17/02/2011

Hocus Pocus, I’m A Recommissoned Diplodocus! by Tim Worthington

Dinosaurs, most experts agree, died out as a result of a huge asteroid impact that took place approximately sixty five million years ago. However, there are some who maintain this was due to a volcanic eruption that covered the ocean floor with lava, and others still that the prehistoric reptiles were unable to adapt to the evolving environment and changes in the food chain. And then there's Beavis & Butthead, who contend that dinosaurs simply got lost in museums where they eventually died of boredom amongst the exhibits.
What they can all agree on is that Primeval became exctinct as a result of aimless 'cost-cutting' at ITV, seemingly as part of a wider initiative to avoid having to actually make any programmes at all. A bizarre press release more or less claimed that "it's so successful that we don't have to make it any more", newsreaders blubbed their way through lists of redundant dinosaurs, and the hapless fans just took the fact that they'd never find out what happened to the team members stranded on the other side of an anomoly in their stride. After all, you can't fight City Hall, even if accompanied by a CGI brontosaurus.

Then something quite unexpected happened. Using the latest in nanogenetic reconstruction technology, as well as some money from rival broadcaster Watch, ITV were able to digitally recreate the biological structure of a Primeval as it might have looked while roaming the television schedules sixty five million seconds ago. And thus it was that audiences of early 2011 were able to thrill to the exploits of the reanimated ARC team in what was hailed as the most important televisual scientific breakthrough of all time, at least until the arrival of The Body In Question 2000 XTREEM presented by Jonathan Miller in a WAP-enabled baseball cap.

An uneven - if always fun - series at the best of times, Primeval was nonetheless in robust dino-health when last seen on our screens. 'Bland Bloke' and the likeable but ineffectual Nick Cutter had finally been ditched in favour of more direct and action-friendly characters, and the production team were showing a willingness to expand the format and allow the time anomolies to be about more than just wandering dinosaurs. It also, for the first time ever, managed to wrangle a fairly dramatic series cliffhanger as opposed to the established 'oh, something's happened'. But when you get gaps of this length between series, it's inevitable that things will have to change due to circumstances beyond anyone's control, leading to the latest of so many Primeval reshuffles that even John Major's cabinet would be advising them to steady on.
Out, at least temporarily, went Danny Quinn and Jenny Lewis, and out more permanently went Sarah Page. Referred to only vaguely and fleetingly on screen, the reasons for her absence were apparently explained more fully in an interactive webisode thingymajig, which few will have seen and even fewer will have cared about. Seriously, when are TV produc ers going to realise that they are short-changing their viewers with such exciting 'exclusive' content? If interactive online-only characters and storylines didn't work for massive blockbusting American shows like Heroes and Lost (which scored a real own-goal by only properly explaining a couple of its central mysteries through spinoff websites), are they really going to work for a primetime ITV show that draws the bulk of its audience as a carry-over from Harry Hill's TV Burp? This kind of 'innovation' should have, ahem, died out with the dinosaurs.
Happily, this excess of extra space does give the still-unfirstnamed Captain Becker - whose introduction was one of the highlights of series three - more to do in his unflappable militaristic not-more-dinosaurs!! way, and the Becker-fancying skilled yet immature Jess Parker is a great foil for the more serious and more familiar characters. However, in a collossally ill-advised move, the producers also saw fit to replace Bland Bloke with an Even Blander Bloke - so dull that this reviewer can't even remember his character name - who seemed to just hang around doing not much in particular apart from recieving annoyingly Torchwood-esque vague warnings of bad times a-comin' from some tweedy type who looked like he'd escaped from a late seventies BBC science show.

The new Primeval cast. Don't they look happy to be here?
Similarly misguided is the introduction of Philip Burton as the new authority-figure-with-an-agenda. There's nothing wrong with the character or the associated storyline at all, just that it leaves the viewer feeling like they've seen this all at least twice before, and the need to have him talk technobabble with Connor (the only character he could realistically talk technobabble with) eats into the screentime of the more amusing Lester and the more well-rounded Abby, who seemed to be reduced to little more than feed-lines by the end of the series. The introduction of the anachronistic rag-taggle of anomoly-hopping thrill-seekers was far more promising, though even then a little too much time was wasted on the other characters saying "they are dangerous because they are dangerous" instead of actually showing why they posed such a problem for the ARC team.
The real draw, though, is of course the dinosaurs themselves, and now it’s in HD the show that no less an authority than Charlie Brooker claimed had “some of the best effects I’ve ever seen in anything ever” now looks even more amazing. So much so, in fact, that it’s easy to forget that all of the creatures are computer generated rather than exceptionally well realised animatronics. The anomolies, too, look pretty impressive in high definition, coming across as three dimensional assemblies of floating shards rather than the only moderately convincing patch of shimmering light they seemed like previously (and that side-by-side appearance of a stable and unstable anomoly was crying out for Harry Hill to do a “…but which is best?” … come on, the unstable anomoly!).
However, no amount of high definition hi-jinks can cover for a programme that doesn’t have a solid script behind it (though try telling that to fans of Dollhouse), and unfortunately, Primeval really let the side down for the first half of its fourth outing. Episode upon episode upon episode seemed to go by with little more than the standard issue ‘carnivorous creature contained in a handily abandoned public place’ antics taking place, with than some of the aforementioned technobabble thrown in as a distraction, and ending on a supposedly ominous exchange between Blander Bloke and his professorial accomplice that nobody could really follow.
Happily, the last three episodes – as is something of a tradition for Primeval – raised the bar to Brontosaurus head height. The episode with some rural types concealing a rampaging creature for the good of the local economy brought a much needed note of variety and issue-exploring (of a sort) to what was rapidly becoming a formulaic setup, the episode set around the guesting Jenny’s wedding put character, dialogue and humour ahead of action (and it was nice to see the team reduced to swinging medieval weapons instead of those boring guns), and the full-throttle final instalment, with the much-needed return of Danny, was a sharp reminder of the fact that when Primeval is good, it’s really very good indeed. Though how many viewers would have remembered the plot strand about Danny’s brother, last seen early in series three as a teenager from 1995 dressed as a teenager from 1991, is open to question.
Heroes never quite developed the power of avoiding cancellation, Robin Hood found out the hard way that riding through the glen just wasn’t cost-effective, and messageboards reverberate with speculation over how many more regenerations Doctor Who can sustain. But it’s Primeval, the least likely show in anyone’s book, that’s pulled off the amazing feat of coming back from cancellation, with more to follow later in the year to boot. Whether it will withstand another budgetary impact event or lava flood remains to be seen, and if they want to avoid that happening they’ll really have to do something about that perrennial ‘weak opening episodes’ problem, but the mere fact that it came back is a mighty achievement in itself, not to mention encouraging proof that the ‘money men’ don’t always get the last word about your favourite shows. But don’t go holding your breath for similar miracles being performed on the amber fossil traces of series three of The Tripods.

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