For climate activists, fossils can mean more than just dirty fuels. The new series Prehistoric Planet offers a vision of Cretaceous life; a world filled with life completely different from our own, yet on this same planet. In a time when life is precarious and extinction all around, our prehistoric predecessors offer some comfort and escape. The Apple TV+ miniseries is made in the mold of nature documentaries and produced by the same people who created Planet Earth. The artistic team is star-studded, with Jon Favreau at the helm, supported by a Hans Zimmer soundtrack, and the beloved narration of David Attenborough.
On its face, Prehistoric Planet makes no moral claims or fabled lessons for our present, human life. It is simply a picture of what life might have looked like over 66 million years ago. The moral lessons left unfilled by Prehistoric Planet are certainly filled in by its viewers, with me first in line. The series’ distinct lack of anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism (afterall, humans didn’t exist yet) offers an unsettling and comforting message: Life can exist without us. It has before, and inevitably, it will again.
Prehistoric Planet makes it possible for viewers to fall in love with creatures who have long been extinct. Often, scaled creatures are objects of fear or disgust, rather than love. While we might be able to see something of ourselves in mammals, creatures without fur are a distinct “other.” Extinct scaled creatures, then, are the ultimate other. Prehistoric Planet tells their stories and narrates their interactions, bringing to life the names Mosasaur, Olorotitan, Phosphatodraco, Carnotaurus, and dozens others.
In one scene, the fierce bipedal Carnotaurus engages in a mating ritual to draw the eye of a larger, more dominant female. He waves his tail as he dances around a large circle in the forest that he spent months carefully clearing. Finally, in the climax of his dance, he throws wide his tiny blue arms — useful only as accessories to his dance — spinning them round and round like sparklers in the hands of toddlers. While the dance was not enough to woo the female (she retreats away to look for a more suitable mate), it succeeds in charming modern-day audiences, bringing great levity and joy to viewers.
As Senegalese conservationist Baba Dioum has said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand.” Prehistoric Planet makes no gestures at conservation, but it draws the viewer into intimacy with these creatures of God. Perhaps by practicing loving these scaly, feathery, and prehistoric creatures, we might better be able to love our own creaturely contemporaries.
The series draws viewers into a kind of intimacy with the creatures not only through their stories, but through the stunning visual recreation of animals we have never seen in real life. The show, which had been in development for a decade, weaves together groundbreaking paleontological research with cutting-edge photo-realistic CGI imaging, detailing creatures that are strange, diverse, and stunningly beautiful.
While the series offers a high-definition, intimate portrayal of the past, it too often shows only the predatory “red in tooth and claw” side of prehistoric life. Prehistoric Planet offers a more dignified portrait of dinosaurs than its Jurassic companion at the box office, but its fictionalized interactions between creatures still ignore the ways in which ecological life — even prehistoric ecological life — is driven by cooperation and collaboration among creatures. The more we learn about the forces driving evolution, the more it becomes clear that competition-driven Darwinism is not the only game in town. For many species, cooperation and group selection — where evolution is driven by a community rather than an individual — are equally influential.
What Prehistoric Planet does not show is the climate disaster that led to the decline and extinction of the creatures storied in the show. The asteroid that struck the planet filled the atmosphere with dirt and debris, causing a deep, years-long winter. For creatures who adapted to hot and humid conditions, this sudden climate change was existential. The extinction event is explored in a one-episode program Dinosaurs: The Final Day, with David Attenborough, but its notable exclusion from Prehistoric Planet leaves the story of the dinosaurs open — quite like our own. The Prehistoric Planet world is a beautiful one that is too-often scarred with violence. A diverse world full of endless possibilities of love and affection for those who are different and distinct. A world that could, but does not have to, end in climate disaster.
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