TV Review: Primeval (1×05)

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It’s beautiful.

It’s worth considering what the anomaly represents in all of this.

On the surface, it’s a simple sci-fi plot device. Except, actually, it’s not. We associate time travel with science fiction, but there’s nothing about Primeval that marks it as such – particularly so at this point in the show’s development, when it’s at its most low-tech. There’s no scientific explanation of the anomaly – how could there be, really – and so it must be considered as something else.

The anomaly, then, is magic. It’s a portal to another world – glimmering, shining lights, representing a path into something otherwise cut off from us. How could it be anything else?

It’s more than that, though – because it’s an opportunity for grace. Repeatedly it’s been emphasised that the creatures from the anomalies are beautiful; the majesty of nature is perhaps the closest that Primeval has to any single overarching theme. The close of this episode is a scene of sheer jubilation for Cutter, Steven, Connor and Abby. And, notably, for Claudia.

When Claudia describes the Pteranodon as “beautiful”, after having been demanding to kill it for much of the episode, it’s an important point of progression in her character arc; the moment at which she moves away from the political world, embracing the natural side of things. Embracing that beauty.

Claudia’s prior stance, however, is not out of the ordinary – it’s not anomalous, if you will. It’s the same stance represented by people like Tom Ryan or James Lester; one of limitation, one of control, one of constraint. The grace of the anomalies is a liberating force, but it’s one that can only be considered an aberration in the world that Claudia Brown came from.

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But then, there is more to it. The anomalies are also a representation of danger; more specifically, it’s a danger that’s always framed in terms of consumption. Akin to the ouroboros, the past is eating the present. To reassert the beauty of the past, the present must be cannibalised. Subsumed.

Arguably, you can see this carrying across the entirety of Primeval; any trips to the future have always affirmed the idea that humanity plunges the planet into a dystopia, leaving nature as a dead and barren wasteland. For all that Nick and his team think they’re helping, they’re not – they’re an extension of the bureaucracy represented by Lester and the government, ultimately forming a part of the same system that brings about the end. The dystopian future was always caused by attempts to control the anomalies, rather than letting them run their course – from the ARC in series 3, to Philip Burton’s later efforts as the series drew to a close.

This casts the anomalies in a different light again. Taken as a natural phenomenon, they should be understood as a response to humanity – the immune system fighting back. Primeval is, then, a fiercely environmentalist programme; it is, after all, quite literally depicting nature itself trying to reassert dominance over humanity – yet not through violence, but rather through beauty.

Certainly, this is the most obvious interpretation of later years of the programme; here, though, it’s less obvious. One could take the character Rex as a suggestion that humanity can live alongside this grace without corrupting it – and yet, consider what happens to Claudia Brown. In this episode, she finally understands the beauty of the anomalies; in the next, she disappears, to be replaced by a woman far more firmly entrenched in the world of bureaucracy than she ever was.

All of which, in turn, prompts an understanding of our main characters which is in fact far darker than initially appears. Hoping to preserve what they clearly acknowledge as beauty, the team instead become an eschatological archetype, engaged in a wholly futile fight against an unavoidable status quo. For all their attempts to engage with the grace of the anomalies, they are instead unwitting agents of the control they so often try to shrug off.

This then begs the question – by the standards of the programme itself, who is the real hero? Who is, fundamentally, in the right? The answer is obvious.

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Helen Cutter.

She’s the only one who has wholeheartedly embraced the anomalies, and, in turn, their liberation. Consider her introduction in the pool – entirely vulnerable, yet entirely at ease. Helen is at one with nature, and so Helen is the hero of the show. She’s the only one who understands the point of it all.

When viewed through this lens – ie, taking the anomalies as the centre of the show, rather than merely a plot vehicle to allow for prehistoric escapades – Primeval takes a very different stance. It becomes difficult to see our heroes as heroes, per se.

And yet, perhaps they still are.

Primeval, understood in this way, is a crushingly cynical programme. Yes, it’s about a reassertion of beauty in the face of the degradation of the natural world (consider the setting of each episode too – always an artificial version of nature) but it features main characters whose actions are fundamentally yet unknowingly at odds with their worldview, and ultimately posits that nothing can be done to avoid the end of the world – indeed, their very actions advance this dystopia.

However, our heroes always maintain a level of positivity and optimism – far moreso than Helen, who grows increasingly nihilistic as the programme goes on. It’s this nihilism that is ultimately the clearest argument from which to denounce her as the hero – for all that she initially embraces the liberation of the anomalies, her eventual slide into nihilism is surely incompatible with the beauty of nature that the series holds paramount.

Perhaps, then, the fact that the team were able to create their own beauty indicates they do understand the premise of the show after all.

7/10

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TV Review: Primeval (1×03)

primeval logo hd itv science fiction dinosaurs nick cutter douglas henshall tim haines adrian hodges impossible pictures

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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