Friday, 4 February 2011

TV review: Primeval - season four

The latest edition of TV Times (other listing magazines are available), previewing this week's ‘season finale’ of the latest series of ITV’s dino-hunting sci-fi saga ‘Primeval’, observed that the latest series has been “revitalised and refreshed.” Obviously I had to do a double take. I may even have spluttered “Whaaaa??”; there must be some reason why the man standing next to me in WH Smiths as I browsed through the celeb-obsessed magazine moved away so quickly. Could those top TV Times journos really have been talking about the episodes of ‘Primeval’ I’ve been struggling through these last six weeks because what’s been ‘refreshed and revitalised’ to them has been turgid, meandering, cheap-looking and poorly-written to me. Allow me to explain...

When the third season of ‘Primeval’ limped away from our TV screens a couple of years ago its ratings were slipping and viewers, who’d finally latched onto its repetitive ‘monster of the week’ format, had started to lose interest. Bored series lead Douglas Henshall had shipped out in the third episode and newcomer Jason Flemyng gave the show a new ‘action man’ dynamic but there was no denying that the show seemed to have run out of ideas and, a bit of wibbly wobbly timey wimey (sorry) shenanigans aside, it seemed to have nowhere else to go. No real surprise when ITV, blaming cash flow problems, decided not to commission a fourth run and for a while it looked as if ‘Primeval’ was extinct. At least the show ended on a decent cliffhanger with half the cast stranded in various dino-heavy corners of history. But they couldn’t let it lie. Series creators Adrian Hodges and Tim Haines mooched about looking for alternative funding and they found it. ITV and, apparently, the BBC chipped in along with Watch (the non-terrestrial channel which, ironically, hardly anybody does) and before long ‘Primeval’ was setting up camp in Dublin’s fair city for the production of thirteen new episodes, to be split into two series, the first of which is just limping over the finishing line on ITV on Saturday nights to even more underwhelming audiences than the third series.

What’s hard to believe is that the producers of the show, surely aware that their series was leaking viewers last time, didn’t spend some time before ramping up production on trying to fix what was clearly wrong and figuring how to fix the leaks by rebooting the show and giving it a bit of a facelift. But ‘Primeval’ has returned with the same core concept – monsters wander through twinkling ‘anomalies’ in Time and Space and rampage about in the modern day before the ARC team rush in with their big guns and chase them back again. The show tries to mix things up a bit by introducing the odd sub plot – in this latest series it’s what appears to be a conspiracy storyline and some rather dreary going-nowhere stuff about a couple of refugees from the Victorian era who have an agenda of their own. Unfortunately neither of these stories is particularly interesting so we’re left to fall back on the tried and trusted monster-on-the-loose scenario which just ain’t big or clever any more.

Replacement star Jason Flemyng has moved on from the series although it’s no secret he’s back in the half-season finale. This leaves the show with its junior leads Andrew Lee Potts (Connor Temple) and Hannah Spearitt (Abby Maitland) to carry the show – and with all due respect to the pair of them, they’re not really up to it. Spearitt, let’s face it, was always the Billie Piper-inspired casting stunt which didn’t really work; the former S Club pop star has more to do in this series but there’s a deadness in her eyes, a lack of emotional commitment to the material and Abby’s no more developed as a character than she was in episode one several years ago. Oddly, considering co-star Potts is her fiancé in real life, there’s no on screen chemistry between the pair of them; she seems contemptuous and dismissive of him most of the time and in last week’s episode where prehistoric hyaenas (honestly!) threatened to ruin their former colleague Jenny Lewis’s marriage, Abby looked as if she’d rather throw herself into the jaws of any passing tyrannosaurus than marry Connor. Potts does his best as Connor but he’s not really hero material and he spends most of his time making weak jokes and looking out of his depth, as well he might. Perhaps the show’s greatest crime is its misuse (or lack of use) of the brilliant Ben Miller as sniffy civil servant James Lester; he barely appears in the series but when he does he steals the show and he invests the weak material he’s given with more gravitas and commitment that it really deserves. Also back on board for this series is former supporting soldier character Becker (Ben Mansfield) but he’s so bland and unmemorable it’s actually quite difficult to find anything to say about him.

But there are new faces in ‘Primeval’ too – and unfortunately ‘faces’ is about all they are. Ruth Kearney plays Jess Parker, a slightly-ditzy new female member of the ARC team who spends most of her time sitting behind a computer screen. Then there’s new ARC military bigwig Matt Anderson (Ciaran McMenamin, who recently appeared with James Nesbitt in the supernatural feature ‘Outcast’) but, dreary subplot about his mysterious father (Anton Lesser) aside, he’s just another man in black running about with a big gun which knocks out monsters. Finally we have former ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’ star Alexander Siddig who plays Philip Burton, the financial power behind the ARC throne. Plenty of new characters, plenty of scope for drama and relationships and personal stuff – but we get little of it, or at least little of it which evokes much interest. Seven episodes in and I know (and care) little more about any of these newbies than I did at episode one. The problem is none of them have been sufficiently fleshed out by the writers who just don’t know what to do to make them more interesting, so drawn is the series towards its need to throw some new roaring monster at the audience.

Oh, and those monsters... At least in the past ‘Primeval’ won its audience over with some impressive monsters, whether they were tyrannosaurs or mammoths or sabre-tooths. They were big and imposing, well-animated and threatening. This time we’ve just been given a string of entirely unmemorable lizards and flightless birds and big grey things which leap about the place. Seen one, seen ‘em all. And with their new powerful stun guns the creatures don’t pose much of a threat to the ARC team who run around until they find the creatures, zap ‘em and send them back where they came from. It’s just another format problem; ‘Dr Who’ shows us that monsters need to be more than just roaring monsters – they need to be characters, they really need personalities and motivation and they need a reason to do what they’re doing beyond just raging about eating people. By now we’ve seen ‘Primeval’s bag of monster tricks and we’re just not impressed any more. Seen one roaring thing running around snapping at people, you’ve seen them all.

And perhaps the final and sharpest nail in the show’s coffin is the impact the relocation has clearly had on the look and style of the series. The budget has clearly been reduced; the ‘new’ ARC set is pretty much just a room with a terminal in it whereas the old place was big, cavernous headquarters of a place. The CGI (now done by the ‘Dr Who’ boys from The Mill) could do with another pas through the computer most of the time and, most irritating of all, the show just looks underpopulated. There seems to be no-one working at the ARC apart from the core group (and the odd ‘he’s going to get it’ extra) and the cast rarely includes anyone else or any real substance. The stories all seem to have been crafted to reduce the need for large casts (and guest stars have never been ‘Primeval’s strong point) but the lack of people in the show pretty much undermines the whole thing. Everyone the ARC team go, there’s hardly anyone else about. The “London” streets are deserted whenever the ARC team are haring about in search of monsters; one episode takes place in a school – but at a weekend detention session with only three kids present. Episode five sees a giant lizard-thing on the loose in a fishing village; it’s deserted save a couple of horribly-stereotyped “we don’t like strangers around here” pub locals – the village streets and surrounding roads are bereft of any human life whatsoever. Only last week’s wedding episode bucked the trend (although the country hotel where Jenny was due to get married seemed deserted the night before the wedding) with a lively scene where hyaenas chased wedding guests around the building. Sadly, as the wedding guests were all non-speaking extras it was impossible to care about any of them as they knocked over chairs and fell over because we didn’t know anything about them.

The move to Dublin may have allowed the show to be brought in on a reduced budget but the series now seems oddly dislocated from reality. Dublin’s clearly a lovely city but it ain’t London and the show does itself no favours with the odd rooftop scene with characters chatting away with verdant hills of London (?) stretching away beyond the low skyline. The show shies away from explicitly stating that it’s still set in London but it clearly is; a few establishing shots of the Thames, the London Eye, the Gherkin really wouldn’t have gone amiss and might have papered over a few of the show’s painful visual cracks.

And ultimately ‘painful’ is what ‘Primeval’ now is, to be honest. The episodes this year have been sluggish, lifeless, a real chore to sit through much of the time. Flat, unengaging characters, repetitive storylines, visually-uninteresting monsters; there’s no pace and precious little energy to the show, it seems tired and run down. What ‘Primeval’ really needs is a visionary showrunner who can look at the show and give it a new purpose, a new direction; as it is it just looks like a show which has just been made for the sake of it by people who aren’t all that interested – and I’m sure that can’t be the case as Hodges and Haines fought hard to keep the show alive. But it needs better writers, more exciting and original stories, bigger and better threats. But sadly in bringing the show back pretty much as it was when it finished with just a few changes (brought about by budget demands rather than any creative inspiration), the people who created the show have guaranteed its imminent obsolescence.

It really pains me to slate a British fantasy show because, although we’re doing better now than we were a decade ago, shows like ‘Primeval’ are the exception rather than the norm. But with ‘Dr Who’ still doing well and relative newcomers like ‘Being Human’ and ‘Misfits’ challenging the preconceptions of the genre, lazy stuff like ‘Primeval’ just won’t do any more, especially not for the Saturday night family audience who are clearly a lot more perceptive and demanding than ITV and the makers of ‘Primeval’ seem to give them credit for. Series four could have been a fresh start, a chance to grab a new audience (and even the old one) with a new-look show full of new ideas. Instead it’s pretty much just the same old same old and, when the second half of the series has finished airing on Watch in May, I suspect the anomalies will be closed for good and ‘Primeval’ will become what it’s about – a thing of the past.

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