Saturday, February 10, 2007 by

Primeval isn’t really my kind of telefantasy. By that I probably mean it’s not Doctor Who. Unlike that programme’s present incarnation there is a palpable lack of any sense that Primeval‘s creators are particularly enthused by their product – I can’t imagine, for example, their production meetings are punctuated with regular bursts of, “Hoorays” for various members of cast or crew.

More important than whooping and hollering over the muffins and cups of coffee though, there is an inherent lack of sympathy with the genre that leaks through to the screen. The kind of telefantasy I like sees the fantastic gatecrash into the world of the real. With its council estates and plausibly dressed domestic sets, Doctor Who prepares the scene perfectly to ensure our imagination is ignited the moment some fantastic element dips its toe (assuming it has one) into our reality. Conversely, the key scene in the first episode of Primeval sees a badly realised dinosaur tramp around a school that – criminally – doesn’t really look much like a school at all.

Actually this criticism can be levelled at a lot of ITV1 drama. Such is the attention paid to the art direction and efforts to ensure that locations and artistes look suitably stylised and “cool”, any residual connection with reality is hugely undermined as a result. When it’s another two-part psychological thriller it doesn’t matter quite so much, but here – where the juxtaposition of the ordinary and the extraordinary is crucial – the fact that a boy’s bedroom looks nothing like a real boy’s bedroom is an important failing on the show’s part, and surely a blockage in enabling the younger viewer to imagine what it would actually feel like if a dinosaur butted through their bedroom window.

So no, Primeval isn’t my kind of telefantasy, but then neither is Harry Potter (which is similarly rootless from reality) and that’s hugely popular. As such, I am duty bound to look beyond my personal prejudices, and conclude, somewhat grimly, that perhaps Primeval is actually quite a good series after all. Certainly, the opening episode moves with speed and includes a reasonable level of jeopardy (although that school scene was crying out to be set during lunch break with loads of kids running around). Central character Nick Cutter (Douglas Henshall) has been imbued with a tragic past that deftly humanises him while at the same time keeping him at arm’s length from the viewer. It also puts a sense of humanity at the heart of the programme. Although with Cutter and his wife, as of yet, failing to come across as anything other than broad brush ciphers our sense of engagement is limited. Nonetheless, this is only episode one and perhaps over the weeks we will come to learn something more about their relationship that gives it a sense of authenticity and so cause us to start actually rooting for them.

The supporting cast fare less well, and are somewhat lost amidst their self-consciously stylised appearances. However, Hannah Spearritt’s Abby Maitland is the most likeable of the troupe (although I wish she’d stop giving these specimens from the primeval age pet names). Ben Miller’s Man From The Ministry perhaps struggles the most in this opening episode, but then he, more than any other character, exists purely as a plot function – throwing obstacles in the way of Cutter and his team, to ensure that week’s story doesn’t get wrapped up too quickly.

While a lot of my reservations about Primeval stem from my personal tick list of telefantasy prerequisites, perhaps a more objective criticism can be laid at the door of the special effects. Consistently the dinosaurs fail to convince, with the most obvious incongruity being that the shading and colouring looks far too bright in relation to their physical surroundings. Clearly, the programme makers believe in the authenticity of their beasts, but the resultant brightly lit close-ups exacerbate the problem and undermine what should be one of the show’s most winning attributes.

Nevertheless, unlike the BBC’s recent Robin Hood, there is at least enough here to warrant a second viewing next Saturday. You sense that for Primeval to really grab the viewers’ attention though, it’s going to have to develop more of a heart and soul then demonstrated so far. With only five episodes left, you can’t help but feel that time is already running out to sufficiently gear up for the (what already seems like a very necessary) end of series crescendo.


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