Extinct: a Horizon guide to dinosaurs

The third and final show of Wednesday’s hat-trick of dinosaur shows was an odd Horizon special. For those who don’t know, Horizon, is, (or sadly, rather was) the UK’s flagship science show on the BBC, with really detailed explanations of properly cutting edge science. It has rather fallen away in the last 10 years or so and become a bit more about flashy graphics and controversy though it’s still important. (Oddly enough I managed to chat with a former producer of the show a couple of years back and he lamented how far he felt it had fallen, so this is not me just whinging).

This show was an odd conglomeration of various Horizon shows over the last 30 some years to show how our impression and understanding of dinosaurs has changed. As a result this was for me almost the opposite arc of ‘How to build a dinosaur’ in that it would have probably been more interest to an expert than perhaps the general public. The clips themselves were fascinating and it was genuinely great to hear from people like John Ostrom and Luis Alvarez talking about their then brand new discoveries and see the reaction this brought from their contemporaries as well as looking at how this was presented to the public and the style in which this was brought forward and explained.

However, in order to cram in a fair bit of this kind of stuff there was a noticeable lack of real background to each clip and the whole thing was a bit disjointed. That’s no surprise really, Horizon generally does a great job of building the story and giving the audience the background and showing why the experts are at the heart of things and how they go there. Shorn of that then you’re left with little more than a series of talking heads and quick exposition on a long and complex subject and of course one that was novel perhaps decades ago.

As such I found it fascinating as I knew the history and the science and the people involved so it all fitted together fine for me. However, I do wonder if the casual viewer was not a bit lost being somewhat bombarded with three decades of developments in dinosaur science and dotting around through bird origins, the KT extinction, homeothermy and others all in an hour. Still, it was great from a scientific and historical perspective and i at least enjoyed it thoroughly.


7 Responses to “Extinct: a Horizon guide to dinosaurs”

  1. 1 knirirr 24/09/2011 at 9:31 am

    I certainly enjoyed it, and watched all three programmes that evening. As I work in another scientific field it was interesting to see some background to the research.

    • 2 David Hone 24/09/2011 at 10:00 am

      Out of interest how well did you follow it? Was it fine, or was it a bit patchy as I suggested without enough background or overall context?

  2. 3 Matthew 26/09/2011 at 1:05 am

    I really enjoyed it. I’m not an expert (in fact I’m a musicologist), but I’m an enthusiast and have tried to keep up with dinosaur developments since I was a boy. It was good to get a sense of the recent history of dinosaur palaeontology from the horses’ mouths, so to speak, and I thought they did a good job of stitching together what were as you say somewhat disparate topics. Perhaps someone with no geeky interest would not have been able to get as much from it, but it’s rather nice occasionally to have a documentary which doesn’t simply dumb-down for the sake of viewing figures, but is pitched a little higher.

    Did you see the documentary ‘Dinosaurs, myths and monsters’ (also BBC)? Love to know what you thought of that rather unusual dinosaur documentary – especially the triceratops as Greek phalanxes segment!!

    • 4 David Hone 26/09/2011 at 9:35 am

      Well that is good to know, maybe I’m overstating the issues then.

      I saw some of the myths and monsters show but frankly got bored of it. Some of them are quite plausible (like the elephant = cyclops) and some extreme but on the borders of possibility (Protoceratops = griffon) but it just seemed all very vague. And while I appreciate the style they were going for, the fact that (of what I watched, about 25 mins or so of it) we only ever saw historians talking and never a palaeontolgoist who could actually tell you something about the bones or animals seemed a bit of a wasted opportunity. I know people who did like the show, but not me.

  3. 5 Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. 26/09/2011 at 2:11 pm

    For folks in the US: Horizon episodes were once traditionally repackaged as the TV series NOVA on PBS; with the rise of the 24 hour cable “science-y nature-y” channels, some of Horizon‘s shows got reformatted for Discovery, Animal Planet, Science Channel, etc., while others did go on to NOVA.

    And yes, the last decade has shown a marked move to the quick cut, the flashy graphic, and the like.

    • 6 David Hone 26/09/2011 at 2:25 pm

      For Horizon at least it’s not even so much the graphics etc. as the move away from “this is what they have just discovered” shows to “is global warming real !!!1!!eleventyone!!!” type stuff. What’s the biggest argument we can get going between people, not what’s the best science we can show (even if there is controversy).

  4. 7 johnny 28/09/2011 at 3:03 pm

    Thanks for the great information. I need to find the shows and watch them because i am really interested in Dinosaurs.

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