Apple TV's 'Prehistoric Planet': Get Ready to Meet Dinos You Didn't Know Existed
Meara IsenbergAssociate Writer
Meara covers streaming service news for CNET. She recently graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, where she wrote for her college newspaper, The Daily Texan, as well as for state and local magazines. When she's not writing, she likes to dote over her cat, sip black coffee and try out new horror movies.
The series Prehistoric Planet has debuted on Apple TV Plus, bringing a fresh look at dinosaurs.
Why it matters
We're always learning more about the distant past and the creatures who lived back then. This is a reintroduction to the creatures we thought we knew, and some we might not be so familiar with.
You probably had a favorite dinosaur as a kid.
The Apple TV Plus series Prehistoric Planet is reintroducing us to dinosaurs on a grand, CGI-enhanced scale, and inviting us to yet again stake our claim on our most beloved beast.
What's mine, you ask? A humongous, duck-faced fella called Deinocheirus. (And before you ask, no, you have to choose your own.)
The first episode of Prehistoric Planet clawed onto Apple TV Plus Monday, combining superrealistic visual effects, footage from real-life locations and findings from paleontology to bring dinosaurs and other animals from 66 million years ago into our living rooms. The show's narrated by legendary broadcaster and nature historian David Attenborough, and four-time Grammy winner Hans Zimmer composed the score. More episodes arrive each day this week.
The documentary series reaches audiences amid a "dinosaur revolution," according to Darren Naish, the show's chief scientific consultant. More people are studying dinosaurs than ever before, and with the aid of new technology such as imaging techniques and CT scanning, Naish said, they've made "amazing" discoveries of new species around the world and insights into dinosaur behavior.
With the show, we're viewing a synthesis of scientific knowledge that has been accumulating over the last few decades, said executive producer Mike Gunton, who along with Naish, recently spoke with me about the show over Zoom. The show is a statement on what the world of dinosaurs was like. "What you're seeing today … is what we believe is the best and most accurate interpretation for the 21st century public audience," he said.
That brings me back to Deinocheirus, a towering omnivore that's taller than T. rex. In episode 3 of the show, we get a look at its huge duck-billed snout and curved, eight-inch claws that allow it to scoop up water plants. Deinocheirus looks sort of mystical, like a guardian of the universe's best-kept secrets.
Prehistoric Planet authentically portrays animals and environments during the Maastrichtian, the last 6 million years of the Late Cretaceous period, Naish said. It follows animals that may be new to the casual dino fan, from oversized Deinocheirus to Carnotaurus, a bipedal dinosaur with tiny but very wiggle-able blue arms, which it shows off in a display to a potential mate. Even well-known prehistoric creatures, like Velociraptors, may not look quite like how you've seen them in the past. (Prepare yourselves, Jurassic Park fans).
"Dinosaurs weren't these kind of ugly, lumpy, bumpy, brown, boring, scaly monsters," Naish said. They were often softer-faced, they had chubby faces – some of them – and they had lips, not like mammals, but lips like those of lizards and snakes." Many of them were feathered, he added.
We're learning more about dinosaurs all the time. Gunton, an executive producer of the series along with Marvel and Star Wars producer Jon Favreau, said that making the show hasn't been a static process. In addition to learning from "the scientific journey," Gunton believes the show contributed to it.
"In the process of making this," he said, "our relationship with the graphic designers and graphic artists who are creating these creatures, it's not just 'Here it is, make it,' ... It's, 'Well how did this happen? What's the biomechanics of this? What's the musculature? How does that work?' And actually, they mutually inform each other."
For example, he said, "I don't think anybody's ever been able to show a representation of how these animals walk so precisely. But by doing it, it also informs the academic community about how they moved."
Gunton, who's also creative director of the BBC's Natural History Unit, said that Naish and others have provided essential "binoculars into the past" when creating the series.
The act of turning science into stories is similar whether you're documenting live or extinct animals, Gunton said, because both kinds of documentaries require the knowledge and understanding of the animals that experts like Naish bring. "To tell stories about those animals, you have to get inside their heads, you have to get inside their lives, you have to understand what's at stake in their lives," he said.
Naish's own research about Azhdarchids factors into how they're portrayed in the show. And what are Azhdarchids, you ask? A group of pterosaurs (flying reptiles) that "take their name from a mythical Uzbekistani dragon."
The resemblance is clear. In the show, a massive, giraffe-sized Azhdarchid species called Quetzalcoatlus strides through a swamp forest and crushes an egg from another female's nest in its supersized beak.
Azhdarchids were excellent flyers, but they were also built for walking around on land. "They could fold up those giant wings and walk very competently with a narrow gait … reaching down to pick up little dinosaurs, cat-sized mammals, things the size of, like, 8-year-old people," he said. "They're formidable predators."
Naish said that in 2008, he and other researchers published a major study on the animals, and they explained how "the fossils of this group, the Azhdarchids, mean that they must have behaved in a way that was different from how people have imagined them before." Previous depictions cast them as "vulture-like animals" or "giant seabird-type animals," but we're seeing the most up-to-date (if rather terrifying) version of them on the show.
The creators of the show aimed for authenticity both in how science is portrayed and "in the sense of how it's filmed, how it looks, how it's narrated, how the stories are told," Gunton said.
Prehistoric Planet may feel similar to nature documentaries you're already familiar with. A secret to this lies in the beginning of each program.
Attenborough appears onscreen and introduces the series as "Planet Earth, 66 million years ago." It turns out the Planet Earth series, narrated by Attenborough, had a huge influence on the show.
"When we even pitched it for commission. We were saying, you know, think about this as Planet Earth 66 million years ago," Gunton said.
Like Planet Earth, Prehistoric Planet is defined by habitat. It incorporates the music of Zimmer (who contributed to Planet Earth II) and the narration of Attenborough. it has the same rhythm to its stories. It's about the planet as well as just the animals, Gunton said.
"It's all part of that grammar, you know, that makes you think, 'Alright, this is in the canon,'" said Gunton. "It should be, really, Planet Earth III."
Planet Earth III (or Planet Earth: The Prequel) may impart upon you a new favorite prehistoric creature, or convince you that it's probably a good thing you weren't alive 66 million years ago. (I'm looking at you, Quetzalcoatlus). But whatever you think of the ancient animals that swim, clash and soar on screen, none can be described as boring.
"Dinosaurs, in fact, were very different from the traditional view. They were flamboyant, over-the-top animals," Naish said. "These animals were so diverse, they were doing so many different things. … I think that comes across in what we've done."
2023's Best TV and Streaming Shows You Can't Miss on Netflix, HBO, Disney Plus and More