Tyrannosaurus rex vs. Nanotyrannus lancensis
A few weeks ago the History Channel aired their first in a twelve part series on prehistoric creatures.
Now, being the History Channel – a subsidiary of
Discovery Channel A&E Networks – one would expect this series to detail some aspect of prehistoric life. Well that it does…sort of.
The series is called: Jurassic Fight Club. Many of you have probably already watched the first three, or four episodes, but for the uninitiated the premise is as follows:
Imagine all 4.6 billion years of prehistory as being one planet wide cage match somewhat akin to Primal Rage. Each week two animals (usually dinosaurs, but there are the occasional mammals) are pitted against one another.
Each hour long show is supposedly based off of a real fossil site. For instance the first episode was about a Majungasaurus skeleton that was found with bite marks of another Majungasaurus (erroneously referred to as “Majungatholus” despite paleo-consultant disapproval). One of the recent ones involved the infamous Tenontosaurus tilletti / Deinonychus antirrhopus fossils (a find with one large, dead T.tilletti and a few dead D.antirrhopus nearby. One of the first bits of evidence in favour of pack hunting behaviour in some theropods).
The show sets the “battle premise” and then seeks to justify its reasoning by cutting to various paleontologists for their take. The paleo crew is fairly diverse and include: Dr. Thomas Holtz Jr. Dr. Larry Witmer and Dr. Phillip J. Currie.
Okay, so maybe all that doesn’t sound so bad to some of you, but what may seem okay in theory has turned into an utter failure in execution.
Let me state up front that I immediately left this series for suck back when I first heard the title. It sounded like just another useless “documentary” that is little more than an excuse to watch two CG animals fight each other in order to satisfy some sophomoric need to watch things fight.
Still, there were proponents of the series (namely the paleo folks that worked on it) that urged the most skeptical of us to give the show a shot. As such, I refrained from commenting on it until now.
Four episodes in and now even the scientists who helped on it are starting to back away.
Honestly who could blame them. The show uses minimal information from the actual scientists. The shot of Dr. Witmer comparing theropod maxillae is continuously reused, and I could swear the show spends more time on the non-professional guys than they do the actual scientists.
This is a problem because it is the non-professional crowd (one fellow in particular) who really bring the show down.
The show features the likeness of one Dinosaur George Blasing. A quick perusal of his qualifications finds him to be little more than a particularly successful dinosaur fanboy. He apparently makes his living by talking about how cool dinosaurs are, to elementary school children. In effect, he is little different from Dinosaur Don Lessem, who writes books about dinosaurs for children.
Now don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with being an amateur, or a big, but non-professional, dinosaur fan. The problem I have is with History Channel essentially letting the fanboys run the show. This is supposed to be an educational program. History Channel is supposed to be the repository for all things historical. As such, it should be held to a higher standard than, say ABC, or Fox. Yet, here we get to witness the production of another terrible program that only seeks to snatch eyeballs. It offers practically no educational value.
Frankly that just ticks me off. Jurassic Fight Club is about as terrible as Animal Face Off was (another Discovery Channel property that not only embarrassed the subject matter, but also the scientists involved with it, by forcing them to give trash talk to one another).
The question that shows like JFC leave me asking is: what audience is it meant for? By seeking out professional paleontologists for their input, one would assume that the makers were looking for scientific accuracy. This, in turn, suggests that the goal is to pass knowledge on to their viewers. Yet, if one can slog through the first episode they will find themselves assaulted with absolutes left and right, tonnes of MTV style quick takes and replays, and a metric tonne of speculation. Each episode ends with Dinosaur George giving “his take” on how the whole story unfolded (complete with the CG animation). Now this sounds like nothing more than Godzilla style popcorn entertainment.
So which is it? Is JFC trying to be a documentary, or a popcorn flick?
By trying to do double duty, it comes off as more of mockumentary. A documentary that seeks to mock the subject material in which it presents. When done right, mockumentaries can be great (e.g. This is Spinal Tap), but in cases like this, where the parody does not appear intentional, the result is more of a slap in the face to those of us who do work in the field. To ask for professional advice and then completely ignore it, is a huge insult to both professions. The History Channel people should know better.
One question that is left from all this is: must we sacrifice scientific accuracy for entertainment, in order to get the knowledge across to the viewers?
As one person had mentioned on another forum: if scientists were to get the documentary that they wanted, no one would watch it.
Pardon me if I decide to call bullshit on this one. If one wants to see a documentary that is designed in a way respectful of the subject matter, one need only look at PBS’s NOVA series. Rarely does NOVA falter in their presentation style. Because of this consistent high quality the series tends to be lauded by many in the fields of science.
Okay, so maybe NOVA is a fluke. Besides, it’s on PBS and we all know how small and concentrated the PBS demographic tends to be. Are there any other examples?
David Attenborough – King of great documentaries
If one really wants to see how to make a series of successful and scientifically sound documentaries, one need only to look over to the UK, and the BBC. In the realm of documentaries, the David Attenborough docs reside in the upper echelon of quality. Not only are Attenborough’s documentaries well done, and accurate, but they are also popular. Planet Earth, one of the latest Attenborough docs, was the most watched cable show of all time. Discovery Channel pulled in 100 million viewers when it first aired in the United States. That is huge for a majour network, much less a cable network (Discovery’s average prime time ratings are around 5 million viewers).
So not only does a scientifically sound documentary bring in the audience, but it can bring them in droves. When BBC released “Life in Cold Blood,” it was an event in England, bringing in more viewers that the average drama.
If we head back to the states, we can look at an old staple of children growing up in the 1990s; Bill Nye the Science Guy was a show that garnered a large and devoted fan following. Bill Nye was not only a great presenter and funny comedian, but he was/is also a real scientist. Though the show did its best to avoid using large words (for its young demographic), the show repeatedly and successfully showed off how awesome science was and how amazing the real world is.
Bill Nye – Champion of science education
You know why I think these shows did as well as they did? Because they didn’t dumb stuff down. There was no push to show the flashy stuff in order to maintain audience attention (equivalent to showing something shiny to distract a cat). The BBC documentaries, Bill Nye and NOVA all respected the intelligence of their audience, and the audience reciprocated by showing up in droves. People from all walks of life enjoy a good challenge. Today’s current documentarians would benefit from remembering this.
So for all those scientists who are asked to participate in the next big Sci Fi/Discovery Channel/ABC show/ whatever documentary; I say don’t fear speaking your mind on the importance of keeping the science up to snuff. If the filmmakers start bitching about having to “keep things simple” or removing the science for the sake of “the story,” just tell them:
That’s not how David Attenborough would do it.
~ Jura – who will probably never get a consulting job on one of these shows.