Thursday, 26 March 2015

A roaring success? The Walking with Dinosaurs Arena Spectacular

Surely these days everyone loves dinosaurs? After all, the original Jurassic Park movie made over a billion US dollars worldwide, enough to generate a plethora of merchandise and three sequels. In a less fictional vein, the BBC's television series' Walking with Dinosaurs broke viewing records - perhaps just as well, considering its equally record-breaking budget - and led to several TV spin-offs, including a 3D feature film aimed at very young children.

But it's rare for a television documentary (or should that be docudrama?) series to spawn a live show, which is exactly what happened in 2007. Walking with Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular has to date has been seen by a worldwide audience of over eight million. Again, this probably all to the good, considering the enormous expense involved in the production. So having seen the television series on DVD, my daughters were desperate to go to the live show here in Auckland. Due to the expense of the tickets I hummed and hawed but eventually bowed under pressure. This was nothing to do with my own interest in seeing the event, of course!

So was it worth it? The ninety minute show followed the chronological order of the series, from late Triassic to the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary. My first impression wasn't particularly good, as the narrator Huxley (incidentally I'm not sure what Thomas Henry Huxley would make of the enterprise, considering he was even against opening the Natural History Museum to the general public) explained about dinosaur footprints whilst lights projected some very oversized examples of the same. I assume the scale was to allow visibility from the furthest rows, but even so it seemed a bit clumsy. In my book, there's a fine line between artistic licence and poor science communication.

However, things improved with the arrival of the first beasts. Although it looked as if it was immediately heading in a Disneyesque direction when several cute herbivorous Plateosaurus hatched from a nest of eggs, this was quickly quelled when one hatchling was gobbled up by a Liliensternus. It was excellent to see Nature in warts and all mode - or should that be a literal 'red in tooth and claw' - considering that the audience largely consisted of pre-teen children and their parents? Talking of which, in some cases the roaring monsters and dramatic lighting proved too much, with a girl sitting near me spending more time cradled under her father's armpit rather than looking at the show. I was in general surprised by the lack of anthropomorphising elements that the 3D movie was criticised for, a brave move considering the target audience. Perhaps the major concession to the junior spectators was the young T. rex, whose weak attempts at imitating its far more powerful parent induced laughter from the audience.

In addition to describing the behaviour of the dinosaurs – and one pterosaur (a decent-enough marionette hung in front of poorly projected background footage, although my younger daughter initially thought it was a giant bat) Huxley also covered plate tectonics and the development of vegetation. At one point he even stuck his hand into a steaming pile of fresh herbivore poop to retrieve a dung beetle, leading to an explanation of food chains past and present. Both the inflatable growing ferns and a forest fire were particularly well done, as well as some simple yet charming butterflies made of what looked like coloured paper blown around by hidden fans. My children agreed that the only thing they didn't like were the skate platforms required to move the larger dinosaurs, although I found these less distracting than the marginally camouflaged operator legs in the smaller species. Interestingly, neither of my daughters asked how the larger species were controlled. I guess they've grown up in an age of electronic wonders and this was seen to be just another example of impressive technology.

Walking with Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular

So what about the educational element of the show? Edutainment can be a difficult balance as well as an appalling word. In addition to the lavish praise that it deserved, the original television series was criticised for presenting speculation as fact. In particular, the large size of some of the species has been questioned. However, the arena event did acknowledge some of the developments since the series was first broadcast fifteen years ago, such as by adding feathers (or proto-feathers) to the mother Tyrannosaurus and even more so to her juvenile.

Judging by the appreciative audience, many of the younger crowd members were already familiar with a wide range of dinolore. For example, as each animal starting entering the arena I could hear children as young as four or five shouting some of the names - and correctly. This created a pleasing contrast to many of the adult visitors to London's Natural History Museum, whom I recall not only failed to differentiate a sauropod from a T. rex but assumed that every large skeleton they saw must be a dinosaur (for example, the giant sloth Megatherium in the Fossil Marine Reptiles gallery).

But just how much of an interest in the giant beasts of the Mesozoic is likely to lead to a more detailed understanding of the wider world of palaeontology as the audience members grow older? Unfortunately, at times it was difficult to hear the narrator's details due to a combination of the sound effects and intense music, which whilst emotive and dramatic, had a tendency to drown out Huxley's description of the antediluvian scenes. Combined with the palpable excitement that most of the younger audience members were clearly experiencing, it's dubious just how much anyone learned during the show. The associated website does contain some educational material, although it makes such basic mistakes as listing the pterosaur Ornithocheirus in the list of dinosaurs.

You could suggest that dinosaurs have become just another part of the great consumerist machine, with any associated science a lucky by-product of flogging stuff. After all, dinosaur-related merchandise features highly in the range at many museum gift shops, even those with a marginal connection to the fauna, as discussed unfavourably several decades ago by evolutionary palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould. It could be argued that any attempt to introduce science-based knowledge to the general public is a good idea, but with the quality of special effects in this live-action show as well as in film and television it may be difficult for children brought up on this material to separate fact from fiction. It is undoubtedly an exciting time for dinosaur discoveries, but science is more than just a series of facts: without the rigour and understanding, the material is subject to the same whims of fashion as the rest of popular culture. If science is to be promoted as the most objective methodology our species has for understanding such fascinating subjects as ancient mega fauna, we need to ensure that audiences are given enough of the reasoning besides all the roaring.