Today is May 23rd, an uneventful event for most people out there. However, for lovers of prehistory, dinosaurs, and good old fashion nature documentaries, something else has begun.
It’s official! The first episode of Apple TV’s docuseries Prehistoric Planet has been released. At first, I tried to wake myself up at 4 AM to watch it. However, the crushing reality of a 6:30 AM shift dawned on me and forced me back into my slumber.
…Until 5 AM. I may have watched the first episode before sneaking off to work.
For some, waking up at 5 for a dinosaur documentary may seem outlandish, and I’ll give you that. But the hype around this series in the paleontological community has been next level, making an early-morning binge not too outlandish.
Besides, it turns out the hype was well earned. From start to finish, Prehistoric Planet’s premier episode was a thrilling experience that I will dive into throughout the article. While it’s only the first of five, I can (probably) say confidently that Prehistoric Planet may be amongst the best dinosaur documentaries out there. Entertaining, realistic, beautiful, and endearing, Prehistoric Planet is a must watch for any dinosaur lover.
This probably goes without saying, but spoilers are in this article. I will start with spoiler-free content at the beginning and will put a spoiler warning when things are about to get juicy.
What’s it about?
Episode one, entitled “Coasts,” is set in the Late Cretaceous period – 66 million years ago – and follows prehistoric life on ancient coastlines across the world (duh). Audiences are taken to the coastlines of Zealandia (present New Zealand), North America, Southern Europe, and Northern Africa to experience prehistoric life first-hand. Though dinosaurs make a brief appearance, they are not the headliners, with marine reptiles, shelled ammonites, and pterosaurs taking center stage.
Is this real life? Or is this just Fantasy?
The animations of Prehistoric Planet are fantastic. This isn’t really news, as the breathtaking trailers and clips demonstrated how effective modern technology can be at recreating the age of dinosaurs. Yet those brief clips are mundane compared to the actual show, a ground-breaking and immersive glimpse into the lives of long extinct beings. While we can never travel back to the age of dinosaurs, this is about as close as we can possibly get.
SPOILERS BEGIN NOW
Prehistoric Planet does a terrific job at portraying the mundane aspects of life…alongside the intense ones. A mosasaur relaxing on a coral island transforms quickly into a life-or-death duel with a rival. Baby pterosaurs flying across the sunset behind a beautiful Hans Zimmer piece suddenly turns into an aerial pursuit. A Tuarangisaurus being pursued by a mosasaur suddenly becomes a beautiful moment between parent and offspring. Life is full of chaotic and dangerous moments, but by depicting the good alongside the bad, Prehistoric Planet makes the lives of extinct organisms seem more real and endearing.
The Goldilocks Zone of Science vs Speculation
Nobody has ever seen a dinosaur in life, so speculation always factors into depictions of extinct beings. Prehistoric Planet is no exception, with multiple scenes featuring behaviours that have no direct evidence for them. Despite this, the behaviours shown never seem to be unrealistic or unfathomable.
Take the scene of baby Alcione pterosaurs nesting on a cliffside, for example. It would be hard to determine if a pterosaur nested on a cliff based solely on a fossilized nest. This neglects the fact that very few pterosaur eggs have been found. Yet by looking at the pterosaur’s ecological counterpart – the birds – we can speculate that some species may have nested in seaside cliffs. While it may never be proven, there is a high probability that behaviours like this were utilized, thus making the sequence both exhilarating and believable.
The amount of speculation – and the evidence that it’s based on – varies tremendously between depictions of ancient life. For Prehistoric Planet, utilizing the latest scientific evidence to justify speculative actions creates intriguing traits that make the show more intriguing. Whether it’s Tyrannosaurus nurturing their young or shelled ammonites putting on a dazzling light show, Prehistoric Planet has excelled at deciphering animal behaviours.
Best Moment(s) or Organism?
A Mosasaur Pedicure: Watching Hoffman’s Mosasaurus – an aquatic super predator that may have exceeded 14 meters in length – get an underwater equivalent of a pedicure was a cathartic experience. We all need to clean off from time to time, and what better way than to get an army of small fish do it for you?
Archelon Jungle Gym: Archelon was one of the largest turtles in prehistory, weighing in at a whopping two and a half tons. Yet they were terribly slow and cumbersome on land, meaning dinosaurs – like four baby Tyrannosaurus – could walk all over them. Luckily in Prehistoric Planet, the poor Archelon didn’t have to deal with the youngster’s annoyance for long.
Phosphatodraco: The Azhdarchids were the largest (and most fearsome) pterosaurs known to science. Their inclusion in Prehistoric Planet’s first episode, in the form of Phosphatodraco, lives up to this billing. A towering and fearsome looking predator that plucks away baby pterosaurs, Phosphatodraco makes an awesome – yet brief – inclusion in the episode.
Walking With – and Without – Dinosaurs
It’s no secret that Prehistoric Planet takes after the 1999 British docuseries Walking with Dinosaurs. Indeed, the series pays homage to WWD throughout the episode, with one shot of a blurry sunset directly paralleling the opening sequence of WWD. The comparisons between the two have led some (including myself) to dub Prehistoric Planet the ‘spiritual successor’ of WWD.
After the first episode, I think that this is – and isn’t – the case. While Prehistoric Planet depicts dinosaurs in an accurate and realistic manner like WWD, the two series have an entirely different feel to them. WWD too often focuses on the harsh realities of life, with a foreboding atmosphere present throughout the show. Additionally, the backdrop of their ultimate extinction and cataclysm is ever present, adding to this effect.
On the other hand, Prehistoric Planet feels more…free. There is no sense of impending doom for the life we are watching, rather a feeling of naturality unburdened by the threat of extinction. That’s not to say that the dinosaur’s extinction won’t be portrayed; it just doesn’t feel like something terrible will happen at any second now. While Prehistoric Planet has, so far, presented an astounding view of prehistoric life unlike anything since WWD, the two series have a different vibe.
This may change in the coming episodes. For now, I’ll just enjoy the series as it comes along.
I do not take credit for any images found in this article. All images are credited to Apple TV+