Nature documentaries have come a long way since high school science class, and much of the reason for that is the excellent work that has been done by the BBC’s Natural History Unit to bring the natural world into our homes through engaging, high-definition footage that is as beautiful as it is educational.
Even if you don’t know it by name or reputation, you’ve likely seen its work: The studio is behind the award-winning Planet Earth franchise, as well as recent docuseries like Dynasties, which focuses on vulnerable species threatened by the human world; Seven Worlds, One Planet, which visits each continent to highlight its unique ecosystems and wildlife; and A Perfect Planet, which digs into how forces of nature like weather systems, volcanoes, ocean currents, and solar energy lead to and drive Earth’s ability to sustain diverse lifeforms. Each new series is as awe-inspiring as the last, but for a while now, I’ve found myself wondering: What is the next evolutionary step in the nature documentary? Where do we go from here? Thanks to Apple TV+, we now have an answer—but it’s one that is rather unexpected: dinosaurs.
In the new five-night event series Prehistoric Planet, the BBC’s Natural History Unit uses the latest discoveries in paleontology and photorealistic visual effects applied to concept art to recreate these magnificent creatures in all of their glory. Like so many of the documentaries produced by the studio, the series is hosted by renowned natural historian Sir David Attenborough and takes viewers throughout the prehistoric world—which is similar to our own in many ways—to introduce us to the many different types of dinosaurs that once called this planet home.
As the episodes travel through coastal waters and desert basins to the frozen tundra, we’re treated to lifelike recreations (how lifelike depends largely on the dinosaur in question and the action that’s being depicted on screen) that showcase what life was like for everything from well-known dinosaurs like the formidable Tyrannosaurus rex to lesser known varieties like mononykus and nanuqsaurus. The educational program also sets the record straight about what a velociraptor really looked like, since Jurassic Park—which starred Attenborough’s brother, Richard—got it wrong nearly 30 years ago and has continued to live a lie (they were actually much smaller and had feathers).
The structure and style of Prehistoric Planet isn’t particularly novel—anyone who’s spent any time watching the studio’s documentaries will recognize the format and the narrative beats the show uses to tell its story. In fact, it sometimes feels like producers have taken storylines from recently captured footage of the animal kingdom and overlaid the story of the dinosaurs on top. It makes perfect sense to do so, too, since many of the developments and challenges of the natural world remain unchanged today. The daily fight for survival, the search for a mate to ensure the species lives on, the threat of scarce natural resources—everything that was in play then is still in play now for much of the animal kingdom (of course, today’s animals must also deal with the added threat of humanity and its devastating effects on the environment as well).
In presenting these sophisticated creatures this way, Prehistoric Planet makes them seem less like the dangerous monsters they’ve been depicted as in popular culture and more like the majestic animal life we know and see on screen today, just with more confusing body shapes and proportions. I’m not sure dinosaurs need their image rehabilitated, but seeing their existence and struggles laid out in familiar fashion does allow us to recognize that in the overall timeline of life on Earth, we’re not that far removed from them (turtles and birds are living proof of that, anyway).
Even when the show finds itself in the uncanny valley—which was always going to happen—it is still fascinating to realize how far technology has come that a docuseries like Prehistoric Planet is possible at all. With it, we’re entering a new phase of the nature documentary. We’re no longer reliant on what’s happening today and able to be captured on our cameras (though it’ll always be preferable to watch real events play out in front of us). Traditionally, years of work must be completed by scientists, conservationists, and filmmakers before nature docuseries ever make it to the screen, but this state-of-the-art process opens up new possibilities for storytelling when footage does not exist.
Of course, it’s not as if this is a totally new arena for filmmakers. The photorealistic visual effects are done by the same company that brought us The Lion King and The Jungle Book (Jon Favreau is also an executive producer on the show). But seeing the technology applied to the already excellent work that’s being done by those in the nature documentary space extends what’s possible in a whole new direction. And the result is a sometimes funny, but always delightful realistic exploration of a time long, long before humans walked the Earth. We’ve never seen anything like it, but the way we continue to learn more about dinosaurs—what they looked like, how they lived, what they ate—with each passing month, it’s not likely to be the last time we revisit their stories.
Prehistoric Planet premieres Monday, May 22 on Apple TV+, with a new episode airing every night through Friday, May 27.
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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