Doctor Who has caused a revolution in its little corner of the UK television landscape. Its critical and commercial success with the fabled "family" audience has brought about the resurrection, not just of one cancelled TV series but of a whole format: Saturday night drama that can appeal across the board to children, teens and adults.
This is a rare thing. We dream fondly of bygone eras of three channels when the whole family huddled around a flickering screen, but today television has expanded, diversified, and specialised. With so many channels and so much choice there's something out there for everyone; just never the same thing at the same time. With the exception of soaps, reality TV and game shows few programmes have broad enough appeal to bring today's generations together (whether literally in the same room or otherwise). It was never in doubt, therefore, that TV companies were going to try to duplicate Doctor Who's appeal.
We've already witnessed Robin Hood, the BBC's own attempt to reinvent another old show in the same contemporary vein as Doctor Who, mixing brisk historical action with modern characters and concerns and a healthy dollop of romance. ITV's Primeval is, if anything, an even more transparent attempt to reach the same audience; a series so carefully crafted around its different demographics that it feels as if it was designed by focus group. While Doctor Who blends its disparate parts into a chimera that's unlike anything else, Primeval is more of a cobbled-together Frankenstein's Monster with the stitches still showing.
The premise is somewhere between Stargate SG-1 and Jurassic Park. Anomalies have started appearing around the UK, doorways into the Earth's prehistoric past. Humans can step through them or, with less strain on the budget, extinct creatures can pass into our time. Professor Nick Cutter (Douglas Henshall) is an evolutionary zoologist who comes to realise that his "dead" wife actually disappeared into prehistory. He swiftly acquires a somewhat implausible team of misfits to investigate, and is forced into an uneasy relationship with the Government ministry that wants the anomalies kept under wraps. Insert monster of the week here.
For the kids there are dinosaurs. Lots of dinosaurs. Lest their attention should wander we meet one literally 10 seconds into the opening episode. Indeed the pilot episode is shameless enough to feature a dinosaur-obsessed small boy being attacked by a dinosaur through his own bedroom window, not to mention the adoption of a small, cute flying dinosaur into the main cast.
For the teenagers there's the Professor's group of misfits: Stephen Hart (James Murray), Cutter's hunky lab technician, Connor Temple (Andrew Lee Potts), a nerdy conspiracy theorist who's into comics and SF, and Abby Maitland (Hannah Spearritt), a sexy young reptile expert who spends an unnervingly large amount of time in her underwear. The three quickly form a romantic triangle with Connor lusting after Abby, who lusts after Stephen, who's secretly attracted to Abby but has a girlfriend so can't admit it.
And for the adults there's Cutter himself: a rumpled romantic lead with a lilting Scottish accent who's obsessed with the discovery that his vanished wife is not dead, and who shares his own unresolved sexual tension with Claudia Brown (Lucy Brown), the woman from the Ministry.
If this is beginning to sound like a soap opera briefly interrupted by dinosaurs then that's only slightly unfair. Each episode spends at least as much time on our heroes brooding and flirting as it does throwing them into prehistoric peril. If the characters were well-developed this would be less problematic, but the ensemble cast is large enough that the characters seldom have room to breathe, and it's often left to the actors rather than the clichéd scripts to make them feel like more than one-dimensional archetypes. Professor Cutter fares best, making surprisingly little impact at first but gradually accumulating depth through his love-hate relationship with his enigmatic wife, who may be either ally or antagonist for the team. Worst of the bunch by far is the man from the Ministry James Lester (Ben Miller), the kind of pinstriped bureaucrat beloved of British drama down the ages.
In fact this is at heart a deeply traditional show. The cast is uniformly white and middle class, and the female characters are strong, but only to a point. The strongest female character is Helen Cutter (Juliet Aubrey), who remains consistently independent and interesting but also unlikeable right through to the finale, in which she's described as "a bitch." And when it comes to the crunch it's always the men who do the saving; even the nerdy men. The women are also obliged to strip down as often as possible, although to be fair the hunky lab technician does seem contractually obliged to flash his chest every now and then.
The series's saving grace is its fast pace. Primeval seldom dwells on any one scene or character long enough to become dull. While some episodes are more turgid than others the combination of cheerful energy, easily-grasped characterisation and frequent eye-candy provides unchallenging, breezy entertainment.
The pilot episode is unexpectedly patchy, marred by unfocused characters and misplaced humour such as a dinosaur nodding its head to elevator music. After that the series becomes more focused and more engaging. The simple premise could easily be repetitive, a kind of Walking with Dinosaurs with added soap opera, but the series largely sidesteps this pitfall and manages to do more than just vary the species of Tyrannosaur each week. So the first episode follows the expected killer dinosaur scenario, but the second features giant insects in the London Underground, then Alligator-like Mosasaurs in the local lake, parasitic worms, flying Pterosaurs, and even giant bat-creatures. Although none of the creatures ever shake off the whiff of special effects, they're accomplished enough to be convincing. The series also benefits greatly from some occasional location work on the Canary Islands, standing in for Permian Britain, which provides a much more filmic look.
The weakest episode is the fourth, in which, through an unlikely chain of events involving dodos and tracking devices, one of Connor's geek friends becomes infected with a prehistoric parasite. The parasite not only makes him aggressive and paranoid but changes his voice and turns his eyes bright blue. It's a thinly veiled spin on an alien possession yarn. Impressively the show backs away from saving the infected geek, but the sheer implausibility of the premise and the unsympathetic guest character sink the episode. In contrast the other episodes generally milk their straightforward premises well. The story arc involving Cutter's wife moves forward far more quickly than anticipated, perhaps benefiting from the short six episode run (half the length of a season of Doctor Who). It's a shame that the ostensible husband and wife share almost zero chemistry, but Helen Cutter remains an interesting wild card in an otherwise predictable format.
The season finale is one of the most successful episodes, as a portal to the future unleashes an ape-like bat creature with more than a dash of monster movies such as Alien and Predator. As silly as this is, it's satisfying to see the series finally begin to capitalise on the potential of its time travel premise, and to see the various character relationships brought inevitably and tidily to a head. We're left dangling on a time paradox cliffhanger with all the relationships up for grabs, and surprisingly I find myself interested to see what happens next.
There's little in Primeval that's genuinely exciting, scary (except to small children), or sexy, but also little that's offensive. It is solid entertainment, cannily designed and marketed. This is to damn with faint praise, perhaps, but while we might wish for something a great deal more invigorating the simple fact is that Primeval delivers competently what few other shows are delivering. It's no Doctor Who, with little of that show's headstrong creativity; but it's also no Torchwood. And averaging 6 million viewers and already commissioned for a second season it must be doing something right.
Iain Clark has always written a great deal of nonsense, but increasingly feels the need to inflict it on other people. He lives in the North of England with his wife and two cats.