Special Effects And Scholarship Create `Paleoworld'

THE new fall season's just getting under way and you're already looking for a break?

Well, the best near-term shot at escaping sitcoms and action adventure - escaping our whole epoch, in fact - lies in the intriguing amalgam of entertainment and teaching found in ``Paleoworld,'' the 13-part series premiering on the Learning Channel Wednesday at 8 p.m., and thereafter on Sundays at 9 p.m. (Check local listings.)

TV has been doing pretty well by evolution lately - A&E's engrossing ``Ape Man'' is a good recent example - but ``Paleoworld'' is something else again.

It tells the story - from early dinosaurs to early man - with an eye-catching range of devices that almost always manage to heighten the effects without stealing the show.

The series is not an ideal solution to the use of fancy electronics, but it is a successful way to mesh new and old production tricks.

In Episode One, ``Rise of the Predators,'' for instance, dinosaurs come to life realistically and at times frighteningly in a form of robotics that the show calls ``dinamation,'' and also through three-dimensional graphics and agile camera work. But these effects are called into play only after a scene has been carefully set through the words of scientists.

In one case, a safari-outfitted paleontologist stands on a dusty landscape making notes - a typical fossil-hunter image. A hand is seen whisking dirt from the fossil of a giant claw in the ground. Suddenly a ``live'' version of the claw fills the screen, followed by a leg and a scaly, intimidating face. We glimpse the meat-eaters leaping on the back of a giant plant-eating dinosaur. ``Dinosaurs didn't perfect killing,'' the narrator goes on. ``They invented it.''

Yes, the show tends to overdramatize, but the transition works anyway, because recreated scenes are authentic-looking, with dinosaur forms springing up as a narrator describes their origins.

At times their bodies have a smooth, computerish look that only adds to the sense of reality by avoiding the hoked-up impression of dinosaur movies.

It's as if the program is saying, ``Even though we are dramatizing this scene, we will only show you what we're pretty sure of. We're not in the sci-fi business.''

There are plenty of old-fashioned lectures by paleontologists to go with the technical wonders. In one of these talks, a scientist uses a big knife like a classroom pointer as he directs our eye toward bones embedded in the ground that a colleague is working on.

Viewers also hear about the frustration of field work. But the Valley of the Moon in Argentina's West Central desert turns out to be an exception: a happy hunting ground for both scientists and viewers.

We see scientists there ``in search of the Holy Grail of paleontology: the first predatory dinosaur,'' and the place has so many fossils that the challenge becomes ``which ones to keep.''

As the show documents the search, and the narrator says, ``250 million years ago the Valley of the Moon was a very different place,'' it's nice to be able actually to see what he's talking about, with the screen becoming a lush land full of strange creatures.

Later episodes showcase re-creations of creatures like curved-tusk wooly mammoths and homo erectus, the early humans who spread from Africa around the world. But no matter how impressive a staged sequence may be, ``We start from the bones,'' as one program spokesman says. That's where the show's real impact lies.

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