Tuesday, 31 March 2009

TV review: RAAAARGG!! Primeval's back...

In the beginning (which, for the purposes of this piece, was March 2005), there was Dr Who. And Lo it was good. It was very good. It was very popular. In time it begat Robin Hood and Merlin and, God forgive it, Demons. And ITV looked upon Dr Who and they thought "Verily, we'll have us a bit of that" and asked the bloke who created Walking With Dinosaurs to invent a new Saturday night family adventure series - a bit like Dr Who - and with lots of monsters in it. And that man (Tim Haines) teamed up with another man (Adrian Hodges) and they created Primeval. And it was all right. And enough people watched it and liked it to persuade ITV chiefs, when they were not throwing mad money at the likes of Ant, Dec, S*m*on C*w*ll and P**rs M*rg*n, to bring it back for a second series and - Hallelujah! - a third. And that third one came to pass and started last weekend and...oh, to Hell with it (ahem)...I've had enough of this dodgy Biblical stuff... Primeval's back and after the torment and torture of ITV's last Saturday night family-friendly fantasy Demons (shudder) it's nice to be back on safer, more familiar, less embarrassing territory...

Primeval is one of those shows for which the oft-used expression "it does what it says on the tin" might well have been invented. For those who've not seen the series, in broad terms it details the adventures of scientist Professor Nick Cutter (Douglas Henshall) who investigates 'anomolies' - twinkling, glittering 'holes' in Time - through which all sorts of savage prehistoric (and on occasion, futuristic) creatures make their way into the modern world and proceed to cause chaos. This is what happens in Primeval. Every week. And this is the show's core problem, really. It's an exciting format and it leads to all sorts of possibilities for all sorts of monsters - deadly insects, your traditional dinosaurs, sabre-tooths, crocodiles - but the problem is that the format is, by definition, a little bit self-limiting. It's not really too far wide of the mark to suggest that each and every episode of Primeval is more or less exactly the same. There's an anomoly, something comes through it, someone gets killed or maimed, Cutter and co turn up, there's a bit of a ruck, a bit of often-lovely CGI, Cutter and co chase the creature back where it came from. That's pretty much the plot of every episode of Primeval. But the show's makers have clearly realised that the format itself tends towards the repetitive and, since series two, the show has adopted the 'arc' principle so popular in most modern genre shows, introducing new characters, conspiracies, intrigue. It's worked to a greater or lesser extent and series two saw Cutter and his little gang recruited by the Arc Research Centre, headed up by sarky Home Office minister James Lester (Ben Miller on fine form) and the return of Cutter's wife Helen (Juliet Aubrey) whose 'disappearance' years before was the engine which drove much of the first series. Helen, as series three seems set to develop (at least in the short-term), has clearly been manipulating the 'anomolies' for her own purposes and now, it appears, has an army of cloned soldiers in her employ...

Series three kicked off with a pacey, lively little episode where...well....er...a creature escapes through an anomoly, Cutter and co chase it around for a bit and then....er...force it to go back where it came from. In some ways starting the new series with an episode which reminds the audience - and the last series finished a year ago so it's not unreasonable to imagine that some of the audience may have forgotten the nuts and bolts of the show's storytelling style - was probably a sensible move. There are hints of this year's arcs, of course - some sort of quest for an artefact which is clearly going to be of enormous narrative significance - but basically this first episode just set Cutter and his gang against a monster - a giant crocodile from Egyptian times, apparently - which threatens to wreak havoc across London. As an episode it's efficient and exciting and enjoyable - but it doesn't really relaunch the show with anything special. It just does what Primeval does. The new Dr Who series always makes an effort to start its new series each year with a bit of a 'bang' - a big, brash outrageous story which grabs it audience by the throat and screams 'Look, this is what we do, look how mad we are!' First episodes of new Who series seem to defy the audience to not watch the resut of the series. So watching Cutter and co take on a big crocodile as it trashes bits of London just seems a bit...been there, done that. It's not particularly big, it's not special, it doesn't really make the whole series must-see TV. All it really does is serve to underline the problems with Primeval and reminds the audience that, in actual fact, the show is just the same in the first episode of its third series as it was in the first of its first.

For the record, I'm firmly of the view that Primeval is a better, more consistently entertaining show than Robin Hood or Merlin - but that's purely a subjective viewpoint based on a preference for contemporary fantasy story-telling which puts real, modern people in extraordinary situations and entertains the audience by inviting them to see how they cope with something completely out of their sphere of experience. Robin Hood and Merlin, for all their modern sensibilities and production values, are far more 'samey' and derivative. Primeval seems to wear its shortcomings on its sleeve and, to be honest, isn't all that bothered about them. It's the place to go to see monsters on a Saturday night when Dr Who or The X Factor aren't on.

Primeval also isn't helped by its pretty undistinguished writing and its rather flat cast of characters. The scripts, required to do little else than introduce a new monster every week, don't have any particular dynamism; the characters speak the words which drive the story forward. But there's none of the beauty and lyricism of some of the best new Dr Who's, nothing in the stories which make you really think about the human condition. Lester has the coolest, snarkiest lines of dialogue and poor Douglas Henshall (with new wild man hair for the three episodes of series three he'll be in) is pretty much your generic scientist-cum-hero without any particular features which mark him out as anything other than your stone-faced leading man. His current sidekicks are even worse; ex-S Club 7 singer Hannah Spearitt plays Abby Maitland, a character so underwritten and underplayed (Spearitt barely seems to register on screen and often seems as if she's muttering her few lines of dialogue) she might as well not even be there and the goofy nerd character Connor (Andrewe Lee-Potts) gives it all he's got but he hasn't actually got very much apart form ther ability to get into tricky situations and then have a laugh about how stupid he is afterwards. But the first episode of series three seems to promise meatier stuff with the introduction of a new member to the team; Laila Rouss plays Dr Page, an Egyptologist/researcher who is persauded to join the Cutter crew when Cutter realises there might be a link between the creatures of myths and legends and the creatures which pop their heads through the anomolies and snarl a bit before being chased back. Episode two (written by Dr Who/Torchwood writer James Moran so may see an upswing in the quality of the show's writing) will see the introduction of another new character, a tough nonsense cop named Danny Collins who takes a bit too much of an interesting in the goings-on of the arc. With Cutter on his way out Collins, played by tough buy ator Jason Flemyng, may add a bit more steel to the show and give it a bit more of a pulse and a sense of purpose beyond its raison d'etre of parading snarling monsters across the screen every week.

It probably looks a bit as if I don't like Primeval but nothing cxould be further form the truth. It's a great big romp of a show, it's loads of fun for a Saturday night but, when those nights have, over the last few years, been the domain of the far more sophisticated and multi-layer Dr Who, Primeval's one-note yarns can be a bit wearing and simplistic and it's ard not to wish that the writers could find a way to broaden the show's ambition. But ultimately, despite ehw twists and turns and the odd developing narrative, at its heart Primneval's about monsters. That's what it does. And it's no bad thing. It's nice to have it back, keeping Dr Who's seat warm; it's a blessed relief after the dismal Demons and while it would be satisfying to imagine that the show's performance - it has around 6 million followers per week - would be enough to persuade "ITV chiefs" of its worth in the schedule, despite the fact it's probably a high-cost project. But news reaches me this very evening that Impossible Pictures, who make Primeval, have been told by ITV that a fourth series is no longer required and thus the extensive pre-production done for next year's series has been halted - although Impossible are, apparently, trying to find funding in America for a Stateside reboot of the series. This isn't confirmed yet but it doesn't surprise me - ITV are obviously keen to reposition themselves as the "reality/talent' Network with a bit of soap opera thrown in to their mix to fulfil its drama remit. So it looks like we'd better make the most of the next nine weeks of Primeval, enjoy its unpretentious pleasures and just go with the flow - I suspect it'll be a very long time before ITV commissions TV like this again for a Saturday or indeed any other night.


Penny said...

I'm just amazed at some of your comments on Primeval. I love the writing of series one especially and most of series two. It's full of moving moments and fun. I agree that the format is the same each week but the casting is superb and Douglas Henshall is absolutely brilliant as Nick Cutter. No, he does not lack steel and he's not a bland stone-faced leading man.
I see that you do not mention the love story between him and Claudia Brown. I suggest you look up the videos on YouTube, you'll get an idea of how this relationship has captured people's imaginations including mine.

By the way I'm French and I understand Hannah Spearritt perfectly. I don't see what you mean about her mumbling. She's lovely and full of punk: My favourite character after Cutter.

To finish and in contradiction to your prediction, episode 2 seems to me far more full of clich├ęs than previous episodes with the worn story of the cop who wants to make justice for himself. By the way, Jason Flemyng does mumble his lines and is far from anywhere near Douglas Henshall's level when it comes to talent.

And not everybody likes involved plots like those of Doctor Who. Admittedly I've only watched one episode and it seemed like a mixture of Matrix + Back to the Future with good acting.

Paul Mount said...

Hello Penny,

Thanks for your comments. it's nice to get a response of any sort! I'm glads you're enjoying 'Primeval'....I enjoy it too but I'm not blind to its faults. As you mentioned you've only seen one episode of 'Dr Who' I can appreciate why you wouldn't find 'Primeval' wanting, character-wise, in comaprison. the characters in 'Primeval' just seem a bit sketchy and under-devloped; I'm aware of the Cutter/Claudia thing but it's been so downplayed it's really barely noticable - and it's virtually forgotten in this latest series so far (just as well considering what happens in episode three!) I thought episode two was easily the best episode yet, a far more imaginative and scary use of the show's premise than we've ever seen before and even Hannah Spearitt gave a more spirited performance. It's a decent, fun show - but I just think better writing would make it better still.

Jimjn said...

I am from the USA and I love Primeval. Besides, Torchwood, I think it’s the best Sci. Fi. offering from the BBC to date...

However, I am not sure of the logic behind writing the Cutter character out of the show though. I think this could be a mistake.

Many times in the past, TV producers and writers have made that same mistake and a good show dies out. They drop out the main character and hope the other cast members can hold the show together.

Well, after this last new episode I saw, right after Cutter dies, I'd say that answer to my question is no, the producers and writers can't do it. They can add 12 more people but it may not help.

No one in the cast now comes across with the believable determination for doing the right thing and the leadership presence that Cutter did. I hope he comes back at some point.

Also what happened to the Hannah Spearritt character this new season??? Last season she had more to do and looked 10 times better doing it. They are missing the boat there as well. She has the looks, personality and spunkiness too. She can be something special if they don't destroy her role all together.