TV Review: Primeval (1×03)

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The anomalies are conclusive proof that the past exists in a fourth dimension as real and solid as those we already know.

The most obvious thing to do, at this point, is compare Primeval to Doctor Who – after all, it’s pretty obvious that was the intention behind the show. Primeval only existed because of the success of Doctor Who; it is, on a very fundamental level, a response to the hit BBC show, and an attempt by ITV to find their own equivalent.

So, where did they go with it? The most obvious comparison is also the most basic – the time travel element, and the monsters. In that sense, the two programmes share a broad similarity that’s going to bind them together to most of the television audience, particularly if they’re not so inclined to sit around thinking about the deeper differences. It’s clear, though, that there are some; otherwise Primeval would be entering its tenth season in a few months’ time, just as Doctor Who is.

Arguably, what Primeval shares more with is the programme that inspired Russell T Davies in his vision for Doctor Who in 2005 – Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Although, admittedly, only in the most basic sense; we’ve got the Scooby gang, we’ve got the monsters each week, they have a bit of a runaround to fix things. Sorted.

And yet Primeval isn’t quite a patch on either show. It doesn’t work in the same way. There are, I suspect, two main reasons for this – limitations on the show that prevented it from ever moving forward than it really did.

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First, let’s consider why Primeval can’t quite measure up to Doctor Who.

On a fairly simple level, Primeval can be considered a reasonably straightforward adoption of a stalwart Doctor Who story – the ‘aliens in London’ plot. (Or, if you’re so inclined, ‘Yeti on the loo at Tooting Bec’.) It’s meant to be a collision of the mundane and the fantastic, crashing those two worlds together, and setting the story within that central moment of tension.

And that’s fine, really. That juxtaposition has made for some excellent Doctor Who stories, and it’s been the central hook of various different programmes over the years – something like The X-Files, for example, makes a lot with this idea – so there’s no reason why Primeval couldn’t do it either. Certainly, thus far, they’ve done a decent enough job of trying to advance their premise each week, and adding in some interesting little details with each new episode.

But it isn’t enough. Part of why this juxtaposition works on Doctor Who, and indeed why Doctor Who maintained a certain longevity that Primeval could never attain, was that it always aimed to be something different – those moments when we saw the intersection between the ordinary and the extraordinary work because they’re rarer, and because we’ve already seen the extraordinary independently of this.

It’s unfair, admittedly, to level this criticism against Primeval only after its third episode. But at the same time – this is the third episode in a series of six. While they might well be trying to set a status quo of sorts, they don’t have the room for these sorts of establishing episodes; we need to have had a little more variety in terms of what happens. Just switching up the settings a little bit – forest, underground, and water – isn’t quite enough.

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Which in turn brings us to Buffy, and the other issue to level at Primeval. Because, like I’ve said, other shows have made that ‘freak of the week’ type storytelling work before – plenty still do now. Even Buffy, oft-hailed as a masterpiece, engaged in quite a lot of this other its duration, and like Primeval, it was typically fairly similar stuff – each week, Buffy slays a new vampire. I’m being terribly reductive, but I think the basic point is clear.

These shows were able to sustain themselves, though, on the basis of their character work. Each week, further developing a character, keeping them turning, keeping them moving – it’s what lets the ‘freak of the week’ format work, because at the end of the day the monster doesn’t actually matter. It’s just set dressing.

At the moment, though, it feels like Primeval doesn’t quite get that as a principle; it’s just a little too concerned with the dinosaurs than the characters. Arguably, the dinosaurs are the main characters. You can sort of understand the temptation there – these CGI creations would have been one of the main draws for the show, and were groundbreaking in their own right at the time the show first aired. But ten years later, that doesn’t quite mean the show is going to have much longevity.

Now, in all fairness – Primeval is doing some character work. The episode was full of lots of nice little moments shared between Connor and Abby (you can see why they became fan favourites), Douglas Henshall continues to do great work with Nick, and Juliet Aubrey is fantastic as Helen, who’s surely one of the most fascinating characters we’ve been introduced to so far.

Perhaps this episode is just filler, in some regards; after all, I’m well aware that the next episode, which I’ve been looking forward to ever since the start of this rewatch, is going to address both of my above concerns. And, to be fair, it’s not like this episode is bad – I could have written quite a lot about Helen, actually – but it was an easy place to posit this argument.

For now, though, we’ll just have to see where Primeval goes – and whether it can evolve beyond these limitations.

7/10

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TV Review: Primeval (1×02)

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You know what? All my life I’ve wanted to be in a crime-busting gang. And now I am. Sort of.

What interested me about this episode was how heavily it focused on character development. It was a very talk-y episode, in fact; long swathes of the runtime dedicated solely to the characters talking and discussing things, with comparatively little action going on. It was an interesting choice for a show like Primeval – you’d expect, simply by virtue of the programme’s nature as a ‘genre show’, as it were, that it’d be packed full of cheap thrills and jump scares, following a fairly generic and formulaic structure.

And yet Primeval, in this case, largely eschewed that – and I’d argue that was to the episode’s credit. In spending so much time focused on our human characters, rather than a runaround with the monsters (which, make no mistake, did feature; just not to the extent one might expect) the show positions itself as a slightly different beast from anything comparable. In many ways it feels like it’s settled a lot since last week; most of the tonal variances have balanced out, giving us an episode that feels a lot more coherent than last week’s. There’s a clear improvement here, and a sense that Primeval has found its footing somewhat – there’s a greater understanding of what it wants to be as a drama.

All this means, then, that after a fairly short space of time we’re beginning to get to grips with our characters to a far better extent. Certainly, there are limits; Stephen remains something of a blank slate, for example, and the same is true of Tom Ryan. But in other places, it really does work; Nick Cutter and Claudia Brown are beginning to develop nicely, in no small part because of the chemistry of Douglas Henshall and Lucy Brown. Their early interactions in Cutter’s office really anchor the first half of the episode – it’s part of why the story works so well, despite (or because of) its nature as a talk-y episode. The real star, though, is Andrew Lee Potts as Connor; while a lot of his dialogue could leave Connor as little more than a simple stock character, Potts plays the role with a degree of self-awareness (particularly the Buffy speech at the end) that makes the character come across as far more endearing, and far more real, than he would have in the hands of a lesser actor.

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The monster aspect of the story is, if nothing else, functional; there’s a wise choice here to conserve the budget by largely keeping the creatures in the shadows, and limiting their appearances where possible. It’s a sensible economic choice, though I suspect that from a storytelling angle they could have pushed this a little harder – certainly, the direction of the episode is a little perfunctory, and I can’t help but feel that a lot more could have been done with the creatures to make them a little more frightening. A lot of it comes down to mood and the creation of atmosphere; while there were plenty of entirely serviceable sections, there are others where it’s all just a little bit flat.

On the other hand, though, this was a good choice of ‘monster’ – stretching the premise somewhat, and demonstrating that Primeval is about more than just dinosaurs. (Even if it will, admittedly, forever be known as “that one with the dinosaurs”.) I’d have liked to see more done with the comment regarding the oxygen moving back and forth, though; the idea that there’s more than just creatures that could come through and pose a concern is one of the more interesting extensions of the premise that’s been put forward so far. It’s about exploring it as fully as possible, really, and that’s a pretty good way to go about that – hopefully it’ll be returned to in future.

I also appreciated how, broadly speaking, they tied the creature-plot back into the storyline featuring our main characters, demonstrating how Connor is actually useful to the team; it’s a smart way of building the episode, and ensuring that the two threads mesh together, rather than simply running parallel to one another.

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The further development of Nick and Helen’s story is also quite engaging. A huge part of that, obviously, is Douglas Henshall’s performance; he carries the material extremely well, particularly considering we haven’t even been introduced to Juliet Aubrey as Helen yet. More than that, though, he’s able to make the limits to the material actually work. Consider the end, when Nick doesn’t go through the anomaly; really, the only reason why he doesn’t is because we’ve got four more episodes to fill. Here, though, Henshall is able to take that and show us the normally headstrong character in a place of almost trepidant awe – it attaches a far greater level of significance to the moment, and again gives the character a certain interiority beyond what’s in the script.

To be honest, though, that’s pretty much it. I’m starting to run out of things to say, and I suspect in future I’m not going to be able to sustain the same wordcount for these reviews as I typically try to do. It’s not a slight against Primeval as such, but it’s just that as a programme, it’s difficult to write about it; it’s usually just about decent, rarely stellar or abysmal. With no particular praises to sing or flaws to condemn, I’m going to end up running out of steam.

Hopefully, I suppose, that’ll prompt me to start tackling these reviews in a different way, and write them in a different style; I’ve become slightly frustrated with the fact that I’ve settled into a formula, because – if nothing else – it means I’m not really pushing myself as a writer anymore. So, next week, we might see something different. Or perhaps we might not.

Still. This episode was still an improvement on the last, which was good.

7/10

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TV Review: Primeval (1×01)

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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.

Today marks ten years since the very first episode of PrimevalPrimeval was initially broadcast.

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?

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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.

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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.

6/10

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