They were big, nearly brainless and have proved to be irresistibly fascinating to scientists and laymen alike. No, we're not talking about NFL players but dinosaurs, the towering topic of an engaging documentary series premiering this weekend on basic cable's Arts and Entertainment Network.
"Dinosaur!" is a four-part series that can be seen at 8 p.m. tomorrow and succeeding Sundays. And the host is something of a large figure from the past, too: former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite.
The 74-year-old retired newsman travels to Montana, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming to visit paleontologist "digs," as scientists continue to puzzle out from fragmentary clues the lives of these creatures.
Ironically, as the show's premiere episode, "The Tale of a Tooth," notes, our awareness of the beasts that roamed the Earth for 150 million years is surprisingly recent -- less than 200 years old, in fact.
For it was in 1824 that a scientist named William Buckland acquired a curiously large fossil tooth, and from it postulated the existence of a fabulous beast he called Megalosaur. His theories challenged religious fundamentalism, but also dovetailed with the equally controversial work of naturalist Charles Darwin.
What kind of beasts, exactly, were the dinosaurs? For years, accepted thought classified them as reptiles. And in part, that is because of the 1922 discovery -- as shown in the third installment of the series -- of a nest of fossil dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia. Turtles, snakes and other reptiles, of course, hatch largely developed from clutches of eggs.
But so do birds, and the final segment of "Dinosaurs!" explores the theory that the giants were warm-blooded and that some of them, at least, may actually be represented on Earth today in the form of birds.
"Dinosaurs!" is a multinational production by Granada Television in England, Satel in Austria and Primedia in Canada. And accompanying the TV series is a four-cassette videotape collection ($69.95), the first offering of the new A & E Home Video operation.
In addition, Prentice Hall is publishing a companion book by David Norman, a consultant for the TV show.