TV Review: PRIMEVAL, 4.1

The opening titles of Primeval involve triangular shards of light with various dinosaurs and monsters emblazoned on them, synchronized with the appearance of each cast member's credit. This speaks volumes about the show itself, which has always placed an emphasis on CGI beasties over characterization and acting. Primeval suffered an extinction event in summer 2009, when ITV decided to cancel the expensive series in the face of strong ratings, because of financial difficulties. In a remarkable rescue, the show was revived by ITV agreeing to split production costs between three partners: UKTV (who'll premiere series 5 on Watch), BBC America and the German broadcaster ProSieben. It's great to see a TV show survive death thanks to some business creativity, to benefit the millions who enjoy it, but Primeval is unfortunately a series that remains more of a special-effects showreel than a compelling action drama. One big problem is the casting, which has struggled to even stay constant since series 2. After the departure of original stars Douglas Henshall and Lucy Brown, replacements arrived in the form of Laila Rouass and Jason Flemyng. Sadly, both actors weren't able to return, meaning this premiere had the awkward job of explaining their absence while introducing replacements. Flemyng's character Danny Quinn (last seen in pre-historic times grappling with the villainous Helen Cutter), has simply been lost in time forever, while Rouass's character Sarah Page apparently died in some unspecified skirmish between episodes. Knowing the behind-the-scenes problems the writers had to overcome with actor unavailability, it's best to just accept this rather disappointing state of affairs. But what's not acceptable is the unsatisfactory introduction of the three new characters: Irish action-man Matt Anderson (Ciaran McMenamin), cute computer geek Jess Parker (Ruth Kearney), and the ARC's new investor Philip Burton (Alexander Siddig). As I've mentioned, Primeval is hardly a dependent on its characters, but Paul Mousley's script did a particularly weak job establishing these newcomers. McMenamin was possibly more dreary than the long-gone Henshall (which is some feat), Kearney just sat in front of three computer screens trying to look essential yet quirky (she wears bright blue shoes), and former-Star Trek actor Siddig was afforded only a few scenes. Given Primeval's curious lack of racial diversity in its all-white cast, I have a sneaking suspicion Siddig's going to be painted as an Asian villain, but let's hope they avoid such racism. The actual storyline was paper thin, mainly existing to tie-up a loose-end from series 3, which ended with Connor (teddy-faced Andrew-Lee Potts) and Abby (Hannah Spearritt) stranded in the Cretaceous period, avoiding hungry velociraptors by shimmying up a tree. In the year since they were apparently lost, the ARC's received private sector funding from philanthropist Burton (meaning lots of stylish new equipment and high-tech stun weapons), and it's essentially business as usual: the team locate time anomaly, shoo any emerging monsters back through the glistening time-hole, and then seal the portal. The only real difference is an apparent move away from letting civilians get involved on the frontline, as ARC head Lester (Ben Miller) has realized this should be a military-run operation. Primeval's brainpower barely rivals that of a Stegosaurus. In this episode alone Connor and Abby survive an attack from a Spinosaurus (the infamous villain of Jurassic Park III that killed a T-Rex) by simply hiding in a hut they've made from latticed tree branches, and they eventually escaped back to the present-day after discovering Helen Cutter's handheld "anomaly device" and just rubbing the batteries. The script even appeared to forget Connor's supposed to be an amateur dinosaur expert, as he wasn't aware a raptor's nest is known as a "bower". And, as if to prove having a stronger military presence in the ARC was a good decision, after returning to their proper era, Connor almost immediately lets the marauding Spinosaurus back through an anomaly to stomp around a London district. Fact is, this show only really works in terms of the special effects, which are undeniably impressive. Primeval's also making its HD debut this year, which means there's added clarity and detail to the CGI. It's easy to be passé about visual effects these days, but the dinosaurs on display throughout this episode were a definite improvement on what's gone before. It all felt more tangible and real, even if the actors still don't always behave like they're genuinely in a room with a dangerous predator. But, frankly, the script does them no favours when primitive creatures are easily tamed by shaking water bottles at them. Overall, Primeval's back and it's as dumb and disposable as ever; but with better CGI and new characters who failed to make any kind of impact. It's a show that's at its best when it accepts its own stupidity and almost plays with that fact. This was best demonstrated in two scenes: when Captain Becker (Ben Mansfield) calmly requisitioned a camera-phone from a passerby filming a giant dinosaur stampeding down a street, and when the errant Spinosaurus was confused by the team playing an S Club 7 track at full volume (Spearritt having been part of that '90s pop group). It's a ridiculous show with a fun premise, so it tends to work best when you feel like the actors and writers are aware of that. Whenever they play things straight, it just crumbles under its own preposterousness.
WRITER: Paul Mousley DIRECTOR: Mark Everest CAST: Ciaran McMenamin, Hannah Spearritt, Andrew-Lee Potts, Ben Mansfield, Ben Miller, Ruth Kearney & Alexander Siddig TRANSMISSION: 1 January 2010, ITV1/HD, 7.30PM
I will continue to review Primeval's fourth series at my blog, Dan's Media Digest.
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Dan Owen hasn't written a bio just yet, but if they had... it would appear here.