Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 6
Overall Plot: 6
Audience Assumptions: No familiarity
Season One – *****
Part One: What if Jurassic Park, but Kind of Better?
Confession time: I don’t really like Jurassic Park.
Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I have complicated feelings about it. The first film is a solid blockbuster and its influence on how the public saw dinosaurs — as intricate, intelligent animals rather than mushy lumps to be killed by cavemen in 1940s films — can’t be understated. However, I think the first Jurassic Park gets far too much credit for its few moments of brilliance. It’s far from a perfect film, structurally and thematically, and it hasn’t aged well with time. The sequels, as much as I love them for their oddness and cgi, have actively hindered the study of paleontology through misrepresentation of the field. Nostalgia for the original, perpetuated through the sequels, has a damaging effect on how dinosaurs are portrayed, to the point where complex papers describing dinosaur integuments are thrown into chaotic wars headed by a vanguard of pro- and anti-Jurassic Park advocates. It’s not the huge problem it was a few years ago, but more than a few paleontologists will groan if you ask them what they think of the Jurassic series.
Jurassic Park is a remarkable piece of art, to be sure, but a better narrative about dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures is waiting to be written and become similarly widespread. Several, I would wager.
Primeval is not that narrative. I know, bit of a disappointing payoff to all that buildup, right? But I don’t say that to be vindictive. Primeval is a decent little series that, like In the Flesh, gained a devoted fanbase but never immense popularity. It did well for the sort of series it is, but it would be a bit of an overstatement to call it a success. Primeval is cut from a similar cloth to Jurassic Park, taking some semi-scientific concepts and running off with them to create a melodramatic narrative that really just boils down to people with cars and guns being chased by dinosaurs.
I kind of love it for that, though? I like it for the same reasons I like the Jurassic Park films, and I think it has more to offer, being a television series and venturing outside of the limitations of dinosaurs and genetic engineering. It’s a B-grade series, and don’t ever forget that, but because it’s not held on a pedestal like the similarly B-grade Jurassic Park, it often manages to surprise and delight.
Primeval is not especially remarkable in any one way, but enough of its parts mesh that the sum of the series is better than it probably should be. There are a lot of small things to enjoy about it, like how the makeup of the characters allows each of them to contribute something to an investigation (or hinder it, as the case may be). I like how Abby can often identify the broad group a creature belongs to faster than the paleontologists, and how exposition is fairly readily worked into the plot when characters need to catch each other up on something that not all of them may know. Each person has their own specialty that allows the series to at least play around with scientific concepts, like how the electromagnetic properties of the anomalies allow them to be located with compasses. The show is probably less scientifically accurate than your average CSI-style series, but its breadth allows it to explore more concepts and its obvious sci-fi elements reduce the confusion between reality and fiction than a more realistic series might. No one would mistake the creatures running around doing flips down hallways for accurate portrayals, especially once the series starts to make up creatures of its own. The few piece of accuracy or plausible speculation tend to be a welcome addition and slot in naturally alongside the obvious dramatic elements.
Speaking of the creatures, one of the things that sets Primeval apart from almost any other series featuring prehistoric creatures is how obscure some of the animals it brings in are. The only dinosaurs featured in the first season are Hesperornis and dodos, both birds, and while pterosaurs and mosasaurs are among the more well-known prehistoric creatures, I challenge you to find someone on the street who knows what a gorgonopsid is. Each episode tends to feature an anomaly from a given time period with a core monster causing havoc and a few side creatures that come through the anomaly at the same time. The first episode is the clearest example of this, with the sabre-toothed cat-like gorgonopsid, an early relative of mammals, starring. It’s inaccurate, being far larger and more toothy than any fossil gorgonopsid, but that it’s even in a mainstream television series, never mind the very first prehistoric creature encountered, is something I can appreciate.
Part Two: The Crew
The series uses the basic crew-on-a-mission format, with at least one new prehistoric creature introduced in each episode. The animals are coming through time portals, called anomalies, discovered in the first episode by a couple of random characters who eventually become part of the core crew. They bring the existence of the anomalies to paleontologist Nick Cutter, a professor at a fictional British university and the series protagonist.
Cutter is a sardonic but occasionally excitable scientist who’s fascinated by anomalies of a different sort — prehistoric creatures that appear seemingly at random in the fossil record long after their relatives have gone extinct. He has the academic wherewithal to understand the anomalies and their consequences better than most of the other characters, and once he’s convinced of their existence, he’s hell-bent on learning more about them. Cutter’s wife, Helen (also a paleontologist) disappeared several years prior to the start of the story, and Cutter is haunted by the thought that she might still be alive. Unbeknownst to Cutter, Helen has been living in the past by navigating the anomalies.
Cutter works with a technician, Stephen, who’s the team’s obligate pretty boy. He’s not an especially complex character, though he does become somewhat more involved in the story as it progresses. Stephen is there to be the action man, competent enough with weapons, running, climbing, and animal wrangling that he can be the person the larger creatures in the series chase. Actually, he gets chased quite a lot and occasionally imperiled, which is a nice change from the damsel in distress cliche. He also serves as the other male leg of a love triangle that last about two episodes before the series forgets about it entirely.
Conner, student and one of several resident conspiracy theorists at the university, brings reports of the anomalies to Cutter and Stephen’s attention, but is quickly dismissed (not without reason — Connor’s explanation for the anomalies is, of course, aliens). This prompts him to investigate on his own, stumbling upon the anomaly that is the focus of the first episode. Conner is quickly established as the comic relief, but easily has the most character development in the first and all subsequent seasons. Conner is a bit of an incompetent but enthusiastic goof whose skills lie in technology and computer programming, which come in handy enough to keep him on the core team despite an obvious lack of other qualifications.
While the university group is investigating the anomaly, Abby, a herpetologist at London Zoo, is conducting a separate investigation on a strange lizard that’s turned up in the area. She stumbles upon the animals who have wandered through the anomaly from the past, including a Coeleurosauravus, a Scutosaurus, and a gorgonopsid. Abby is a somewhat inconsistent character at first, but like Conner, she gets a fair bit of character development over the course of the series. She’s an action character to back up Stephen, more familiar with live animals than any other member of the team and therefore able to supplement Cutter’s knowledge of fossil organisms with modern analogues. I’m astounded that a mainstream series like this features a herpetologist as a main character, and a female one at that. Abby’s surprisingly well-composed, especially considering that her character would ordinarily just be a sexy lamp in a series like this.
A government investigation is launched by the Home Office when the university team and Abby stumble upon one another, introducing the audience to the two final members of the main cast, Lester and Claudia.
Claudia Brown is Cutter’s romantic interest, especially in this season. Like Stephen, she doesn’t often step outside of the boundaries written for her character, but she does occasionally surprise by offering bureaucratic skills. Claudia serves a function within the story, it’s just not an especially interesting one: she cordons off areas where anomalies are suspected, organizes resources, and mitigates the damage while the others are off chasing dinosaurs and mammoths. These sorts of characters are common in sci-fi series of this ilk, but they’re rarely part of the main crew, so she’s a decent addition to the core cast.
Lester might be the best argument for why bureaucratic characters should be included in more series about prehistoric creatures gone amok. He’s essentially the boss of all of the others, Claudia’s direct supervisor and the man who signs off on all of the field crew’s actions. On the surface, he’s not an especially interesting character, being stuffy and entirely uninterested in the scientific marvel of the anomalies. However, look a bit deeper, and you’ll find that he’s pretty much just as bland on the inside as well. No, Lester isn’t a great character because he’s given anything worthwhile to do; he’s brilliant because of his lines and Ben Miller’s line delivery. Lester is almost a caricature of the proper British businessman, which provides a beautiful juxtaposition to the ramshackle crew of paleontologists and biologists haphazardly chasing after whatever prehistoric creature has escaped from the anomalies. In any other world, Lester would be overseeing building ordinances or land zoning, maybe the local police organization if he were feeling adventurous. In this world, though, he’s somehow gotten stuck trying to manage the secret dinosaur containment and retrieval unit and he hates every minute of it. Lester is wonderful.
Overall, I’m surprised at how cohesive the main cast is, especially so early in the series. Most of them are fairly well-rounded characters, which is more than can be said of similar shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The X-Files, Alphas, or Torchwood, all of which have at least a handful of extraneous characters only there to play one note. The series establishes areas of expertise and interest that overlap, allowing different characters to cooperate well with each other and ensuring that character dynamics have a lot of mobility. While some characters rarely interact, like Abby and Claudia, they at least develop some sort of rapport that can play out in later episodes even when they haven’t encountered each other for a while. All of the characters have interconnecting relationships, and that’s crucial when the core of the series is these characters constantly risking their lives and working together.
Part Three: Killer Dodos and Pterosaur Murder Mysteries
The first season follows a surprisingly cohesive structure. The first episode sets the stage for what this series is: an action-adventure procedural featuring extinct animals running around various British locales. The team is assembled, comprising a scientist branch, military branch, and bureaucratic branch, and a few key threads are established that build through the first season. First, that anomalies exist and must be contained (hence the team coming together), and second, that Cutter’s wife, Helen, might still be alive. The audience sees a woman who appears to be Helen at the start and end of the episode, but she vanishes shortly thereafter.
The second episode establishes a new anomaly in the London Underground set in the Carboniferous time period. This episode builds on the properties of the anomalies, informing the audience that environments can leak through the portals along with the creatures. The stakes also rise when a large Arthopleura (they call it a centipede but the species was likely more similar to millipedes) kills some workers and bites Stephen. The series is occasionally comedic, but one of its hallmarks is the regular deaths of characters. While these are often precipitated more by actors leaving the series (especially in later seasons) than by logical plot progression, the dour character deaths actually work quite well in the first season.
The third episode features mosasaurs and continues to build upon the properties of the anomalies when the team encounters a mobile anomaly running along a temporal fault. The series doesn’t play around with this same phenomenon much, but it’s used to good effect in bringing the bureaucratic and science branches at odds with one another. Cutter and his crew are set up to be interested in returning the creatures to their original worlds unharmed, largely out of compassion for them. Lester and Claudia are more invested in the human lives of their operation and want the creatures gone one way or another, often having to put their feet down and kill the creatures if Cutter’s team aren’t able to sedate them. Cutter also encounters Helen and realizes she’s been living in the past the entire time she’s been missing. They have a brief reunion in which she suggests Cutter stay with her and the living versions of the creatures they’ve spent their lives studying, but Cutter refuses and returns to the present-day.
The fourth episode is one of the highlights of the series and deserves more attention than I can offer here. Throughout the season, the various characters have been developing their own subplots, such as Abby trying to hide the lizard-like Coeleruosauravus (affectionately named “Rex”) from the first episode in her house, and Connor trying to keep his new job secret from his conspiracy-loving roommates. Connor’s subplot comes to a head here when his friends follow him and discover a dodo that’s wandered through an anomaly.
The dodos are the only creature in this episode, which seems a fun change from all of the terrifying prehistoric monsters that have come through the anomalies so far. However, the team soon realizes that previously unknown creatures not preserved in the fossil record can come through the anomalies as well; the dodo have brought a deadly parasite with them that’s transferred like rabies through bites. While the main team are wrangling the dodos, Connor’s friends capture one of them and bring it back to their apartment. They’re convinced that Connor is involved in some sort of government cloning project and are in the midst of trying to figure out what to do with the dodo when it bites one of them.
From there, the fourth episode turns into a mad dash to find Tom, the roommate who was bitten, before he dies from the parasite or spreads it around the city. Tom wanders London, confused, his behavior altered by the parasite to make him likely to bite the people around him. He quickly realizes that he has something living inside of him and becomes panicked and paranoid. By the time the team catches up to him, Tom is too far gone and dies from the parasite. I quite like the effect this episode has on Connor and the implication that the stakes aren’t only high for the main characters, but also the people they care about. It’s one of the more dire and the ending comes as a minor shock because up until now, the only characters the series has threatened to kill have been extras introduced in a given episode.
Episode Five is a bit of a whodunit involving some pterosaurs, and is more of a mystery-thriller than most of the other episodes. It’s not especially deep or complex, but it builds upon the anomaly lore (they can appear in midair) and gives the characters another run-in with Helen. After stalking the main crew for a while and facing brief capture by Lester and Claudia’s team, Helen becomes wary of the main crew. Lester and Claudia want her for the information she’s gleaned about the anomalies, but she wants to continue living in the past and seems unwilling to give up her secrets. However, her continued interest in Cutter and her curiosity about the rest of the crew keeps her coming back. Occasionally, she returns to rescue them; more often, it’s to push and ensure they’re always a few steps behind her. As the team is still struggling to regularly find and contain the anomalies before people die, their interest in capturing Helen remains a secondary goal.
The final episode of the first season ramps things up, rounding off the series with an effective cliffhanger. Helen returns to warn the characters of a particularly dangerous creature that’s come through out of concern that the creature with wreak havoc on the ecosystem and also out of some guilt in being the reason it’s come through. She soon reveals that the creature in question is from the future, a descendant of bats evolved to be highly intelligent, quick, and deadly. The team unites with Helen to kill the creature (simply called a future predator) but find it has offspring. When Helen and Cutter try to return the juvenile predators to the future, they realize they have to pass through the Permian anomaly once more, and there, another adult creature attacks them. Their escort is killed, the juvenile predators escape, the adult predator is killed in a fight with a gorgonopsid, and Helen runs off in the midst of the chaos. The series ends with a definitive failure that only gets worse as Cutter returns through the portal. By this point, he’s been building up a romantic relationship with Claudia, and upon returning, he comes to learn that none of the others knows anyone by that name. It seems that Cutter has stumbled into a parallel world where Claudia Brown never existed, and now he’s stuck there.
The first season is easily the most structurally sound of the five, simple in its execution and hokey at times, but competent enough to establish a solid foundation for an intriguing little series. It has several nice elements that show their potential, namely the characters and the series’ willingness to commit to events. When characters die, they stay dead and Cutter remains in the parallel universe for the rest of the series. Primeval has some of the same tone as series like Doctor Who, willing to bring in a particular brand of British humor while also mediating its comedy by ensuring that death is a serious consequence of the characters’ actions. Primeval isn’t so outlandish that characters are jumping in from the future armed with glowing tech armor and laser guns, but it also doesn’t feel the need to use time-travel as an excuse to reset its story.
This proves to be one of the series’ saving graces, and also its fatal flaw. The time-travel within the series is used mainly as an excuse for the series to give its characters some neat prehistoric monsters to wrangle, but it can be used for a lot more. By limiting the use of time-travel, those moments like when Cutter comes back to a changed world have that much more impact. However, the series struggles to keep a cohesive structure as the seasons go on, especially as actors leave and old subplots are left unresolved. The new ones added to replace them are often enticing in their own right, but I get the feeling that this series wanted to build upon its earlier subplots throughout the series. The characters who last through to the end benefit from such buildup while subplots left ambiguous or on cliffhangers feel unfinished.
Nonetheless, the first season remains largely intact. The series isn’t exactly a hidden gem — being both relatively well-known and also fairly standard fare for it’s genre — but if you haven’t seen it already and like a good bit of prehistoric shenanigans, it’s worth a watch.