Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Walking With Monsters/ Walking With Dinosaurs/ Walking With Beasts

On one of Larry Niven’s Known Space worlds there is a creature called the runforit. I’ve always loved this critter. You don’t need to describe it, and as far as I can remember Larry doesn’t. The name says it all. It was named after what the person who first saw it immediately said: “Run for it!” I’ve always wondered if there were similarly named creatures somewhere in Known Space. Beasts like the holyfuckingshit, the jesushchrist, the fuckme, and its close cousin, the iamsofucked.

If you watch any of these three BBC series you might be struck, as I was, by the foolishness of the titles. Nobody in his right mind is going to be walking with any of these motherfuckers, at least if he plans to stay alive. How about Running Away From Monsters instead? Or in my case, with my bum knees and hips, Hobbling As Fast As I Can Away From Monsters?

As you can see from the dates, the one about dinosaurs was done first. This is no surprise. Dinosaurs have been the superstars of extinct beasts for a long, long time, their only rivals being the mammoth family. It is said that this series is the most expensive documentary, in pounds sterling per minute, ever made up to that time. What it showed us that we had never seen before was really, really good CGI animals in their natural habitat. There are six thirty-minute episodes, narrated by Kenneth Brannagh, and each one is fascinating. We work our way through the Mesozoic Era, from the Triassic through the Jurassic to the Cretaceous, showing us the incredible animals that dominated that era.

It was so successful that the second series of six episodes was made two years later, covering the Cenozoic, the age when the mammals took over when a combination of radical climate change and asteroid collision (or so they theorize here, in something of a compromise with two of the more prominent theories of the Cretaceous Extinction Event) wiped out the big reptiles, and the new dominant life-form was … big birds! I hadn’t known that, but one look at these monsters and you could hardly argue with the proposition. Runforit! It was a few million years later that mammals grew large enough to really dominate things. This was a period when the largest land mammal ever to walk the planet, Indricotherium, sixteen feet tall at the shoulders. Frankly, I liked this series more than the one on the thunder lizards, because you usually don’t see much of them.

But best of all was the last in the series, a prequel to the second one. It was only three episodes, and I understand that because a lot of the period covered didn’t have a plethora of huge, sexy beasts. This series covers plant and animal life from the earliest invertebrates of the Proterozoic Eon to the dawn of the Phanerozoic Eon, 500,000,000 years ago, the eon we are living in now. It covers a time where there was very little oxygen in the atmosphere. There was one continent, Pangaea. I learned more that I didn’t know from this series than from all the others. It is utterly fascinating.

There are several things worthy of note concerning the entire trilogy. For one, they expended a lot of effort to make it all look as if they had sent fearless camera crews back in time and filmed the beasts in their natural habitat. This includes clever tricks like making it look as if shot through infrared lenses for night creatures, starlight scopes, and green light-enhancement devices. There is some “hand-held” shakycam work, but thankfully not a lot of it. It’s not overdone. Even better, sometimes the creatures break the fourth wall, become aware of the camera. In one instance, a curious rhino-like critter comes right up and noses the camera, knocking it over, and we get a few seconds of a scene shot with a camera lying on its side. I had to laugh, knowing it was all artificial. The CGI is very good, progressing as techniques got better over the six years. The last two shows were in wide-screen hi-def. The CGI animals have a fantastic sense of inertia, a real presence. For close shots, incredibly lifelike heads were made and manipulated by puppeteers.

The other strength is that each episode usually tells a story of some kind, usually that of a female mating, giving birth, and the struggles and perils of raising the infant to a point where it can survive. This personalizes it, gives us someone to root for.

Of course there have been some carps about it all. There are a few things they might have done wrong, but mostly it was extrapolation. Particularly in the area of behavior. It’s just not possible that we KNOW an Indricotherium’s gestation period was two years, nor that the mother would push her child away after three years of caring for it. But elephants have a long gestation, and the Indricotherium was even bigger, so it makes sense to pattern its lifestyle and habits after the elephant.

Likewise, we don’t KNOW that a great deal of most of these animal’s lives were devoted to males fighting for the right to breed … but looking at animals today, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and even fish, it seems reasonable to assume it. We see things as startling as a huge beast pissing a river to assert his authority, or a predator taking a dump on the animal he has just killed in the hope of frightening away a party of larger hyena-like scavengers. I’m sure these behaviors were patterned on things living mammals do today, but there’s no way we could be sure extinct mammals did these things. But I’m not complaining. I thought it was a real hoot to see a CGI animal taking a CGI shit with CGI turds on a CGI corpse. Remember, someone had to bring that scene to life.