So, my girlfriend has a kid – hear me out, this is relevant, I promise – and occasionally, he likes to sit down and watch CBeebies (for non-British readers, it’s a children’s channel owned by the BBC). One of the shows he likes to watch is Andy’s Prehistoric Adventures. The premise of the show follows Andy Day, a worker at the Natural History Museum in London, who uses an old clock to travel back in time to different points of prehistory, educating the young audience along the way. Now, this show is particularly interesting to me. Not just because dinosaurs and all that are awesome, which they are. It’s because I felt like I’ve watched the show before. And technically, I had.
That’s because outside of the live action shooting in the museum, Andy’s Prehistoric Adventures uses footage from previous BBC documentaries, including but not limited to Walking With Dinosaurs which came out in 2000 alongside The Ballad of Big Al, 2001’s Walking With Beasts, and the more recent 2011 documentary series Planet Dinosaur.
At first, seeing this overwhelmed me with a sense of nostalgia: I remember watching Walking with Dinosaurs with my parents when I was little. Then I thought about it a little more, realising how cheap this move actually was. And this is common for most kids shows: it’s either cheesy live action or standard levels of animation that can be made on next to nothing. However, this was a new level of saving money.
Even the standard in quality of animation within each episode ends up being fairly ropy, given that it’s using clips from totally different shows. To give you an idea, Walking With Dinosaurs won the Guinness world record for being the most expensive television documentary series per minute, with the final slate coming in at £6.1 million to make a six-episode miniseries. Despite this hefty price tag, both Walking With Dinosaurs and its mammalian counterpart, Walking With Beasts (which had a visual effects budget of around $7/8 million), were applauded for their stunning and, at the time, groundbreaking animation.
Even now, twenty years later, the effects still hold up fairly well. This show’s animation was on par with Jurassic Park, which was, and by some schools of thought still is, the king of dinosaur visual effects. Additionally, Walking With Dinosaurs pulled in a viewership of anywhere between 15 to 18 million viewers in the UK when it first aired, while Walking with Beasts pulled anywhere from 9 to 14 million. Now, compare that to Planet Dinosaur, which has visual effects that are visibly a fraction of the quality, and only had a viewership of 4 to 5 million when it first aired.
Mixing clips from these series, which clearly had very different standards, is visually jarring. Also, that mixed in with the character of Andy literally looking like he’s been copied and pasted into the environment whenever he travels back in time makes for shoddy looking work. It’s like the editing department didn’t even try to make it look like Andy was a part of the worlds he explores. Just because a child under the age of ten isn’t going to comment about missing shadows or lighting that’s off doesn’t mean it should be glanced over. While Andy does present the information in a fun and flashy way for children to understand, he is still just a guy in front of a green screen while other people’s hard work is played behind him.
And that’s the problem with Andy’s Prehistoric Adventures: it stinks of laziness.
Granted, it may be argued that due to the show being aimed at a younger demographic, there isn’t as much as a demand for quality. However, there has been a menagerie of well written, original children’s content that has been created in the past, especially about dinosaurs. Take a look at Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time. That was another avenue the BBC could have taken with Andy’s Prehistoric Adventures, animating the time travel sections to create new and interesting visuals.
So, why did the BBC decide to reuse all this old footage? Is it because the creators of this show thought that anyone who remembered the Walking with series would be too old to watch something like this? That it was one of their most successful projects, so might as well get their money’s worth from it? And is it because Planet Dinosaur was that underwhelming, no one would notice a few clips here and there from it? Why not simply re-air Walking with Dinosaurs/Beasts for a modern audience instead of presenting it to us with a different label and hoping it’ll go under the radar? It was such a huge step for the BBC and documentaries in general, nothing wrong with a classic.
At the end of the day, the BBC own all of these properties and can do whatever they want with them. However, slapping together pieces from old properties to make something new, à la Frankenstein, just seems wrong. Even if it is a show that is meant for kids, it is a huge decrease in quality. Plagiarism is something that is treated very seriously throughout industries and hiding under the guise of a show for children shouldn’t excuse Andy’s Prehistoric Adventures from scrutiny.