Some force, out there, ripped the boundaries of space and time to shreds. Maybe it’s happened before, in which case, every single thing we thought we knew about the universe is wrong. Or, this is the first time. In which case, what changed? What happens next? Believe me, it’s very, very far from over.
While it was – obviously – never Doctor Who, and never could be, Primeval is still a programme I’m quite fond of, and there’s always going to be a fairly strong sentimental connection there. In part, it’s because it’s just another aspect of my early viewing and so on, but there’s also a rather more tangible connection there: some of the earliest writing I did (which actually won competitions!) was about Primeval. So, I have a certain appreciation of this show, not just because of its quality, but also because of its connection to that particular milestone.
Which is why I’m marking the occasion with this series of reviews! Akin to my Nine Years of the Ninth Doctor and Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor series, although lacking a similarly snappy name. It was a bit of a last-minute decision, but given that this is only a six-episode season, it’s not a huge commitment to make. (Plus, it’ll lead quite nicely onto the Doctor Who reviews for series 3, when those begin again at the end of March.)
Admittedly, I can’t actually remember if I watched this episode on first broadcast. I suspect that I didn’t – I probably wouldn’t have known it was going to be on ahead of time, and ended up watching it from the second or third episode onwards. And, while it’s possible I did see it the first go around, I actually remembered very little of this episode – another thing that leads me to suspect I’ve probably only seen it as a repeat once or twice, or maybe actually not even at all, merely constituting a few half-memories from Wikipedia summaries and magazine articles.
So, when I was approaching this episode, it wasn’t carrying the same weight of expectations that the early episodes of Doctor Who do when I return to them – while Primeval is significant to me, it’s significant in the same sense that one might have grown fond of a strange knick-knack. Putting it under the lens of a critical re-evaluation now is going to form a rather different perspective to the one I usually take, in essence.
With all that said, then – how did it measure up?
As it goes, it’s actually a decent pilot. It’s nothing amazing, no, but it’s functional, and you can understand easily enough why people would be inclined to return to the show next week.
Our main characters are, if not well developed, largely well introduced; as you’d expect, Nick Cutter comes across particularly well. Douglas Henshall’s performance is actually a lot more nuanced than I realised; it’d have been quite easy to play Cutter as a bitter old curmudgeon, or a bit of a maverick, but Henshall takes a slightly different approach. In a fairly short space of time, he’s able to imbue the character with more depth than the typical archetype would belie, indicating that there’s a lot to explore moving forward. Certainly, from Cutter’s profound scientific curiosity, and his intense desire to reunite with his wife, it’s evident that there’s a lot of promise here – I’m quite excited, actually, to watch it again, and pick up on more of the subtleties I might have originally missed in Henshall’s performance.
The other characters don’t, perhaps, do quite so well – Stephen is something of a cipher, Connor a bit of a joke, and Hannah Spearitt’s acting is, at times, a little inconsistent. I’m not particularly bothered by that at this moment in time; obviously, watching it with the benefit of hindsight, I know that these characters are going to develop significantly over subsequent episodes – and I’m typically inclined to be a little kinder to pilots anyway, really. Regardless, though, it’s clear that this is something that’s going to need some work over the next few episodes – the sooner, the better.
Another aspect that stood out to me particularly, though, was the tone of it. Certainly, if not in terms of how I remembered it, but in terms of how it was described, Primeval was always meant to be a bit more ‘adult’ than Doctor Who – not quite Torchwood, but not exactly a family show in the same way that Doctor Who was. (But then, it did have action figures, so maybe that’s a caveat worth bearing in mind.) Here, though, the episode is grounded in a child’s world – we’ve got the Gorgonopsid attacking his bedroom and his school – which really does make it feel like Primeval, at this point, isn’t exactly sure what it wants to be. Consider also the implicit horror of the dead animal carcass, and how that’s meant to read; tonally speaking, this first episode of Primeval is a bit confused. There are no outright moments of horror, or aspects that are overtly childish, but it does feel like the programme is caught between two worlds at this point – and that constrains its potential.
Generally, this is a fairly well-constructed piece of television, like I’ve already said. Heed should be paid to the dinosaurs (well, mammal-esque reptiles, as IMDb would have me believe) – while they weren’t particularly amazing in the 360p version I happened to watch, you can tell that they would have been quite something in 2007. Undoubtedly, the series deserves some credit for that… even if the direction of the episode was, at times, a little flat. A tad more flair certainly couldn’t have hurt.
(On that note – the reveal of the anomaly itself was completely botched. It was interesting to watch, actually, because based on the build-up to the reveal of the animal carcass, I was expecting to see the anomaly itself; when we did eventually see the anomaly for the first time, it was introduced with a fairly blasé and almost throwaway scene. There was little to belie its greater importance, when there really should have been some sort of build-up.)
The episode also does an impressive job of introducing some overarching mysteries to follow through on. There’s the matter of Nick’s wife – Helen is alive. Where has she been? Why has she reached out? Why hasn’t she reached out properly? And what about that campsite – who does the dead body belong to? The questions we’re being asked to consider aren’t just plot based, but character based too – it’s a well-constructed, gripping hook, and I’m certainly inclined to come back for more next week.
Really, though, the best aspect of the episode is the short scene when Nick first goes through the anomaly. The sheer wonder of that moment – conveyed almost entirely by Douglas Henshall – is quite powerful, really capturing the potential of the series. In that moment, Primeval justifies its existence, and makes us the promise of something great to come. If we can have more episodes with that same sense of wonder, then it’ll all be worth it.