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Posts Tagged ‘dinosaurs’

Here’s a good one, you’ll like this:

‘What do you call a dinosaur that ends up in court?’

‘Sue.’

Oh, all right, it’s a bad joke, but then most of the story of Sue the Tyrannosaur sounds like a bad joke. Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary Dinosaur 13 does a solid job of recounting it: but even so, it’s a bizarre tale.

dinosaur-13-poster

I was one of those children – couldn’t you guess – who was heavily into dinosaurs from an early age. Looking back, I can see now that this was the index case of a pattern of behaviour that’s been with me ever since: come across something interesting, then become completely obsessed by it and learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible. To this day I can tell an apatosaurus and a brachiosaurus apart by sight (not an especially useful skill in rural Oxfordshire, I’ll grant you) and retain a lingering interest in and familiarity with the topic.

So even before seeing this film I was aware of the discovery of Sue, the largest and most complete specimen of tyrannosaurus rex ever discovered. Tyrannosaurs are such charismatic animals that it’s startling to remember that back in 1990, when Sue turned up, only a dozen actual skeletons had been found, most of them less than half complete. This was one of the most spectacular dinosaur discoveries in history.

Dinosaur 13 – a reference to this being the thirteenth tyrannosaur, which itself sounds like a pretty good title for a story to me – opens with some musings on the nature of fossil hunting and paleontology, before (ha! ha!) digging into the circumstances of Sue’s excavation. She owes her name to Susan Hendrickson, the paleontologist who stumbled across her fossilised backbone sticking out of a hillside in South Dakota – if you ask me, tyrannosaurs should have names like ‘Old One-Eye, the Hag Queen’ or ‘Golgotha’, but that’s just my cultural influences showing through.

The film uses VT shot at the time to show the dig in progress and the seemingly amicable relations between the team of commercial fossil-hunters responsible and the owner of the land where the remains were found. This man received $5000 for the bones, which may sound like a lot to you, or maybe not – the important fact is that this was the largest amount ever paid for a fossil, up to that point in time.

Sue’s bones were taken off to the team’s base and the meticulous task of preparing them began, something expected to last a couple of years. This was about the point at which I lost touch with the original story, which is sort of ironic as it’s also the point at which it gets really interesting. And absurd. And infuriating.

I don’t wish to spoil the film’s thunder, but: one day in 1992, a major FBI task force including over thirty agents and elements of the National Guard descended on the paleontologists’ institute and seized the fossil dinosaur, on the grounds that the tyrannosaur might actually be stolen property. The fossils ended up spending the best part of five years incarcerated in a shipping container, while one of the scientists ended up doing some pretty serious jail time too.

How on Earth could this happen? The answer is that it was a perfect storm of factors, which the film does a very good job of explaining. This is a movie with a lot of different angles to it, and one of the criticisms I would make of it is that it doesn’t quite give all of them the detailed attention they deserve. There’s some fascinating material at the beginning concerning the near-mystical experience of extracting fossils from the earth, which communicates just how this must feel with great vividness. There are also some fascinating references to the long-standing, ill-tempered schism between commercial fossil-collectors and their academic counterparts, which may explain some of the ill-feeling the discoverers of Sue attracted.

But most of the film concentrates on the more conventionally dramatic story of the various legal wrangles Sue and her handlers found themselves caught up in. The film doesn’t make much attempt at impartiality – although, to be fair, one of the FBI agents involved in the team’s prosecution appears, and calmly admits the logistics of one of the court-cases involved were ‘incomprehensible’ – but even so I suspect most impartial observers would agree that the fossil-hunters got screwed by a series of legal decisions that would be hilarious were they not so grotesquely unfair. The tale involves the federal government, local Native American tribes, the US customs system, and a number of other players.

The movie tells the story with commendable clarity and a certain degree of dry humour – one of the scientists recalls his surprise at facing a potential 350 year jail sentence for alleged fossil smuggling, complaining that this was more than Jeffrey Dahmer received for multiple murders and cannibalism – but never quite loses track of the emotions involved: one journalist recalls her growing feelings for one of the people she was supposed to be impartially reporting on, while another principal is reduced to tears by the memory of the government stealing ‘their’ dinosaur.

The story is slightly oddball one, but the film tells it straight – well, as straight as possible given it contains interviewees who say things like ‘Pete and that dinosaur were made for each other’ quite matter-of-factly – and I have to say that a little more visual invention might have made it more memorable and striking. Perhaps it’s the unique weirdness of this story that stops the film from sending any particular wider message beyond ‘life can be really unfair sometimes’ – it doesn’t seem to be making any particular point about the monetisation of fossils, or the political side of paleontology.

None of this stops Dinosaur 13 from being quite fascinating to watch, if ultimately rather sad. It’s really just the story of how something quite beautiful, elemental, and joyous is spoiled by base, petty, mercenary concerns: a David and Goliath story, for sure, but the problem is that here Goliath is definitely the winner. In its own way this is as bleak and horrible a story as any of those in films featuring more lively and homicidal dinosaurs.

 

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Well, here’s a book which had me at the word ‘Dinosaur’. Or possibly the word ‘Planet’. Definitely one of those rather than ‘The’ or ‘Omnibus’. Having said that, I’m not sure that it isn’t ‘Omnibus’ which is isn’t the most significant element of the title.

dinoplan

Anyway, Anne McCaffrey’s offering is proper, freewheeling SF, vaguely similar in tone to Star Trek, concerning an exploratory mission deposited on a savage jungle planet inhabited by savage semi-reptilian life-forms (this barely qualifies as a spoiler given the title of the book). The planet is rich in both precious minerals and biological specimens.

I’m actually very pleased I happened upon the omnibus edition of these two books, as I suspect reading either of them individually would be a somewhat frustrating affair. For the majority of the first book, there isn’t very much in the way of plot, with the narrative instead focussing on a lot of exploring and the various mysteries this brings to light – how did Terran dinosaurs end up on a remote alien world? Why is one element of the team acting strangely? Why isn’t the team’s base ship responding to their messages? Despite all this it is not, if I’m honest, notably gripping stuff.

It’s only 160 pages into what was originally an 190-page novel that the plot finally feels like it gets underway, and the staging of it makes it feel odd – central to the narrative is the revelation that some of the team have actually started eating meat!!! Unless you come from a society which is almost exclusively vegetarian in culture (which the protagonists do) you’re probably not going to feel the sense of shock which the characters do, which is unfortunately distancing.

Anyway, Dinosaur Planet II at least has more action and incident in it, but due to a few slightly peculiar narrative choices – primarily, the decision to put the protagonists into cryo for a lengthy period between volumes – it’s a plot derived from that of the first book, rather than a continuation of it. And one gets no sense of an overarcing narrative structure, the story meanders along, occasionally addressing one plot thread in particular, until everything concludes in a fairly abrupt fashion.

This was the first full-length Anne McCaffrey book I’d read and while I can admire her prose style and her philosophy, and the fictional universe of this book has some appealing elements, the story itself feels lumpy and ill-disciplined with all the good bits crammed together down one end. A little research has revealed that even this omnibus isn’t a completely standalone volume, as characters and plotlines make their debut and are concluded in another trilogy called Planet Pirates.

I don’t think I’ll be tracking those books down, though. Dinosaur Planet and its sequel are just a bit too unexceptional and unstructured for that – and the general tone of it all is very beige and unruffled. Well-organised multi-world future societies where everyone’s got all their issues resolved may be fun to imagine and work out the details of, but they don’t always produce characters who it’s necessarily interesting to read about. This isn’t quite as tedious as the movie Planet of Dinosaurs, which came out at about the same time, and it’s a lot more intelligent and engaging – but it’s never much more exciting, either.

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With the UK in danger of vanishing entirely under a pile of snow, I find myself wanting to watch something light and sunny and daft. And so, to a movie which holds the distinction of being the first Hammer film I ever saw, round about the age of six.

Hammer horror movies were a staple of the schedule (admittedly the late-night schedule) in the eighties and nineties – my own adolescence might have been rather different if they hadn’t – but they’re very little seen on TV nowadays, which I think is rather a shame. However, still relatively common now, as it was in the late seventies, is the appearance of one or other of the Hammer caveman fantasies. You know, I say caveman fantasies, but if we look at the poster we can perhaps get an idea of what the film-makers’ priorities really were:

onemillionyearsbc

Yes, it’s Don Chaffey’s One Million Years B.C., and as you can see the actual cavemen are not the main feature of the publicity. Somewhat more prominent (in every sense of the word) is former weathergirl Raquel Welch, almost wearing the remains of several rabbits (actual rabbits are mysteriously missing from the film itself). If you can tear yourself away from Raquel, I would direct your attention to a couple of other features of the poster: the strapline ‘This is the way it was‘, which is a very brave assertion given the poster features a caveman being eaten by a brontosaurus, and the bit of the blurb concluding ‘…a savage world where the only law was lust!‘ – which, as we shall see, is arguably overegging the pudding.

Anyway, One Million Years B.C. is set in what scientists have come to refer to as the Dumbassic Era of history, and opens with the formation of the Earth – which strongly resembles someone letting off a catherine wheel at the other end of a very smoky shed (I may be giving away special effects secrets here). Eventually we find ourselves in a bleak, prehistoric world (for once, not the woods out the back of Hammer’s Borehamwood production base but the Canary Islands), where we meet the good folk of the Rock Tribe, who – as their name suggests – are the original rockers, with matted hair, beards, and bearskins (well, maybe not the last one). In charge of the Rock Tribe is Akhoba (Robert Brown, later to evolve into James Bond’s boss), but jockeying for preferment are his two sons Sakana (Percy Herbert, a ubiquitous if fairly anonymous film actor) and Tumak (John Richardson). Also on the scene is the luscious, slightly naughty cavewoman Nupondi, played by Martine Beswick. I know everyone goes on about Raquel Welch when they talk about this film, but if you asked me to make a choice between her and Martine, I really don’t know which way I’d jump (so to speak). Even if I plumped for Raquel, I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t be thinking of Martine.

Sorry, back to the film. John Richardson is an interesting example of that very rare stock figure, the Hammer hunk – in most of their films, the juvenile male lead ends up playing a very secondary role to character actors like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Richardson, however, gets to play a proper leading man role here and in She (he gets a reasonable part in Vengeance of She, too), based as much – one suspects – on his good looks as his acting ability. There is a persistent story that he was also married to Martine Beswick, too, so all-in-all his position on the All-Time Jammy Git chart is looking good.

Some things never change, and even in the Dumbassic Era a family barbeque is the cause of friction. Tumak finds himself kicked out of the Rock Tribe and banished into a vast lava desert inhabited only by carnivorous ape-creatures, and poorly-composited giant spiders and iguanas (effects maestro Ray Harryhausen apparently suggested using the blow-ups, the idea being that having seen live creatures, the audience would be more likely to think the animated dinosaurs were real. Ray’s logic is at fault here, as all one is left with are two different kinds of obvious special effect, the animation (which is great) and the blown-up real animals (which are rather embarrassing)).

On the other side of the desert is the sea, where Tumak encounters the Shell Tribe, a more culturally and technologically advanced group (they have invented spears, painting, and leg-shaving). He finds himself strangely drawn to Loana (Welch), perkiest of the Shell Tribe’s young women, although this may be because she had less rabbitskin to work with when fashioning her outfit than anyone else in the tribe. Despite saving a child from an attack by some sort of theropod carnivore (is it a juvenile tyrannosaur? is it an allosaur? does it really matter anyway?), Tumak gets himself kicked out of the Shell Tribe too, mainly because he is a selfish thicko. Loana finds herself caught in the grip of a force beyond her control (I’m talking about the requirements of the script, by the way, not love) and goes along with him.

Meanwhile Sakana has carried out a bit of a coup in the Rock Tribe, Martine – sorry, Nupondi has done some mildly provocative dancing, and Akhoba has been doing some very dodgy I-am-crippled acting. At this point the plot starts to unravel a bit, as is wont to happen when your film has virtually no actual dialogue beyond grunting and people saying ‘Akita!’ to each other. (This appears to mean ‘Please render assistance,’ though I could be wrong.) People start wandering back and forth between the two tribes almost at random (or being flown there by helpful pterosaurs), develop an almost-supernatural knowledge of events they weren’t present to see, and so on. In the end there is a volcanic eruption which switches the plot off and gets rid of various members of the supporting cast (hey, no spoilers – but suffice to say I Am Not Happy).

For a long time this was the most financially successful film Hammer ever made, although I suspect it has lost this crown to the Nu-Hammer movie The Woman in Black. There’s something mildly depressing about that, given that this is such a silly piece of disposable kitsch, but I suppose it’s also understandable given its very, very obvious charms and the fact you know exactly what you’re going to get when you sit down to watch it.

The star attractions, other than Martine and Raquel in those fur bikinis, are Harryhausen’s animated dinosaurs. There are fewer of these than you might think, and it’s quite a long time before the first proper one shows up – a decently animated archelon (surprisingly, the Shell Tribe call the archelon ‘archelon’, suggesting they have also invented Latin taxonomy). However, the actual fight between the archelon and the Shell Tribe is so dull that even some of the characters involved don’t seem that interested in it. Much better is the fight between Tumak and the tyrannosaur/allosaur/whatever – not quite up to the standard of the sequence with Gwangi and the cowboys from The Valley of Gwangi, but still top-tier Harryhausen. Equally good is an all-animated fight between a triceratops and a ceratosaurus, and there’s quite a nice fight (you may have noticed a pattern developing) between duelling pterosaurs as well.

The rest of the time we are watching actors in skins grunt at each other. To be honest, the differentiation between the surfer-dudes of the Shell Tribe and the rockers on the other side of the desert had the potential to be reasonably subtle, but the movie chooses to beat you about the head by giving all the dudes blonde hair and all the rockers brown hair. At least the script shows a rare flash of logic by making Tumak as much of an arse as everyone else from his tribe – as mentioned, he is stupid, selfish, and bad-tempered, at least for the first two-thirds of the movie, at which point he appears to lose all personality and the script starts to unravel too.

And what a script it is. Apparently it took four people to write this thing, which works out at roughly one word of dialogue each – nice work if you can get it. I wonder why they insisted on using made-up caveman language? It surely can’t be out of a desire to maintain historical accuracy, because this film doesn’t have any. I suppose not having any dialogue does mean your film will travel much better internationally (hence those healthy box office returns), but the downside to all the grunting and the ‘Ahot! Akita Tumak!’ stuff is that it not only robs your film of any subtext, it also takes away most of your text. You can’t have any characterisation that can’t be expressed through physical action, your scope for plot complication becomes severely limited, and – perhaps most crucially – it becomes very difficult to be witty or even broadly funny without resorting to slapstick. So you end up with a very simplistic, earnest film which is still palpably absurd.

Although it is still a fairly well-behaved film. All that stuff about the ‘law of lust’ on the poster is rather misleading, as the primitive passions of cavemen and cavegirls get virtually no screen time. The fur bikini stuff is all quite wholesome and not prurient at all (well, there’s a bit where Martine and Raquel have a catfight – you’d’ve thought Martine’s track record in From Russia With Love would stand her in good stead, but clearly not…), and the film isn’t really suggestive at all. This would be amended with the release of the follow-up, When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth, in which Victoria Vetri’s fur bikini memorably goes a-flyin’ (although the version which shows up on TV these days has been expurgated).

In the end one is left with a collection of simple, honest, largely visual and almost wholly guilt-free pleasures – Raquel, Martine, and Harryhausen are, on the face of it, a combination unlikely to produce anything of moment, but One Million Years B.C. does seem to have lasted. It’s silly. It’s very silly, in fact. But it’s also a lot of fun.

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Before we proceed to a look at this week’s extravaganza, some unfinished business with respect to Asylum of the Daleks. It appears that I’m the only person who found this episode disappointing (to put it mildly), which I’m rather surprised by: but then most of the reviews I’ve read have emerged from people either belonging to or writing with half an eye on what I can only refer to as geekdom, a constituency I increasingly find myself at variance with. Further reflection has led to me to the conclusion that Asylum marked a bit of a first for Doctor Who, in that it was an episode which relied for most of its impact not on on-screen elements but the show’s own cult status and dedicated following.

Anticipating a ‘you what?’: well, look, imagine someone who slipped into a coma immediately after watching The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe (or, more likely, during it) and recovered just in time to watch Asylum of the Daleks, with no time to read any of the advance material on this season. If they were me I expect they would say ‘plot makes no sense’, but even if it was the most dedicated of the episode’s cheerleaders they would still probably just say ‘well shot, zippy narrative, clever twist – main guest role maybe a little over-written’. But what are people actually talking about in the real world (well, on t’internet)? Moffat’s cojones for writing Justin Lee Collins in early, and the no-doubt-fiendish ingenuity of the story which will properly introduce her fulltime despite her dying in this one.

There’s nothing in the episode itself to suggest she’s coming back – quite the opposite – nor, indeed, to suggest that Oswin is anything more than a one-off guest character. So when people discuss all of this, they’re not actually talking about the story – they’re talking about the peculiar way in which the publicity for the show intersects with our expectations of the show itself; not the programme but the meta-programme composed of what’s on screen and the attendant media and fan buzz. Now I suppose there’s nothing wrong with this as a way of getting your show talked about, but it does rob future generations of the same kind of experience when they revisit this episode. I mean, kids today can sit down and watch Partners in Crime or Remembrance of the Daleks or Horror of Fang Rock and still have a somewhat similar experience to the one viewers at the time had – those episodes are memorable because of their tight scripts and engaging characters, not because the producer pulled a clever trick with the surrounding publicity. Then again, isn’t this just the same as any other episode with a twist in it? I think so, because the twist in Asylum is not suggested or addressed on-screen. Either way, I feel I will have more to say on this subject in future (sounding a bit Peter Hitchens there – hello, Peter, if you’re reading this (don’t mock, it has been known)).

Onto Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, an episode for which they apparently only bothered writing one draft of the script. Hum. Given it has a description rather than a title, and is distinguished mainly by having so many ideas rocketing off in different directions that it’s challenging to work out where to start, I do not find this information especially difficult to believe. I certainly enjoyed it more than Asylum, but even as I was doing so I was aware… well, we’ll get to that in a bit, I expect.

‘Mutter, at least on Primeval we got to go on a foreign location shoot, grumble’ etc.

Stuff about Dinosaurs on a Spaceship that annoyed me, but which I know it’s not worth making a particular fuss about (NB this list is not exhaustive):

  • Chris Chibnall doing weird things with the Silurians Department: since when could they build spaceships, let alone ones that big? If this is a civilisation capable of building a ship the size of the moon, then the approach of the actual moon (which, to the best of my knowledge, is still technically the in-continuity reason for the fall of their civilisation) would surely not have been a major issue. Hey ho. (I also note the episode didn’t really bother explaining to new viewers who the Silurians were.)
  • The Doctor being officially dead is the new Randomiser Department: yes, he’s faked his own death. Everyone is convinced he’s no longer around. Which is why this series has started with two episodes in a row with people specifically contacting him in order to send him off on missions. This is the narrative equivalent of having an elaborate facial tattoo and then wearing a balaclava all the time.
  • Bruce Geller may sue Department: I wish there’d been a better pretext given for the Doctor taking a couple of (apparently) random people off on an adventure with him. It makes a certain kind of sense for the Doctor to do the Mission: Impossible thing of taking specialists along, provided you ignore the fact he’s always been such an improvisatory polymath, but he’s hardly ever done it before even when it would have made sense to get help (the only example I can recall is A Good Man Goes To War).

But as I said, I did enjoy it, mainly because of its mad all-over-the-placeness and the zany use of so many incongruous elements together. The thing it really reminded me of most was the 1982 story Four to Doomsday, which likewise contains so many utterly disparate ideas and characters that you half believe Terence Dudley wrote it for a bet: frogs, gladiatorial combat, the microchip revolution and digeridoos come together to make something quite unique. Not uniquely accomplished, though, and similarly I can’t believe Dinosaurs on a Spaceship will be many people’s favourite. I did enjoy the broad comedy of it, helped by the presence of many accomplished comedians, and Matt Smith and Arthur Darvill are obviously very good at that kind of thing.

However, I have to say that one of the reasons I did enjoy this episode was a particular very non-comedic element. I have been known to write at wearying length and in worrying detail about the way the show presents its monsters and villains, and one the defining features of Moffat-era Who to date is that villains, in particular – and especially well-motivated, well-written, well-performed, villain-of-the-week villains – have been very thin on the ground. Not so here: David Bradley as Solomon was a proper old-school bad guy, appropriately nasty and hissable, and it was he alone who stopped this episode from collapsing into cutesy nonsense.

Now I think back on it, many of my favourite episodes of Moffat-era Who are the ones with a good strong single villain in them – I’m thinking of House from The Doctor’s Wife and the Dream Lord from Amy’s Choice. It’s not that I don’t enjoy a cleverly tricksy plot or an inventively malfunctioning piece of machinery, but there’s a special kind of thrill you get from seeing the Doctor take on a worthy opponent in pursuit of a just cause, it does somehow lift the show to a higher level when they do it and do it right. Moffat has said he sees the show as a kind of dark fairytale: Moff, dark fairytales have villains in them!

Much as I enjoyed the central thrust of the story, I still found that in order to enjoy this episode I had to make a conscious effort not to think about all the questions that crowded into my head in the course of the story: How exactly did 24th century Earth contact the Doctor? Why did he take the Queen along in the first place? Why ‘the gang’? (See up the page.) And so on, and so on. I’m getting a strong sense from this episode and the previous one that the priority when writing Doctor Who now is to write in as many eye-catching visuals and striking ideas and meme-able jokes and references as possible, and to only worry about the plot that supposedly holds them all together as a secondary concern, if that. Well, that’s an approach that appears to have reaped rewards – in the case of the Dalek episode at least – but it doesn’t work for me. I enjoy actually thinking about the plots and stories and ideas in a slightly more detailed way, and I know there’s not a lot of point doing that with either of the Season 33 stories so far as neither of them appears to have been assembled with that in mind. At the moment Doctor Who is big and bright and brash and surprising, and that’s fine, I suppose: I just don’t think these episodes are going to stand up very well to repeated viewing.

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You know, in the past I’ve kind of touched on the importance of a film having a really good title, but I’m starting to wonder if some titles are just too good to be left lying around in the open for anyone to use. Surely some sort of licensing system should be introduced where film-makers have to prove they’re really got what it takes to make a movie worthy of a really good name. It would certainly avoid crushing disappointments of the kind accompanying awful films with brilliant names like Lesbian Vampire Killers and A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell – and now that I think about it there may even be a case for imposing a relevency clause. Tyrannosaur was a terrific movie, but its existence sort of precludes anyone making a film called Tyrannosaur about an actual tyrannosaur, which is – I think you’ll agree – a shame, any way you cut it.

All this thought about titles and – more specifically – mesozoic megafauna was occasioned by my stumbling across James K Shea’s 1978 film Planet of Dinosaurs on a well-known video-sharing website. This is, obviously, a great name for a movie (possibly not a Ken Loach movie, admittedly), and coupled to this is a plot which emanates straight from exploitation-movie heaven: survivors of a crashed spaceship must battle to survive against the prehistoric monsters of an alien world, struggling to remain civilised as they do so! Ah, the dinosaurs! Ah, the heightened passions in this primitive new world! Ah, the babe in the chamois-leather bikini in the poster!

How it really works out is like this: the starship Odyssey is heading on its way when disaster strikes – one of the reactors goes out of control, to the consternation of Captain Lee (Louie Lawless, who was Oscar-nominated. But not for this movie. And not as an actor) and his co-pilot Nyla (Pamela Bottaro). Lee and Nyla appear to be almost unique amongst the crew of the ship, in that firstly, they are both on the same (very small) set together – everyone else reports in via video screen, from what looks suspiciously like the same room. Their other unusual quality is… well, let’s see if you notice it.

Anyway, the Odyssey does a firework impression and the ship’s lifeboat crashes, very cheaply, into a lake on the closest alien planet. This bit really is a rip-off of the original Planet of the Apes, leading one to expect a much, much classier movie than what follows. Lee and Nyla and their colleagues Jim (Jim Whitworth), Harvey (Harvey Shain), Derna (Derna Wylde), Mike (Mike Thayer), Chuck (Chuck Pennington) and Charlotte (Charlotte Speer) swim for shore.

Yes indeed, nearly everyone in this movie has the same name as their character. I can’t really work out why this is, as this doesn’t appear to be a playfully metafictional drama or arty docu-drama. Maybe it just saved the director from having to remember too many names – he certainly seems to have been struggling in some departments on this movie.

All of the cast are wearing funky, primary-coloured outfits in velour, which will apparently constitute high fashion in the future. Nearly all the men have big hair and luxurious moustaches too, and for a while I did wonder exactly what kind of movie this was going to be.

Not wearing a moustache, nor with the same name as the actor playing her, but still in velour, is communications officer Cindy (Mary Appleseth). On the beach, Captain Lee asks her where the Very Important Emergency Distress Beacon is. ‘Oooh, I forgot to bring it!’ trills Cindy, thus marking the moment at which it becomes irrevocably clear that this movie is entering the Total Crap Zone. Luckily, the Very Important Emergency Distress Beacon floats (oh, good God) and so Chuck whips off his shirt and dives in to retrieve it. Chuck keeps his shirt off for the rest of the movie, and even removes his trousers for the final scene, so he’s obviously very proud of how much he works out: I was completely indifferent, to be honest. Rather more hopefully, if you’re watching this film with a certain set of expectations, Cindy takes off her dress and jumps in the water as well.

Disaster strikes on all counts when Cindy is eaten by something lurking invisibly (and thus cheaply) in the water – disaster compounds disaster when Chuck is not (you will already be sick of this character). The survivors decide to leave the Very Important Emergency Distress Beacon bobbing off in the distance and head for safety on higher ground. Perhaps more importantly, Cindy’s dire fate so soon after taking off her dress is taken as a sign by the women, who decide to stay firmly inside their velour outfits for practically all the rest of the movie. So much for cheap salaciousness. Sigh.

Hey ho. The survivors trek very slowly across the planet, protected only by a handful of laser guns that stop working instantly and forever if you even get them wet, and break very easily (almost as if they’re made from very cheap thin plastic). En route they realise that the planet is solely inhabited by dinosaurs (the audience has almost certainly already worked this out from the title, though I make no guesses about the director). Also en route, the viewer will realise that this film is solely inhabited by people who can’t act and who’ve been given nothing but clunky and inane dialogue to deliver. Big tough engineer Jim, who looks a bit like Dave Lee Travis, thinks Captain Lee is a bit of a wimp for not wanting to kill all the dinosaurs and conquer the planet. Captain Lee is a much more cautious and thoughtful type. Their confrontations are, needless to say, fiercely dull.

The only other noteworthy character is Harvey, a lazy businessman who owned the spaceship. He is also one-dimensional, but at least in an interesting way, but unfortunately he is killed by a ceratopsian dinosaur quite early on. Whatever impact Harvey’s death may have had is instantly dissipated when, after being gored through the torso and falling hundreds of feet off a cliff, the actor audibly goes ‘Umf!’ when he hits the ground in close-up.

With Harvey off the scene it’s just a case of setting up camp in the dubious safety of a plateau, contending with the local tyrannosaur, etc, etc. Suffice to say nothing very interesting happens.

Let me just repeat that: a shipwrecked starship crew, stranded on a planet of dinosaurs, must struggle to survive both the local beasts and their own internal divisions – and nothing very interesting happens. Some astonishing force must have been at work behind the scenes of this movie, to take a premise with such promise (okay, dodgy and slightly ridiculous promise) and produce a film so crashingly tedious. The amateurishness of the cast is only partly to blame, because the script gives them nothing much to work with. The characters are totally underdeveloped, and the clash between their civilised values and the imperatives of their new situation is limply handled at best. There are occasional moments where the film looks like it’s going to get interesting, on a number of levels – ‘Civilisation is like that uniform you’re wearing,’ big tough Jim tells Nyla at one point, ‘it’s getting dirty and torn, and pretty soon it’s going to rot away. You’d better decide what you’re going to wear then.’ Crikey. Unfortunately, nobody’s velour outfit is actually showing any signs of dirtiness or wear, and the dissolution of civilisation basically boils down to Jim and Lee being snippy with each other. Every sign of primitive passions stirring is nipped in the bud by the appearance of an animated dinosaur.

All the attention (not to mention money) appears to have been lavished on the dinos, which are by a colossal margin the one and only reason to sit through this terrible film. Most of the film emanates from a lead-lined vault many miles below the bargain basement, but the animation is not far off Harryhausen standards – I was not surprised to see Jim Danforth’s name in the credits, but apparently most of the actual effects work was done by Stephen Czerkas and James Aupperle, two people previously unknown to me. Bits of this film compare respectably with the effects sequences from movies like One Million Years B.C. and The Valley of Gwangi, with a particularly good tyrannosaur and some nice ornithomimids too. But to get to them you have to endure such a lot of garbage involving the human cast you arrive in a bad mood anyway.

I expect Planet of Dinosaurs has defenders who will strenuously declare that it is so bad it’s good, a camp classic, etc etc. No, it’s not: most of it’s so bad that it’s painful to consider the obvious care and attention that has gone into the animation, which is wasted in a piece of crap like this. You’d think that it would be difficult for a movie called Planet of Dinosaurs to live up to the promise of the title, and I think you’d be right – but for a movie to not live up to the promise of that title as comprehensively and depressingly as this one possibly constitutes an even more remarkable achievement.

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As someone who’s had an unhealthy interest in prehistoric beasties for over thirty years, there seemed to be something almost providential in the BBC launching its latest CGI extravaganza epic within days of the release of the collected edition of the Flesh strips from 2000AD. Both bulge at the seams with dinosaurs and their ilk, and while the TV show was a lot more respectable and aspired to educate, Flesh is concerned with nothing more than disreputable thrills and is generally a lot more fun.

Flesh surely owes some sort of debt to the movie Valley of Gwangi in that both originated from what’s essentially the same pitch: cowboys versus dinosaurs! But rather than being a lost world story, Flesh ups the SF quotient by sending the humans back to the Cretaceous to take on the dinos on their own turf. They’re there to ranch the herbivorous dinosaurs so they can be slaughtered and their meat transported to the 23rd century (where all the indigenous food animals have been wiped out). Not only is this threatening the dinosaurs with extinction, it’s removing the food supply of the local predators, who waste no time in supplementing their diets with human flesh…

Creator Pat Mills describes Flesh as ‘a metaphorical story whose symbolism could apply to any number of scenarios’, which probably makes it sound grander than it really deserves. The backers of this venture into time-travelling butchery are venal and gluttonous caricatures, the supposed protagonists are wafer-thin cutouts, and the wider ethics and ramifications of the concept are not really explored. (A prescient touch of allegory, given that this strip first appeared in 1977, is that the cowboy in charge of the doomed venture is named Reagan.) It’s very clear from early on that the writers are just itching to get to the scenes of the capitalist exploiters of the downtrodden dinos getting their gory just desserts.

There is always something odd about a story where the villain is the most vivid and memorable character, and for ‘odd’ you can substitute ‘extremely weird indeed’ when that villain is an ageing female tyrannosaurus rex. This is Old One Eye, the ‘hag queen’ of her species who’s gone on to achieve a certain legendary status both in her own right and as matriarch of a dynasty of tyrannosaur miscreants causing trouble in other 2000AD strips (a clone of her son once nearly ate Judge Dredd, for instance). Old One Eye doesn’t get any dialogue, obviously, but we are permitted access to the workings of her mind through a series of feverishly intense captions that do a lot to create the atmosphere of the story.

To be honest, well before the end, Book One of Flesh has abandoned both the cowboys-vs-dinosaurs motif and most of its narrative coherence in favour of lurid horror and gleeful carnage – tyrannosaurs and deinonynchii besieging the time-travelling interlopers I can buy, but with the appearance on the scene of giant spiders it’s difficult to shake the impression it’s all getting a bit silly and overblown. The conclusion of the series is also slightly off-kilter – there’s one very short episode to wrap up the main plot followed by an off-at-a-tangent epilogue, for one thing, but more seriously the story either loses the courage of its convictions or gets severely muzzled by the censors of the day – anyone expecting the promise of the series to be delivered by the main characters getting gobbled up by the carnosaurs is in for a disappointment.

Book Two basically reruns the whole story in a different setting (the Triassic), with a different focus (this time the corporation is fishing, not ranching), a different chief monster (Big Hungry the nothosaur is an inferior replacement for Old One Eye) and no giant spiders (there are giant sea-scorpions instead – looking on the bright side, these actually existed, but the repetition of the plot is surely unforgiveable). The human characters are even blander and more forgettable this time round – a nuisance-villain from Book One reappears alongside a total cipher of a hero, but they’re all just there to go through the motions.

Book Two is redeemed, however, by the stunning art of Italian creator Massimo Belardinelli, whose work graced numerous classic 2000AD stories. Belardinelli’s linework and attention to grotesque detail are a marvel to behold and with his departure two episodes before the end Flesh Book Two goes rapidly to bits.

Had this collected edition limited itself to this vintage material (plus a couple of utterly dispensible supporting strips from annuals and summer specials) it would have been a fun, nostalgic purchase. However the page-count has been boosted by the inclusion of a significant quantity of more recent material. If this meant it was the complete Flesh, that’d be great too – but it isn’t. Mills’ work on the strip from the 90s, along with Dan Abnett’s version, don’t make it into the book.

Instead we get ten episodes of ‘Texas’, what appears to be a close sequel to Book One, superficially taking it back to its conceptual roots. But I use the word ‘superficially’ with precision. It seems to me that the original Flesh is fundamentally about two things – the visual hook of the cowboys-vs-dinos imagery, and the conceptual hook of it being a horror strip about exaggeratedly unpleasant caricature characters being eaten alive by prehistoric monsters – very straightforward exploitation material.

It’s not that ‘Texas’ doesn’t look okay – although James Mackay’s artwork, despite its up-to-date depiction of Cretaceous fauna, is a bit too raw-looking to really be my cup of tea – or that it doesn’t have ideas. It just doesn’t have focus. There’s a new tyrannosaur villain whose exposure to time radiation gives him all sorts of special powers (this is basically a plot device for the benefit of readers troubled by the realisation that ‘normal’ dinosaurs wouldn’t actually be that hard to kill using modern weaponry), some stuff about environmental activism, some lazy stereotyping of religious fundamentalists, a bit of comic book feminism (i.e. you can shoot things and beat people up and still have really attractive breasts), and some satire of people dependent on anti-depressants… all of this stuff is slapped together seemingly at the whim of the writer with no particular point in mind.

Of course, it may all be going somewhere really clever, but there’s no way of knowing from this collection as the ‘Texas’ storyline isn’t concluded. It ends on a fairly muted cliffhanger which didn’t leave me particularly wanting to see what happened next. Mills is obviously aware that 2000AD’s core readership is much older than it used to be, and seems to be trying to make the stories more sophisticated as a result. Whether the dilettante ramble of ‘Texas’ counts as sophisticated I don’t know, but I’m not sure it’s what the audience actually wants even if it is.

Or, to put it another way – the original Flesh is a story which is very difficult to take seriously, which functions on the most lurid and obvious level, which frequently makes virtually no sense at all, and which doesn’t aspire to be anything more than a visually quirky horror strip about dinosaurs. And it’s vivid and involving, and a lot of fun.

The most recent incarnation, on the other hand, bends over backwards to be plausible and character-driven and do sophisticated satire about a range of different topics. It tries so hard to be worth taking seriously that it forgets that it’s a comic strip about cowboys fighting dinosaurs, and being taken seriously probably shouldn’t be an essential part of the game plan anyway. In the end you come away not sure what any of it was really about, nor much caring.

An appropriately-priced reprint of Books One and Two would be a good buy for anyone who enjoys vintage 2000AD strips: the excesses of the story in One and the art in Two should guarantee that. Including ‘Texas’, especially in its incomplete form, and bumping up the price accordingly, makes me hesitate before really recommending this collection to anyone – except on the grounds that the first two thirds of it show what was so great about the early years of 2000AD, and last third demonstrates some of the problems that the comic tends to have today.

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