Whereas the first two episodes of Prehistoric Planet 2 took us to the Islands and Badlands, the final three transport the viewer to Swamps, Oceans and, er, North America. Why the sudden change of theme, to a continental locale rather than a type of habitat, in the final episode? It hardly matters, I suppose, if it means we get to see more of Prehistoric Planet‘s utterly fantastic T. rex. What’s more, in this series, I finally got what I really wanted…
…That is, a giant tyrannosaur hunting and taking down its prey. Hooray! There seemed to be a concerted effort in the first series to depict dinosaurs (andotherprehistoricanimals) exhibiting unusual, speculative (but plausible) behaviours, the likes of which hadn’t really been seen before. Which was fair enough, and quite welcome, but did sometimes leave me clamouring to see more of ‘the usual’. The second series certainly scratched that peculiar itch of mine, and – naturally – in style.
Swamps featured a Tyrannosaurus pair hunting Edmontosaurus under the cover of darkness, moving stealthily thanks to cushioned toe pads and enjoying excellent night vision owing to their exceptionally large eyes (the mention of which felt like a rebuke to certain palaeontologists). There’s been some controversy in recent years over the likelihood of co-ordinated hunting in various theropod groups, including tyrannosaurs, which had rather reptilian-looking brains; the hard evidence in favour has also been criticised as being a little flimsy. However, and as I’m sure the consultants for Prehistoric Planet would point out, modern-day reptiles are capable of surprisingly sophisticated behaviours that were overlooked by researchers for a long time.
In any case, one tyrannosaur driving prey into the path of another doesn’t seem at all implausible. I enjoyed the way the predators moved quickly to dispatch the prey with their huge jaws; once a T. rex has sunk its teeth into your neck, you’re pretty much finished. As ever, so much of the thrill of seeing these animals brought to life in this show is the result of the superlative efforts of various artists in different fields, but in the case of the Tyrannosaurus I’d like to particularly praise the animators. Whenever a T. rex takes a step, swings its head forward or snaps its jaws in this show, one absolutely believes it – believes in this animal as a real creature. It appears heavy and somewhat stiff and ponderous, but powerful.
A number of superb touches are also applied to the characterisation of the T. rex, from the way one individual nudges another to get it moving, to the grumpy snapping of jaws at unwanted troodontids hanging around an Alamosaurus carcass. A confrontation with Quetzalcoatlus, which featured in the North America episode, was beautifully done. Tyrannosaurus is shown standing its ground against a single giant pterosaur, but skulking away when mobbed by two of them, rather than risk serious injury. You know, like a real animal would.
That’s probably enough about Tyrannosaurus, though. I was happy to see the return of Beelzebufo in Swamps in a particularly entertaining sequence, as well as a pair of newcomers, Austroraptor and Pachycephalosaurus. The latter is depicted living in an arid environment and not a swamp, but never mind. What most intrigued me about its design was that it featured lizardy lips, rather than the pseudo-cheeks seen on other ornisthiscian dinosaurs. I do wonder whether there was any particular reason for this, beyond simply ‘why not?’ (And why not indeed? Dinosaurs were a diverse bunch, you know.) Pachycephalosaurus domes are depicted as display features as well as weapons, a principle that is also applied to the horns of Triceratops in the North America episode, which I really like. Too often, the discussion on the function of such anatomical peculiarities is boiled down to what feels like a false dichotomy. Why can’t they be used as weapons and used for wooing mates?
If this season had a particularly weak episode for me, it would probably be Oceans. Which is not to say that it was bad by any means, but it definitely held my attention the least. Perhaps a result of my personal disinterest in marine reptiles when compared with dinosaurs (sorry Adam), but there we go. As with the terrestrially stalking azhdarchids, it felt like we’d seen a lot of it before, even if that breaching Mosasaurus did look really cool. Oceans also made me finally realise what exactly it was that had seemed to be missing in other episodes – blood. A bloody great Xiphactinus was shown chomping on a Hesperornis with not so much as a drop of blood to be seen in the water. It all seemed rather ‘clean’. A very minor criticism, especially as it was such a fantastic sequence, but one that could also be applied to the show more broadly. No one’s expecting Evil Dead, but nature’s messy and often rather cruel.
Regardless, it was wonderful that ammonites had their time in the spotlight, and there was an emphasis on the diversity of ammonites that hasn’t really been seen before in palaeo-documentaries. Those paperclip-looking ones (Diplomoceras) even featured, bless ’em. Given the emphasis on ammonites, I was very much expecting the mosasaur Globidens to show up, but it didn’t – only to appear in the North America episode, instead. Not that it mattered – actually, I was happy to see it appear as I’d assumed it had simply been looked over. (Foolish of me!)
That the series ended with the North America episode may be significant. It was almost a Greatest Hits summation of Prehistoric Planet so far – featuring the best Tyrannosaurus seen on screen, giant pterosaurs, spectacular Triceratops clashes, and visually striking snowy scenes in which Nanuqsaurus raced after its prey (Ornithomimus, this time). Oh, and plenty of lovely feathered dinosaurs too. Could it perhaps be a sign that, should it return, Prehistoric Planet will move on from Very Late Cretaceous ecosystems? I can only hope so. The show has been of such an excellent standard so far that the thought of the team’s attention being turned to other Mesozoic – or even non-Mesozoic – settings is highly tantalising, to say the least. Here’s to a third season – without a T. rex in sight.