by Allan Fish
(UK 1999 175m) DVD1/2
Ode to the Giants
p Tim Haines, Jasper James, John Lynch d Jasper James w various ph John Howarth, Peter Thorn ed Andrew Wilks m Ben Bartlett spc Jamie Campbell, Jez Harris, Mike Milne, Mike McGee, Tim Greenwood
narrated by Kenneth Branagh
“Imagine you could travel back in time to a time long before man, back across sixty-five million years. As you travel you would see huge changes in the vegetation and the climate, even the surface of the earth itself would move, as mountain ranges are pushed up by colliding continents…in Walking With Dinosaurs, we will show you how these magnificent creatures live, how they eat, fight and reproduce.”
When it came to my reviewing the BBC’s iconic turn of the millennium documentary, I was filled with a sense of trepidation. Would it be as good as it was on those midweek evenings back in 1999, or would there be an inherent apathy toward what then seemed revolutionary? Certainly the succeeding ventures of the team, from one off special The Ballad of Big Al to Walking with Beasts, though exemplary, hadn’t quite had the same impact. Then again, in the case of the latter, though impressive, woolly mammoths don’t quite have the impact of good old T-Rex and Liopleurodon.
It came to our screens in the digital age, which had already been well utilised over on BBC2 with The Planets and Earth Story. It should also be borne in mind that seeing living, breathing dinosaurs on screen was hardly anything new after Steven Spielberg’s visits to Jurassic Park. That it blew so many people away, was declared as a small screen classic, and still survives as fresh as ever nearly a decade later is quite astonishing.
The story begins over 220,000 years ago in the Triassic Era, in what would becomeArizona, then part of the one piece land mass, known as Pangaea. It takes us on a journey, in six compact half hour episodes, over 150,000 years in time. Each of the six episodes tells a self-contained story. In New Blood we see how the dinosaurs came into being, and who they succeeded. In A Time of Titans, it shows how the biggest of all the reptiles, diplodocus, and its fellow sauropods, managed to reign supreme over scores of predators through its sheer size. InCruelSeawe see how the dinosaurs evolved under water, co-existing with the same sharks that we know today, and the giant Liopleurodon’s hunting the sharks for food. Giant of the Skies tackles the history of the pterosaurs. Spirits of theIceForestshows how certain ancient creatures from before the dinosaurs survived in the extreme cold of the Antarctic continent, then not under perpetual ice. Finally, last but not least, there’s Death of a Dynasty, showing how, in the last few million years of dinosaurs life, the ferocious Tyrannosaurus Rex evolved as the biggest predator of them all, before the cometary impact in theGulf of Mexico, as powerful as ten billionHiroshimabombs, wiped them all out.
Through its three hour course, dozens of unforgettable images burn into the memory; a T-Rex calling out in silhouette at sunset, the Koolasuchus making its 200 metre migration to the river for summer, the shooting stars heralding the approach of the comet and the blinding white light of the impact, the brilliance of the opening to episode three, with the hunter becoming the hunted, and the diplodocus the size of footstools that grow into creatures bigger than any that have walked on land. One can’t help but think, while watching this incredible recreation, that if Noah did exist, he can be lucky the almighty flooded the earth after the extinction of the dinosaurs, as I pity him loading two of each of them into the ark. As Branagh himself says, “nature seldom offers anything free of risk”, and you find yourself as concerned about these fake creatures as with the real life variety shown by David Attenborough for the last 35 years. Branagh’s appropriately weighty narration, Ben Bartlett’s booming score, the photography and editing combine to produce a series that must rank as one of the best Natural History programmes in, well, as the Beeb proudly said, this millennium. As Tim Haines observed, it achieved the contradictory impossible: “the first natural history of pre-historic creatures.”