Background: For as long as I can remember, I found dinosaurs fascinating (even embracing fictional versions such as Godzilla to this day decades later) and I have not been alone in this interest. Whether the interest has been based in the history of our planet or the sheer thrill of how Hollywood tends to present the matter probably varies for most people but I find movies and television shows based on these creatures tend to come in waves, the last big surge starting with the Jurassic Park series of flicks that were given historical credence by renowned experts like Jack Horner. As scientific knowledge is uncovered, and this is one arena where the pace is glacial at best, our collective understanding of these beasts changes so it tends to be the less dramatic cable documentaries that take the lead in showing folks what advances have been achieved, the Discovery Channel the most prolific with their use of CGI effects. Having watched many of their dinosaur specials over the years, I was happy to pick up a copy of their latest release too, the 8+ hour Essential Dinosaur Pack that packages seven of their shows into a double disc set for fans to appreciate. Here's a quick look at the contents of the package for those of you unfamiliar with it.
Essential Dinosaur Pack is made up of seven separate shows made over the span of several years including Valley of the T-Rex, When Dinosaurs Roamed America, Utah's Dino Graveyard, Dinosaur Planet, The Mystery Dinosaur, Dinosaurs: Return To Life, and T-Rex: New Science, New Beast. The focus of each show is slightly different though the infamous Tyrannosaurus Rex and relatives tend to get the spotlight much of the time (the public loves predators, yes?). Each show is narrated by people like John Goodman (maybe because he is likable and played Fred Flintstone in the comedy flick years back) and includes interviews with leading scientists as they explain discoveries of new fossils or other information that sheds light on how dinosaurs might have interacted so many millions of years ago.
More important to the younger viewers is the extensive amount of computer generated animation that helps reflect some of the newly imparted data and theories, the growing interest in the subject leading to more resources devoted to studying older material using cutting edge science as well. Now admittedly all of the conjecture used by the scientists to support their conjecture is not canon in their respective fields but the possibilities of the T. Rex being a social animal, raptors having feathers, and the possibility of using dinosaur DNA as in the movie to restore some of the creatures is food for fodder that I admit had me on edge at times but the presentation of the stories is done so a wider audience will find it appealing as well.
Valley of the T-Rex: Jack Horner finds a nest of T. Rex skeletons and surmises that some of the old theories just don't fit the new evidence found.
T. Rex: New Science, New Beast: More evidence is found that the "terrible lizard" may have been a scavenger and prone to slower running, some of the bone evidence put together in new ways.
When Dinosaurs Roamed America: This was more of a general overview of some discoveries from excavations in the last ten years, some of it suggesting new dynamics in the ecological balances that took so many millions of years to work out.
Utah's Dino Graveyard: New species discovered leads to better connections between dinosaurs and their bird descendants thanks to a huge graveyard in Utah.
Dinosaur Planet: This four episode segment started off the second disc and was the same material I reviewed before (several years ago) without edits. Essentially, the narrative style capitalizes on the production decision to focus each episode on a single "character" and show their life as envisioned using the science of the day in a manner that worked nicely for younger audiences.
The Mystery Dinosaur: This was a documentary that focused on a single fossil unearthed that led a wide group of dissenting scientists to argue exactly what they had found, showing the consensus in the field to always provide significant body of non-believers no matter what methodology is used. At least it also showed other medical and scientific disciplines employed to help filter out the facts.
Dinosaurs: Return To Life?: Asking the same question as the premise of the Jurassic Park franchise, could salvaged DNA be used to reinvent dinosaurs using the latest advances in science.
The sum total of the seven docu-dramas was to give the audience a look into what has been happening in the field of studying dinosaurs, making it easier to digest for a wide audience, and adding in a significant amount of CGI footage of the dinosaurs in their natural habitats using scientific beliefs. Granted, this means that most of the material is out of date by the time it originally aired but it did manage to offer some alternative points of view and keep the viewer interested. The dated effects were not so problematic and this is the kind of "science-lite" that provides significant funding to the field so while I had reservations, the rating of Recommended was earned by all of the component shows as far as I was concerned. There are other related box sets in the related series that fans may appreciate as well but give the Discovery Channel a look to see what will be coming in the future.
Picture: Some of the shows were presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 while others were in full frame 1.33:1 color using the MPEG-2 codec and 480i resolution. The lighting was flat and the CGI effects were generally well done with few noticeable clipping points or blatant flaws, the level of complexity getting better with the newer shows in the set. The interviews were all basic, one-camera affairs with the bitrate on the low side to accommodate the amount of material on the double disc, dual layer productions, again the newer shows looking better in most ways.
Sound: The audio was presented in both 2.0 Dolby Digital English as well as 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround English, the bitrate typically 192 Kbps and the sampling rate at 48 kHz as expected. The sonic qualities of the various shows changed with age, the newer ones using the surround process to elicit a deeper feel of the ancient times with occasional rear speaker usage detected. For the most part, the separation was nothing special and the surrounds (as well as subwoofer) were underutilized but attempts were made to get the aural qualities in line with the visual components.
Extras: There was an outline of the shows on the second side of the DVD cover and some minimal photogallery material but other than that, the extras were the same (virtually nonexistent) as the original releases from what I could tell, likely to help fit all the material onto two discs.
Final Thoughts: Essential Dinosaur Pack was a nice selection of seven dinosaur documentaries that originally aired on the Discovery Channel over the past seven years, losing the commercials to make them even better to watch. The science used in the series was cutting edge as the shows were made and even with more recent advances, this will serve as a decent primer for those of you not too picky about the CGI and animated segments taking such vast liberties with the material. It was all in good fun though and fans of dinosaurs should pick up a copy given the price, especially since the technical values were better than the standard definition broadcast versions that I saw as they aired.