picture of the behaviour of dinosaurs. It was during this time that WWD was released, greatly increasing the accessibility of paleontology, as a distinct scientific field, to the public. WWD came out precisely at the right time, making it an innovative series on the lives of dinosaurs, as well as serving as a template for many future dinosaur documentaries as well.

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Is it Scientifically Accurate?

While WWD is a good series, it is one of the least accurate dinosaur documentaries available. Everything from dinosaur names to when they lived to their size and appearance is all far from the factual. While some of these errors are a by-product of larger-scale changes in paleontology over the last 21 years, others are not so forgivable. Take for instance the size of the marine reptile Liopleurodon featured in episode 3. The narrator describes it as being “25 meters long and weighing 150 tonnes”, giving Liopleurodon status as the largest animal EVER. In actuality, Liopleurodon was only about 7 meters long and weighed a little over 3 tonnes on average, about the size of a killer whale (2). Errors like this are frequent in the series and make it hard to take serious as a true documentary.

Having Said This…

The entire point of WWD was not to convey scientific accuracy, but rather, the goal was to make a film that represents truly immersive television. The creators of the show have stated that the show is not meant to be viewed as a scientific property, but rather as a way for the viewer to experience the life of dinosaurs. After all, the show isn’t called The Facts About Dinosaurs; it’s called Walking With Dinosaurs for a reason. Even though the series is inaccurate and annoys paleo-geeks like me, it is still an enjoyable program. I would recommend watching it to enjoy it, as opposed to watching it to be educated, or increase your scientific knowledge.

Essential Episode

Episode 2, Time of the Titans: While the other episodes in the series provide a relatively short glimpse of time, Time of the Titans shows the life of a Sauropod over the course of decades. This episode does a brilliant job of conveying the hazardous nature of being a juvenile dinosaur in the world of giants, showing danger looming around the corner at every turn. Following a single individual throughout its life truly makes the audience feel as though it has lived WITH the dinosaur, as opposed to watching a documentary. Time of the Titans also has a wide variety of intriguing species and great ‘fight’ scenes between the stars of the episode.

Honorable Mention: Episode 5, Spirits of the Ice Forest 

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Essential Moment

Episode 2: “The smell of Prey”: Not only does this scene contain every paleo-geeks dream battle of Stegosaurus vs Allosaurus, but it is also a brilliant scene to watch. From the moment the Stegosaurus enters the frame it’s clear the scene is going to be tense, and indeed it is. Watching the baby Diplodocus being trapped between two of the Jurassic’s most formidable creatures is quite the experience to watch. The use of music in this scene is brilliant, further adding to the tension of the scene, and as it progresses, the sheer terror of the Stegosaurus as well. Finally, while we now know that Stegosaurus could not flush its plates with blood, it is still an awesome touch to a great scene.

Honorable Mention: Episode 6, Tyrannosaurus Attack 

Walking With Dinosaurs is a series that combines the best and worst aspects of dino docs. While the series is a brilliant glimpse into the lives of dinosaurs, it’s also a highly inaccurate series that doesn’t really earn the title of documentary. Despite this, it’s a wonderfully crafted and intriguing series that I would recommend for viewing.

References:

  • “Weekly Top 30 Programmes on TV Sets (July 1998 – Sept 2018).” BARB, 2020, barb.co.uk/viewing-data/weekly-top-30/
  • Smith, Adam S. “Liopleurodon.” Plesiosaur Directory, 2019, plesiosauria.com/genera/liopleurodon/
  • All images in this article are courtesy of the BBC.
  • Liopleurodon GIF credit: MakeAGIF.com Found Here
  • Second Promo Poster found Here
  • Stegosaurus found Here
  • DVD cover poster found Here

 

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