Friday, May 27, 2011

Walking With Dinosaurs Arena Spectacular: walking back in time (to the mid-nineties)

On Thursday 12th of May I went to see the Walking With Dinosaurs Arena Spectacular in Melbourne. I certainly didn't intend on writing about it, but after (and during) the experience I was filled with such a sense of ambiguity and weirdness to the whole thing that I thought it was worth articulating.
To set the scene WWD, based on the BBC documentary series of the same name, is a live arena show using puppets, robotics and theatrical devices to bring life-size dinosaurs to life. I saw the show in Melbourne and was overwhelmed by young families with small kids, generally primary school aged or younger. As an unaccompanied male in his late-twenties I felt about as out of place as an ammonite in the Cenozoic.

The human face of WWD is the narrator, 'Huxley' who, as he keeps reminding us, is a palaeontologist. Huxley, who is portrayed as a cross between Alan Grant and Indiana Jones, is in fact an actor best known for his star turns in the Australian soaps
Neighbours and A Country Practice. He also surely got paid more for his role in WWD than any actual palaeontologist in the world. There are plenty of great, well-spoken palaeontologists and science educators in Australia, why not get them on board and add some credibility and local knowledge? Huxley kept coming out with lines like 'I should know, I am a palaeontologist,' which really got grating after a while. It seemed odd that this character was being held up as a bit of a hero (maybe a role model for all the kids present?) yet he was a performer, a facsimile of a scientist who had never done any of the things he was describing during the show. There is a strange disconnect in society between the love and reverence that many people seem to have for the simplistic, pop-cultural ideal of the palaeontologist and the total lack of support that real paleontological research receives. (And of course the same applies for almost all sciences, not just palaeontology.)

The show is set up in a series of vignettes progressing from the Triassic through to the Cretaceous. Even bearing in mind that this show is adapted from the original television series, the stories felt familiar and clichéd. How many times have you heard the factoid 'Ankylosaurs even had armour on their eyelids'? Triceratops battling Tyrannosaurus? A conclusion reminding us of the dinosaurs’ glorious promotion to the bird family? Although it was all presented well, I felt like I had seen every scenario somewhere else before.
And more often than not, I had seen it before in the Jurassic Park movies and related media. It is truly remarkable how lasting a legacy that film franchise has had on pop-culture. Even the species used for the show mirrors the selection used in these movie(s), but with slight tweaks – a Liliensternus as a proxy Dilophosaur, a Torosaurus rather than a Triceratops (
which, as it turns out, may well be the same thing anyway), and to go one better than the J.P. team they use Utahraptor, a relative of Velociraptor but larger, about the same size as the super-sized raptors used in Jurassic Park.
The most striking bit of narrative recycling comes at the close of the Torosaurus section, when our intrepid ‘palaeontologist’ even uncovers a huge pile of dino dung and proceeds to sift through it à la Dr. Ellie Sattler. The team must have been aware that people would notice such a direct lifting of content. (And of all things, why would you steal this particular snippet of low-brow crowd pandering?) Has Jurassic Park entered our folklore and become a myth that can be interpreted again and again by subsequent generations? This movie was made 18 years ago! Apparently nothing has happened in the intervening two decades that his been able to topple it from its place in our collective paradigmatic consciousness.
The visual design of the dinosaurs too reflects the monolithic shadow not only of Jurassic Park, but of the general style of nineties dino design that it represents. In addition to the narrative elements being rehashed, the dinosaurs themselves look like they’ve walked in, not from 100 million years ago, but from 1993. The overall feeling I got from the combination of the thematic content and the dinosaurs themselves was, ‘popular culture needs to come up with a new story for what dinosaur life was like’. The material being presented to these hoards of impressionable children was not so different from stuff that I saw when I was a kid two decades ago. For all the pomp and spectacle, this representation of dinosaurs was stuck in the past*. In pop culture at least, we need a new dinosaur renaissance analogous to the revolutions of the late sixties and early nineties.

I’m being very negative about the experience, but there were some redeeming aspects. Although highly derivative, the content of the narration was fairly sound (if overly speculative, but that’s to be expected) and clearly written by people who wanted to educate as well as entertain. The opportunity these people have to communicate palaeontology to the masses is unparalleled and unobtainable to any science educator and ultimately should do more good than harm for dinosaur education.
I liked that the first scene contained a bit of harsh realism; an adorable hatchling is approached by a theropod (maybe its mother – we don’t know) which snatches it up and eats it. I thought this was brave and commendable given their dominant demographic of small children and their parents.
I was also glad to see constant references to evolution and a million year time scale. I know it’s not such an issue in Australia, but due to my own obsession with the evolution wars overseas I’m hypersensitive to how such things are dealt with. One wonders if there is any pressure to sanitise their message when they take the show to the United States.

Ultimately, I walked out of WWD with predominantly negative feelings. It is a truly strange piece of entertainment: a live animatronic puppet show based on a computer-generated fictional drama posing as a nature documentary. It seems to represent the pinnacle of the commodification of a ‘dinotainment’ thread that began in the nineties when I was a palaeo-obsessed child. But you can’t go back, and seeing this as an adult entrenched in the world of ‘real’ palaeontology it felt too kitsch to truly enjoy and little more than a spectacular novelty only loosely related to dinosaurs.

* Sorry.

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