BBC (BBCDVD 1101), ~£25
Imagine the scene; you're enjoying a tranquil day at one of the Club's reserves and, as the sun warms your back, you put down your binoculars, pour a coffee from your flask, and open your pack of sandwiches. All of a sudden, a Gastornis, looking like an Ostrich on steroids, strides across to you, snatches your lunch, eats it — then it eats you.
You see, the Gastornis, the largest bird ever, was a two- metre tall, half- tonne carnivorous, flightless behemoth, which lived eons ago, when the dinosaurs had waned, but mammals not yet evolved to take their place. As narrator Kenneth Branagh puts it, that era, the Eocene, was when "for the first and only time in its history, birds ruled the Earth".
Gastornis is also one of the "stars" of the opening episode in this superb follow-up to the BBC's award-winning 'Walking With Dinosaurs'. Using similar CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) and animatronics (advanced puppetry), it traces the rise of mammals from our shrew- like ancestors to creatures which became extinct so recently, that it's possible to find their still- frozen bodies under the Arctic tundra.
Episodes two, three and four focus, respectively, on primative whales, the Indricothere (the largest mammals ever to have lived on land, weighing up to fifteen tonnes) and the emerging social behaviour of early apes.
The fifth episode introduces another ornithological nightmare, the aptly-named "Terror Bird", Phorusrhacos, a top-of-the-food-chain predator of the South American plains a mere million years ago. The programme tells how they were displaced by the arrival from North America of the equally fearsome Smilodon, the Sabre Tooth Cat (not, it is pointed out, ever to be called a Sabre-Toothed Tiger!). Perhaps a few pet Terror Birds would turn the tables in the current-day domestic cat/ songbird battles.
The final episode deals with Woolly Mammoths, and the way in which they were hunted to extinction by our recent ancestors. One of the series' strengths is in drawing parallels with modern day environmental concerns.
The packaging says the series has a violence rating of "infrequent and mild" — while such molly-coddling is tiresome, we can only wonder if the various creatures which get eaten, apparently without any computer- generated blood being spilled, would regard their fate as "mild" violence?
In addition to the six half- hour episodes, the two- disc set includes two documentaries. These are not the ten- minute fillers found on many DVDs, but meaty, educational programmes in their own right, running at about 50 minutes each. 'Triumph Of The Beasts' tells how mammals supplanted the dinosaurs; while 'The Beast Within' documents the arrival of the most intriguing mammal of all - us. A particularly witty and whimsical piece of footage in the former shows the cast of beasts being herded from the back of a cattle lorry. Other such fun elements also feature, including a "beast circus" and a Monty Python pastiche. These have to be seen to be believed!
There are 24 minutes of interviews with Executive Producer Tim Haines, Series Producer Jasper James, Lead Animator Max Tyrie, Animatronics Specialist Jeremy Gibson Harris and Researcher Alex Freeman, explaining their roles and sharing anecdotes. And yes, Jurassic Park is mentioned!
Also included are six mildly-interesting storyboard comparisons, with artists sketches set against the finished soundtrack; a somewhat pointless photo gallery and 32 fact files. I find the text on these too small to read conformably, even on a fairly large TV screen. It's easier to read the same detail on the BBC's tie-in web pages , which also include other material, supplementing the series. The pages include games, teachers' resources and the obligatory "didn't we do well" making-of information, showcasing the technologies employed in producing the series.
Importantly, especially for a programme where the narrator's face is never seen, the main programmes have subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing. However, this does not apply to the documentaries or other extras. This appalling omission is not made clear on the packaging. There are no other language options.
The discs are Region 2+4 encoded (roughly, that covers UK & Western Europe + Australia; though versions are available for overseas markets. In the USA, the series is titled "Walking With Prehistoric Beasts"). All content, including the extras, has 16:9-ratio anamorphic pictures of the highest quality, and a Dolby Digital Stereo soundtrack. If the series were made today, the BBC would undoubtedly have used a 5:1 "surround" soundtrack, but its absence doesn't detract from the viewer's enjoyment.
Running time is listed as 173 minutes, but that excludes the documentaries and other extras. Each half-hour episode (and each of the documentaries) is split into six chapters.
Special praise should go to Ben Bartlett, for his stirring music, performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra under the batton of Ben Pope and available on a separate BBC CD (catalogue number WMSF60462), with selections from his music for 'Walking With Dinosaurs' and the spin- off programme 'Ballad Of Big Al'. Also available are a book (ISBN: 0563537639), children's books and a CD-ROM game for use on home computers. The BBC Shop lists them all.
Less radical than its predecessor, if only because 'Walking With Dinosaurs' was groundbreakingly original, this series nevertheless shares the controversy over the blurring of the distinction between scientific fact and dramatic supposition. Some of the suppositions, and the evidence for them, are discussed on the above website. Setting that aside, it is both enjoyable and informative, not to mention technically flawless, and easily enjoyed.
Please remember that opinions expressed are those of the individual reviewer, and not necessarily the West Midland Bird Club.
Ornithology in Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire & the West Midlands county, since 1929.
Fetched fromon Tuesday 21 May 2013 17:42:36
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