Jun 28, 2009

The Primeval Paradox

Well TV has gone and done it again! It has not only gone and ruined one of the few shows I do watch, but it was then cancelled to boot!

The show in question was the British sci-fi "drama" Primeval.

If you had asked me, up until this week anyway, what my favourite current running TV show was, I'd have answered Primeval. Not that I watch it (or much of anything else) on TV. I have instead been buying it on DVDs from the UK (thanks to Clare!), and watching them marathon style.

The basic premise of the show couldn't have been better targeted to my interests. Holes in time start, literally, ripping open allowing creatures from prehistory (and the future) to start wandering into present. Inflicting all sorts of needless property damage whilst trying to eat all the humans they encounter! The government fearing a world wide panic attempts to cover up the ongoing temporal crisis, and hires a team of ragtag specialists to deal with the "creatures" (their tagline for all the animals no matter what) ghostbuster style.

The first season was amazing. Well if you consider it was for all intents and purposes a serialized B monster movie. I wouldn't say it was a rival for the likes of say West Wing, but considering how silly the concept was it was executed alright (though I personally think if the audience were there, this premise could be done incredibly well and serious to match West Wing as a serious concept, but alas... it is only me). What made this early season very strong was the mix of tongue and cheekness about itself, and the interesting interactions between the lead character and the "villian".

Not that the first season didn't have a dud or two out of its mere six episodes. The second episode is a chore beyond the awesome army introduction. The 1st season's short run helped it in many ways. They introduced and established the temporal disaster quickly, and efficiently. A slick style that would be lost with the bigger later seasons, which tended to draw out their singular story arcs to the point of boredom.

Additionally the first season is where the majority of what made the show's temporal crisis interesting occurred. Season's 2 and 3 didn't do a whole lot towards progressing or explaining the "anomaly" situation. Apart from the first episodes of each of these seasons, which were cool, but I got the hint the writers had changed their mind on how the "anomalies" were going to resolve and play out in the interest of extending the show. In other words the first season was carried out well as they weren't sure if they'd get picked up beyond the 2nd season. When they were they decided to for go resolving anything expecting the good times would roll...

My favourite factor that made the show watchable beyond the CG "dinosaurs" (which were always the best parts) was the lead character, palaeonotologist Nick Cutter. A combination of good casting and breaking some of the sterotypes about scientists made Cutter my favourite fictional palaeontologist of all time (apart from perhaps Dr. Challenger).

Actor Douglas Henshall was able to infuse a sense of intelligence and insight into sometimes very cliche and unrealistic behaviour for a scientist (or anyone with common sense for that matter!), to the point you could swallow it. More to the point, UNLIKE Sam Neil's Dr. Grant, Dr. Cutter was kick @$$. He wasn't a bumbling twit, technophobe, or unable to use his prehistoric know how when confronting the creatures in the flesh.

Dr. Cutter was as much action hero as scientist, and it was just plain cool. Plus his past dark connection to the crisis (in the form of his wife) made him a very compelling character. Which sadly wasn't otherwise abundant in the rest of the main cast.

However just outside the main cast, was the series ongoing antithetical character Helen Cutter, Dr. Cutter's former wife. In the first season Helen was played with such delicious caginess. She was neither evil nor good, but someone with her own agenda and interests invested in the time crisis. Which we never did learn, beyond her having travelled throughout all of history and the future exploring the time holes.

Sadly she lost this great enigmatic angle in later seasons, where they just played Helen as a evil big bad. Though the tense and complicated relationship between Helen and her husband Nick was always present, and made for excellent moments.

Where the show was at its best was in the season 1 finale. Not only did it have the coolest creature vs. creature battle of the show (the Gorgonopsid above being assaulted by Primevals trademark creature the "future predator"), but the coolest twist I'd seen in a show since Battlestar or Angel.

What started as a chilling bit of pre-destination time travel (where the characters realize in the pilot episode they had stumbled across some of their own graves, which get filled as a consequence of the creature battle), but this is immediately followed by a huge whammy of a paradox in which all of time is altered, except Nick and Helen.

Season 2 had an amazing opening episode, following up the paradoxes effects. The episode perfectly captures what it would feel like if you were suddenly thrust into a completely altered world. We the viewers are forced to suffer alongside Nick Cutter through the complete helplessness and frustration of his situation. To top it all off the only person he cared about, the new love interest, no longer exists (at least as he knew her), and he has no idea what took her or "his" world away from him.

I thought it was only to get better from here. The creatures were getting cooler (this premier had Raptors), we had a fascinating angle on the time travel, and a big personal crisis to solve.

What could go wrong with this setup?

How about not following through with this premise!

Sadly the writers and producers of Primeval looked at the popular American shows of that time, LOST and Heroes. Next thing you know, Primeval suddenly took a 360 from the subtle sci-fi premise with a B monster movie hook, to an over the top end of the world storyline. Sadly this end of the world story had nothing to do with the time holes, but instead a dumb covery up conspiracy that put brain boxes on the time monsters to use them to take over the world...

Certainly nothing as cool or subtle as the 1st seasons mere threat of time falling apart. The show become rather formulaic, with the time holes becoming normal, and not something the characters or even the show treated with awe or mystery any more.

Sadly this form of storytelling emphasised one of Primeval's on going weaknesses. That of failing to make the human part of the story interesting. Any part with Cutter tended to be very watchable, but beyond him the other main characters were dreadfully cliche and predictable. They also didn't have very defined roles or skill sets.

Fro example the show's resident geek character, started in the first season as a palaeo student, and thus and had this annoying tendency of competing with Cutter for the science moments. Suddenly in season 2 (which could have been argued to be part of the paradox) the geek suddenly became the tech savvy genius of the operation. It filled a key niche that had been missing from the show, and it was one time it was a positive change, but it was inconsistent even after this.

In the 3rd season this role swapping was taken to an extreme. Suddenly the new Archaeologist, who was added to the show for a gimmick they only explored once (in the best episode of the last season), suddenly could break complex computer codes and create complex laser containment systems. The new cop leader could do everything from fly helicopters (which at least had a great tongue and cheek acknowledgement) to break into high security fortresses mission impossible style (no tongue and cheek explanation).

The problem with these ubber talented swiss army knife characters was that it took the "human" element out the show and turned them into nothing more then walking talking plot devices. Which made for boring 45 minute rehashed B monster movies with no situational tension as any character could fix the problem.

The worst turn on the show though in season 3 was the loss of actors. Due to the studio trying to extended the show longer then initially planned (or at least so I get the impression), many of the key actors wanted out of the show. It just so happened every single one of these were the key people to the show's premise.

First Nick Cutter died. A not very easy to bring back method of departure (if at all... which I suspect was the plan). In the end this show was really about him and his "relationship" with the time holes (through both his wife and the paradox). Killing Cutter meant in a sense ending the show's relevance. On a side note, I couldn't help but get the impression the actor left not only due to the show going to long, but that he felt it had already lost its relevance by ignoring season 1's finale.

Next went Claudi Brown, in an even worse departure that clearly indicated the actress wanted out, but was willing to appear once and a while in a guest star capacity. As the key crux of the paradox her departure marked that the writers had completely given up on ever resolving this thread.

Finally with season 3's finale Helen Cutter was killed off. This was disastrous to how the show had established itself functioning. Helen for all intents and purposes had become the story telling engine by which any threat or menace from the time crisis would be revealed. With her passing you immediately saw the show degrading into simply a monster of the week formula.

Worst of all these were all the characters worth watching the show for. With the exception of the new addition Danny Quinn, the shows cast was pretty cliche and/or boring. Everything good about the 3rd season in the end boiled down to Danny who was the sole remnant of fun left in the show (beyond the creatures).

The consistently excellent facet of Primeval I will miss, is the creatures themselves. The effects by Impossible Pictures were second to none. The monsters themselves in some cases could steal the miserable episodes they were in (the Giganatosaurus at airport would have been a complete waste of film otherwise...).

Despite the fact the carnivorous creatures always had an insatiable appetite for humans, some of the best episodes were the clever and creative ways the writers could make none predatory creatures threatening. The Dodo episode from season 1 is a true highlight, where the threat comes from a previously unknown parasite the extinct birds carried that is extremely dangerous in humans. Or the Pteranodon who is accused (by the government agents) of killing golfers, but in reality is just a fish eater trying to find a mate (and accidentally distracting the team from the real killer).

I will miss the show for being the first (and so far only) to have Dinosaurs and prehistoric animals in an ongoing sci-fi episodic show. It (until the 3rd season) tended to always entertain me, and bring a smile to my face.

Yet it will always have the tinge of being unfinished, and worse not fulfilling its potential...

Possibly. One idea that has been bouncing around in my head of late is a possible tie in to a certain small Tyrannosaur's life. As he deals with weird things all the time, and more to the point would make a good instant Dinosaur fighter in the modern era...
To those Traumador readers out there (and Primeval fans) would you be interested in Primeval: Traumador?

As you can see the effects, none animated, are not beyond my abilities...


Albertonykus said...

Giving Traumador a Primeval-type adventure would be quite marvelous. I think I'd find it interesting to read about...

Dinorider d'Andoandor said...

Now with Traumador's new timeline I hope Helen will be killed more properly and not in that WileECoyote fashion we got.

Cutter was a cool hero, using simple things he could get a weapon, my fave character was Helen though. I'm not sure why but I never was a Nick fan. I wonder what they did for the french version, they call Primeval "Nick Cutter and the doors/gates (les portes) of time" or something like that.

Originally it was told that Primeval would have about 5 seasons, so I still don't understand some departures. I suppose the new tones had something to do with that. What I know is that the producers expected at least one more season. I didn't like the way the show ended despite Nick, Helen and Jenny's disappearances.