'Prehistoric Planet' Is a Love Letter to a Lost World

The David Attenborough-narrated series is airing for five nights on Apple TV+.

prehistoric planet
Apple TV+

As easy as the phrase "66 million years ago" is to say, it's impossible for a human mind to truly comprehend. A notion of a time so, so long ago is simple enough to conceptualize in books, scholarly journals, and encyclopedias, in writing and in conversation, but it conjures up a period of time that feels fake, like something alien. The plants were different, the insects were enormous, the continents were in the wrong places, the very air was made up of a different combination of fundamental elements. Not to mention the reptilian beasts that populated nearly every corner of the globe. Prehistoric Planet, the five-night event series on Apple TV+, proposes a new way to look at an ancient past: not as an extraterrestrial world, but as a time remarkably similar to our own.

Back in 1999, Walking with Dinosaurs, a co-production between the Discovery Channel and the BBC, premiered on television and changed the face of dinosaur documentaries forever. The most expensive documentary miniseries ever made, the show used a combination of practical puppetry and cutting-edge computer-generated imagery and the latest scientific knowledge (for the time) to bring a long-lost world to life. It was followed by 2011's Planet Dinosaur, whose recreations of prehistoric scenery and more than 50 species were entirely digital. Prehistoric Planet is the third of the BBC's dinosaur event series, its five episodes broadcast over five consecutive nights, superimposing up-to-date versions of its digital dinosaurs onto real footage of modern-day nature.

Fashioned as nature documentaries, all three of these shows are notable for their treatment of their subjects: Not as terrifying movie monsters or brutal walking nightmares, but as the animals that they were, using a combination of the fossil record, many decades of ever-evolving scientific theory, and what we know about the wildlife that exists today to give us as close a look as we'll ever get at creatures that have been extinct for millions of years. It helps that Prehistoric Planet is also narrated by David Attenborough, the voice of a whole generation's worth of natureshows and films.

prehistoric planet t. rex
Apple TV+

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 fictions, fictions composed of indisputable facts, 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.

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.