Primeval: Series 1 Review

There's always the smell of cheapness when ITV so obviously cocks a snook at the BBC and allows its own schedules to the influenced by what's going on down in Shepherd's Bush. The results are never quite convincing, with the very lowest point being reached recently with ITV's answer to Dragon's Den, the Richard Madeley-starring Fortune: Million Pound Giveaway, which isn't so much money for old rope as money for absolutely nothing at all. You can just imagine it...Richard Madeley being as thoroughly charmless as he usually is, the too-bright sets, the dreadful theme and members of the public dragged out of housing estates that aren't so much at the bottom of the property ladder as the bags of refuse used to prop it up. That it features disgraced peer Jeffrey Archer is all that one really needs to know about Fortune: Million Pound Giveaway to know that regardless of its viewing figures, it's scheduling swill.

Not very often, though, they get it right. Showing on Saturday nights and with a fantasy/horror/sci-fi bent to proceedings, Primeval is clearly aiming for the same audience as that of Doctor Who. It even found itself a place in the calendar between the ending of Robin Hood over Christmas, which had occupied the Doctor Who Saturday night timeslot in Autumn and Winter and the premiere of the new series of Who shortly before Easter. There's time travel, monsters, a playful number of scares and a cast that serve as a greatest hits compilation of the Doctor's past assistants. There's a meddling Home Office Minister, Special Forces, a story arc about the missing wife of one of the Primeval team, a comedy geek sidekick and, to please an audience of children, lots of dinosaurs. And for the dads, ex-S Clubber Hannah Spearritt wandering around her flat in her pants. It's Saturday night television by committee but it's often no less enjoyable for that.

The show opens when what appears to be a dinosaur is seen in the Forest Of Dean. While the creature roams free, even taking a carnivorous interest in a teenage boy, the local police are at something of a loss as to what to do with it. Eventually and in spite of no one else knowing anything about it, word of the dinosaur reaches the Home Office, from which a Special Forces team led by Captain Tom Ryan (Mark Wakeling) is despatched to deal with the animal under the watchful eyes of Home Office Official Claudia Brown (Lucy Brown). Unfortunately, as well-armed as they are, the Special Forces struggle at knowing what exactly to do with the creature, particularly when they discover how the dinosaur has made it to modern-day Southern England. In a clearing in the forest, they're amazed at seeing a sparkling object floating in the air that the dinosaurs emerge from and, when threatened, run back to, apparently back to their own time. Neither the Special Forces nor Home Office teams can agree a next step in their dealing with this rift in time and the creatures that are stepping out of it. As Claudia advises London to send assistance, the Home Office pick a name out of their rolodex, one that might shed some light on events in the Forest Of Dean. Enter Professor Nick Cutter (Douglas Henshall), a palaeontologist who's still mourning the mysterious disappearance of his wife some years before.

Taking with him a team of zoologist Abby Maitland (Hannah Spearritt), lab tech Stephen Hart (James Murray) and student Connor Temple (Andrew-Lee Potts), Cutter arrives in the Forest Of Dean to find that a Gorgonopsid has arrived in the present day through the anomaly from its own time, being some 250 million years ago. While he has Stephen instruct the Special Forces on dealing with not only the creature but senior Home Office advisor Sir James Peregrine Lester (Ben Miller), Cutter and Ryan step through the anomaly and notice the world of the Permian period stretching out before them, filled will extinct creatures. Yet, as Cutter can plainly see, he's standing in the past and the dinosaurs are as alive as he and Ryan. Going on a little, he's shocked to find that there is a human skeleton half-buried in the sand. Dusting off the bones, Cutter finds a backpack with the initials HC on it, a bag that he gave his wife Helen (Juliet Aubrey) years before. Wanting to go on into the past to search for his wife, Cutter is called back into the present. The dinosaur is still loose in the Forest Of Dean and other anomalies are opening...

Of course, if ITV had wanted to simply reach for the Saturday night success of Doctor Who, there were easier ways to go about it than to haul in a half-decent cast and a lot of CG monsters into a show best suited to children. Primeval does owe very much to Who and to Torchwood but ITV have crafted a good show that stands very much apart from the BBC's sci-fi successes, building on the sense of wonder that comes naturally with dinosaurs - seen previously in such shows as Walking with Dinosaurs, Walking With Monsters and Prehistoric Park - with some good elements of primetime drama. There are, for instance, some surprisingly scary moments in Primeval, not just the standard stuff of characters sneaking up on others or people jumping out of doorways, but scuttly, nasty shocks involving great big dinosaurs, hundreds of baby pteranodons and giant spiders on the London Underground. Make it something of an ensemble piece with James Murray, comedy sidekick Andrew-Lee Potts, sassy Hannah Spearritt, sensible romantic interest Lucy Brown and an uptight man at the Home Office (Ben Miller), who wishes, at one point, that he'd never left management consultancy, and Primeval begins to forge its very own way on the Saturday night schedules.

Some episodes are much better than others. The pilot episode doesn't do very much other than introduce the characters and the general outline of each show but things get better and more horrific in the second, one in which spiders and giant insects from the past invade the murkier parts of the London Underground. Later episodes see a pteranodon lay siege to a golf course - not a bad thing! - and a country house, a mosasaur gobble up swimmers in an open-air pool and Conor's equally geeky friends mucking about at night in a dinosaur outfit. Just desserts are forthcoming in a later episode when one of them catches something nasty off a dodo and turns into a psychotically paranoid loon. It's quite shameless at times - Cutter says, on seeing the creature in the show's last episode, "We need a bigger gun!" - and along with bringing dodos to a football stadium, it takes a mosasaur to an indoor swimming pool, letting us see a Godzilla-like moment when the dinosaur snaps its jaws upwards to swallow a diver whole. There's even a cute little dinosaur to appeal to dino-minded children, being a kind of Godzooky to all of the larger dinosaurs and, in a bid to keep it warm, Abby must (a) turn the heating up in her flat to tropical temperatures and (b) take off most of her clothing. Of course, it gets out thanks to Connor's ineptitude but these things always do. What else, besides falling hopelessly in love with the out-of-his-reach Abby and asking who would win in a fight between Wolverine and Spiderman, is the comedy sidekick for.

The science is all over the place - one can well imagine palaeontologists firing letters off to ITV to complain at their confusion over the Carboniferous and Permian phases of history - but it is in many off primetime shows and, from clearly being a drama and not a documentary, is easily forgivable. What makes less sense is how Primeval straddles the gaps between drama, horror and comedy, packaging all three up in a PG-rated show. The clear demarcation seems to be with the cast, with the Cutters, Nick and Helen, and Claudia being there to move the story on for the adults, Stephen and Captain Ryan to climb down amongst the nasties and have Abby and Connnor pratfall for the kids. It doesn't always work - in spite of the efforts of the show, Helen is clearly a bad 'un from the very beginning - but Primeval does have a nice ending, including a surprise that, for a moment, will go unnoticed and which does a fine job of setting up a second series. No, it's not perfect and there's a tendency to think that, with the presence of Henshall, it will be better than it is but it's one of the few shows in recent years that had me coming back to ITV and, were I out, insisted on taping. It might never capture the public consciousness in the way that Doctor Who did (and still does) but it does a much better job, thanks to some very nasty monsters, of forcing children to hide, if not behind the sofa then at least behind closed eyes. And that's plenty entertaining on its own.

Whilst certainly looking better on DVD than it did on television, Primeval still shows off its roots on the small screen. The CG animation, though very good for television, is still a very large step away from the likes of Jurassic Park while its obvious, even if you didn't know some of the locations, that various photogenic buildings double up as all manner of government offices, universities and public amenities. And, like Robin Hood, they seem to get much use out of a single forest clearing. Primeval does look much better here, though, than it ever did on television with a sharper picture that, though it makes the CG creatures all the more obvious, does look good when compared to the artefacts that have the run of a digital television picture, be it broadcast via satellite or terrestrial. 2 Entertain have done a decent job with this transfer, ensuring that the DVD release is deserved with the transfer and that the picture, as well as looking clean and unfussy, has been very reasonably handled.

I had expected a DD5.1 audio track for the DVD release and though that hasn't been forthcoming, the DD2.0 is a fine one nonetheless. There isn't much in the way of surround effects but the dialogue is clear and the sound effects, even if they've come from recordings of lions, walruses and Foley artists screaming into microphones, are fine. However, it is clearly a show that could have done with a thud from a subwoofer as dinosaurs stop across the screen. Finally, there are English subtitles.

Behind The Scenes (45m52s): Tim Haines and Adrian Hodges, the co-creators of Primeval, are the first voices that we hear in this making-of, which goes through its running time covering all that one might expect of it. Haines and Hodges discuss the creation of the show, the cast introduce their characters and, in the longest sequence, various special-effects folk explain the process of creating the dinosaurs, not only on computer but how the live-action footage was produced to accommodate them. It's not uninteresting but it's not very inspired either with the cast having the air of people still hopeful about getting a second series.

I tend to take these shows in the manner in which they were made. It's easy to pick holes in the likes of Primeval, Torchwood and Doctor Who. I've always wondered why a man with a time machine needs to run; surely he could simply hop in the Tardis and go to the desired point in time regardless of whether or not he was late for something. Similarly, there's all manner of points that one could raise with the makers of Primeval but why bother, this is a show made for a family audience that, though they don't have to be treated like idiots, clearly aren't sitting down on a Saturday evening to have their brains numbed by the various theories of time travelling and the paradoxes therein. Nor arguments over what colour of skin a Gorgonopsid had. That it has enormous teeth is all that Primeval asks of it and though that might not be entirely accurate either, it'll do. Once again, I gauge this release against my own enjoyment of it and how my own children reacted to it, with the news being positive in both regards. The dinosaurs are scary, the story is well-supported by Henshall, Brown, Miller and Aubrey while Spearritt and Potts look after the comedy. It's not a great show - certain episodes are much better than the others - but it does deserve the second series that it does well to set up.

6 out of 10
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