Mockumentaries, Part 2: “Alien Planet” and “The Future is Wild”

Alien Planet

So who's your favourite? Dumbfuck Turtle...

The Future is Wild
...or Dick-faced Fish?

WARNING: HEAVY SWEARING WITH A CHANCE OF VULGARITY

Here’s the second part of the Mockumentaries series, and man, fuck these two. Fuck them to the hellish depths of the abyss. Their concept is dumb and their execution is worse. I don’t know if Alien Planet (2005) had some pretense of being taken seriously and having a scientific foundation (I think it had, given all the retarded interviews with people like Michio Kaku, the living parody of a scientist, and Stephen Hawking, who is clearly a biologist); what I know is that if you want to make up a fictional planet and all the organisms living on it, what comes out can’t be realistic in any way. Biological evolution always defies our imagination, it doesn’t matter how plausible or fantastic your fictional creatures look and behave, we have the capacity to foresee certain patterns of adapatation to certain environments, but said capacity is, as for now, quite limited. The entire show is even more sterile since not only they’re making up the organisms, they’re making up their whole fucking world. It’s not more science-based than Avatar, it’s just much less good-looking and exciting. In fact, the little “it’s a real documentary!” gimmick gets boring pretty fast, and the CGI looks like shit. It looked like shit in 2005, it looks like shit today. Oh, and since you are going to make up a bunch of aliens, one would think you would put some effort into making them look interesting, but nooooo, their design is absolute crap too. So, in the end, we’ve got zero science education and zero entertainment. Congratulation, Alien Planet, you’re a real winner.

The Future is Wild (2002), on the other hand, is a series about the possible future evolution of animal life on Earth after the hypothtical extinction of Homo sapiens, and it is inspired by the works of that weirdo that is Dougal Dixon. To their credit, at least they have a little more solid premises than Alien Planet: we can predict some of the future geological and climate changes, and we know modern terrestrial animals from which the creatures of this series would “evolve”. This, however, doesn’t make The Future is Wild (or the works of Dougal Dixon, for that matter) any more educative or exciting. Trying to predict the evolution of large animals, even very loosely, can’t be taken too seriously, and these people don’t even seem to apply themselves to the task: their idea of evolution is quite childish. They basically take an ecological niche, and a taxon that nowadays doesn’t fill that niche, and mix them toghether. “Wouldn’t it be cool if fish could fly in the forests and giant squids could walk the earth?”- it seems something that a kid would say, and instead it was said by a grown man, maybe even one of the scientists who helped in creating this silliness. Chances are that most taxa (at least the invertebrates) will retain more or less the same niches, although with new forms, and the taxa that will conquer new niches will do it in such a surprising way that it’s impossible to guess it. In addition, as it has always happened, entire biological groups will disappear, while new groups will appear; the series, instead, mainly focus on new “super” future versions of modern animals, disregarding the inevitable appearence of new taxa and reinforcing the wrong idea that evolution is kind of a “chain”, in which a species slowly morphs into a single other species which in turn slowly morphs into a single other species etc… Evolution is not a chain, it’s a tree, a cladogram, in which different biological groups share common ancestors. This could have been one of the few real things this silly series could have explained to the general public, but they decided to reinforce the common misconception of the”great chain of evolution” instead. Bravo. At least not all of the creatures are as ugly and silly looking as the ones from Alien Planet: the bizarre and even morbidly creepy look of some of the animals is basically the only thing that makes Dixon’s books vaguely interesting, after all. The beasts in the series, however, are not all as inspired as the beasts from the book, and many of them are just horribly designed. The effects are not as crappy as in Alien Planet, but they’re still pretty crappy too.

So, in conclusion, these two pieces of fuck are basically just a horrendous waste of time which pretend to be science-based while they’re simply science-fiction, and they’re not even as fun as most science-fiction movies are. Peace out.

Mockumentaries, part 1: Walking with Dinosaurs

Walking with Dinosaurs

That's probably one of the most accurate depictions of Diplodocus in popular culture. Sadly, there's a few dinos in this series that are not that realistic.

Walking with Dinosaurs is probably the most famous natural history related mockumentary ever, and also one of the most expensive. Everyone, little me included, went crazy about it at the time (it was 2000), and honestly, who could blame us? Dinosaurs are badass, and that series was the first of its kind, making use of advanced digital effects and taking inspiration from real nature documentaries to narrate the lives of the “terrible lizards”. It was so popular, it spawned a shitload of sequels/prequels/spin-offs focusing on various other prehistoric beasts (including the science fiction show Primeval), and even nowadays, 12 years after it first aired, is still remembered and loved by many fans all around the world. So, what are my impressions about this series now that all these years have passed and I’m no more a little kid obsessed by dinosaurs, but a young man obsessed by dinosaurs? Is it good like the first time I’ve watched it? Well, yes and no. Mainly no.

The fact is that, for various reasons, the series didn’t age well. The special effects are still better than in most, if not all, other series of this kind, and at the time they looked they could compete with Hollywood movies in term of realism, and that was especially surprising considering that it wasn’t a Hollywood production, but a british one. Now, however, it’s really easy to understand that those big animals on the screen are just 10-year-old CGI, and see all of their imperfections, while I’m still amazed at the realism of the effects in Jurassic Park, a more than 20 years old film.

The series was revolutionary also because it contributed to enlighten the general public about the world of dinosaurs, divulging informations that where relatively new and certainly mainly obscure to most people, and dissolving many myths (I’m especially referring to the depiction of sauropods and pterosaurs, and to the mesozoic biomes, but there are many examples). Behind many aspects of the reconstructions there was good science: not only palaeontologists helped along, but the use of computer simulations to understand the ways the animals could or could not move were probably revolutionary. And yet, the series isn’t immune to embarassing errors, like many anatomical inaccuracies the most obvious of which is probably the complete lack of feathers on dromaeosaurids (and baby t-rexes too, actually, but I’m not sure if at the time the fact that baby t-rexes had feather-like structures was known). Maybe it would have been too difficult to animate the feathers, I don’t know.

Even worse, however, is the fact that many information presented there as solid facts are, in fact, just hypothesis or even wild guesses inspired mainly by modern day animal behaviour, and that’s the big limit of the narrative style chosen for the series: to keep going the illusion that what you are watching is a real documentaries with living animals, they had to stay in part and talk about the dinos like they knew everything about them. This, however, prevents the viewer to know what are the more plausible theories and what are just guesses that are possible but aren’t in fact backed up by many facts. I’ve still nightmares about people that were sure that Frill-necked lizards are in fact living dinosaurs (big mistake, pals, that would be birds) because the Dilophosaurus in Jurassic Park was depicted as having a (completely fictional) frill (by the way, the poison was made up too). And while I can excuse a sci-fi movie whose purpose is just to entertain, it’s a little more difficult to excuse a series that should entertain AND teach. I don’t know, maybe if the narration wasn’t just like the narration of real nature documentaries, people would have been less involved in the show, and so it couldn’t have helped spread the interest for and knowledge of prehistoric life the way it did.

In the end, while it’s easy to see why the series was so successfull, and revolutionary in many ways, and while it’s still the best of its kind, I don’t think that someone who watches it for the first time today would be as impressed: once it looked like a real documentary with real dinosaurs, now it looks like a fake documentary with relatively good (but easily recognizable as such) CGI and puppets.

I’m not going to talk about all the other Walking with… series, because they’re mainly the same thing with less popular animals, and some of them include the obnoxious presence of Brady Barr, who makes them a lot cornier. Next time, I’ll talk about something different – and way, way shittier than the flawed but relatively enjoyable Walking with Dinosaurs.

Happy 30th Birthday, SuperQuark!

Piero Angela

The background isn't photoshopped: Piero Angela can breath in space, and is bigger than Jupiter.

Just a couple of days ago here in Italy was broadcasted the 30 years anniversary special of SuperQuark, which is by far the most important and most interesting italian TV program of scientific divulgation (well, basically it’s the only real scientific education TV show in Italy). The episode centered around the history of the show and of scientific progress in these 30 years and was hosted, as it was every single episode since the beginning, by the awesome science journalist Piero Angela, now 83 years old and still much more intelligent and lucid than most younger italian these days. The celebration will continue for a couple of episodes, with a special highlighting the best of naturalistic footage shown by SuperQuark over the years and another about the most wonderful buildings in the history of mankind.

I’ve been watching SuperQuark since I was a kid, but it’s certainly not a kid program, although the explanations are very clear, thanks to footage, live experiments and even illustrative cartoons, some of which by legendary italian cartoonist Bruno Bozzetto. With this TV program Piero Angela created a show that treats science with respect and teaches it clearly to the vast italian public, in a way that is sadly unmatched by any other TV show in my country.  Angela is also a fierce adversary of pseudoscience, homeopathy and paranormal bullshit, and has often criticized them in spite of all the morons who attacked him only because he dared to apply skepticism and reason to their crap. He has always tried to teach italians about science and the scientific method, applying it to every topic.

Thank you, Piero, and happy birthday SuperQuark!