Prehistoric Planet 2 review: Attenborough returns to ancient Earth

The second series of this show about Earth 66 million years ago is a joy to watch - but it inspires more than it informs. A little more science would have been nice.

Prehistoric Planet 2

Apple TV+, released 22 May

When Prehistoric Planet aired last year, it felt like the first act of something greater. This beautifully animated documentary series, narrated by David Attenborough and produced by the BBC’s Natural History Unit for Apple TV+, was a thorough introduction to the world as it looked 66 million years ago. A fair chunk of attention was bestowed on familiar dinosaurs, even as they were depicted in unfamiliar scenarios, such as a Tyrannosaurus rex swimming with its brood.

Imperobator, a giant relative of animals like Velociraptor, shown in Prehistoric Planet 2

Prehistoric Planet 2 delves deeper, shifting focus to new animals and environments, with T. rex and other primeval icons filling in as bit players. Often, it is the non-dinosaurs that steal the show, such as the weird and wonderful ammonites. Shoals of U-shaped Nostoceras thrive alongside 1.5-metre-long Baculites and Diplomoceras maximum, squid-like animals with paperclip-shaped bodies.

A great strength of this sophomore season is that all five episodes connect the lives of ancient animals with the geography and climate of prehistoric Earth. Clumps of vegetation dislodged by storms become rafts on which dinosaurs hop from island to island, while the formation of the Rocky mountains causes a lake to toxify, making it the perfect place for flies to spawn and for their predators to congregate.

Episode two takes us to the Deccan Plateau, where female isisaurs traverse lava flows to lay their eggs in a volcanic crater, stretching their long necks above a blanket of fumes. Months later, storms caused by rising summer temperatures prompt a shift in wind direction, blowing away the poisonous gases. Newly hatched isisaurs feast on their mothers’ dung, which contains pheromones that guide them back to their herd.

Isisaurs in Prehistoric Planet 2

The most puzzling aspect of Prehistoric Planet 2 is how its narratives are crafted. For obvious reasons, the film-makers didn’t capture dinosaur behaviour in the wild; they brought the ancient world to life through animation. As a result, the series is self-consciously cinematic. It delights in age-old narratives like David vs Goliath and other familiar tropes. Cracks in a frozen lake fuel a nervy chase sequence, for example, and when two pterosaurs prepare to mate, we cut euphemistically to waves crashing on the beach, as though the director is seeking a PG-13 rating.

Yet, rather than simply delivering the Hollywood interpretation of life among the dinosaurs, the team behind Prehistoric Planet 2 has created something more postmodern. No night-vision cameras were needed to make the series, but their aesthetic is reproduced, regardless, when we see an Adalatherium raising its young in a burrow. “A thermal camera reveals a huddle of glowing bodies,” says Attenborough later, over shots of bird-like Imperobator.

This pastiche of nature film-making is a worthwhile experience, but the emphasis is always on replicating life in the ancient world, rather than explaining how we know what it was like. New palaeontological discoveries are seen throughout Prehistoric Planet 2, but they are rarely clarified; it inspires more than it informs.

Each episode ends with experts unpacking an aspect of what we have just seen, asking “How fast was a mosasaur?”, for example. While this is a welcome addition – these sections were featured only as bonus content in season one – it can’t address the deluge of questions the viewer will surely have. Prehistoric Planet 2 is a marvel, but with a little more science at the fore, it could have been greater still.

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