Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 6
Overall Plot: 6
Audience Assumptions: No familiarity
Season Two – ****
Part One: Fun With Time Travel
When we last left our intrepid heroes, Nick Cutter had gone through the Permian anomaly and lost some frightening killer bats, the biggest of which was killed by a gorgonopsid. This incident seems to have gone mostly unnoticed by the timeline of the series, but what little effect it did have was important for Cutter; he finds himself in a parallel world where his love interest, Claudia Brown, no longer exists.
The second season of Primeval picks up the cliffhanger the first season left on, with Cutter asking about Claudia to confused, concerned faces. He quickly realizes what’s happened and, shocked, drops his questions and just goes along with the rest of his crew. He soon learns that Claudia’s existence isn’t the only thing that’s changed; the crew has moved out of the Home Office and into their own research center called the ARC. Cutter confides in Conner about his concerns with this new reality, but even his number one fan is skeptical.
Cutter doesn’t have long to adjust to the circumstances before the team is beset with new reports of creatures — dromaeosaurs — rampaging around a local mall. From there, the team is more or less back to normal, with the characters adopting their roles from the previous season. As before, the team slowly learns more about the anomalies and how to keep them under control, with Connor and Cutter realizing in the first episode that they can use radio frequencies to detect the anomalies as they appear.
Cutter’s parallel world concerns are put on the wayside until Lester hires a PR representative to explain away sightings of dinosaurs and similar prehistoric monsters. In a bizarre twist, the PR representative turns out to be Claudia Brown — or, rather, a woman who looks just like her named Jenny Lewis. They hit it off swimmingly, with Cutter insisting that she’s another woman with memories she doesn’t have who knew him really well in an alternate world that no one but he remembers. Real lady charmer, that Cutter.
This plot doesn’t return to the series often after Jenny Lewis (the Claudia doppelganger) comes into the story. Cutter drops his inquiry after just a few episodes, and while the plot point returns a few times, it doesn’t have a large impact on the plot after this point.
I’m kind of split on the introduction of a common time travel gimmick in this series. Generally, I dislike time travel paradoxes that only change small things, especially when the point of alteration happens 250 million years in the past. It’s hard to swallow, especially in a series like this that prides itself on at least having a semblance of realism to its fantastical elements.
That said, I appreciate that Primeval avoids the common pitfalls associated with this kind of narrative device. Series like Doctor Who that play fast and loose with time travel can get away with this sort of thing because they lack much of an internal logic and rely on emotional context to establish stakes. Even then, any series that over-uses time travel runs the risk of making any changes to a timeline or creation of parallel universes feel arbitrary; what’s to stop characters from simply going back in time and trying again? The story often provides a limp excuse for why something has to stick (Cursed Child, I’m looking at you), and as a result, the drama of the situation ends up feeling artificial and contrived.
Primeval sets itself apart by sticking to its changes. Cutter never returns to his own timeline and Claudia never reappears. Both would be easy to do from a technical standpoint, but the show opts to give the sudden transition more weight by forcing the characters to live with the consequences of their actions. While I’m slightly disappointed the show doesn’t pursue this line of thinking further, showing what Cutter’s life is like with small things like his house and personal belongings shifted around ever so slightly, what it does provide is compelling on its own. After he realizes he’s changed the timeline, Cutter becomes paranoid about doing further damage. He goes out of his way to try to ensure the survival of the creatures and return them to their original times, even more than he did before. He’s anxious when people leave things in the past as well. All of this makes Cutter aggravating to work with, especially for characters like Lester who have more practical concerns like keeping people alive. It isn’t really a new conflict as much as it’s an accentuation of an existing conflict, but it works.
Part Two: Speaking of Stakes…
Claudia’s disappearance kicks off the start of the season, but that’s far from the main source of drama for the season. Season Two is action-packed and much less episodic than the previous season; it has one more episode, but the last several combine to an elongated end climax. Throughout the season, the stakes are raised as characters are put in more danger and Helen plays a more prominent villain role, alongside some minor lackeys involved in a creature-kidnapping conspiracy.
While the anomaly team continues to search for and restrain creatures, more regularly encountering exaggerated prehistoric animals and futuristic beasts, the side characters gradually become aware of strange goings-on around the ARC. Cutter notices reports of the creatures dying when the military team goes in to restrain them, and he also notices the lack of bodies. Connor and Abby, sharing a flat for totally platonic buddy reasons, square off over Connor’s suspicious new girlfriend. In a bizarre twist, we learn that Stephen has been visited by Helen and was romantically involved with her years ago.
This last spate of events is one of the more perplexing within the series. Stephen is not an exceptionally interesting character, nor has he ever been. He’s really just there to fill out the team and look good on posters, but functionally, he’s probably the least essential member of the crew. He’s not even a “dumb jock” archetype; he’s too smart for that. Stephen gets a few good lines every so often, but far fewer than the other members of the team, and the combination of his usually serious demeanor and lack of flaws makes him a bit too Mary-Sue for my liking. His actor isn’t bad, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he’s a pointless character, but when the show tries to make him a more central character in this season, all of the emptiness of the character becomes readily apparent.
Toward the end of the season, Stephen essentially joins Helen and leaves the main team. Her plan is vague as most bad sci-fi villain plans are, but essentially boils down to the ARC’s efforts being futile. As she sees it, the creatures are going to come through time eventually and wreak havoc, so they might as well use that trend to their advantage. She works loosely alongside some side workers at the ARC, notably a man called Oliver Leek. Leek has set up a facility to hold the creatures his workers have sneaked out of the anomalies over the previous season, including the terrifying future predators, which he has devised a way to control.
Why on earth Stephen is on-board with this plan is beyond me and the other characters. The show indicates that Stephen only has a rudimentary understanding of what Leek and Helen are doing, and his brief change in alliance reverses abruptly at the end of the season. Him sleeping with Helen is also a weird addition. Within the context of the story, you could likely come up with explanations for Stephen’s slight change in character, claiming that it’s because of the parallel timeline, but not only is this never explored, the show seems to imply that it needs no explanation for this development.
And it’s kind of important that we get an explanation because Stephen sacrifices himself heroically at the end. This is a big event for the show — it’s the first time one of the main crew has died, and it’s pretty gruesome. While Stephen’s death isn’t graphic for the audience, Cutter watches him get torn to pieces by the creatures Leek has locked up in his facility. Cutter’s long, recently fraught relationship with Stephen, loss of Claudia, and role as the leader of the group makes losing his second-in-command painful to a degree this series rarely accomplishes.
However, it’s also still Stephen. I get that the series may have thrown in his last-minute back-stabbing to give him some flaws to make him relatable before he dies, but their choice of action does little to make his character more nuanced. He’s still the same old boring Stephen, just with a glob of adultery thrown on top. I do think the death scene works, mainly because of Cutter’s relationship to Stephen, but I think there are a few reasons the series never brings him back.
Part Three: What If We Could Remote-Control the Killer Bat-Aliens?
I actually feel that the raised stakes and conspiracy subplot detract from what worked about the first season of this series. While the show remains visibly episodic and introduces new creatures in almost every episode, toward the end of the season, those creatures feel superlative to the story the show wants to tell. The conspiracy subplot is weak, relying on characters who are obvious cheats and liars, and a premise that might as well have inspired Jurassic World. This series’ strength has never been in its ability to tell a good action story; its campy atmosphere, fun main characters, monster-of-the-week format, and vague interest in science were what made it work. Removing or reducing those elements for the sake of spectacle is a bit disappointing.
The characters are still enjoyable, and it gets a few good laughs out of every episode. By this point, the series displays its love of the Wilhelm Scream right on its sleeve, which lends it a charm all its own. Connor and Abby have a playful will-they-won’t-they relationship, which I don’t particularly care about, but they’re both still likable characters so action-based drama driven by their care for one another creates some surprisingly enjoyable moments. Lester is still a delight, though I think this season raises his authority and gives him more opportunity to bite back against Cutter’s wishes, making him almost antagonistic at times. Jenny Lewis is delightful; she’s similar to Claudia in a lot of ways, but the show forcing her to realize that her job involves chasing down dinosaurs is exactly as hilarious as it sounds.
This season isn’t devoid of good moments — not by a long shot. The early and middle episodes are familiar but don’t feel repetitive, and the creatures continue to be well-balanced. In this season, the characters are beset by raptors, giant Cambrian worms, a sabre-toothed cat, futuristic aquatic primates that look like ugly mermaids, giant sand scorpions, and a Columbian mammoth. While the realism of the creatures hasn’t improved much, it’s still nice to see some less represented creatures in the mix. Columbian mammoths are the larger, less hairy southern cousins of the woolly variety people are more familiar with, and they deserve some love. It’s also nice to see raptors with at least a few feathers, and bright blue to boot. They’re not especially realistic and the show’s reluctance to give them a more specific name hints at a continued reverence for the reputation of the Jurassic Park Velociraptors, but I like to see more interesting dinosaur designs, and any series that plays around with feathers gets points in my book. The Mer, the futuristic aqua-primates, are also a neat addition. The show implies throughout its run that its various creatures are the inspiration for mythical creatures, hence alien-looking future bats and murderous singing sea monkeys. I like that the myths are exaggerations of the creatures, too; the Mer look more like the desiccated corpse of a mermaid than the fair maiden of old bestiaries. I wish there was more focus on the creatures in this season.
Primeval was never more than a B-level show, but even a slight dip in its defining features feels like it drags on the quality of the series. It’s not bad, but the show clearly isn’t skilled at juggling an overarching plot alongside its more episodic run, at least as far as action subplots are concerned. The character development is what makes this show work, and that holds true throughout its run. Where this show emphasizes its defining characteristics, it generally holds up. However, it lacks the flexibility to venture into new territory most of the time, and ultimately, it suffers for it.