I generally like the science documentaries I see on the History Channel. Without sacrificing science content they try to provide material visually and even flamboyantly so that it appeals to younger viewers as much as to adult science fans. While some older viewers might find the style patronizing, if it gets young people interested in science, it is all to the good. I like their science programming even though that station is not the first place one would expect to find science programming. Sure, much of their programming has nothing to do with history, per se, but their programming is usually entertaining and informative nonetheless. Their series "Universe" is one of the better sources for astronomical and cosmological education.
I recently got an advance copy of their "The History Channel Prehistoric Collection", a selection of documentaries that have played or will play on their cable channel. The set contains eight DVDs with 12 hour-long episodes of "Prehistoric Fight Club", seven hour-long episodes of the series "Prehistoric Mega-Disasters", then two more documentaries: "Clash of the Cave Men" and "Journey to 10,000 BC". The package will get its general release on May 26, 2009.
"Jurassic Fight Club":
One of the best remembered "Twilight Zone" episodes is the adaptation of Jerome Bixby's "It's a Good Life." Billy Mumy plays a boy about ten years old who has God-like powers but absolutely no sense of responsibility. Among his powers is to will the television to show any kind of programming his young mind wants. What does he choose to create? He makes movies of dinosaurs fighting. But I can understand that. It may not be the most elevated form of entertainment, but something about it appeals to the kid in me. I liked watching dinosaurs battle going all the way back to the 1956 documentary THE ANIMAL WORLD which featured animimation by special effects giants Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen. I think a lot people probably feel the same way, openly or not. Seeing prehistoric behemoths fight stokes my imagination, and always has. That taste is part of the appeal of their series "Jurassic Fight Club".
When I got the package I had not yet seen any episodes of this series, mostly finding the sensationalist title to be a bit off- putting. The title may be a little garish, but the programs themselves proved to have the same virtues that good museums try for. They are entertaining and at the same time educational about dinosaurs and paleontology.
The title, I should point out, is not entirely accurate. First the series obviously deals with animals from the entire Mesozoic (the Dinosaur Age) and beyond, not just the middle Jurassic age. Most of the animals shown are not from the Jurassic at all.
The concept of the program is simple enough. Some dinosaur fossil finds show clues that the animals died fighting each other and met violent deaths. The series confines itself to just those sites. Real scientists do a paleontological "forensic analysis." (These fights took place millions of years before there was any law but the Law of the Jungle, and they still call them "crime scenes." Talk about cold cases!) The battle, from the evidence found, is recreated in such detail that most of the program the viewer is seeing recreated scenes of the battle. Each episode is meticulously put together giving a scientific analysis of the fossils. By the way, each episode starts with a tongue-in-cheek warning that what follows is graphic and that viewer discretion is advised. Sure, the scenes are graphic, but I doubt anyone is too concerned about seeing CGI violence. Some of the themes may give parents a moment's hesitation. They include raptor gang attacks, cannibalism, huge predators, and more. But the kids probably love it.
The series is well designed to be a lot of fun to watch, but under this sugar coating is hiding a lot of information. The viewer probably finds it too entertaining to mind. Also some of the information is new since the film JURASSIC PARK was made. (In that film the boy saves himself from being seen by the Tyrannosaurus Rex by standing very still. We now know the T-Rex probably had better eyesight than we do and it would quickly have seen the boy, and would likely have quickly converted him into fast-food.)
There currently have" been twelve episodes made in the series "Jurassic Fight Club and this pack comes with all twelve, plus some additional lecture footage from paleontologist George Blasing who also provides explanatory pieces within each episode. Included are battles with eighteen-million-year-old mega-sharks called Megalodon and the giant flat-faced bear called Arctodus. This series constitutes four of the eight disks in this set.
Okay, so what is bigger and more powerful than a dinosaur? Well, a storm is a lot bigger and packs a lot more power. And in Earth's history our planet has probably been very badly pummeled by both meteors and meteorology. A modern hurricane can wield pretty impressive power. But, a hurricane is probably not a mega- disaster. A "hypercane" is. It is a hurricane up to twenty miles high. It is big enough that a few of them could destroy the entire ozone layer. Then you got real problems. Hypercanes are one more disaster that could have killed off the dinosaurs. The film THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW was not a great piece of science writing, but it did convince the thrill-hungry viewing public that there might be something exciting about a really powerful storm. "Prehistoric Mega-Disasters" follows somewhat the same formula as "Jurassic Fight Club". It has really impressive visuals matched to really impressive scientific explanations. The scary thing is a good meteor hit could set off a chain of hypercanes. This is all explained with what is as far as I can judge good scientific accuracy and some genuine oh-look-at-that sorts of visuals.
A hypercane is just the first of seven mega-disasters covered, each of which gets its own episode of the Mega-Disasters series. Actually one episode is designated a "bonus" episode. It is not clear what that means since it is just one more episode. There are two disks of the Mega-disaster series.
That leaves two more documentaries, each a little over ninety minutes in length.
"Clash of the Cave Men":
This film actually goes into some speculative fiction. It goes back to a time, about 30,000 years ago, when there were two different competing human races in Europe. They were, of course, the Neanderthals and the Cro-Magnons. We are the descendents of Cro-Magnons and if "Clash of the Cave Men" is to be believed, that outcome was never in much doubt. We Cro-Magnons rule! Unfortunately with all the advantages that the Cro-Magnons had it does not seem like a fair fight, and this is a fairly downbeat documentary. The poor Neanderthals seem to lose at every turn. And they are ugly. There is less room here for spectacle.
"Journey to 10,000 BC":
This documentary was clearly made to coincide with Roland Emmerich's film 10,000 BC. That film was reputedly made with little interest in scientific accuracy. (I have not seen it, but the trailer confirms that opinion nicely.) In fact, compared to 10,000 BC's juxtaposing mammoths and pyramids even APOCALYPTO does not look so bad. This film, like "Clash of the Cave Men", uses CGI for animals, but it uses it much less sparingly than the first six disks. We see Ice Age man dealing with mammoths and saber-toothed tigers. The narrative does have dramatization, but it is done in a lower-key style than dinosaur and storm programs.
It is less true with the last two entries, but in the earlier documentaries there is a tendency to foreshadow where the explanation is going, just before where a commercial break would come for the television broadcast. After the break there is a recap of what they were saying before the break. This gives the documentary makers an opportunity to recycle a lot of their expensive CGI footage. It also means less they have to film.
But overall, the package is one that should really stoke your sense of wonder whether you are six years old or sixty. The special effects are imaginative and for the first two series are probably of theatrical quality. This is a collection of documentaries that glory in spectacle. Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper
Mark R. Leeper email@example.com Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper