...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Day 2232: DOCTOR WHO: Primeval


Daddy Alex is warning me about this, but I am going to let Daddy Richard do another review.

Cross my tusks and wish for luck!
For the last couple of weeks I have been walking through Bank tube station, on my way to work, past a couple of posters for "Coming Soon" ITV drama Primeval. On Friday, the day before the series was due to launch, and with the immaculate timing that only ITV seem able to achieve, these posters were replaced by ones of a woman in her knickers.

So was Primeval really pants?

Well, no… but it tried really hard to be.

Like last years ITC-wannabe pilot The Outsiders, it really struggled against its ITV-ness: a need to have rather bland, demographic-friendly characters who interact in entirely predictable ways and use dialogue as though it comes straight from a manual.

Although billed as "ITV's Doctor Who" it's really ITV's Torchwood – the small team of slightly anti-establishment "characters" investigating their own little magic door in time. (Add to the list of Star Trek crimes the introduction of the phrase "time-space anomaly" to the English language). But where Torchwood's problem is that all of the characters are turned up to eleven, Primeval has everyone set to mute.

There's the ruggedy slightly older one (leading man Professor Cutter); the nerdy one; the thinks-he's-so-cool one (actually, tragically, I suspect the writers think he's genuinely the cool one, rather than just the wears-the-leather-jacket-with-all-the-hair-care-products one); the not-too-threateningly-attractive-career-woman one; and the ditzy-but-brainy blonde one (who would actually be quite endearing if she wasn't paired with the "cute" flying dinosaur discovered by obligatory cute kid, Ben).

The basic premise – man meets dinosaurs coming though mystery door from the past – is good, and sets up plenty of room for spectacle and set-piece action especially since the special effects are up to the challenge.

The choice of monsters from the Permian, a Gorgonopsid and a Scutosaurus, seemed rather peculiar, though. If your USP is "Look! Dinosaurs!" you should stick some of the "classics" into your episode one. It may be clichéd, but there's a reason for that: people love to see those creatures. Why not a Stegosaurus and an Allosaurus, or – if you're feeling more Cretaceous than Jurassic – a Triceratops and everyone's favourite Tyrannosaurus Rex. It's almost as though the decision was dictated by the latest CGI models being the "Walking With Monsters" ones. Surely not…

But there seemed to be a basic sloppiness to the thinking about how to translate this idea to the screen.

Rather than sending, say, a group of game wardens or animal experts to investigate sightings of a "monster" in the Forest of Dean, the Home Office appears to have sent a single female civil servant whose strategy appears to be to wait in the hotel and see who tries to chat her up. So, on the whole, it's lucky for her that Professor Cutter arrives.

Mind you, Professor Cutter and his chums seem woefully unprepared for tracking a large and aggressive wild animal too. (They might not know it is a Permian-era therapid reptile, but they can see the damage it can do to truck and fencing). They aren't armed – which you could say is fair enough – but neither are they carrying any equipment with which to document the animal, in fact their only camera appears to be the one on the nerdy one's mobile phone.

We're told that the thinks-he's-so-cool one is a world class animal tracker, which maybe he is, maybe he isn't. But if he is, surely he'd resist the nerdy one being along with him to scare off all the animal life with his flapping around and complaints? Though, to be honest, why would a palaeontologist have an animal tracker as his assistant? It's not like the bones he's looking for a likely to go walking. (Well, okay, the premise of the series is that they do, but isn't it just too astoundingly handy that Cutter is tooled up for live dinosaurs in advance.)

Someone really needed to think about the logic of all this.

Surely it would have made more sense for lady-from-the-Home-Office to come to Cutter and say: "look, we think there's this thing that needs finding, and yes we know you're an expert in things that have been dead for millions of years, but we have reason to believe that you're still the right guy for the job. Oh did I not mention it's in the place your wife disappeared eight years ago."

Then the Home Office are behaving sensibly, and the coincidence-a-tron is not set to overload.

Cutter brings along his student – hence the nerdy one – and our animal tracker is supplied by the government as an expert hunter or possibly ex-army type. You can even play off that as an excuse for some internal tension in the team: Cutter and Mr thinks-he's-so-cool could play off each other rather than be improbable best buddies.

But we're thwarted again by the lazy stereotyping: the guys from the Home Office have to be bumbling civil servants™ and the rogue, independent team have to be the get-go guys.

The government ought to be in a position to throw resources at a problem like this (something that was another of Torchwood's problems – why are there only five of them?) and to be fair to Primeval they do seem to be getting this across towards the end of the episode, with a largish camp and soldiers surrounding the time portal. Of course their investigation technique seems to be a little slapdash: oh, let's just let a couple of guys wander though. Something a bit more methodical surely should be in order – try sticking a camera though first, perhaps? Establish that you can go though and come back. Set up some sort of camp on the other side and only then let the professor go wandering around looking for his wife.

Oh, and when the nerdy one realises that the doorway is closing, did no one think to stick their head though and shout "come back!"?

Ah, but Prof Cutter was on a quest to find his lost wife by that point. Cutter says that he'll do anything to find her. Except, you know, hang around in the Forest of Dean at all for the last eight years. How long did he spend looking for his wife the first time? Not very long it would seem. We discover at the end that this time portal thing comes and goes – clearly wifey went though and the door closed behind her. But then it must open up again on a fairly regular basis or there isn't going to be a series. So why wouldn't Cutter have found some evidence of something – not necessarily from the right time, but something – to make him keep searching until he found the portal?

Unless, of course, the portal is not a natural phenomenon at all, and someone is controlling it. That's plausible, from the way that his disappeared wife was able to leave him a little present and slip off into the night again at the end. Either that or she has impossibly good timing.

There were a couple of terribly weak comic moments, both derived from the "adults don't believe children" school of laughs: Ben's bedroom is torn to pieces by the Gorgonopsid and mum comes in and demands he tidy up the mess – "hello: half the wall missing and the bed chewed up!"; later it may be Ben or a different boy is in detention and sees the monster tracking towards the school – "There's a dinosaur in the playground miss!" (The fact this visual "gag" is a direct steal from Godzilla, down to the beast's tail flicking out of view just as the teacher turns her head, should tell you everything you need to know.)

And both of those moments lead into the other major failing: no one died.

Have you seen what the body count is in many episodes of Doctor Who? People get slaughtered and exterminated left right and centre. Primeval really pulled its punch on this.

There are in fact three deaths in the show: one unfortunate cow, discovered half-way up a tree; one unnamed gentleman, conveniently skeletonised many years before being discovered by the Professor on his jaunt to the Permian; and the unlucky Gorgonopsid itself.

But no people. No one we've met gets munched on. When the Gorgonopsid attacks the boy's bedroom, no one on the street comes out to see what's happening and get eaten for their troubles; the school is conveniently empty of tasty screaming children and teachers. Most improbably, even Mr thinks-he's-so-cool survives. When the hungry Gorgonopsid is trying to get into the classroom – and golly, don't they make those school doors tough these days – he lures it away using himself as live bait only to be cornered, knocked through a door and knocked unconscious. At which point the hungry monster that has been hunting him… loses interest. Phew.

But I'm painting you a picture that this was no good at all, and that's not right.

There was a lot of potential here, and much to enjoy. It's got a great deal of verve and does (just about) manage to overcome the ITV drag factor. The pacing was good, or at least it kept ticking over, though I'd have rather had more monsters for my buck (and your average Doctor Who episode would have left it standing). The directing of the action sequences generally top notch (give or take: the Gorgonopsid may have been changing size to enter the school, but the smash and grab raid on the boy's bedroom was Jurassic Park quality).

Several of the actors are worth mentioning for giving us something worth watching. Ben Millar is always watchable, even when required to be crapped on by an extinct species, and he invests his government trouble shooter character with a twitchy cynicism that is charmingly creepy. And there is also kudos for Andrew Lee Potts as "the nerdy one" (it's easy to say he's just Shaggy from Scooby Doo, but he invested a dumb script with some enthusiasm) and Hannah Spearritt as "the ditzy blonde one" (it needs a lot of natural charm to rise above having to be the one who acts with "Godzuki", especially when the script works even harder to make her look dumb: look, it tells her to take the rare and precious reptile she's just discovered out into the forest so she can lose it. Inspired!)

And the effects, as I said, were terrific. The CGI monsters looked great, hardly ever cartoon-y (except when running, really), and if you'll forgive the whole "pet dinosaur" thing, at least it looks convincing.

And the monsters are really what this is about so far, so tissue thin backstories about mysterious missing wives and clichéd motivation that has people doing things because it's the TV thing to do rather than because a real person would do them is really neither here nor there. It did, mostly, what it said on the tin, and I'm sure I'll give it another go next week, even with the prospect of giant creepy-crawlies.
Though, of course, it's rubbish compared to Doctor Who.

1 comment:

Paul Gregory said...

The lack of cameras was a bit odd. Perhaps the Govt wanted to avoid inexplicable footage turning up on YouTube or The Sun.

And yes, everyone acts like they're on a TV show. I assume this is just a universe where people act like that. I spotted two other differences between our own universe and the Primeval universe:
1) People need to sign the Official Secrets Act for it to apply to them.
2) A skeleton can be identified as male or female by counting the number of ribs.
Intriguingly, both are urban myths.

As Primeval has no remit to educate people about the real Earth history, this can all be ignored as long as the show is entertaining.