Prehistoric Planet, the latest documentary from Sir David Attenborough, is premiering on Apple TV+. The five-part series looks at how dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures lived in different habitats around the world in the late Cretaceous Period.
In a bit of engineering fit for “Jurassic Park,” “Prehistoric Planet” weds BBC nature documentaries— complete with narrator extraordinaire David Attenborough — with the dinosaur era and conceives a fascinating hybrid, one that doesn’t require waiting around to capture footage but creates it using state-of-the-art imaging technology. The result is a five-part Apple TV+ series packed with plenty of dino might.
Set 66 million years ago, as Attenborough explains, the production leverages everything we’ve learned about dinosaurs to craft narratives that follow the template of traditional nature fare. So viewers get to see these extinct creatures as behaving like animals, not monsters, as mothers protect their young from predators, males battle for territorial and mating rights, and other circle-of-life moments, only here created on a computer, not filmed in the wild.
Accordingly, Prehistoric Planet is basically the definitive natural history wildlife film about dinosaurs and the other ancient animals that lived alongside them right at the end of the dinosaur era.
The subject of each episode will be as follows:
- Coasts | May 23rd
- Deserts | May 24th
- Freshwater | May 25th
- Ice Worlds | May 26th
- Forests | May 27th
A brief explanation of Prehistoric Planet
Prehistoric Planet is set entirely within the Late Cretaceous period, about 66 million years ago (the most recent era of the dinosaurs). This time around, things look markedly different: Most of the creatures we see onscreen in this series have the rudimentary beginnings of feathers, even Tyrannosaurus rex, whose young, perhaps, were covered in a fuzz of birdlike down. Because the show is confined to a single geological period, there’s plenty of room for the more obscure dinosaurs to take center stage. T. rex and Velociraptor and Triceratops are there, but so are Barbaridactulys, an enormous pteranodon with an antler-like head crest half the length of its wingspan; Olorotitan, four-legged herbivores that travel in herds over the desert; and Deinocheirus, a feathered and waterlogged giant shambling through fly-ridden swamps. Frog enthusiasts will enjoy the surprise appearance of Beelzebufo, an enormous carnivorous amphibian with a name like a witch’s curse.
Prehistoric Planet, and docuseries like it, are multipurpose. They are fun, diverting shows for those who just want to dip a toe into another world for a few hours, but they’re also fascinating visualizations of the leaps and bounds that scientific knowledge of fossils has taken over the years, especially when viewed in conjunction with everything that came before.
We’ve only been studying dinosaurs as we know them for about 200 years. Something new is discovered multiple times per year. Theories are constantly being argued and expanded upon. The feathers, a relatively new discovery, allow the visual effects artists to play around with what colors and patterns may have existed, fashioning a particular raptor species after the moon-like face of a barn owl, and another with the bright iridescent blue of a peacock. They seem to have more heft to them, more meat on their bones, not unlike the warm-blooded animals of today. Compared to the rotund predators of Prehistoric Planet, the looming Nosferatu-like presence of Jurassic Park‘s iconic T. rex looks practically skeletal.
Because this is presented like a nature documentary, little effort is taken to describe what the Earth looked like all those millions of years ago, which causes a bit of temporal confusion. Attenborough will describe a subject as living in “modern-day North America,” which is accurate insofar as that is where the fossils were undoubtedly found, but ignores the fact that none of our continents actually existed back then. The closest we get to any reference to any ancient map is a nod to the “Tethys Sea,” a body of water separating the supercontinents Laurasia in the north and Gondwana to the south, which eventually became the landmasses we live on today. (If you are very bothered by this continental drift #erasure, at the end of every episode viewers are directed to the show’s website, updated with more detailed information.)
Unlike a nature documentary, much of Prehistoric Planet can’t simply be taken at face value, despite Attenborough’s kindly, authoritative voice. We have no idea if any of the interspecies drama we see onscreen—an aquatic Mosasaur chasing down a swimming T. rex, a Carnotaurus using its hilariously tiny arms for a mating display—even “happened,” beyond what’s present in the fossil record. Instead of treating this as a weakness, the almost totally hypothetical nature of this show is a testament to the work that went into it from the paleontologists to the visual effects artists behind the scenes, the unsung heroes of the entertainment industry.
Prehistoric Planet is built on contradictions like these, a documentary composed of fiction, fictions composed of indisputable facts, and a vision of a faraway past that could only be made using our knowledge of the present. A show like this is a kind of time travel. There’s a reason that the only non-digital footage is of landscapes: jungles and temperate forests and deserts and snowy wastes—which were, of course, captured here, in our time. This world of 66 million years ago looks so much like our planet because it was, once. Thinking about it that way, it doesn’t seem far away at all.