What on earth just happened to Primeval, ITV’s dinosaur-hunting Saturday night family program intended as some sort of answer to the dominance in the market of Doctor Who?
Those with a long memory might recall that the series was briefly cancelled by ITV last year after season 3, because of middling ratings not justifying expensive production costs (CGI dinosaurs don’t come cheap.) It was saved by ITV coming to a co-production deal with UK TV that saw season 4 air on ITV earlier this year and season 5 now premièring on UK TV’s Watch satellite and cable channel (before being released on DVD in July and making it on to ITV later in the year.)
I’d really hoped that the near-death experience would motivate the makers of Primeval to pull their finger out and overhaul the show into a fit state, but alas season 4 earlier this year dashed those hopes. Despite some vague overarching plot lines (that were frankly not as interesting as the writers clearly thought they were, especially the Lady Emily distraction), every single episode still came down to the same tired old “runaround chasing after/being chased by the CGI monster of the week” schtick. It seemed that the show’s format was simply too restrictive to allow it to live.
And so I was genuinely startled by the first episode of season 5 (the first series to premier on UK Watch) because it was – well, no other way of putting this: shockingly good. Almost a different show to what had gone before. The direction; the sharp editing; the vastly improved writing including some lovely witty character lines (the cast was always the best thing about this show and now they’re getting the material to work with that they deserve); a genuine sense of peril where it seemed like they really were about to write out one of the most popular characters; and the overarching plot lines that had been rather an afterthought before now suddenly becoming a genuinely interesting conspiracy plot. Even though the basic plot was still something like a CGI monster runaround, the monster was interesting (a huge louse, basically) and instead of lots of running around it all had to be tackled by out-thinking the problem rather than outrunning it.
Perhaps they were just pulling out all the stops for the season opener on the new channel, I thought? Don’t get too excited about it, it’ll be back to ho-hum next week.
Instead, this week’s episode was set on a submarine as the team seek to close one of the “time portal” anomalies. It managed to pack in a fun Alien-eque “monster stalking the crew in a confined space” as well as some rather good FX sequences of the submarine being menaced by aquatic dinosaurs – anyone who saw the BBC’s lamentable The Deep will know just how back wrong these underwater sequences can end up being rendered, so kudos to the show’s producers for pulling this one off. All the while we have Navy types back at base threatening to use nuclear missiles to take care of the problem leading to an initially humorous but ultimately nerve-wracking game of “I’ll go over your head” top trumps to try and avert disaster.
It all points to a completely different scale and ambition and even confidence to the “safe but tepid” shows that Primeval was putting out before. The change is a quantum leap forward. Can they maintain it or will it slip back to “normality” in a week or two?
I’m optimistic. Next week the trailers tell us that one of the characters heads back to Victorian London to do battle with Spring-Heeled Jack (a real pre-cursor of Jack the Ripper from the 1860s). They’ve never done “time travel” except to some vague far-future or far-past wasteland, so truing to evoke Victorian England is further evidence that the show has suddenly decided to smash the previous constraints of what it had assumed was its format and just go for it. It wants to have some real fun, rather than settling for chasing down another anonymous CGI monster in another part of a Docklands-lookalike part of the city.
It’s just what I’d hoped that would happen when the show got a jolt from its near-death experience. I was disappointed when that hadn’t seemed to have sunk in for season 4, but I think finally it’s got there. I really hope it’s not too late, because now for the first time this series has real promise of becoming something rather excellent.