Monday, 10 October 2011

The drama of dinosaurs

When I started school, there weren't many dinosaurs around. We sang 'Listen to the chorus of the brontosaurus' at hymn practice, and knew all the classic names such as tyrannosaurus rex and iguanadon, but we lacked the plethora of amazing reptiles available to today's small children. The hundreds of dinosaur species discovered in the past two decades were still hidden below layers of rock, just waiting to be brought into the light. Well, obviously not waiting, as they'd been dead for millions of years and couldn't give a shit whether anyone ever found them, but you know what I mean.

One of my favourite films, however, was The Valley of Gwangi – the product of someone in the 1960s having the inspired idea of adding prehistoric beasts to the western genre. When I was a bit older, I read Jurassic Park and became obsessed with it, eagerly awaiting the movie. I enjoyed the BBC's Walking With Dinosaurs in the late 1990s and am now a huge fan of Planet Dinosaur. So, in short, I love dinosaurs – but have to admit that my limited knowledge of them mainly comes from entertainment.

If I were a paleontologist, I might grumble about Planet Dinosaur. I might feel annoyed that it wasn't me who got paid as a consultant it was dumbing down science for an audience that doesn't get excited unless there are shaky camera angles and an unrelenting kill-or-be-killed dramatic tension.

As a non-scientist, however, I can watch Planet Dinosaur for the simple fact that dinosaurs are awesome. I might briefly wonder how anyone knows that one had spots and another had stripes, or what evidence there is for herbivorous reptiles going moo and carnivores going RAARRRRRR, but I don't really mind if these are educated guesses as long as I keep getting to see MORE DINOSAURS.

Beyond that, with my writerly hat on, I also appreciate it for the way it uses imagination to impart scientific concepts to a general audience. Planet Dinosaur's attraction might at first glance lie in its CGI and the novelty of the latest scientific discoveries – but for me the appeal is in its use of the fossil record as the inspiration for stories.

A fossil of a damaged spinosaurus vertebra might look, to many people, like a random bit of rock. To the scientists working on it, the possibility that the damage was caused by the bite of a carcharodontosaurus must be incredibly exciting. The two points of view are a long way apart, and in Planet Dinosaur, it takes the power of a story to connect them.

In the first episode, a carcharodontosaurus has expended energy on killing a hapless oranosaurus. The suspense and gore of the kill is played out in all its glory. At last, carcharodontosaurus can tuck into its meal.

Then a spinosaurus – the largest land predator yet discovered – ominously appears at the edge of the forest clearing. Spinosaurus wants the kill. Carcharodontosaurus wants it too. In the eyes of the modern viewer, carcharodontosaurus has the moral advantage of having done all the work. Yet this is Cretaceous Africa. There are no morals. The essential element of any story – conflict – is in place.

Planet Dinosaur can never accurately recreate the moment at which the now-fossilised spinosaurus incurred the damage to its elongated neural spine. We can't know the exact circumstances of the bite, or witness every blow of an encounter that took place millions of years ago. A fictional scene, however, enables the general viewer to appreciate the excitement of scientific discovery and engage with the research that is continuing apace.

Fiction might seem incongruous with the rationality of science, but stories are still what people respond to. They are how we learn; they are how we make sense of concepts outside our own experience; they can inspire us to further our knowledge – and they are what makes Planet Dinosaur such compelling viewing.

4 comments:

Derek said...

What an energetic post! Like you, I'm thrilled by all the one names and the sheer size and scale of the 'late arrivals'. My only disappointment for the lack of creativity in naming one of them 'Predator X'. Methinks one of the scientists had been watching too many Bond films.

Gillian McDade said...

Really interesting piece, Caroline. Thanks for sharing with us.

Fionnuala said...

I still remember when my kids were little them being in love with Littlefoot in 'The Land Before Time'... The story was a simple one - love between a mother and child - told beautifully in the world of the dinosaurs.

Anonymous said...

Let me just say this is amazing and i love dinosaurs too so :)