The Last Dragon (2004 film)
||This article consists almost entirely of a plot summary. It should be expanded to provide more balanced coverage that includes real-world context. (April 2013)|
|This article relies on references to primary sources. (January 2010)|
|The Last Dragon
Dragon's World: A Fantasy Made Real (U.S. title)
|Genre||Fantasy / Docufiction|
|Created by||Charlie Foley|
|Developed by||Charlie Foley
Kevin Tao Mohs
|Narrated by||Ian Holm (English release)
Patrick Stewart (U.S. release)
|Executive producer(s)||John Smithson
|Running time||99 mins|
|Original channel||Channel 4
The Last Dragon, known as Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real in the United States, and also known as Dragon's World in other countries, is a British docufiction made by Darlow Smithson Productions  for Channel Four and broadcast on both Channel Four and Animal Planet that is described as the story of "the natural history of the most extraordinary creature that existed for a long time ago".
It posits a speculative evolution of dragons from the Cretaceous period up to the 15th century, and suppositions about what dragon life is. It uses the premise that the ubiquity of dragons in world mythology suggests that dragons existed. They are depicted as a scientifically feasible species of reptile that could have evolved, similar to the depiction of dragons in the Dragonology series of books.
The program switches between two stories. The first uses CGI to show the dragons in their natural habitat throughout history. The second shows the story of a modern day scientist at a museum, Dr. Tanner, who believes in dragons. When the frozen remains of an unknown creature are discovered in the Carpathian Mountains, Tanner, and two colleagues from the museum, undertake the task to examine the specimen to try to save his reputation. Once there, they discover that the creature is a dragon. Tanner and his colleagues set about working out how it lived and died.
The story begins 65 million years ago, sometime in the late Cretaceous period. A Tyrannosaurus rex is stalking a creature that has been raiding its territory and food sources. The creature is revealed to be a juvenile prehistoric dragon. The T. rex had not eaten for days and prepares to attack the young dragon: in an attempt to defend itself, the dragon extends its wings to give the illusion that it is much larger than it really is, but the T. rex is not convinced and continues to advance. The young dragon then tries another tactic: it utters a piercing scream that carries for miles. Although the screech disorientates the T. rex, hurting its sensitive ears, the attack only goads the dinosaur on. Suddenly, the dragon's mother swoops down from the sky to the rescue and attacks the T. rex, slashing the dinosaur's skull with its talons. During the short fight, both animals cause serious injuries to the other; the T. rex breaks the female dragon's wing and in retaliation, the dragon breathes a jet of fire at the Tyrannosaur's face. The Tyrannosaurus limps away with fatal burns, while the female dragon is left unable to hunt for herself or her offspring.
65 million years in the future, at the London Museum of Natural History and Science, England. Dr. Jack Tanner, a young palaeontologist, who has been fascinated with dragons since childhood is introduced. Upon discovering talon marks on a skull of a T. rex, Dr. Tanner shares his theory about the creature that caused the damage to the skull with other palaeontologists. He tells them that the damage was caused by a creature unknown to science. However, he says that it was not the talons that killed it; a blast of fire, precisely aimed at the head was the cause of death, as evidenced by carbon deposits discovered down both sides of the skull. Unfortunately, his colleagues aren't convinced and Tanner's academic reputation is left in tatters.
In his office Dr. Tanner studies photographs taken of a new discovery at Romania. Several human corpses, dating from the Middle Ages, were found in a cave in the Carpathian Mountains while some straying skiers were being rescued. Along with the bodies, a carcass of an unidentified animal was discovered. The Romanian authorities ask the museum to investigate the find. Most of the professors at the museum want nothing to do with the specimen, but Tanner asks if he can go on behalf of the museum. The museum agrees and Tanner prepares to travel to Romania, under one condition - if it is a hoax, they leave immediately: if it's of interest, the body is shipped back to London. Tanner, along with two associates, arrive to discover that the remains have been moved off the mountain, Tanner wonders what evidence may have been lost in the process. The three scientists enter the shed where the carcass is being housed and begin analyzing the specimen.
After initial analysis, Tanner notes that the creature has a scaly hide and a tail, suggesting a reptile, but also has wings and foot talons, characteristics of powered flight. When he finds the wings, he wonders if the creature could really fly, as its wingspan is too small to allow flight. After further investigation, Tanner finds that the bones of the creature have a honeycomb structure, which would allow for flight, being hollow but strong. Internal scans of the creature show a huge heart, needed to pump oxygen-rich blood to the chest muscles during hard work, and two bladder-like structures. Tanner suggests that they could be gas bladders: the gas contained inside is hydrogen, which is lighter than air and would give the creature extra lift. He tells his associates that the creature has everything needed for flight but that they don't add up.
Back in the Cretaceous, two weeks after the fight with the T. rex, the mother dragon is dead, having succumbed to infection; the starving juvenile must now teach itself how to fly, while evading the scavengers seeking to feed on his mother's body: at present, only pterosaurs, but more dangerous creatures will come. The juvenile begins to eat the only food source available; its mother's carcass. While eating, an aged male dragon arrives to feast on the mother. The juvenile, sensing danger, flees, but the older dragon, seeking fresh meat, gives chase. The juvenile flees into a forest where the adult male cannot fly. Body working overtime, the juvenile begins to make hydrogen, essential for flight, as the adult is gaining on the juvenile, nature kicks in and the juvenile regurgitates the contents of its stomach to remove excessive weight and takes to the air, narrowly escaping the adult male.
In the present, Tanner inspects inside the mouth of the creature and declares it a carnivore, but also notices molars and wonders about their purpose in a carnivore. He also notes a fleshy palate at the back of the throat and wonders if it could have been used to prevent backdraft from fire. Noting that the mouth shows no evidence of ever having been exposed to fire, he reconsiders. He theorizes that dragons breathing fire is biologically possible, explaining that the bombardier beetle can emit liquid at a temperature of 200 °C.
The prehistoric dragon, now a young adult, is preparing to fight an alpha male for territory and mates. Before it goes to fight the other adult male it eats rock rich in minerals, which is found at the heart of every dragon territory. The young adult ventures into the territory of an old alpha male. The two fight and the young male wins.
Tanner says that to create fire, they need fuel, oxygen and a source of ignition. He then realizes that he had already found fuel inside the flight bladders, hydrogen and methane, both combustible and lighter than air. He then takes samples of the crushed rocks found on the molars of the creature to discover they are rich in platinum, which can start a fire in a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen. Tanner is now convinced that his theories have been correct and the creature is a dragon. Tanner begins to wonder how dragons survived the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, when other large land-dwelling creatures like the dinosaurs didn't. The narrator then explains that at the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event|, a meteor the size of Mount Everest smashed into the Earth, wiping out nearly all life on the planet. Sharks, coelacanths, turtles, and crocodiles all survived and all had one thing in common: they were all marine species. Tanner then remembers that crocodiles also have a false palate like the one found in their dragon, and deduces that it is an evolutionary relic passed down from a marine ancestor. The narrator continues to inform us that the land-dwelling prehistoric dragon was wiped out, but explains that the prehistoric dragon was not the only dragon species alive at the time of the K/T Event. There was also a marine dragon, a cousin of the prehistoric dragon, both descended from a common ancestor.
It is explained that the marine dragon lived in the sea and its the flight bladders became swim bladders allowing extra buoyancy, the wings became vestigial and served as fins, and the large tail became a rudder. As the land recovered from the impact of the meteor, some dragons returned to shallower waters and eventually made the transition back to land. Tanner suggests that the legends of sea serpents were actually recollections of true encounters with marine dragons. One of his associates discovers that a fossil of a false palate had been found in bamboo forest, in China. Tanner theorizes that the marine dragon came back onto land and evolved into a new species in the bamboo forests of Asia. The dragons of Chinese mythology are low-slung, elongated, and slender; all characteristics of a body recently adapted from water, but Tanner wonders if this would have been suitable for living in a forest.
We are taken back 50,000 years to the bamboo forests of China. The age of the dinosaurs has ended, and now the mammals have since risen up to fill the void. Here we are shown the newly evolved forest dragon, adapted to its new environment. We follow the dragon as it stalks its prey, and discover that the dragon has evolved a unique adaptation; mimicry. By controlling the flow of gases out of its bladder, the dragon is able to mimic animals in distress. The vestigial wings are too small to allow flight, the dragon only able to glide small distances; but the buoyancy of the gas bladders let it tread less heavily and thus quieter when stalking prey. The dragons also use their natural fire-breathing abilities to cook their captured prey, as the fur on some of its prey is not easily digested. The dragon succeeds in dealing with several mammalian intruders to its territory, including wild pigs and tigers, but in the distance, another species watches the dragon's use of fire with inquisitive eyes, a species that will turn the dragon's own weapon on it: humans.
In the present, Tanner, after theorizing about the marine and forest dragons, begins to wonder what other dragon species may have evolved within this family of creature. Tanner's associate shows him something strange on the monitor, bone fragments. He thinks they may be ribs, but the ribs are intact. The three scientists lift the wings of the dragon to discover that it has four legs and two wings. Tanner is amazed saying, "No vertebrate that ever lived had six limbs". They check the DNA, knowing that if it is not a hoax then the limbs will show up in the DNA. The DNA test shows that the dragon has a genetic adaptation in the gene responsible for creating limbs. Tanner tells us that world mythology was correct all the time, all depictions of dragons show them to have six limbs. He cites the different depictions of dragons as evidence of a whole family of dragons existing all over the world. He dubs their carcass the mountain dragon, and wonders if this is the dragon in European folk history.
As the three scientists prepare the dragon carcass to be packed up and shipped to England, they perform one final check to see if they missed anything. They find the tip of a broken sword buried in its heart, Tanner goes to where the Romanian scientists are studying the human corpses and find the sword that the tip came from. The narrator tells us the dragons survived until the emergence of humans, who used the dragon's fire against it. These encounters between humans and dragons are recorded in folklore throughout the world. Tanner discovers that the human bodies show evidence of carbonization, showing that the bodies were burnt, but their dragon specimen never breathed fire. As the Romanian authorities come for the dragon, Tanner studies x-rays that had been taken, he sees that the ovaries of the dragon show no follicular activity, and concludes that their dragon was a baby. The three scientists travel to the cave, hoping to find a nest.
We are taken back over 500 years, to the Carpathian Mountains in the Middle Ages. Dragons have been driven to live in remote places of Europe by encroaching human. A female mountain dragon is searching for a mate: she marks her territory with her scent. The female is near the end of her season.
The scientists arrive at the cave and find rocks that have been scorched in symmetrical lines. They scan inside the cave using echo scanning. As the female returns to her den, a male dragon arrives, having traveled to Romania from his territory in the Atlas Mountains, and the female goes to him. Instinct then takes over as the two begin their courtship ritual, where they fly to a great height then freefall together, only pulling apart at the last instant. Inside the cave, Tanner finds a nest, containing egg shell fragments and one intact egg.
Back in the 15th century we see the female dragon, using her fire to incubate the eggs inside the nest. The male returns from hunting, with no food. Instead, he brings another rock for the nest. The female, now being very protective of her nest, allows the male to enter the cave and take care of the nest. As the female takes her turn to hunt, the male enters the nest and places the rock on the nest. But instead of keeping the temperature at a high level, he lowers the temperature of the eggs in order for the eggs to develop into all females, as another male may be a rival for him; the resulting imbalance in sex ratio would have been tolerable in a healthy population but is a severe risk in a species which is now nearly extinct. The female returns from the hunt and finds the male not attending to the eggs. She quickly senses that something isn't right inside the nest. She finds out that the temperature in the nest is dangerously low and attempts to raise it again: one infant dragon has already died, but the other can still be saved. The male senses trouble and makes his escape.
The adult female has been stealing livestock from local villages in order to feed her young daughter, despite the risk of provoking the villagers. As the adult female begins to teach her daughter the secret of fire, a pair of local knights arrive to kill the dragon. They find that the young female cannot defend herself because she cannot breathe fire yet, and kill her. The adult female returns to the lair too late and finds her daughter dead. Both of the knights are soon killed by the enraged female, with one nearly managing to escape. With her daughter now dead, the adult female comes back into heat and begins trying to attract another mate. As winter comes, the female hibernates. More warriors (mercenaries paid by the locals) come to the den and catch her with her gas bladder nearly empty due to hibernation and attack her. She fights bravely, cutting down the mercenaries until only one man is left, badly wounded. As she rears above the man to crush him, he holds a spear upright. As she fatally impales herself on the spear, her toppling corpse crushes the last mercenary beneath her.
In the present, Tanner discovers a chamber. He enters it and finds the adult female. Back at the museum in England, Tanner shows the specimens to his colleagues: the legends of dragons were real, but had been twisted. The narrator tells us:
The story of life on our planet has been rewritten, by a mother and her child...reunited. The last of a legendary line. Myth made real. The myth of a sheep stealer, the reality of a mother struggling to feed her young. The myth of a vicious beast, the reality of survival...at any cost. The myth of brave knights who climb a mountain to slay a dragon, the reality of persecution and extinction. Now every dragon myth from around the world begs the same question: Were they real too? And more importantly, were these really the last dragons?
The story picks up one year later. Tanner, now Professor Tanner, is given a file by one of his colleagues. Tanner opens the file to find photographs. He looks at them, while his colleague tells him that they were taken only two months ago. Tanner runs off ecstatic, flapping his arms like wings, preparing to track down the dragon that was presumably in the photographs.
Dragon biology and behavior
This work of docufiction presents fictionalized accounts of dragon biology and behavior.
Sometime in the evolutionary development of dragons, they succeeded in harnessing their natural gut bacteria in two unique ways, flight and fire. Many animals possess in their guts active bacteria which aid in the digestion of food. The bacteria inside the dragon's gut produces hydrogen. The hydrogen produced in the gut is then transferred into the internal bladders. This was seen as the dragon breathed fire.
Dragons have several characteristics typical of flight. The honeycomb structure of their bones allows them to be light, while retaining their strength. Huge hearts are also typical of flight, as chest muscles would need vast amounts of oxygen-rich blood in order to move the large wings. Although they possess large wings, just under 20 feet (6.1 m), the wing-span/weight ratio of dragons is not enough for the wings to give enough lift.
Dragons overcame this by utilizing two internal bladders. Fully inflated, these bladders had a combined volume of 30 cubic feet (0.85 m3). The bladders, when filled with hydrogen and methane; both of which are lighter than air, provide the extra lift needed to get the dragon off the ground.
As well as the flight bladders being used as buoyancy aids, they also double as fuel stores for the fire that dragons are famous for breathing. The hydrogen and methane combine with oxygen in the presence of platinum, as a catalyst, and combust. The inside of dragons mouths are armor-plated and it has a false palate in its throat, similar to a crocodile, to stop backdraft.
Because of the dual use of the bladders, the more fire a dragon breathes, the shorter the distance it can fly.
Reproduction and courtship
Female dragons come into season for one month every year. They will only mate once every seven years. As dragons are naturally attracted to shiny objects, a female may use this for attracting a mate. When a male and female dragon prepare to mate, they begin a frightful courtship ritual: they fly to a great height, lock talons and free-fall, only releasing each other at the last moment. Once successful in mating, a female will build a nest of rocks and lay a clutch of two eggs. Like crocodiles, dragon embryos do not possess sex chromosomes, and the sex of the offspring is determined by the temperature of the egg, lower temperatures producing females and higher temperatures, males. The shells of dragons' eggs have heat-resistant properties, enabling them to withstand the intense heat generated from the dragons' fire, without which the chicks would die. The female ensures the eggs are kept from falling below the critical temperature, 60° Fahrenheit, by using her fire to incubate the eggs. Dragons possess special sensors in their tongues which allow them to check the temperature of the nest.
In order to create fire, dragons need access to plentiful supplies of platinum. Because of this necessity, dragons always ensure that they establish their territory in areas which have rocks rich in platinum ore.
In the program, four dragon species are explored in detail. These are the prehistoric dragon, marine dragon, forest dragon, and mountain dragon. On the evolutionary tree shown during the program, a fifth species, the desert dragon is identified by name only, and the program does not theorize about its possible evolutionary path.
The program's associated website theorizes that dragons split from other reptiles some time in the late Triassic period, citing this time as a period of great diversification. All dragons species descend from an aquatic or semi-aquatic ancestor. Some of these ventured further onto land and evolved into the fully terrestrial prehistoric dragon, while others went further out to sea, evolving into the marine species.
The prehistoric dragon lived during the Maastrichtian stage of the Late Cretaceous, alongside the last of the non-avian dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus Rex, Triceratops, Torosaurus, Edmontosaurus, Ankylosaurus, Pachycephalosaurus, Alamosaurus, and Troodon; as well as the last pterosaurs like Pteranodon and Quetzalcoatlus. Dragons, having evolved from reptiles, were originally quadrupeds, having four limbs and unable to fly or breathe fire. Via the process of natural selection, one species developed the ability to run on two legs. No longer having much use for the forelimbs, they eventually evolved into wings allowing for flight. This evolutionary path mirrors that of birds evolving from small bipedal dinosaurs.
At some point in their evolution, dragons harnessed unique bacteria in their guts. Gut flora are present in all creatures' guts, and help to aid digestion. Dragons, however, harnessed bacteria which was able to produce hydrogen. The production of hydrogen allowed dragons to utilize the gas in flight. With this extra lift dragons were able to grow into the largest known flying animal. At another point dragons began ingesting inorganic material, one of the rocks they ingested was rich in platinum ore. The dragons then developed the ability to breathe fire by igniting the hydrogen and methane in their guts by exposing it to the catalyst of platinum.
The prehistoric dragon became extinct along with most of the dinosaurs at the K/T Event, 65 million years ago, when an asteroid or meteor the size of Mount. Everest crashed into the Earth near the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, destroying nearly all life on the planet.
As some dragons took to land, others remained in shallow waters and coastal swamps and eventually evolved into the marine dragon. After the K/T Event, these were the only dragons that survived, the terrestrial prehistoric dragon, along with many dinosaur species, were wiped out. A mutation in the gene responsible for the generation of limbs, provided dragons with an extra pair of limbs, an adaptation unique from all other vertebrates.
As some of these dragons repopulated the land, their rudimentary limbs evolved into wings as seen in all dragon species post K/T. Other dragons went further out to sea and became more specialized to a life at sea. Over time the rudimentary limbs became fins, the long tail became a rudder and the limbs evolved into flippers. As dragons colonized the seas and oceans, those living in colder waters developed a blood protein to prevent their blood from freezing.
After the K/T Event, as global temperatures increased, some marine dragon species ventured back into shallower waters and rivers. It was here that these dragons took their steps back onto land. Over time these dragons evolved into the forest dragons of Asia. Here they lived in bamboo forests. They kept the long, slender bodies of their marine ancestors as they were ideal for rapid movement through the forest undergrowth. The swim bladders, also inherited from their ancestor served to give extra lift, allowing them to move more silently through the bamboo. As their ancestor had no need for them their wings remained only as vestiges. The forest dragon was unable to fly, but could use its tiny wings, and air-filled bladders to allow it to glide short distances.
The forest dragon also developed a unique use for its bladder, mimicry. By controlling the flow of gases from its bladder it was able to manipulate its voice, producing squealing sounds, to sound like a distressed mammal to entice its prey. It is thought that as these dragons ventured further out of the forests into the open country, subspecies evolved, notably the Chinese and Japanese dragon.
Also known as the Carpathian dragon or Mountain Devil. As humans encroached further and further into the dragons' natural habitat, they were forced into the more remote and inhospitable regions of the world, such as the deserts and other barren places of the planet. One species eventually made its home in the mountains of Europe. Thus the dragon of medieval legend has been dubbed the mountain dragon, due to its habitat, although the species was not restricted to the mountains and lived in a wide range of habitats until the advance of humans on those lands.
The mountain dragon, like all other dragon species after the K/T Event possessed six limbs. The mountain dragon's shorter body is even more specially adapted for flight, a long spine being a disadvantage. The tail grew as long as the body, and ending in an arrow-shaped tip could be used as a formidable weapon.
According to the film, the mountain dragon is stated to have been the last (if not one of the last) species of dragons to have existed during the Middle Ages, as many other species at the time presumedly were driven to extinction by human activities. The individuals in the film were probably the last two dragons to ever lived, although this is made relatively ambiguous.
- Animal Planet
- Tyrannosaurus rex
- Mermaids: The Body Found, a similar program airing on Animal Planet that attempted to describe mermaids in a scientific manner.
- "Dragon Evolutionary Theory". Animal Planet. Retrieved 2007-04-10.
- "Prehistoric dragon". Animal planet. Retrieved 2007-04-10.
- "Marine dragon". Animal planet. Retrieved 2007-04-10.
- "Mountain dragon". Animal planet. Retrieved 2007-04-10.
- "Forest dragon". Animal planet. Retrieved 2007-04-10.