Added 18 March 2007

ITV finally do science fiction well......


Since the invention and development of CGI animation, prehistoric creatures have enjoyed a new renaissance of life in entertainment, first on the big screen (Jurassic Park and its sequels) and latterly on the small screen, starting with the BBC Walking with.... series (dinosaurs, prehistoric mammals, etc). More recently television folk have seen the potentional for entertainment as well as education. After Nigel Marven's Prehistoric Park series, which was more of a family tea-time series with the cheerful vet, ITV gave us Primeval.

So what was it all about?

The story begins with strange sightings in the Forest of Dean and a wrecked lorry trailer. Evolutionary zoologist Professor Nick Cutter (Douglas Henshall) from the nearby university investigates, along with his lab technician Stephen Hart () and geeky enthusiast graduate student Connor Temple. They team up with out-of-work zookeeper and reptile specialist Abbie Maitland, who has already found an unusual lizard in the custody of a young boy. Eventually the team come across a large herbivore from the Permian, and more frighteningly a carnivorous reptile from the same era. Cutter has another reason outside of his professional interest in these phenomena in the forest: his wife Helen disappeared there eight years ago.

The appearance of the creatures is traced back to an "anomaly", a sort of shimmering portal suspended above the ground that links two different eras otherwise separated by millions of years. The government, in the shape of the Machiavellian James Lester (Ben Miller) and his rather more attractive assistant Claudia Brown (Lucy Brown) initially try to suppress this information or dismiss it, but come to realise that the anomalies, or at least possible intruders through them, must be dealt with, and so sanction Cutter's team together with an SAS team led by Gulf veteran Captain Ryan (Mark Wakeling).

Was it any good?

I confess that initially I had my doubts about Primeval, especially as some of the first episode seemed suspiciously like a retread of Jurassic Park (notably the old "prehistoric head at the window" routine) and I was a bit suspicious of the winged lizard Rex, whose appendages seemed to owe more to a flight of fancy than biological science (please correct me if I am wrong, Tim Haines!). However the story went on to develop nicely, partly because it works on several levels. Apart from the obvious novelty (well, OK, it's been done before) of having ancient and often terrifying creatures turn up in modern Britain, the chemistry and characterisation of the cast gave us some interesting secondary plots. Much of the secondary interest lay in the tangled romantic relationships: Cutter was torn between Claudia and his estranged and manipulative wife, Helen, while a lovelorn Connor was trying to win the heart of Abbie, who in turn seemed inclined towards Stephen, who in turn.... well, that would be giving too much away if you haven't seen the sequence. Lester was hardly the Cigarette-Smoking Man of the X-files, but I enjoyed his role and Ben Miller played him well without being too over the top. Another strength of the programme was that it did not use only dinosaurs but other intimidating prehistoric beasts, including a gigantic centipede with a lethal toxin and the formidable flightless Hesperonis. And of course the effects, and the animals, were terrific.

The level of action, sexual chemistry and violence was probably judged about right for its time slot, although very young children might have found the occasional scene a bit scary (there is a sequence in a swimming pool which might have put them off the local baths for a while).

The final episode of this 6-part series ends very satisfactorily, tying up some loose ends while simultaneously raising more questions. Although I haven't often been a fan of ITV series, I have to say that this one was very well done. Whether or not it could sustain a run of several seasons is another point (how many variations on this theme could you have?), but I would definitely vote for a second series.

2009 update

Primeval did in fact go on to run for two more series, but I felt that after a reasonably compelling second series (the reappearance of Lucy Brown as a different character was quite clever), the one episode of the third series I saw seemed to be tilting towards the formulaic and going more for the humorous angle. Nick Cutter and Stephen Hart had been killed off, Jennifer Lewis had resigned and we seemed to be left with a selection of the young, good-looking or athletic to carry the show. Nevertheless ITV's decision to cancel the show after an apparent cliffhanger at the end of the final episode of the third season was rather surprising given reasonable viewing figures. One only wonders if the show will be replaced by another vacuous celebrity slot (don't get me started...)


Primeval website

Wikipedia also have a useful article on the show.

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