It would be stretching it to call it drama. It has characters and a story, but the latter is mostly an excuse for educational time travel into the Cambrian era. I loved it. I'd never seen the Cambrian era before.
This is an almost vanishingly obscure anime, by the way. It doesn't have a wiki page. As far as the internet's concerned, it barely exists. It's a co-production with NHK Educational and each episode is split into a fictional first half and a documentary-style second half that teaches us cool stuff about dolphin radar, swimsuits based on shark skin, how geckos climb up glass and so on. This is great, actually. It's genuinely educational, telling you lots of stuff you almost certainly wouldn't know unless you were a professional in that field. We all know that spider silk is amazing, but I still didn't know half of what Pikaia had to tell me about it.
I'm now better-informed about how technology has echoed nature, these days often deliberately. Evolution has a habit of finding better solutions than our own. For example, there's a worm that works on the same principles that Brunel used to build the Thames Tunnel, which is now part of the London Underground.
To my surprise, this included live-action segments presented by Professor Andrew Parker of the Natural History Museum in London. (He's unphotogenic, although it helps when he smiles and looks enthusiastic.) He's been dubbed into Japanese, obviously.
What about the fictional side, though? It's the future! The Earth is uninhabitable and mankind is setting out on interstellar migration with space colonies, but a few scientists are sending time travellers back half a billion years to the birth of multi-cellular life in the Cambrian era. Their plan is to recover lost DNA code information, then see if this will help mankind rebuild the Earth!
Sounds cool. Ambitious, but cool. However the project has quirks.
1. Professor Parker is leading the project. Yes, the same Professor Andrew Parker, turned into an anime character. I presume he got cryogenically frozen, like Buck Rogers.
2. Who would you select for this delicate, challenging and potentially catastrophic mission to save the planet Earth? Inevitable answer: two fourteen-year-olds. (Remember the target audience.) The boy's called Vince, the girl's called Hana and they wear colour-coded diving suits.
There are villains, but they're not menacing. Their contribution is usually to have a quick conversation in their office, in a scene with no dramatic function beyond reminding us of the existence of villains. That said, the last few episodes give us a dramatic finale that's actually okay, with a potential traitor and some scares in ep.10. That Anomalocaris lurking in the darkness gave me the willies a bit. However the drama isn't a particularly important part of the show and it would be wrong for me to go on too much about it. It's okay. The villains' final downfall is so easy that it basically happens by itself.
No, the reason to watch this show is the Cambrian era. It's almost all new. We've all seen dinosaurs, but an Ottoia? Imagine a gigantic spiked testicle with a long spout on top, ending in a smaller spiked sack with a mouth. The mega-testicle looks immobile. This Lovecraftian abomination sends its tube down like an elephant's trunk to grab anything that's on the ocean floor (e.g. you) and eat it.
Even in this underwater world of weird stuff, the Ottoia looks so weird that your brain rejects the idea that there used to be a living being like that. There was, though. We're shown the fossils. It's actually a burrower, with most of its body underground.
Even with the familiar beings, though, it's still cool to see them animated. We'd all recognise a trilobite, but I still loved seeing a group of them bounce off the ocean floor and curl up in alarm. Haplophrentis's rigid arms look freakier than you'd think when you see them in motion, too.
It's a small-scale world. Cambrian life was weeny. The hunter-killer Anomalocaris was gigantic by Cambrian standards, at up to a metre long. However Vince and Hana get shrunk when they time-travel, so they can interact with the locals.
And then there's Pikaia itself. We meet two kinds. One is a cartoon hologram created by Professor Parker as a sort of lovable user interface, with frills and a cute face. It looks like Casper the Friendly Ghost. That's not a realistic representation. The other is a real Pikaia, which looks like a worm but might actually be the oldest known ancestor of modern vertebrates. (The English paleontologist who reclassified it as a chordate in 1979 was Simon Conway Morris, which as it happens is the name of Professor Parker's super-knowledgeable assistant in this anime. It might well be meant to be him, although I don't believe the real Morris ever had green hair. He's apparently best-known for his work on the Cambrian explosion, though, so that fits.)
I'm delighted to have seen this. The story structure does the job, the characters are likeable and there's a fair gender split for the children's action scenes, i.e. they don't give the boy all the brave stuff to do. Utterly unremarkable as a work of drama, but sometimes that doesn't matter. This is one of those times. Would you like to meet weird walking spiny things from the dawn of multi-cellular life on Earth? Of course you would.