The Big Dig

by Suw on September 1, 2003

Just watched The Big Dig on TV. It's like a palaeontologist's version of Time Team except nowhere near as good. For a start, the presenter had a brain the size of a pea, the scientists appeared to have been told not to use any long words or discuss complicated theories and the whole thing had the intellectual content of a nursery rhyme. What is it with TV programme makers that makes them assume that we're all stupid? Ok, so I have a geology degree so I know a little bit more about palaeo and geology than your average person and can spot when someone's talking arse, but that doesn't mean that your average person is incapable of understanding basic scientific facts about, well anything really.

One thing I noticed about it was that the experts spent too much time standing about whittering on and not enough time doing anything, or discovering anything. The dialogue was far too expository (i.e. they explained too much and didn't show enough). I never would have noticed this before I started learning about screenwriting, but it was just so awful to see these scientists trotting out badly written lines when they could easily have imparted the information by showing us something solid instead. Like maybe a fossil, considering as that was what the programme was about in the first place.

For example, they were talking at one point about wear on the fossils – if a fossil has been washed into a pit by a flood, it tends to show abrasions. So, they give the above explanation, then the dialogue goes something like:

Idiot Scientist 1
Right, well, I'll look for abrasions on the fossils shall I? Because that might tell us if the fossil was brought into the area by a flood.

Idiot Scientist 2
Yes, you do that. That will be very important.

So, why not just have two fossils, one worn, one not, and say 'Look, this one's been abraded and that tells us it's been washed in by a flood. This one hasn't, which indicates it's not travelled very far.' Cut the chat, show the viewer something at least potentially interesting and at least attempt to keep their interest.

It just struck me that this excess of expository dialogue and is part of what's wrong with so many 'populist' documentaries now. Don't get me wrong – I love populist! I think that popular programmes covering science and technology are great when done well, as in Time Team, but done badly it just makes the whole thing look dull and that turns people off. Not a good result.

The second thing that's wrong was that the science in this programme was so thin as to be see-through. Are audiences really too stupid to be able to understand about fossils being found 'in situ' or about the difference between an articulated skeleton and a disarticulated skeleton? Ok, maybe you want to add in a short explanation if you're really worried that non-scientists might not understand, but how long does it take to say that 'in situ' means the fossil is still where the creature fell; articulated skeletons are ones where all the bones are still in the positions relative to each other that they would have been in life; disarticulated means they're not.

Now, in the context of this particular programme, finding an articulated skeleton would have been a major piece of evidence and whether a fossil found was found in situ should have been a major discussion point, but neither the phrase 'in situ' nor the word 'articulated' were ever uttered in the whole hour. How can you discuss whether the fossils preserved in a given location were brought in by a flood or deposited where the animal died without discussing the fact that finding an articulated skeleton means that the bones were definitely not washed in, or that some of the fossils found may not have been in situ, and therefore could have been brought in from elsewhere? How can you get through an hour of alleged science and not use those words?

Sorry, I'm agog.

Are programme makers too frightened to use real science in their programmes? Or are they too stupid to understand real science? And do we really need to see the same theories explained over and over again, the same facts (well, this programme was so thin on facts that they were more like factoids) repeated over and over again, and the same graphics reused over and, yes, you've guessed it, over again. Is the audience so stupid that everything needs repeating three times before they can grasp it?

Someone give me some money – I could do better with my eyes shut and both hands tied behind my back.

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