The opening episode of season 2 certainly wastes no time in establishing a new tenor for the show. In some senses it seems as if some of the scientific plausibility has been stripped away in favour of more standard telefantasy devices so when the ARC was unveiled I was reminded of the revamped seaQuest vehicle and that’s not really a compliment. There was something very English about the Home Office used for the first season whereas this new rather unfeasibly large (considering its all supposed to be top secret) place where hundreds of people seem to work looks very American (and you have to wonder what exactly this army of employees all do!). When you reduce any show to simply finding and chasing the result is blandness whatever the quality of the FX. Thankfully though early impressions (the episode takes half its running time to settle down) are deceptive, not only is there a lovely bit of pretend science to enjoy (with the radios) but we see that Primeval has tried to improve the characterisations.
Much of the time last year there was little sense of believability about the people. Harcore sci-fi fans disliked Connor but for me he seemed the only living breathing character and that was partly because he got the best lines and courtesy of Andrew Lee Potts – an actor very good at switching from funny to serious in a second- he came alive. This episode again allows him to shine and Hannah Spearitt seems to be developing Abby too, no longer a foil for other people’s lines she does seem more involved. The real surprise though is Doulgas Henshall who I felt was underwritten in series 1, but here faced with the changes Cutter encounters he delivers a committed and quite emotional performance earning his status as leader of the cast.
The script does however seem to skirt over most of the juicy possibilities of the changes rather too easily; the potential niggling between Cutter and Stephen disappears half way through and even Abby’s reaction to having been placed in danger twice by Connor seems benign bemusement rather than anger. Having tried a reboot the script seems anxious to return to the way things were. That being said, this is a very visual action orientated opener and if a little slow to start, by the time of the chases in the mall and several key scenes of the raptor attacking we are probably not too fussed about holes. The FX are excellent combining with some brilliant sound work and director Jamie Payne’s camera work to create enough edge of the seat moments. The humour was strong; whether Connor’s quirky quips or Lester’s more droll observations, it really is an aspect of the show that works. Ben Miller is well suited to this role and his crawly new sidekick Leek shows early promise as a good foil.
What’s also pleasing is the writer’s refusal to stand still, with the discovery of a way of predicting the anomalies the format is being moved on again and that’s all for the good. There are lots of little issues floating about now with plenty for the writers to exploit. There’s something rather good too about the way the general public remains ignorant of both the anomalies and rampaging creatures. Plus there is something much more tense about a raptor chasing just you in a shopping centre than the whole world being invaded.
Part 2 sees a similar scenario this time set in an office block where a strange mist seaps through an anomaly though this is really so that the erstwhile Claudia, now called Jenny Lewis, can bed in as the team’s PR gloss person. The scripts a cocktail that doesn’t always taste right; Jenny seems not to have been briefed at all about her job, so quite how she got it is a mystery while the giant worm like things that live in the mist are choosy about when and where to attack. The possibilities are greater than the results and there is often too little tension where there should be lots, partly because when it suits the plot, people seem able to stroll about in the mist unscathed.
However, there are some lovely character moments in this episode, the Cutter / Jenny scenes are well written and Connor again gets the best lines. Mad as a hatter Helen is also back briefly allowing Juliet Aubrey to do her mysterious face that always suggests she’s up to something. All told, it lacks the energy of part 1. Mind you, they have upped the humour content this year – the Japanese businessman’s reaction to witnessing the goings on during a conference call and the way Connor is suddenly attacked- are great gags.
While the third episode fails as a whodunit, telegraphing Gillian Kearney’s smilodon loving zoologist after about ten minutes, as a thriller it works superbly. Taking cues from 70s disaster films –the bit where Connor thinks he sees a big cat from his vantage point is straight from Jaws- the tension is kept taut by keeping the sabre toothed marauder under wraps till halfway through. The encounter between the animal and Cutter in a pine filled lodge is one of the best the series has yet done. The tiger looks a tad false outside, but at close quarters is full of sound and fury and the sequence piles one incident after another pulling you to the edge of your seat. The sound mix, always a strong point, is top notch in this episode with lots of growls and snarls shooting out of the speakers.
Elsewhere, there’s plenty of humour, which seems to have increased this season and a little intrigue too, courtesy of Connor’s new girlfriend. The fact that she is seemingly in the employ of Lester’s new oily sidekick Leek (and does Lester even know?) is an interesting sidebar that looks as if should play out well later on though of course it fizzles out at the end of the season. Once again though the episode reinforces Connor’s seemingly pre-eminent position; he gets the best lines and continues to benefit from a character arc that nobody else seems to have. Lucy Brown’s ability to crumple from confident to terrified as soon as faced with a threat makes her an asset too; her flirting with the public to persuade them to toe the PR line is enjoyable.
Episode 4, set in amongst canals and including a sort of giant walrus / shark thing from the future again exposes the show’s strengths and weaknesses. Once it gets going the action is terrific stuff with various team members in danger of being killed by the monster as it and its children stalk the waterways. Yet the broader attempts at adding to the characterisation stretch credulity. Take Connor’s new girlfriend for example; she somehow manages to catch Abby’s pet dino Rex and put it in the freezer, but you think to yourself- how and why does she do this? Clearly she is more athletic than she seems and surely such an act would immediately raise suspicions? Then there’s Stephen and Nick whose different approaches to sorting out the threat nearly lead to disaster yet the former seems to hold his point of view for no discernibly credible reason.
There remains a lack of interaction between most of these people which, this many episodes in, should not be the case and it spoils attempts to make the show more sophisticated. Otherwise it remains an enjoyable and sometimes tense runaround and thank goodness for the sub plot of whatever Leek and his agents are up to; it is to be hoped that this does turn out to be something good and it is telling that the appearance of Helen at the end is more intriguing than the preceding 55 minutes.
This plot gains more prominence in the fifth episode (can’t they give them melodramatic names like `Sands of Doom`!) when Leek sends three mercenaries into the latest anomaly on a mysterious mission (possibly to capture a creature?). However they end up as food to a group of giant scorpions creatures which does give some sense that historical accuracy is being slowly pushed aside for adventure and pseudo science. This could be a double edged sword- on the one hand this season has had more exciting moments, on the other it has edged a little closer to being little more than a comic strip. Anyway, also trapped in the sand covered hellhole is a girl called Taylor whose disappearance is looked into by Cutter and team. Or, as the ITV continuity announcer insists on calling him, “Cutler”. The sequences in the desert locale are very well shot with some filters making it look very hot and exotic though it was probably filmed in this country. There’s more than a whiff of the cult film Tremors as the predators `swim` about under the sand and our heroes have to stay on rocks to avoid being eaten. Inevitably there’s a varying degree of safety depending on the situation; Cutter and Stephen can trek for ages on the sand but our mercenary pals are eaten up after just a few steps. And we are led to believe that a helpful crescent of rocks leads all the way back to the anomaly. Also, as pointed out by the `Radio Times, Helen seems able to come and go as she pleases whereas it doesn’t take much for the others to get trapped.
The sub plot has Connor attempting to come to terms with his feelings for Abby having blurted out last week that he loves her, admittedly when it looked like she was about to be eaten alive by a giant walrus which would bring out the romantic in any of us! This is tenderly played though there isn’t enough room to do it properly. Our surprise that someone like Connor would dump his girlfriend by text is assuaged by the fact that she always seems to have it in for Rex and this week seems to have kidnapped the poor thing. Quite why she seems able to linger about in the flat when neither Connor or Abby are there remains a mystery in itself. It’s a pity Naomi Bentley doesn’t have more screen time; the duplicitous girlfriend who really does fall in love with Connor was what we were expecting, instead she’s psycho girlfriend who’d rather attack the pet than do whatever it is she’s supposed to be doing.
This is a good episode that, like several others this season, could have been a great one. It’s let down by weak dialogue- though the encounters between Cutter and Jenny are always good – and a tendancy to paper over inconveniences though the action remains excitingly done, the FX never less than sharp and the overall arc plot bubbling up interestingly.
For understandable enough reasons Primeval plots rarely strays into the wider public domain and all the anomalies conveniently appear in remote, out of the way places. In the sixth and best episode (written by acclaimed Doctor Who scribe Paul Cornell with a discernable difference to the feel) we have a mammoth on the motorway. And it’s very angry, so much so that it spends the first fifteen minute turning cars over and threatening everybody. It’s a superbly realised set piece, the open air and space not proving any hazard to the series’ trademark FX skills and there’s a terrific bit where Cutter is trying to rescue a woman trapped in her car which the Mammoth is hitting rather hard. And the moment when we see it charging through the rear view mirror is un-nerving too. The dichotomy of the show’s superb visuals and shakier plotting is instantly brought home though when you hear Jenny’s succinct public relations strategy and you think: did none of the motorists take a snap of the Mammoth and send it to anyone, who would then load it on YouTube? This is something season 3 is going to have to deal with because there’s only so much you can cover up in our tabloid orientated 24 hour news society.
Anyway it turns out that the Mammoth is only the appetizer for more human matters as Oliver Leek’s plot trickles out and we find Lester, on his own in the Arc being pursued by the future predator. Notwithstanding the fact that nobody has thought to ask why a white van has been parked up in the main control room all day, this is another very well directed scene with lots of lights flickering on and off and shock camera angles. Plus Lester manages to just about keep his demeanour even when he’s being clawed at. It does make you realise we know next to nothing about him. The intrigue is stacked up quite well when it comes to what Leek is up to and there’s some classic tricking the audience stuff at the end plus a cliff hanger to make us really look forward to the last episode of the season which certainly delivers on the expected mind bending twist that the seems to be the series’ signature sign off.
Unlike the first season, this year’s finale doesn’t quite manage to be the sum of its parts. All the ingredients are lined up but each resolved to some extent unsatisfactorily. Take the whole Helen / Cutter thing; she’s a master manipulator yet easily duped into believing what he was wittering on about in while incarcerated. Then there’s her motivation, never properly explained and dumped when things get tough so she pitches in to help. Or how about Stephen who supposedly gets a heroic send off but only because he has to close a door from the inside! Was there no other way to get out and contain the situation? Is this really a climactic death for a main character? There is therefore a sense of boxes being ticked here and a feeling of contrivance about the whole thing which might not have been so bad had the direction been unusually flat at crucial moments.
Good things about the episode include some ingenious escapology against seemingly overwhelming odds. The most exciting bits come early on and they are choice, especially the escape from the dinosaur’s dinner and Cutters unbelievable but very exciting escape from the army of future predators. Leek’s demise is well played too, that computer virus we all thought had failed was brought into play by an ingenious bit of Cutter cleverness. Plus lots of monsters = plenty of teatime fun!
The twist- multiple identical mercenaries and lots of hints from Helen about the future- suggest another reboot next season and with reports it will be ten episodes long the future for this series – still averaging between 6 -7 million viewers an episode – does indeed look bright. Primeval has proved it can do thrills and spills and spin a decent yarn, even throw in the odd curveball but the competition is obvious and compared to the 2007 season of Doctor Who, this series has a long way to go before it reaches the point where it is nudging the button marked `classic`. Lets hope it can reach that high.