OK, IT’S AMAZING, BUT IT’S ALSO PHONIER THAN A THREE-DOLLAR BILL: T. REX AUTOPSY

T. REX AUTOPSY

on National Geographic Channel

Pros: Anatomically-correct “body” is jaw-dropping; good information

Cons: Someone out there now believes that T.rex specimens exist

With the new Jurassic Park movie right around the corner, the National Geographic Channel cashed in renewed public interest in all things dinosaur with a new, attention-grabbing two-hour special. Premiering on June 7, 2015, T. rex Autopsy delivers exactly what its title says…sort of. It might go without say, but I should probably emphasize (especially considering that Animal Planet’s 2012 docu-fiction production Mermaids: The Body Found convinced some viewers that these mythological creatures actually existed) that T. rex Autopsy doesn’t feature scientists carving up a real dinosaur carcass. Instead, we get about as close an approximation of what cutting up a dinosaur might be like. Admittedly, I was very skeptical about what this program would deliver – I’ve seen a few too many of the phony documentaries which seem to accompany each and every themed block of programming on any of the (supposedly) educational television channels – but actually found Autopsy to be a bit better than I would have expected. That said, in my opinion, programming like this (which for the most part skirts around the fact that the “body” we’re seeing dissected actually was manufactured) is somewhat dangerous in the context of a modern society that seems to believe anything and everything it sees with its own eyes.

Had to throw in a chainsaw, didn’t we?

After a brief bit of set-up which revolves around shadowy military forces transporting a large cargo by plane and flatbed truck, T. rex Autopsy introduces us to the four (apparently, legitimate) persons who are going to conduct the “autopsy” on a dead tyrannosaur. Heading the (literal) operation is Dr. Luke Gamble, a veterinarian who comes across as a cross between Simon Cowell and chef Gordon Ramsay – a semi-irritating British fellow who’s job it is to make the occasional wisecrack while bossing people around. While Gamble handles most of the logistics of the “autopsy,” paleontologists Dr. Steve Brusette and Dr. Tori Herridge and fossil hunter Matthew Mossbrucker attempt to add credibility to a program that at its core is about four people slicing apart an (undeniably amazing) Hollywood-grade special effect. Remarkable though it may be, they generally succeed to that end since this show goes a long way in revealing the physiology of dinosaurs, doing an especially nice job of relating these extinct creatures to the modern day birds and reptiles which are their closet living relatives.

What would a big-time docu-fiction special be without a viral ad campaign?

Taking place in what appears to be a hanger-like facility, the autopsy at the center of this program attempts to determine the cause of death of full-size, female tyrannosaur. To that end, Gamble and his team examine every major bodily system of the T. rex, delving briefly into the purpose of these systems and the way they actually functioned. A viewer certainly does come away with significant insight into tyrannosaur anatomy and realizes how fine-tuned this “king of the tyrant lizards” was as the supreme predator of its time – though to be honest, the writing staff seems to have literally gone down the list of topics covered on the and made sure each was covered. The star of the show is unquestionably the anatomically-correct, life-size “body” which took some six months and 10,000 man-hours to complete. A marvel of fabrication, the T. rex is amazingly-detailed, right down to various membranes, internal organs, and bone structures, and I could definitely see people believing that this thing was the real deal – which only makes the show’s reluctance to admit that it’s fake more problematic.

 

The show’s running joke – “getting in the belly of the beast!  ARGGH!”

Though I had some basic knowledge about dinosaurs, I was surprised to learn about the many discoveries in the area of dinosaur physiology that have been made in recent years due to new technologies and the use of computer analysis. Virtually nothing was known about the internal structure of these beasts until quite recently, but new hypotheses are now popping up almost continuously. At the same time however, much of the knowledge about the internal structure of dinosaurs seems theoretical at best – soft tissue vanishes over time, leaving only fossil remains behind and it’s almost impossible to provide definitive evidence of any of the claims made by this program. To me, filling in the blanks where scientific knowledge stops is a very questionable practice – television programs like this (along with the new Jurassic Park) will literally be the only information most of the public will get about dinosaurs this (or any) year. To be presenting incomplete information as absolute fact then seems irresponsible.

tyrannosaurus-thomas

If nothing else, the program does provide nice insight into the anatomy and behavior of the T. rex.

Ah, but people aren’t trying to be “edumacated” by T. rex Autopsy, they’re trying to be entertained, and the program works on that level even if it sometimes seems a bit too theatrical and obviously scripted. This is especially true with regard to the cast’s attempts to “sell” the repulsiveness of the autopsy, and at times, the program absolutely revels in blood, guts, and disgusting visuals. Sequences such as one where the scientists end up digging through the sloshing stomach cavity in search of remains or one in which they manipulate the creature’s heart in an attempt to demonstrate its operation aren’t for the squeamish, while a moment in which the sole female goes elbow deep in the creature’s cloaca (essentially, the final juncture of both the excretory and reproductive systems) is just gross. Director Richard Dale’s camera doesn’t at all shy away from the gore, and the cast frequently find themselves literally wallowing in leaking bodily fluids. Attempts at lame humor that pop up occasionally struck me as being in bad taste, but I guess are to be expected in any television program of the ADHD era.

 

The amount of craftsmanship that went into the fabrication of the “body” is staggering.

Surprisingly, T. rex Autopsy only unleashes a handful of talking head sequences featuring genuine experts; most of the scientific information is provided by a narration track (read by Salvatore Vecchio) that seems to assume viewers are not only inattentive, but quite possibly downright stupid. Virtually every concept presented in the program is spelled out for viewers, with “key” elements being repeated again and again. A nice selection of appropriate illustrations and graphics give the viewer a (literally) better picture of what is being discussed, but I found that the CGI renderings of Tyrannosaurus stalking through prehistoric swamps and forests to be particularly goofy looking – granted, one of the show’s main goals is to emphasize that T. rex essentially is a “killer big bird” but I don’t think these digital images are quite meant to make it look like an oversized, discolored and mentally-handicapped chicken.

 

BIG BIRD!

The premiere of T. rex Autopsy was supplemented by an outstanding trio of brand new legitimate documentaries relating to paleontology – Dino Death Match chronicled the effort to prove that a new species of predatory dinosaur existed alongside T. rex, while Jurassic CSI examined numerous theories related to dinosaurs using new evidence and Ultimate Dino Survivor detailed T. rex’s amazing ability to survive debilitating injuries. I’d have to guess however that most viewers didn’t give these shows the time of day, preferring instead to watch the more entertainment-oriented and movie-like Autopsy special.

Anytime dinos are around, John Williams ain’t far behind…

Much in the same manner that Eaten Alive drew attention to South America’s anacondas, the primary goal of T. rex Autopsy undoubtedly was to generate interest in dinosaurs through sheer sensationalism. The more programs of this nature that pop up, the more it strikes me as disturbing that genuine documentaries of the type, for instance, that PBS specializes in just don’t seem to draw viewers anymore, regardless of how fascinating their subjects may be. Increasingly outrageous faux-documentaries like Autopsy do generate discussion about their topics – which is a good thing; still, I can’t entirely get behind programs that sacrifice authenticity just to get some butts in the seat. T. rex Autopsy presents a wealth of interesting information for sure, but also elicits a WTF response as far as I’m concerned. It may be worth watching, but shouldn’t be taken entirely seriously.

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