TELEVISION / Doing the monster mash: John Lyttle on dinosaurs and dinobores

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The Independent Culture
IN Jurassic Park Steven Spielberg extracts dinosaur DNA from 150-million-year-old bloodsucking amber-set insects and clones the Creatures That Time Forgot. So what? Channel 4 managed to get a whole weekend of programming out of Stegosaurus and his leather-clad chums.

Dinomania (Fri / Sat / Sun) was a triumph of packaging - as long as you didn't peer too closely or rip the wrapping. The bad joke title was obviously meant to soften viewers up for the recycling of cheapo celluloid - the inevitable Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (Fri), Dinosaurus] (Fri), Son of Godzilla (Sat) etc - repeated children's programmes, so-called specials (Friday's Moviewatch on that film) and such shameless late- night strands as Rock Dinosaurs, featuring those famous prehistoric reptiles Status Quo, Bob Dylan and T Rex (geddit?).

Overkill inevitably led to overlap, duplication, blurring. The same archive footage that adorned Opening Shot's cinematic history of the tall, dark and horrible also fleshed out Claws, Jaws and Dinosaurs (Sat). Fleshing out was what the documentary required. Like the season's inadvertent visual motif - fossilised remains panned over again and again - the film lacked connecting tissue.

Dinosaur tracker Martin Lockley abruptly appeared, barely heralded by a title card, to talk about the hitherto unsuspected abundance of prehistoric paw prints around the globe. A new and interesting television truism attended Mr Lockley's appearance. To wit - watching a man explain the depth and tread of a dinosaur track is about as interesting as watch a man explain the depth and tread of a dinosaur track. Call it stepping the heavy fantastic. This thought must have also occurred to director Edmund Coulthard, for off viewers were whisked to a One Million Years BC spoof, with tortoises less than artfully disguised as fleet-footed, flesh- rending fiends. Now listen to Was Not Was sing 'Do the Dinosaur.' Skip to dino-memorabilia collector Mike Flowgate and his amazing plastic models, lolly wrappers and gruesome attack cards. Then, over to Robert Bakker, author of The Dinosaur Heresies, explaining his childhood fascination with bones and his theory of the hot-blooded dinosaur. Was this a programme, or notes towards one?

One man's loopy enthusiast is another man's grand visionary. For Bakker surfaced again on Equinox: The Real Jurassic Park (Sun), another plug for the rampaging box-office hit, although a plug with a purpose. Here Bakker was accorded due respect as a forward thinker, one of a scattered scientific group who could one day help writer Michael Crichton's ominous dream of a reconstituted dinosaur reserve become a reality.

Succinct and blissfully practical, The Real Jurassic Park guided us through molecular biology, chromosome gaps, gene sequencing, Raptor claws, zoo husbandry and the possible effects of contemporary diet, pollution and germs on a species retrieved from Creation's trash compactor. It also managed to recreate the raw thrill of discovery you used to get as a child, flipping through the National Geographic.

For 50 minutes or so one could share fitfully, understand what dinosaurs represent to children (their youngest fans) and scientists (their brightest fans), dreamers both: possibilities, the limits of imagination, mysteries there to be solved. And how creepy, too, to hear the question 'Could the mighty Rex be resurrected?' answered with a chorus of barely qualified assent, though as one researcher of Mammoth DNA casually shrugged, 'We've got a lot of work to do.'