Of all the recent science fiction dramas that various British broadcasters are now producing during their new renaissance of nerdy “quality” programming, Primeval is the one that most challenges American viewers’ perception of British television as high-end and cerebral. To be fair, Primeval is technically a “quality” television program. Starting its fourth season, the show’s still more charming than its high-concept deserves—dinosaurs and other prehistoric monsters invade our universe via “Anomalies,” portals from the past into our world, and it’s up to a crack team to Brits to shoot … I mean, contain them—and the rotating cast of protagonists is fully realized, even if they’re not always necessarily fun to watch.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Primeval is still, like Doctor Who, a very smart children’s show. Its premise is pretty unsinkable and thankfully has evolved in preposterousness: Now, dinosaurs and giant parasites aren’t the only things crossing over into England; now there are weird-looking bipeds that look like the missing links between raptors and Big Foot. Primeval is a “quality” show but it’s realistically just high-“quality” junk.
The fourth season’s premiere leaves us exactly where season three left off: The new super-team, led by professional cynic and know-it-all Matt (Ciaran McMenamin), is just hitting its stride in a world without Dr. Nick Cutter (Douglas Henshall). Nick was the brain of the show, the guy always pointing out the different types of monsters that were attacking other people and helping to make science cool by diagnosing it before literally tackling it. He was like Bill Nye with a gun, and that’s pretty much what made him alternately so cool and so boring. Early on in season one, the show’s creators needed to spruce his character up to make him more interesting, so they made his raison d’etre the search for his wife Helen (Juliet Aubrey), an archaeologist that got lost in the cretaceous “Anomaly” world and turned evil. Now, without either of the Cutters to supply the show with awesome intellectual might, the team has taken on a new and decidedly less brainy dynamic.
Like any of the super-teams from Tony Scott’s recent films, whoever has control of the gigundo computer console that sees and coordinates everyone’s movements from ARC (Anomaly Research Centre) has the power, making switchboard monkey Jess (Ruth Kearney) the smartest one in the room. Then comes Becker (Ben Mansfield), the team’s humane but hotheaded man of action (in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles terms, he’s Raphael), and after him, James, Home Office’s suit-and-tie man in the shadows. With original cast members Connor and Abby (Andrew-Lee Potts and Hannah Sperritt) still missing and presumed dead until the end of season three, the team has to figure out a way to get them back.
Luckily, Connor and Abby find their own way back, miraculously finding a device Helen used to open Anomalies at will to bring herself back and forth between the two worlds. Apart from the fact that Helen’s device is the show’s cheapest red herring yet, the interesting thing about Connor and Abby’s convenient discovery is what it says about who they’ve become as characters since the first season. Though they were and technically still are scientists that specialize in reptiles, insects and other creepy crawlies, they originally were defined strictly as field-inexperienced operatives, the pair that should have been back at Home Office giving the guys with guns instructions. But in the tradition of such geeks-cum-heroes as the Challengers of the Unknown and their more famous Marvel counterparts, the Fantastic Four, the nerds in Primeval are the guys in the field, which has changed their experience’s value from theory into practice. As an early scene shows us, Connor and Abby have been physically training themselves the full year they’ve been stuck in the Anomaly-verse, sparring playfully and getting to know their surroundings better. Now they’re just smartish brutes: When they find Helen’s remote, Connor doesn’t try to improvise tools to fix it. Instead, Connor follows Abby’s advice and tries to jiggle it like he might a busted tv remote control. Lo, her stoopid approach works.
What makes last night’s season premiere another solid but fundamentally silly brick-and-mortar episode is the way that the change in these characters is effectively being dealt with by the show’s writers. They may have hit a brick wall plot-wise, but they’re already well on their way to delivering a pleasant filler of a season that you actually want to go through the motions watching. Trite though it may be to introduce an imposing stuffed-shirt type to shake up the goings-on at ARC and counterbalance Connor and Abby’s return, the introduction of Philip (Alexander Siddig), a cold genius who is half bureaucrat and half super-scientist, is crucial . Philip is the guy who’s going to undoubtedly pull the “I’m shutting you loose cannons down!” routine that almost every show dependent on a team dynamic inevitably goes through. And to counter him, Abby and Connor are going to lead the new, decidedly dumber team of a couple of well-meaning men and one woman to pursue what Connor vaguely refers to as “Cutter’s work.” Presumably, that work is cataloguing the various species of marauding dinos (this week’s episode featured the Spinosaurus!) and studying the Anomalies as they pop up. But honestly, who knows.
But again, last night’s premiere was mostly as fun as it was because, apart from the fact that watching dinosaurs running amuck is always fun when the show/film in question has a budget, by now, the characters feel like actual characters. Abby and Connor were season one’s weakest protagonists, but now they’ve appreciated well beyond the heap of quirks that they used to be. When she tells him, “I could take you any time I want,” she’s not just speaking as a nubile nerdette, she’s speaking as someone that’s always wanted to be more than just the less important of the two women on the show. (I can’t recall a time when the show has had more than two women at a time but I’m sure my memory is just spotty.) She’s insecure and needs to be on top, har har, but that’s now because she actually wants to lead the group and not just be some guy’s back-up
Even Connor’s an appreciably less irritating do-gooder now, instead of just a Pollyanna neophyte that wants to try and do everything himself right this very instant. Now, he’s the kind of wimp that spears a fish for food and then apologizes to it, unhappy with the fact that he’s killed such a magnificent specimen of cretaceous fish. Like Abby, he’s got a greater sense of purpose, making his battle with Philip a nice extension of his original characteristic tendency of shoe-horning his way into the Cutters’ fight for the Anomaly-verse. Now, when Connor jokes about something as irritating as, “Is there anywhere where I can buy a decent Cappucino,” while dangling upside down from a rope, it actually feels right. And weirdly enough, I can’t wait for next week’s episode, when Philip will surely start throwing his weight around, and Abby and Connor will have to start braying, “We gotta save ARC from itself!” There’s always a place for superior formula-based storytelling, even if you have to get it from across the pond.