How Avatar Influenced Prehistoric Planet’s Executive Producer As They Headed Into Season 2

Jake Sully from Avatar: The Way of Water and a Quetzalcoatlus from Prehistoric Planet 2, pictured side by side
(Image credit: Disney)

You might not think it, but there’s some connective DNA between Apple TV+’s Prehistoric Planet and James Cameron’s Avatar, one of the titles on our best movies of the 2000s list. Though they're separated within the realms of fact versus fiction, the approach to both sagas is more alike than you’d assume. In fact, when asked about the approach for Season 2, executive producer Mike Gunton specifically cited the massive sci-fi blockbuster as an influence for this new round of scientific adventure on the 2023 TV schedule.

In the lead-up to this week’s debut of Prehistoric Planet 2, I was able to speak with Mike Gunton, as well as showrunner Tim Walker, to celebrate the five-night event. Since this is the sequel to last year's critically acclaimed debut for the dinosaur docuseries, I wanted to know if there was anything specific that informed the approach to the next phase of this beautiful natural history event. For Gunton, that approach came down to the one word that connects the show and Avatar: habitats! Here’s how Gunton explained that link to CinemaBlend during our chat for the recent press day: 

Prehistoric Planet is a sort of Avatar of planet Earth. In that sense, it’s a habitat-based series. That’s the format: you go to different habitats, and you see how the animals, the life that’s in that habitat. How they cope with the challenges that particular habitat throws up. And so, after Series 1, we looked at five habitats in that, Series 2 there’s more habitats, and there’s more extreme habitats, and there’s ones that we didn’t even look at. So that was one of the rationales to do Series 2, we’d only just scratched the surface on Series 1.

Prehistoric Planet 2’s executive producer makes a very valid point in that respect. Habitat is key to the stories that are about to be told for Apple TV+ subscription holders. If you need further evidence of that, look no further than the title given to James Cameron’s latest sequel or the early chatter about the new habitat-based tribes set to debut in future Avatar sequels.

Another similarity between those excursions to Pandora and Apple TV+’s David Attenborough-narrated nature specials is how both properties create a story with completely CGI creatures. The big difference in the case of PP2 being that that the many species shown off in the series aren’t merely whole cloth fabrications, thanks to science observing everything from fossil records to presumed behavioral patterns.

That scientific basis is constantly evolving, even during the production on both Prehistoric Planet seasons. Which leads to another advantage that Mike Gunton and his team have scored thanks to their work, as the scientific community’s response to the series has provided a rather advantageous inside track:

And also, the pace of change of science. Even in the time we were making the first series, new discoveries kept popping up. Partly because we found ourselves suddenly in a world where we now found ourselves suddenly in a world where we were now scientist’s friends. We were hearing all this stuff through the grapevine, and through our colleague Darren [Naish], who’s a scientific advisor, who knows all these people. We’d suddenly became in the inner circle, and getting all these scientists saying, ‘Well, I’ve been working on this for 15 years, and I haven’t published it yet. But I’ve seen a bit of what you’re doing. I’m going to tell you about this.’

Just imagine Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Titanic rant about the various scientific inaccuracies of the film’s depiction of events, but delivered while James Cameron was making the film back in the ‘90s. That’s basically the sort of support Mike Gunton and showrunner Tim Walker earned when making the their series, and it came from both hard work and well-placed connections.  

Naturally, the technology involved in making these habitat-based narratives is just as important as the scientific knowledge used to ground them in a sense of reality. Just as the Avatar series has been a testing ground for technological advances that have fed into its own franchise development (as well as that of Alita: Battle Angel) the Apple TV+ offering found itself on the same sort of learning curve when it came to depicting a land where the first camera was millions of years away from existing.  Addressing that subject briefly, while also remarking on how making Prehistoric Planet 2 was still a challenge, Mike Gunton summed up Season 2’s challenges as follows: 

We were just finding out so much cool new stuff. It was just crying out to do a second season. So difficult ‘second album?’ Yes, but not really, because the material was all there. And we’d learned so much from making Series 1 about how to do it as well.

There’s one last thing that needs to be addressed as the second season makes its way through its five-night event: a potential threequel! How could we compare this series to Avatar without diving into the subject of follow-ups; especially with the road for the Sully family being mapped out for at least another five years?

While James Cameron has early plans that run up to a potential Avatar 7, there doesn't seem to be nothing concrete in place for Prehistoric Planet just yet. At least, nothing that Tim Walker or Mike Gunton want to share just yet. For those of you hoping for a third season, there’s still plenty of hope, as both collaborators weighed in on the subject with these promising notes:

"Tim Walker: Well, the Prehistoric Planet’s a big place…

Mike Gunton: Constantly, I think. We’ll just have to see where the time machine lands next."

Who knows where the time machine will land? That’s as big of a question as how Avatar 3 will introduce the concept of “evil Na’vi,” and one that’s equally intriguing. As the field of paleontology continues to unearth new and exciting facts about the prehistoric creatures we thought we knew, there’s plenty of room in this wild and wide frontier to both break our hearts and enlighten our minds. 

That’s exactly the sort of experience you should look forward to with Prehistoric Planet 2, as it continues its five-night event with new episodes on Apple TV+ throughout the week. Also, if you’re looking for the previous adventures that came before, Season 1 is still available through that very same platform. Meanwhile, Avatar fans will be able to catch The Way of Water on Disney+ and Max real soon, as it’s set to debut on both streaming platforms on June 7th.

Mike Reyes
Senior Movies Contributor

Mike Reyes is the Senior Movie Contributor at CinemaBlend, though that title’s more of a guideline really. Passionate about entertainment since grade school, the movies have always held a special place in his life, which explains his current occupation. Mike graduated from Drew University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science, but swore off of running for public office a long time ago. Mike's expertise ranges from James Bond to everything Alita, making for a brilliantly eclectic resume. He fights for the user.