'Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives' offers a fascinating glimpse of prehistory


April 27, 1991|By STEVE MCKERROW

Do you remember the thrill the first time you held a fossil of a fish, or snail or even a leaf in science class? Trying to imagine the gulf of years that have passed since the object was alive and picturing the world in that time, was a humbling but stimulating experience.

Rekindling those feelings is the aim of an engaging cable documentary getting its U.S. premiere this weekend on the basic TBS service.

In fact, in "Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives" (at 8 p.m. tomorrow), host Sir David Attenborough comes across as an eager schoolboy himself, hopping around the world to visit the latest fossil finds that are changing our view of the world of long, long ago.

As he taps a geologist's hammer on a stone "nodule" that may or may not contain the fossil remains of some small prehistoric organism, he says "moments of magic" await the searchers of such clues.

Sir David, whose series "Life on Earth" and "The Living Planet" are cornerstones of the public television archives of natural science documentaries, greets viewers here from a quarry in Leicestershire where he first encountered fossils as a boy.

"Fossils can be found all around us, if we know where to look," he says with all the excitement that must have attended his first discovery.

The show is a BBC production that aired as a series in England. But TBS is running the segments for three straight hours, which actually provides a continuity of progression that may have been lacking in a piecemeal presentation.

One interesting segment early on talks about how religious-minded early scholars tried to explain the discovery of seashell fossils embedded in stones high up in the mountains.

Rather than showing that oceans once covered vast areas of the Earth and thus proving the heretical notion that our planet is much, much older than puny humankind, they suggested certain ubiquitous fossil shells were really the remains of coiled snakes.

Of course, notes Sir David, none of the fossils had the remains of snake heads. Thus, he shows artifacts upon which heads were actually painted to "prove" the theory.

The show moves from small organisms such as trilobites and fish on through the larger forms of developing creatures and up to the fascinating world of dinosaurs. Included is much attention to the recent finding in Germany of the remains of archaeopteryx, a flying creature that may represent a link between reptiles and birds.

But especially fascinating is a segment on scientists in Texas who have painstakingly developed a radio-controlled flying model of a huge pterosaur. We see early models crashing, but finally see the long-winged creation soaring, much as its living ancestor might have flown in the dim recesses of prehistory.


HE'S FAMOUS, HON -- Baltimore's rebellious film director, John Waters, is scheduled to pop up in a segment of the syndicated series "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" this weekend.

The show that elevates celebrity snooping to a surprisingly successful formula can be seen paying a visit to Mr. Waters' home at 9 a.m. tomorrow on WJZ-Channel 13. He says he could afford a lavish house because of the difference between modest profits from making independent films and the more generous financial rewards from Hollywood films such as "Hairspray," the first of his movies to cross over into mainstream theaters.

Mr. Waters succinctly captures the peculiar allure of "Lifestyles," in fact, when he says, "Hollywood's a great place that's built on insincerity and fake glamour and everything I believe in."

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