The first several seasons of “The X-Files” rank as some of the best entertainment television has to offer. They deftly mixed creatures, characters, and creative storytelling together to form a captivating show with more hits than misses. Episodes were divided between the mythology, which explored the series’ story arc of aliens and Mulder’s missing sister, and stand alone episodes referred to as the monster-of-the-week. I was always more partial to the latter style where each episode brought new creatures and challenges without the heavy burden of deep conspiracies and back story. The show was eventually consumed by cast changes, confusion, and mediocrity, and there’s been nothing approaching it’s monster-filled greatness on TV since. Until now.
“Primeval” is a British show about a team of scientists and government agents investigating a series of time portals, or temporal anomalies, or doorways into the prehistoric past, or glittery light shows from whence deadly creatures emerge… let’s just call them time portals. Professor Nick Cutter (Douglas Henshall), his assistant Stephen Hart (James Murray), and student/hipster geek Connor Temple (Andrew-Lee Potts) get word of a possible creature roaming the Forest of Dean outside of London. Cutter’s interest is more than simply professional… his wife disappeared in those woods eight years ago. They head out expecting nothing more than a prank but soon discover their first portal… and the two prehistoric creatures that have come through. One of them is a small, harmless, flying reptile, but the other is a large, carnivorous beast hungry for a meaty snack. The discovery brings them in contact with a very cute herpetologist named Abbie Maitland (Hannah Spearritt) and Claudia Brown (Lucy Brown), a mysterious agent from the government’s home office. Together they work to contain and return the beasts to their time or when necessary to kill them. As season one’s six episodes unfurl the mystery and danger behind the portals will deepen with more threatening beasts, unexpected deaths, the return of Cutter’s wife, and one fantastic, jaw-dropping cliffhanger. And did I mention several episodes feature the sexy, blonde pixie Abbie in her underwear?
As a monster-of-the-week show “Primeval” succeeds brilliantly. Since the portals are time based all of zoology is fair game, and since they work forward as well as back there’s room for cryptozoological beasts, hybrids, and original creations too. Seasons one and two, both included in BBC Video’s Primeval Volume One DVD, feature various dinosaurs, giant insects and worms, deadly parasites, saber tooth tigers, futuristic mammalian monsters, a very endearing flock of dodo birds, and many, many more. The common thread between them as is that they all look fantastic on-screen. “Primeval” was created by Tim Haines and Adrian Hodges, and the two of them were also responsible for the “Walking With Dinosaurs” series which aired to great acclaim on the Discovery Channel here in the US. That series of specials is known for high quality CGI used to bring creatures from the past back to life, and “Primeval” takes full advantage of similar but far more advanced and impressive technology. Episode six features two especially cool f/x highlights in the form of a vicious creature from the future and it’s bobble-headed babies. When the beast goes head to head with an elephant-sized prehistoric creature it results in one of the best CGI vs CGI fight you’ve ever seen.
Fans of conspiracies and longer story arcs should be equally pleased with “Primeval.” Cutter’s missing wife, Helen (Juliet Aubrey), reappears filled with secrets, lies, and hidden agendas. She’s been living in and out of the past and has come to learn more than a little about the portals. Cutter must deal with her return and her betrayal while at the same time nurturing a growing attraction to Brown. Government involvement deepens as the dangers grow and often get out of hand. It’s debatable which threat poses more danger to the team and their lives… the various creatures? The shadowy government agents? Or a manipulative and deceptive Helen…
The impressive and cool monsters, effects, and story lines would be nothing though without characters worth watching. “Primeval” gets high marks here for a very well balanced cast imbued with personality, charm, wit, and a dash of sexy-as-hell (courtesy of Spearritt, above). Henshall presents a perfect balance of the stoic and the amused while Murray captivates as the closest thing the show has to an action hero. Potts does a fine job, but the character of Temple alternates between entertaining and annoying a bit too frequently. His pining for the herpetologist is well done though, and really, who can blame him? Spearritt is a beautiful little spitfire with a penchant for walking around in her underwear and a midriff-baring tang-top. She can act too, if you’re in to that kind of thing. Brown’s Brown (?) doesn’t get many chances to be sexy, but she does a fine job of showcasing her professional and personal interests in Cutter and his investigations. The cast has great chemistry and all of them work just as well with the effects scenes as they do with the dramatic.
“Primeval” is a fun show filled with action and effects, emotion and intrigue, small blondes in smaller underwear… but as fantastic as all of that is, it’s the characters that hooked me and made the series required viewing. It may not reach the heights of “The X-Files” but it comes closer than any other show on TV, and that is a major accomplishment.
“Primeval” is currently in it’s third season (or series) on ITV (although this review only covers season one). BBC America brings season three to US television starting this weekend, and BBC Video released Primeval Volume One on DVD which includes seasons one and two. WB recently acquired the film rights to the show with plans for a feature to begin production by next year.