What is the opposite of an existential crisis? Because I think I’m having one. Watching Prehistoric Planet (Apple TV+) has induced in me an existential – joy/delight? – that I don’t quite know what to do with.
To explain. Because it is new, made of money and eager to pump its schedules full of prestigious productions to attract the kind of viewers and subscription rates that keep its coffers full and reputation buffed – thus creating a virtuous, quality-programming circle for thee, me and whichever shareholders/billionaires need to be kept in space-rocket funds – Apple TV+ has recreated dinosaurs.
I mean, not quite in the Jurassic Park sense (though I suspect it’s only a matter of time) but in a manner much safer and more accessible to a wider public. Prehistoric Planet is stuffed to bursting with CGI renderings of the reptiles that roamed the Earth 66m years ago. And not just your ordinary dinosaurs. Tyrannosaurus rex is there, of course, but beyond that there is the mosasaur, pterosaur, hadrosaur, tethyshadros, edmontosaurus, dromaeosaurid, antarctopelta, pachyrhinosaurus, nanuqsaurus and so many others that you may need to beg the loan of a 10-year-old dino-fan if you want to have a hope of correctly spelling the names of all the species and genuses. I couldn’t find one and so have doubtless made a billion mistakes in the above list. The internet, plus the 47-year-old brain, is no match for the knowledge-sponge that is the pre-adolescent hobbyist, and I can only apologise.
There is no uncanny valley here. The beasts – large or small, parents or juveniles, flightless or soaring – created by Moving Picture Company, the special-effects experts behind the likes of The Lion King, Spider-Man: No Way Home and Blade Runner 2049, have made them look … real. I can say no more than that. You look at the screen and you see dinosaurs. You watch episode one and find yourself thinking: “Hang on. I’ve just seen dinosaurs. Near as dammit, they’ve just filmed a wildlife documentary in the Cretaceous period and I’ve watched it.” They walk, run and hunt (in a pack, if you’re a tenacious but tiny dromaeosaurid aiming for a massive hadrosaur instead of your customary insect intake), chirp (if you’re a baby olorotitan just out of the egg your mother laid in volcanic sand to keep you warm), and sometimes simply mooch about, heedless of any extinction events one day coming their way.
It is a heady, if slightly disorientating, experience. For British viewers, the sense of discombobulation is increased by the fact that, despite being on an aggressively new and modern channel that feels like the antithesis of the BBC, it is presented by David Attenborough. Is this allowed, you wonder? Are there not bylaws about this? Can he, too, just roam the world at will? His presence is explained by the fact that the five-part series (covering forests, sea coasts, freshwater habitats and frozen landscapes) is produced by the BBC Studios Natural History Unit, but it still takes you a moment to adjust.
His presence assures us of the veracity of the programme’s claim to have used the most up to date research available about all the dinosaurs before us. Species that have been proved to be feathered – the ancestors of modern birds – are feathered. Nest-building methods are detailed, and we’re given innumerable other specifics about feeding behaviours, how young are reared, and winter-survival techniques that – presumably – have been inferred from the fossil record and currently form the best of our knowledge.
The spectacle is wonderful, and the information valuable. But perhaps by the end there will be an appetite for something more about how that fossil record tells experts what it does. How do you look at a single skull – all that is left, as far as we are aware, of some species – and come to know anything about its owner and its ilk? Where does fact end and educated guessing begin? Does educated guessing ever blur into imagination? How do you know the colour of a dinosaur? I could take as many hours of explanation required from well-chosen workers in the myriad sub-fields of expertise to tell me all about this. The 10-year-old in me has awakened, and with it the atavistic childhood prime directive: trust, yet verify. How do you think we humans survived this long?