Judge Adam Arseneau is a card-carrying member of the S Club 7 Fanclub.
Our reviews of Primeval (published June 12th, 2007), Primeval: Volume Two (published October 8th, 2009), Primeval: Volume Three (Blu-ray) (published February 10th, 2012), and Primeval (Blu-Ray) (published September 14th, 2007) are also available.
There's a new link in the food chain—and we're it!
Created by Britain's ITV as a Saturday night alternative to BBC's Doctor Who, Primeval is strictly middle-of-the-road fare, a family-friendly blend of dinosaurs, science fiction, and apocalyptic premonitions of doom and gloom. The show features cute girls, pounding music, slapstick comedy and CGI dinosaurs, but throws all these things at audiences at the same time with little rhyme or reason. The results, as seen in Primeval: Volume One, are a bit messy.
Facts of the Case
Evolutionary zoologist Nick Cutter (Douglas Henshall) is still stinging from the mysterious disappearance of his paleontologist wife Helen, who mysteriously vanished eight years ago, when he suddenly comes face-to-face with his own mystery. Defying all explanation, anomalies are popping up all over Britain, holes torn in time and space. From these holes emerge all manner of creatures from ages past—dinosaurs, parasites, prehistoric monsters, insects, and worse.
The government recruits Cutter, along with his assistant Stephen Hart (James Murray), student Connor (Andrew-Lee Potts), and zoo keeper Abby (Hannah Spearritt) to help investigate and explain the phenomenon, but Cutter has his own reasons beyond the academic to investigate—after all these years, he may finally learn the fate of his wife.
Primeval: Volume One contains all six episodes from Series One and seven episodes from Series Two spread across four discs.
On paper, Primeval looks to be a keeper: hapless civilians and scientists romping about in the Forest of Dean, being chased by dinosaurs, monsters, parasites and time-traveling folk, trying to prevent the destruction of the world, like a British television cross between Jurassic Park and Spooks (also known as MI-5). It is a show of reasonable quality: average special effects, adequate acting, acceptable plot development. And yet, Primeval feels stunted, hurried, not quite reaching its full potential, unsure how to balance its creative aspirations against its constant need to stay PG.
If you can detach your brain from your body and survive on visceral thrills, Primeval can be satisfying, but it doesn't always make a lot of sense. For every action-packed, guitar riff-laden sequence, there is a connecting sequence of romantic clichés, hammy dialogue, and endless chasing of pet dinosaurs through the office complex, the forest, etc. For every sabertooth tiger, there is a corresponding "cute" CGI creature that the cast spends its time fawning endlessly over. Meanwhile, you'll see dodos running loose with pathogenic diseases attached, futuristic predators from an alternate timeline, blood and gore married with slapstick and stilting romantic comedy. This back-and-forth between cute and calamitous is Primeval in a nutshell; for the most part, it's entertaining, but the formula fouls out as often as it succeeds.
Frankly, the characters just plain bore the piss out of me. Stiff and cardboard-like, they bring little originality to the franchise—they're really just archetypal tropes of what you would expect of sci-fi characters. Cutter is brooding and arrogant, Hart looks disconcertingly like Rob Lowe, Connor is quite possibly the most irritating sidekick ever devised on television, Helen looks like a cleavage-sporting reject from Mad Max, and Claudia just kind of tags along, batting her eyelashes now and again. The only character with any spunk is Abby, the perky zoo keeper, but this could be because I still nurse an embarrassing crush on actress Hannah Spearritt from back in her S Club 7 days, and she spends a lot of time in Primeval sans-pants. Hey, I'm only human.
The show throws lots of twists and road bumps and personal suffering at its characters, and I will give Primeval credit for coming up with one heck of a Season One cliffhanger: alternate universe! Cutter comes back through the anomaly to find, whoops, not the world he left! Claudia doesn't exist, but a woman named Jennifer bears an uncanny resemblance to her. And you can't bring her back, because you'd probably end up wiping out humanity three times over accidentally. Some ideas, like this and the Predator-like clicking futuristic hunters from future eras coming to kill us are undeniably excellent, but Primeval never really takes the ideas to their logical conclusion. Rather than something like a brain-eating zombie alternate reality, Cutter returns to a world that is essentially exactly the same as the one he left, save for some minor personality changes in the protagonists. So much more could have been done here—something I found myself saying way too often when watching Primeval. The second season admittedly brings some welcome gravitas, but not nearly enough to make the show as bad ass as it wants to be.
To be brutal, this is the stuff one finds in midseason replacements in North America. It's nothing to write home about, but not entirely undeserving of attention—just very middle-of-the-road. Some of the ideas are clever, and the action is entertaining in a very British sort of way, but Primeval fails to really inspire audiences to become regular viewers. Once the show warms up and gets a good pace going, things improve noticeably, but it is a brief window of enjoyment. The ultra-short seasons do the show more harm than good here.
One thing to note for prospective fans or buyers of this series is the peculiar episodic breakdown. In short, Primeval seasons are, well, short. Luckily for us, Primeval: Volume One contains everything the show has produced so far: the first series contains a scant six episodes and the second a measly seven. And you thought HBO had short seasons! This frenetic pace moves the storyline fast, which is a good thing, as Primeval starts slow, dry, and boring out of the gate. I barely made it through the first episode without shutting the thing off, sticking it back in the mail, and writing the series off altogether.
The technical presentation is so-so, not quite living up to its potential—the picture quality is acceptable for television broadcast standard, but lacking the HD fidelity that has spoiled North American audiences as of late. Black levels are washed out and gray, grain is evident, and colors are muted. The overall presentation is quite acceptable, but not stellar. Likewise with the audio, which is beefy, strong bass response and energetic, but only comes in stereo—a full surround presentation would have been quite lovely here. I thank BBC for including subtitles on this set, because some of the accents and technobabble can be perplexing. The score is a peculiar mix of over-excitable James Bond-style orchestra and AC/DC-style hard rock riffs, like they borrowed the musical score from an abandoned Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer action film. Also, practically every episode uses the Wilhelm Scream. I love sound nerds.
Extras are fairly solid, making nice use of the extra space afforded to the series (13 episodes over four discs isn't exactly jam-packed). A 45-minute "making of" featurette crosses over similar ground with a standalone 40-minute featurette, "Through the Anomaly" by Andrew Lee Potts, both giving nice behind-the-scenes footage with cast and crew as well as a glimpse into how the CGI shots were pulled off. In addition, one episode features an audio commentary with show creators.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is nothing more discouraging than trying to get into a show at fundamental odds with itself. The similarly themed Doctor Who exhibits an easy balance between complex adult themes and childlike exuberance, making it remarkably appealing across age and gender lines. Primeval wants to do this, but can't quite master the formula. The heart is there, but the execution is clunky—moments of youthful pandering are obnoxious, and heavy-handed moments of levity are awkwardly placed. Neither element feels particularly satisfying.
Attention, television executives: if you're going to PG the heck out of a show by adding cutesy flying dinosaurs as companion pets, then don't muck about—cute the heck out of the show and rock it The Sarah Jane Adventures style! Don't be shy! On the other hand, if you're going to be brooding and complex and adult-themed, then don't hesitate—get that dinosaur to freakin' chomp that dude's head off! Make those characters knock boots all over the place! Torchwood it up, baby! If you try to do both, you better be sure you know what you're doing.
Shows have managed to align both elements in balance before, but such moments are rare and marvelous in television, and instantly become classics. And a classic Primeval ain't.
Lightweight and disposable, Primeval is a satisfying blend of science fiction and Jurassic Park-style shenanigans during its best moments, letting all manner of CGI-created terrors run loose around the British countryside. At its worst moments, the show overextends and reveals too much of its low-budget roots: corny dialogue, bad acting, and occasionally laughable special effects. How things play out for you will depend entirely upon your tastes, but this reviewer won't be holding onto this particular series.
Bottom line: worth a look, but just barely. The part that is worth a look is Hannah Spearritt not wearing trousers. Maybe I'll, ah, hold onto this DVD set after all.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Audio Commentary
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